Walking cultivator plow

When Harvey Devoe was “plowing his corn,” he was using a cultivator to uproot weeds and soften the ground for rain absorption. We don't know if he used a push cultivator like this one.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth installment in our year-long examination of the adventures of Knox County farmer Harvey Devoe, who kept a diary for the year 1861, which has been annotated and published by historian Alan Borer and is available through online retailers.  The series began on Jan. 4It continued on Feb. 1March 7April 4 and May 2. Harvey's spelling and punctuation have been left as they originally appear in the diary.

It has been a delight for me to look at life on an 1861 farm as we've been following the adventures of Harvey Devoe this year. I hope readers have shared that joy.

There is much about this process that is evocative of a simpler time when lives were focused locally, though even that naïve pleasure is undermined in Harvey's diary by intruding news of the growing Civil War. But from a historical point of view, it's fascinating to hear the news of the war as encountered by Harvey as it was happening.

At times, Harvey's Knox County is an alien world with labors and technologies that make it seem very far from our own. But even then it's intriguingly quaint. I like to imagine what I would do if I were suddenly transported back to that world.

Those pleasures will continue as we encounter June of 1861 with Harvey. But we also this month encounter a small, passing instance of the casual racism of those times. My first inclination was to ignore it completely, so that I wouldn't have to discuss the ugly word that Harvey uses, particularly since he uses it utterly without malice.

But considering recent issues in this country and our continuing struggle with racism, there was no way I could let this pass with examination. After all, if we don't take a close look at the past and learn something from it, what's the point of studying history?

On July 14, 1861, Harvey offhandedly remarked in his diary that he rode his horse around looking for some rocks to use as a foundation under the kitchen he was building as an addition to his rented farmhouse. The thing is, Harvey didn't call them “rocks.” He used a common, casually racist term of the day which combined the N-word, which I will not dignify by typing out here, and “heads.” This cruel term referred to small, rounded boulders about the size of a human skull.

Somewhere deep in the etymology of this offensive word is the Latin word for black, “niger,” which originally would have been pronounced “nee-JER.” Taken into English, its pronunciation shifted in two ways. One created the now-offensive term that has been applied to people with a darker skin.

The other way of pronouncing the word was applied to the seed of the African yellow daisy (Guizotia abyssinica), which was native to Nigeria. It thus became known as niger seed, pronounced “NIGH-jer.”

This is the familiar small seed — sometimes mistakenly called thistle seed — which goldfinches love to eat from feeders. But if you go into the store looking to buy some, you won't find any niger seed. What you will find are bags labeled “nyjer seed.”

The commercial birdfood companies ran into too many issues where people thought it was the other, offensive word, so they changed it to avoid headaches. Equally deep in the etymology of the rock word is a likening of dark, rounded rocks of this size to the head of an African person.

Of course, it's not an innocent thing, either. There is a nasty layer of contempt and inhumanity in the term. That's what makes it disturbing to encounter it in Harvey Devoe's diary. I think Harvey was a good person, not a seething, virulent racist. But it shows how widespread and common racism was in Knox County in 1861 that such a term could be used casually, without ill intent.

But what I find more disturbing — and why I felt I had to address it in this week's column — is that even though we're today 159 years past Harvey's diary, that kind of casual racism hasn't entirely disappeared.

I grew up in the 1970s, and I can't say that I have a specific memory of hearing the offensive rock word being used, but when I encountered it in Harvey's diary, I immediately knew what he was talking about, even without historian Alan Borer's footnote explanation. So I must have heard it.

If I heard it and ignored it in the past, I wasn't actively doing anything to root it out and expose it. Thus, these comments today.

But the bulk of Harvey's June was spent on getting his new farm up and running, and we can turn to that, now, with relief.

June 1861 opened cool and rainy, continuing the weather trend from the previous month. But that changed on the third day of the month, when the weather turned warm and dry and stayed that way for most of the month.

Rumors must have been circulating about the health of the famous Illinois senator Stephen Douglas (he of the famous Lincoln/Douglas Debates), for Harvey heard a report that Douglas had died on June 1. In fact, though, Douglas did not die until June 3, so Harvey confirms it in his diary on the fourth.

Newspapers reported that when the news was confirmed on June 4, all the churches in Mount Vernon tolled their bells for an hour in memory of Douglas.

While Douglas was dying on June 3, the first real battle of the war took place in Philippi, Virginia (in what was to soon become West Virginia when the western chunk of the state broke away from the Confederacy and joined the Union). The northern press was so eager for dramatic war news, they rushed to print with claims of 300 casualties in the small Northern victory, which was the word that came to Harvey through the local newspapers on June 8.

The actual number of soldiers killed in the battle was four.

Around this time of “good groing weather,” Harvey had started sawing logs and framing an addition on his rented house.

The new room was to end up being a kitchen, presumably added on as an extension to keep it from overheating the house in the summertime. On the sixth of June, Harvey had to replant some corn that squirrels had dug up while he was busy working on the new room.

As commentator Alan Borrer notes, this may explain why Harvey was such an enthusiastic squirrel hunter!

On Monday, June 10, Harvey commenced plowing corn. Today, when we think of plowing, we picture tractors dragging plows through fields to turn over the earth at the beginning of the year. But in Harvey's day, there was another kind of plowing, and that's what he was beginning.

This plowing was for weed control. After the corn plants, laid out in a grid and planted in hills, began to grow, weeds would start growing in the rows between the corn hills. In those days, the farmers had no weed-killing chemicals, so they had to root out the weeds some other way. “Plowing corn” was the technique.

“It was the most boring job on the farm,” said David Greer of the Knox County Agriculture Museum when I called and asked him about plowing corn.

The tedious job required the farmer to either drive a horse-drawn cultivator plow down the rows, or push a manual one. Harvey doesn't actually say which kind he used.

Greer explained that as the hills of corn were layed out in an even grid, the farmer would run the cultivator one way, north and south for instance, then run it the other way, east and west. It took time and concentration.

As Greer pointed out, there's only so much precision you can achieve in driving a draft horse, so the horse-drawn cultivator plow had to be steered with the farmer's feet.

The job involved steering the horse and steering the plow as the corn plants monotonously creeped past.

“If the farm boy got exhausted and had to go take a nap in the fence row, no one would blame him,” Greer said.

It took Harvey Devoe four days to finish the first plowing of his corn.

On June 14, Harvey hauled some lumber from the sawmill for his building project, then went off to search for the rocks discussed above. He found some suitable rocks just over the border into Richland County, and hauled them home to use as foundation stones to support the kitchen, which did not have a cellar or basement underneath.

The weather continued dry, then took a surprising cool turn on June 18, resulting in an exceptionally late killing frost. Harvey mentioned damage to his corn and beans, but most of the plants survived. He started plowing his corn a second time. The following day, Harvey records hearing the news that Union General Nathaniel Lyon seized Boonville, Missouri, setting up the Union conquest of the Mississippi river valley in the western theater of the war.

Harvey repeatedly notes throughout the rest of the month the frustration of seeing clouds build up, but then blow over without rain. He noted that the corn plants were “verry small” when he visited his cousin George Painter's house.

Ending the month on a positive note, though, Harvey was able to finish the new kitchen with help from his father and cousin. On the 28th, Harvey and J.W. Devoe put on the roof while Harvey's father Samuel built a flue for the stove. The stove was moved in, and the new kitchen went into operation.

Support Our Journalism

History is about understanding where we’ve been. A membership with the Source supports where we’re going. Keep the richest parts of our heritage alive by joining today!