EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth 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. 4. It continued on Feb. 1, March 7 and April 4. Harvey's spelling and punctuation have been left as they originally appear in the diary.
Ohio spring can be fickle and cruel. Ask Harvey Devoe. In May of 1861, he listed his work activities in his diary as he kept attempting to plow and plant. But, often as not, he ended up with nothing to do but work on shaving shingles while, as historian Alan Borer suggests, staring out the barn window at the rain.
Worse than rain was that May of that year was one of the coldest Mays in Ohio records. Harvey was still seeing patchy frost as late as May 31, noting that there would be little if any fruit that year because of repeated killing frosts that burned blossoms black.
Shingle shaving was one productive thing he could do in the cold and rain. He would sit on a specially designed chair which put him in position to shave down small slabs of wood to make roof shingles.
Devoe doesn't specifically say what he's making the shingles for, but he also talks about building a hog pen and other improvements, so it's likely in this first spring on his newly-rented farm that he was patching old roofs and creating new structures, too.
Harvey also took the opportunity to make new buggy shafts (the part connecting the wagon to the horses) and get them fitted with iron attachments in Ankenytown, where he also picked up a Cincinnati newspaper to get a view on the national news. With the outbreak of a Civil War the previous month at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, everyone was anxious to hear the latest news.
On that front, news arose of rebels being captured in Missouri. In Maryland, the Union suffered their first high-profile casualty when Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was shot and killed by an innkeeper who was infuriated when the colonel climbed up on his porch to remove a rebel flag. Ellsworth was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, who described him as “the greatest little man I ever met.” At Lincoln's directive, Ellsworth's body lay in state at the White House before burial with honors.
In addition to building projects on the farm, Harvey and his father butchered a calf, as meat processing was done on the farm in those days, instead of in industrial plants. Harvey also took advantage of the weather to go squirrel hunting, shooting four in the process. Later in the month, he went hunting again, but his only successful target proved to be a “ground Hog,” a pest which would otherwise get into his vegetable garden, if the frost ever stopped to let it grow.
Potatoes and corn were planted. The corn planting procedure in those days was rather different from modern automated approaches. At that time, one would mark off rows across the field, then go in the other direction, marking off rows that way as well, so you'd end up with a grid on the field.
If you planted one corn plan at every grid intersection, your crop would be perfectly spaced to allow room for growth and later harvesting.
Friday, May 10, told the typical story of this month: “Cloudy and raining this morning.. continued raining. heavy showers till noon. raised all the cricks banks full. Shaved shingles [...] ”
Harvey doesn't appear to have been much of a churchgoer. This May, his only recorded visit was to the Dunkard Church, just north of Ankenytown, but he says nothing about the service. As a busy farmer, he was more focused on the weather, which added big thunderstorms to the mix in the middle of the month.
Another big farming activity Devoe undertook for May was washing the sheep. Not all farmers washed their sheep, as it was a cumbersome process, but clean wool was worth more money than dirty wool, so energetic farmers did it. Harvey presumably rounded up some help, because it was not easily a one-man job. You had to build a pen to contain the sheep by a stream or some other source of water.
One by one, you bring the sheep into the water and give them a good but gentle scrubbing. Then, while the next sheep is being brought in, another person would have to more or less wring out the first sheep as it came out of the water, or else the weight of the water soaked up in the sheep's wool would be so much, it could cause the animal to fall over, possibly hurting itself.
Thus, an assembly line was best, with a few people to split the jobs of moving, washing, wringing, and returning the sheep to the fields.
Harvey's other big planting project for the month was sorghum. Although farmers used maple syrup and honey as sweeteners, it wasn't enough for a year's supply, and sugar made from sugar cane was regularly brought up from the South. That obviously wasn't going to be happening once the war broke out, so Harvey was one of many farmers who took up planting sorghum, a grain from which sorghum molasses can be processed.
Sorghum doesn't grow great this far north, though I do recall doing an article for the Mount Vernon News a dozen years ago about a local farmer trying his hand at it and selling some of his molasses at the farmer's market on the square. I have no idea if he's still at it, but the sorghum molasses was good, with a tangy sour/sweet flavor.
Lastly, Harvey noted that he spent half a day hauling gravel to work on the road. A lot of people complain about taxes these days, but they forget how it was before taxes: Back then, every able-bodied man had to spend a certain amount of time every year laboring on the roads, or else get thrown in jail.
Personally, I'd rather pay a few taxes than have to sling around wheelbarrow loads of gravel, but that's just me.