Column – August offered a short respite for farm kids
Published 5:29 pm Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Whenever I find myself drifting a bit too far away from my roots, all that’s needed to bring me back to where I belong is a conversation with one of a dwindling number of peers who grew up on a local farm during the mid-20th century. One that I can always depend on is Henry Doggett.
Henry’s a Surry County native, but only by a couple of miles, and his roots run deeply in both Isle of Wight and Surry, as do mine. He’s a bit younger than I, but not by a lot, and both he and I learned the essentials of mid-20th century farm life right out the back doors of our families’ farmhouses.
I called Henry a couple of weeks ago to chat about a newspaper column he had shared with me. The column was a bit depressing, so we didn’t dwell on it. We did, however, quickly shift gears to the years of our youth.
The morning we talked was to be one of those 96- to 98-degree days with humidity through the roof, and Henry provided the perfect segue by saying, with only a slight bit of mirth in his voice, “I think you and I ought to get peanut hoes and do a couple of ups and backs. What do you think?”
I believe my response was something to the effect that he was nuts, but we both knew he was kidding, and we agreed that if either of us had to put our feet in a peanut field baulk and start chopping and pulling grass and weeds, we likely wouldn’t make it from one end to the other.
The conversation we were having, of course, was a little late in the summer to be talking about peanut chopping because by August, as Henry noted, a weeding hoe was mostly useful as something to lean on while you pulled whatever weeds you were trying to remove from a field. The peanut vines were setting pegs (from which peanuts grow) and weren’t to be disturbed more than necessary by then.
We did go into peanut fields in early August, but often with a corn knife to simply cut down weeds that had emerged and, if left to grow, would foul an old one-row peanut digger that fall.
By and large, though, August was one of the year’s easier months and was the period during which we would most likely find time to enjoy summer’s break from school.
There was always work on a family farm, and August was no exception. Hogs had to be fed, and that included grinding grain in an old hammer mill — really nasty work on a hot summer day. Sows in our small herd generally farrowed in August, and that required additional work. Chickens had to be tended, fences mended and whatever else might come along.
Despite all that, August offered free time before the school buses began running, and we eagerly took advantage of it.
There was time to go swimming or wrangle an invitation to go saltwater fishing on somebody’s workboat. If no invitation was offered, there was always Ocean View, where a fleet of wooden rowboats with big numbers painted on their bows could be rented. Just row a short way off from the beach, and you could fill a number 3 washtub with big, tasty Ocean View spot.
(Of course, that meant work as well. When we returned home, fish had to be cleaned and many of them laid down in salt in earthen crocks for food during the winter months.)
There was always Jones Creek for entertainment. Whole days could be occupied exploring the creek and its branches in a tiny bateau. And with a .22 rifle, you could always turn a trip up the creek into a snake hunt. And there were plenty of them. I recall pushing the bateau out of its shallow gut at low tide one day and disturbing a big water snake that had slid under the boat into the cool mud. I don’t know which was more frightened, the snake or I, but I’m confident it was me.
Frog gigging offered another outlet for youthful energy. You could gig frogs all summer, but some really nice bullfrogs were usually croaking along the banks of local farm ponds in August. The sport was in the gigging, but the reward was in the fried frog legs, which were a delicacy we all enjoyed.
August is one of our long months, but decades ago it always seemed to end too quickly. Soon, the buses would be rolling, corn would have to be picked and peanuts dug. But for a brief time at the end of each summer, we actually felt like we were on summer break.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.