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Before combines, peanut sticks were essential tool of the trade

The recent column about copperheads actually came to mind when I was thinking about writing this one. It’s about peanut poles or peanut sticks.

In the 1950s, every farm had a collection of them. They were a valuable commodity, stored under a shed where they were carefully protected from the elements. That’s what reminded me of copperheads. We rarely removed peanuts sticks from the shed without finding at least one of the little vipers under the pile where he lay in wait for mice.

Growing peanuts was a continually evolving farming practice from the time it became financially viable in the late 1800s.

Farmers were constantly trying to improve yields by saving their best peanuts as seed for the coming year.

Meanwhile, farm equipment manufacturers were looking for better ways to plant, cultivate and harvest peanuts.

The peanut digger, first horse-drawn and then pulled by a tractor, probably evolved less than much of the equipment used in peanut growing. The makers of the earliest peanut diggers got the principles down pretty well, and then it was a matter of refining them.

The Ayers peanut planter was a giant step forward, enabling a farmer to mechanically plant acre after acre of peanuts with horsepower and then tractor, rather than a peanut at a time with a punch stick.

And the really big advance was the stationary peanut picker, which pulled peanuts from the vine, replacing large groups of people who sat in a field and picked peanuts from vines by hand.

Throughout that entire period, up until the advent of the peanut combine and drying trailer, the one constant was the peanut stick.

Once they were dug, peanut vines and the peanuts they held had to be dried or they would quickly rot. Peanut sticks were seven-foot poles that were originally made on the farm from hardwood saplings. The bark would be stripped and “cleats” nailed to the lower portion of the poles to hold peanut vines off the ground. After World War II, farmers generally bought peanut sticks from sawmills, which ripped white oak into 2-inch square stakes and milled the ends to a sharp point.

Peanut sticks were set in holes in the ground in what was known as shock rows. The sticks were then tamped solidly in place with a stick (often one that might have been used years earlier to plant peanuts).

Then, the rows on either side of the shock row were dug and the vines hand shaken using small pitch forks to remove loose dirt that had been dug up with them. Next, “shockers,” who were generally taller and stronger than “shakers,” would heft piles of the vines overhead and slide them down onto the peanut sticks, creating a shock of vines.

These shocks, tightly packed and rounded on top to prevent rain from penetrating, would be left in the field to air dry. The shocks would then be pulled out of the ground using a shock cart and hauled to a peanut picker for the final harvesting of the goobers.

The peanuts were sold, the peanut vines saved for feed and/or bedding and the peanut sticks would be carefully stored away for use next year.

Peanut combines, which allowed the harvest of peanuts straight from wind rows after they had been dug and left to partially dry, revolutionized the peanut harvest cycle. Once the combines do their job, the partially dried peanuts are placed in drying trailers where warm, dry air precisely dries the peanuts to the desired moisture level.

Peanut sticks became superfluous once peanut combines were introduced, but for years, you could still find a collection of them under a shed, abandoned and generally forgotten.

In recent years, hobbyists have used old peanut poles to make the stripes of a wooden American flag, a neat tribute to a uniquely American farm tool.

 

How many rows?

I am not positive how many rows of peanuts were placed in a “shock row,” but seem to recall it was about 12, the 13th being the “shock row.” But it could also have been 10.

Not being sure, I called Herb Jones, a retired extension agent, as well as a longtime friend and source of all things agricultural. That call led to a delightful exchange among older county farmers.

Herb, not sure of the answer, called a farmer who remembered those days and asked him. He also wasn’t sure, though 12 rows sounded about right. He suggested Herb call another farmer, who also thought that “maybe” 12 was correct, but suggested he call a third. He did, and the third farmer said:

“You know who you ought to call — John Edwards. He’ll know.” And so it often goes when old guys try to remember specifics about things that happened 60-plus years ago. The subject just gets passed round and round.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.