Whatever people did back then to make a living, the doing required hard labor. The technology was simple — mule-drawn implements and hand tools. Housework was equally demanding, the most wondrous invention after frontier days was the wood burning kitchen stove that replaced cooking on the fireplace.
Other than humans, mules were the primary beasts of burden. Oxen were sometimes used to move logs in timber operations. Wealthier folks might have horses to pull their buggies. However, mules were better for working in the field. At his time far removed from the era of the mule, it might be necessary to define the animal. It was neither horse nor donkey but a hybrid of the two — a cross between a mare and a jack. Most mules were more tractable than horses, had smaller feet for working close to rows of plants and ate less. Smaller than a typical horse, they were much larger and stronger than donkeys and usually less stubborn. Size varied greatly, depending of the breed of the mare and the size of the jack. Like all hybrids, mules were sterile.
Good mules were treasures, whether pulling wagons, turn ploughs, cultivating implements or tobacco sleds. They required regular attention to proper food, hooves, mane and tail. A good one cost a significant part of the profits from a year of farming.
From preparing land for planting (two-horse [really mule] turn plow) in February through cultivation to harvest, mule and plowman walked hundreds of miles every year turning often uncooperative soil and battling stubborn grass and weeds. Cotton posed the greatest challenge, requiring regular plowing from just after sprouting until middle or late July. Cotton buyers shied away from any sample from the ginned and baled cotton that showed any trace of green from grass or weeds.
In fact, cotton went through cleaning and bleaching processes that would remove any such stains but buyers looked for excuses to pay lower prices to farmers. Similar tactics could be seen at tobacco and livestock auctions.
It was hard to control unwanted plant life with mules and plows. The other line of defense was vigorous application of an ancient tool, the hoe. Hoes made of hard wood, animal scapula and antlers date back thousands of years but these gave way to metal, a rectangle of steel attached to a sturdy wooden handle 5-6 feet long, depending upon whether it was hand-made or bought. A cotton crop required hoe work at least twice. Cotton planters rolled out a nearly constant stream of seed and if they sprouted (came up) well the young plants had to be thinned to a desired “stand” in the row. This step was called “chopping” or “blocking” and included destruction of grass and weeds. “Hoeing” came later in coordination with plowing to destroy any grass and weeds that had come up in the row. A wet summer might require a third application of the hoe.
Other crops — peanuts, tobacco, even corn — might need to be hoed if weather did not cooperate with effective plowing. In every circumstance, the rows were long, the sun was hot and it was a long way to the house to get a drink of water.
Tools were precious. Many of those “back then” people were skilled. They kept their knives, axes, planes and drawing knives sharp. They sharpened their hoes before going to the field. Poor tools make hard work harder. Replacing broken or worn-out tools was difficult.
Hard labor was, if possible, even harder for women than for men. Remember the saying, “A man may toil from sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done.” Bearing a large number of children was the norm until well into the 20th century. Contraception was not readily available and children soon were large enough to help in the fields and home. Babies required attention on top of cooking three meals a day on a wood burning stove, washing and ironing clothes, house cleaning, directing the work of older children and gardening. Gardening might include flowers but it definitely included all or part of raising vegetable gardens, then gathering and cooking the fruits thereof. Women had major roles in hog killing, syrup making and did all of the quilting.
The list of homemaker, mother and wife duties goes on and on. Further, most of these stalwarts also worked in the fields when able and that might include being several months pregnant. Their hard labor was needed when it came time to hoe cotton or “barn tobacco.” I don’t recall hearing my mother speak longingly of “the good old days.”
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.