AGRICULTURE ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS
ELMER R. (BOB) and EDNA BAKER
Middle Ridge Road
Interviewed by Jane Hoover November 5, 2015
Bob (b. 1938) grew up on the farm on Middle Ridge Road that his parents had purchased in 1940. After working for 23 years in Oklahoma selling farm equipment, he and his wife Edna Miller moved back to the farm in 2000.
JANE: What can you tell me about your family farm as you were growing up?
BOB: I have a younger brother. Our earliest chore was to bring in wood for the wood stove. We would use our little red wagon or our toboggan in the winter. Then later, we would gather the eggs from our 3,000 chickens. Well, I’m not sure. Maybe it was closer to 1,000, but I know we shipped crates and crates of eggs. I remember it would take two of us to carry an egg basket. I was always afraid we would drop it and have a terrible mess, but we never did. We sold them to a huckster who came around in a truck to pick up our crates every week or so. We washed them by hand in the house in the wintertime, on the back porch. In the winter we kept the crates in the house. I can remember crates in the kitchen. In the summer, we may have kept them in the springhouse or in the barn. I remember getting over $1 a dozen one time, which I thought was a terrible big price.
JANE: Did you have a big hen house out here?
BOB: It’s gone now, but there was one and part of both the bottom and of the top of the barn were for chickens. We converted the hay mow and stalls for chickens. They stayed loose in the hen house and the barn. We had roosts and nest boxes. They could go anywhere they wanted to inside. We bought the peeps from Edwin B. Wallis and Sons in Liverpool, then raised them in the little square brooder house down there.
When the hens were done laying eggs, we would sell them. Someone would drive up here with a truck with chicken cages. It was always at night while they were sleeping. We’d catch them, put 20 in a crate and keep track of the crates. I’m not sure if he got paid by the crate or the chicken. They weren’t good eating; probably went for Campbell’s soup. Then we would clean out everything and start over.
Then around 1950, we got rid of the hens and got dairy cattle. We had 25-30 Guernsey’s. We sold to Eastern Milk Producers and to Bryers Ice Cream (which had a plant across the river from Millerstown). We got our best price from Bryers because we had an extremely high butterfat content and they would pay a premium for that. The price would almost double if you had a high butterfat content. Those days are over.
There was a lot of upgrading required if you wanted to sell milk. We had to build a milk house to spec. We had to change our septic system. We had to change our well pump because it had a slit at the top and we had to have a sealed pump. Every couple of years we had to whitewash the interior of the barn where the cows were. They would come around several times a year inspecting everything. Of course, when you ship your milk, they checked for bacterial infection with every shipment. My dad quit selling milk when they no longer accepted milk cans and you had to switch over to a bulk system. That would have been about 1975.
When we raised chickens we also had a few milk cows and we had a cream separator. We would separate the cream and put it in a cream can. It had a plate on it with our name and address and PRR (Pennsylvania Rail Road.) We would take it down to the Newport station and they would ship it to Pittsburgh, I think. The can would come back several days later. We would go down to the station and find ours among around 30 cans. I said, “Let’s paint it blue so we can find it.” I think eventually we did put some kind of mark on it.
We also sold strawberries for a couple of years.
JANE: You really like tractors and farm equipment. When did you get your first tractor.
BOB: My dad bought a Massey Harris 20 in 1947. I still have it.
It’s the one I have all fixed up. But I first drove a tractor when I was about nine on my Landis grandparents’ farm on Owl Hollow Road. It was an Oliver 70. They got it in 1938. A farmer named Charles Bell farmed for them. I was too little to work the clutch or the brake, but I could hold the tractor straight on a row and push the button to turn it off If I needed to stop. I was pulling a wagon with a hay loader along behind. We straddled the windrow so the hay loader could pick up the loose hay from the windrow and throw it onto the wagon. Two men on the wagon would spread the hay around to even it out. When we reached the end of a row, I couldn’t turn the tractor around, so I would push the button to stop the tractor and one of the men would jump off the wagon, come up, restart the tractor, turn it and give it back to me. By the next year, I was big enough to drive it myself.
JANE: I understand you had some interesting experiences with turkeys.
BOB: We had a neighbor named Lawrence Fosselman who lived in Wila. He was a large turkey farmer, perhaps 2,000 to 5,000 turkeys. He was one of the largest in the area. Lawrence lived in Wila and his main farm was just west of Milford Rd on Rt. 849, on the right. He owned several more farms and rented others. He had six or eight full time employees and many part time employees. He had Allis Chalmers and Oliver tractors that he bought locally in Newport.
Lawrence would summer his turkeys on the farms near Wila. He build 8-10 foot high fences around a field and hauled the poults into the fields at the end of May or early June. The poults could get a lot of food off the hay fields so he just had to haul water for them using army surplus Dodge power wagons and 500 gal trailer tanks. He might have pumped the water out of Big Buffalo creek. The fields were 30 to 50 acres and, I’m guessing, 1500 to 2000 poults to a field. When he put them out in the early summer, there would be beautiful lush, tall grass with a lot of it alfalfa. By the time he moved them out in Late September, it would like a moonscape. Nothing was there except little stones and rocks sticking up, the rest just looking like it was plastered. The turkeys ate everything. Lawrence probably supplemented their food especially toward the end. There were portable roosts, so the turkeys could roost at night in these little open sheds. They had a night guard in a sheepherder’s wagon, probably in each location. The guards were armed with shotguns for predator control, such as foxes.
In September, Lawrence would drive them back to the main farm where there were turkey houses, feed them for a month or two, and then ship them for the Thanksgiving market. We would drive the turkeys, like a cattle drive. Our longest run was from what is now the Gill farm at Gill Hill Road and Middle Ridge Road. I was 12 or 14 years old. Lawrence would ask farmers and part time people to help make the drive. We did it as early in the morning as we could so it would be cool, just as dawn broke. Lawrence would be there ahead of us with his permanent crew.
They would have moved the turkeys out to the front of the pasture where the fence had been opened up. When we got there, we got ourselves a switch. It was our personal switch. I’ve seen people pick one up and put it down and pick up another. They’re all just wood and leaves! It was a ten-foot long branch, an inch or so in diameter, sassafras or hickory, with a clump of small branches and leaves on the end. Lawrence didn’t like us to swing at them and hit them hard. We had to use the stick just right to direct the turkeys.
We took 200 in a group, three groups at a time. It would take them two to three days to get the whole field moved. One group would start, and then and another group 100 yards behind that. There were eight drivers per group, two flankers and four across the back. The flankers would hold their switches parallel to where they were going, to contain the turkeys side-by-side. The drivers in the back would move them forward and keep them from breaking through to go back to their pen. When they got tangled up in another flock in the second wave, it could become a real mess. So we started out real slow, just keeping them contained, nudging them. The gobblers would go to the front of the pack to lead. The key was to let them see the leaves, like a fence, on three sides. When we got to the top of a hill, they were reluctant to go down. Occasionally a couple of gobblers would take off flying. They could fly a little bit. And then the whole group would try to fly after them. So it was dangerous at the top of a hill We had to be really moving slowly, positioning ourselves and sometimes getting out ahead to slow them down near the top. We had to go through a patch of woods and across a creek. One time, the creek had an undercut bank. One group of turkeys ran back into the undercut, and the ones behind just piled on top. There was water in the creek and Lawrence immediately recognized the problem. I was the closest one and I don’t think anyone else really wanted to do it. Lawrence and I got in the creek and started throwing turkeys out onto the far bank, and they were flopping their wings. When we were done, we were all covered with water and mud, but we got them all out safely. The rest in our group split up and went around us.
Finally we got them through the woods and started up a hill. When they go uphill, the turkeys want to go fast. You don’t want them to because they will play themselves out. Some of them did play out. The flankers would keep them going straight. The guys behind didn’t have to do too much. I’ve already picked up a turkey that was played out and carried it. One time one just died in my arms. So I put it down and picked another one up and carried it to the top. Then we let them rest.
After that it was downhill. From the top of that ridge you could see Big Buffalo Creek. We went downhill and to the left onto Rt. 849, over the bridge at Wila, staying on Rt. 849 to the top of the hill, and to the right to the barns. We’d be done around 8:30 or 9:00, at the latest. Then they would go back with an” ambulance” to pick up the weak ones and the slackers and any which had died along the way. There were always some of those.
JANE: How far was the drive?
BOB: Maybe two miles. Now he had turkeys in other areas, too. But they were shorter drives and I wouldn’t go on those. It was labor intensive.
EDNA: Tell her about the spotters during the war.
BOB: It was 1943 or ’45. There was a car parked out here at the side of our field along Middle Ridge Road. It parked there every night for three or four hours. Finally Dad went out and asked them what they were doing. He could hear this click-click-click. They had a monitor there, listening. So he said, “I think you are listening to my electric fence working!” They left and never came back.