Years ago, while still in grade school, one of my favorite books (and it still is) was “The Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805” by Eric Sloane. From Noah’s brief diary entries and Sloane’s own detailed narratives one gets a glimpse into a bygone era and can relive life on a rural New England backwoods farm. And my favorite character was Danny: Noah’s ox.
Before our field became a cow pasture it used to be a field of goldenrod and my sister and I would make trails and paths through the thick grasses which were tall as my head. We’d pretend we were pioneers and Indians. And I always had a companion with me: a red wagon. It was pretty old and beat up, paint peeling off with a rusty, wobbly handle. But I’d drag that thing around and pretend it was my ox. It’s name was Danny, of course.
Maybe that’s where this whole thing started. All those years back when I was a kid. Or maybe this began way before my time…perhaps this is deeply rooted in my past, a heritage of strong men and women carving a future for themselves, an ancestry that reaches all the way from Texas to New England.
And here I am, years later, doing what I never thought I’d ever do for real: raising my very own ox!
When my bull calf was born I automatically knew that if I didn’t sell him he would eventually go in the freezer. It’s just the way life on a farm is. But then my parents surprised me by telling me since they’ve known that I’ve always wanted to work with oxen/raise my own here was a golden opportunity. Besides, they said, why go and take classes/workshops for training oxen and not put it to use?
That’s when I had the greatest pleasure meeting a very pleasant man and his team. Since I couldn’t find anyone locally who raised/worked oxen, my bother and I ended up taking a road trip out to a lovely farm in the Catskill Mountains. And spent the afternoon talking about nothing but oxen – which was totally awesome! We had so many questions and Mr. Burton was so generous to take extra time out of his day and busy schedule to talk to us and explain things. Plus he’s a born story-teller and teacher. 🙂 One of the best days of my life!
We even got to yoke and drive his team of oxen! William and Harry are 5 year old, American Milking Devons and weigh roughly 1700 pounds. But for being so chunky, they weren’t as tall as I expected. And they were so calm and docile; even though we were complete strangers they were very gentle.
The bond between a teamster and his team is a special, unique thing. And it was so neat to see it in action the afternoon we visited Mr. Burton’s farm. They trust him. He spoke a command and they obeyed. True, they’re a seasoned team, it’s probably old hat for them now, but never having seen it before it was pretty amazing.
I learned so much and there is even more still left to learn. It’s hard, dedicated work, training a calf to become a steady, plodding beast of burden. But the reward is great. Especially when they listen, learn a command and follow you. It makes ones heart swell with pride. Truly it’s a labor of love.