Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Working-Class Hoof Power

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Winston Morris had a lofty view into Bacon Hollow as he plowed this rocky field on steep Wyatt’s Mountain in Greene County. His draft animal provided transportation to and from the mountain fields and quiet company throughout the day. (Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb)

Where would we be as an industrialized people had a brave soul not determined to tether some reasonably mild-mannered beast to a seemingly immoveable object in order to make a backbreaking job easier. With just a bit more ingenuity, a simple plow was eventually fabricated and attached to said beast and the science of agriculture took a major, albeit it plodding, step forward.

In 18th century America, long before steam, gasoline or diesel power was invented and harnessed for such purposes, oxen were the agriculturalist’s engine of choice. They held on to that distinction until the mid-19th century when the pace of life dictated a greater need for speed. Horse breeds such as the Belgian, Clydesdale, and Percheron, bred specially as draught, or draft, animals, have fascinating histories. With pedigrees hailing from, respectively, Belgium, Scotland, and France, they proved themselves in times of both war and peace as faster workers, quite capable for many of the down-and-dirty tasks. The oxen’s place in the working world was not relinquished overnight, but its days were numbered.

“Wesley Barnes (1856–1936) lived right across the Moorman’s River from us,” recalled Emory Wyant, who was born in Sugar Hollow in 1911. “I remember him well. He worked a team of oxen all the time. He didn’t have any horses until, maybe, later in life. It always amazed me — he plowed those old oxen, just creep along like snails. He never did work them out for other people. Just used them for himself. He had some fields over on that side of the river. I don’t know that he ever did anything else [besides farming].”

Concerning those earlier days when the slow but steady cloven-hoofed bovine was the preferred beast of burden, Albemarle historian Vera V. Via noted in her Daily Progress column: “From the farmer’s viewpoint, the use of oxen had one advantage. The animals could be eaten after serving for years as a work animal. It took longer cooking and the meat was tougher, but the old ox could supply the meat for the family for quite a while.”

Slaughter W. Ficklin, who was destined to change the face of draft animals in America, was born in western Albemarle County at Pleasant Green in 1816, sixty years before that farm estate was counted among the several around which the village of Crozet was established. His father Benjamin Ficklin Sr. moved their family to the town of Charlottesville in the 1820s and entered into the tobacco business.

As a young man, S.W. Ficklin traveled in Europe and became inspired by some of the handsome animal breeds he encountered there. Upon his return home, he determined to become a breeder. While partnered in a stagecoach business, in 1847 he purchased the 550-acre Belle-Mont estate on the outskirts of town and set about to establish a stock farm on his property. Following the Civil War years, Belmont Stock Farm was fully established.

With a learned eye for good horse stock, Ficklin chose his initial breeding pair of Percheron draft horses from France and had them shipped to his Belmont Farm. Black Hawk the stallion and Daisy his mare set about their business of producing champion offspring. The pair and their progenies soon brought attention and recognition to Ficklin as one of the United States’ premier breeders of the still popular Percheron draft horse.

Purebred draft horses such as Ficklin’s Percherons were found more often increasing their fame and value in show rings, not laboring in the fields. Their value to their owners and to the owners’ greater community was in further breeding, to pass along their sturdy bloodlines into the neighbors’ horse stock.

“My grandfather Big Jim Walton ran a stud service with his [Percheron],” said Blue Ridge historian Larry Lamb. “My Aunt Alease Walton Bruce said he would ride that horse around the community and stay with the people who were hiring the horse’s stud services. Then he would go on to the next place. He would be gone a week at a time.”

The onset of World War II led to a shortage of manpower available to farms. Steam traction engines and simple tractors had supplanted draft animals in some larger farming operations. With a greater need for the country to produce more food and necessary goods with fewer hands, the mechanization of farming ramped up.

A literal descriptive term, long familiar to the farmer and teamster, was re-coined, by which we have come to rate everything from small machinery to political influence: horsepower! Greater horsepower in gasoline-powered equipment meant that fewer hands could produce more and more, faster and faster. Among the ones who soon saw the writing on the wall was the village blacksmith who had long maintained and helped to protect the hoof-power of transportation and agriculture.

Daily Progress reporter Boyce Loving visited with third-generation blacksmith E.O. Woodson Sr. of Greenwood in the mid-1950s. He noted that 1949 census figures counted 3,330 horses and 560 mules in the county. By the time of Loving’s article, Woodson was only shoeing 500-600 horses and mules per year. Mr. Woodson acknowledged, “The automobile, tractor, combine, and other power-driven farm machinery [are] here to stay… and modern farm equipment has all but killed the need for the wheelwright.”

“Asked if he could weld anything but a broken heart, Woodson said he could, and even tried to mend the latter occasionally.”

A revival of interest has kept the draft horse from disappearing entirely from the scene. Were his roadside stand still open, E.O. Woodson, who passed on to his well-deserved reward in 1964, would likely still have a waiting line to repair those hearts which still yearn for the satisfying sight and sounds from those earlier days.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987.

Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James

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