A Clermont Childhood: Thrashing Time

Editor’s Note: In March 1939, Gilbert and Margaret Royston and their five children moved from a farm on Parshall Lane to Clermont Farm, just east of Berryville, which they continued to rent until 1948. In this series of articles, the youngest of the Royston children, Don, recalls the Clermont of his youth.

“A Clermont Childhood (1939-1948),” by Donald R. Royston, first appeared in  Proceedings (Vol. XXVI, 2008), the Journal of the Clarke County Historical Association. The Clarke Daily News is very pleased to present this five-part series in collaboration with the Clarke County Historical Association.

The 3rd annual HarvFest — a family-centered celebration of local food, farming, and history — takes place at Clermont Farm in Berryville, Virginia on Saturday, June 18, from 11-5. Clarke County has a rich heritage of farming and history that continues to this day. The national movement toward eating local food, practicing sustainable agriculture, and connecting the producer to the consumer is well underway and HarvFest will bring this education and celebration to the public, prepared cuisine, entertainment, and educational activities.

HarvFest is a one-day festival celebrating local food, farming, and history. Clarke County’s rich agricultural and historical heritage will be showcased via local food and drink vendors, farming demonstrations, and historic tours and displays. HarvFest is hosted by and benefits The Clermont Foundation and Clarke County Parks and Recreation.

HarvFest will be held at the historic Clermont Farm just east of Berryville on business Route 7. Clermont was surveyed by George Washington in 1750 and currently sits on 360 rolling acres owned by the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources and managed by a local trust. Clermont is a working cattle and sheep farm.


A Clermont Childhood: Thrashing Time

by Donald R. Royston

We had just about every type farm animal at Clermont: hogs, beef cattle, milk cows, horses, sheep, chickens, and even turkeys one year, as well as a pony. The main bank barn was huge. It had four double sliding doors leading into the top floor and two large hay mows. There was a metal silo, too. Pop later built a “Marietta” silo – slabs of concrete held in place with metal rod bands around them spaced about three feet apart — because the metal silo had too much spoilage and was not large enough to feed the beef cattle Pop wanted to fatten up for market.

Threshing operation on the Calvin Boyd Farm in 1950 - Photo courtesy Bill Rhoden

Quite a few of the years at Clermont, Pop would buy 40 to 50 steers and fatten them through the winter. He had previously sold his fattened cattle to local livestock dealers, but he found his profit would be greater if he shipped them by rail car to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for sale at slaughter.

One year a snow storm hit on the morning the trucks were to arrive to haul the steers to Berryville to be loaded onto the cattle rail cars. Since Pop had reserved those rail cars, he would be charged extra if the cars were not pulled away on the scheduled date. The storm didn’t faze us – we had a big cattle drive to Berryville. The cattle were loaded into the cars, and we met the scheduled time. It was the only time I was ever involved in a real live cattle drive. Pop and Mom taught us by their example many lessons about perseverance, keeping your word, and truthfulness.

Pop hired many men for day labor. We lived close to Berryville, and there were some black men who did that type of work. If it was corn cutting time — and it was all cut by hand back then — or barley and/or wheat harvest time, Pop would ask some of these men if they wanted work. It was not unusual to have men standing in the yard at 6 a.m. waiting for breakfast on those wheat-thrashing days.

During those early years, Bill and I would be assigned to provide fresh, cool water to all those hands. Pop had bought a small Shetland pony and a four-wheeled cart for us. We loaded two milk cans with iced water and drove to all the fields with water for the men. We were teased often. One time a man said he was going to take over the water duties. He made as if he was going to step up into that cart but came to an abrupt halt when our dog met him with teeth bared and growling. Rover was very protective of us.

Bill and I eventually grew tired of delivering water and longed for the day when we could join the men and do our share of work helping at harvest time. A few years later we became “loaders.” Loaders placed the sheaves of wheat in a prescribed manner on the wagon. A loaded wheat wagon could haul many “shocks” of wheat, and we were quite proud of ourselves when our load was credited as the largest.

Thrashing time was also a very busy and hard time for my mother. She labored from before dawn until after dark for a week or more every year. She did have help – usually Mrs. Houghman from town would be hired. And my sisters, Betty and Helen, would help, too, especially with the dinners for the workers, which usually consisted of fried chicken or ham, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot yeast rolls, and whatever the garden produced. Everyone ate at the same time, or if there were too many for the table settings, there were two settings, and they ate in two shifts. This was during a time when farm families helped each other. Neighbors would help with the thrashing, and we would help them when it was their turn.

The thrashing machine owners/operators were pretty competitive and valued their reputations. The key was getting the most grain separated from the stalks of wheat. It was a big day when the thrashing machine arrived. We knew we were going to have lots of folks at our place on the following days. Pop set the thrasher up in the barn so the grain could be carried into the grainaries and the straw could be blown into a straw rick in the barnyard. The grain would be stored until a there was a better price and the straw was used during the winter for animal bedding.

Since Pop preferred to use horses to pull wagons from the fields to the barn, tractors tended to sit idle during thrashing. One year Bill and I were climbing all over a tractor that had been left on the hill to the north side of barn front. Pop was never too keen about us “fooling around tractors,” and soon we found out why.

I remember Bill was sitting on the tractor seat, and I was standing on the drawbar when Bill must have released the brake. He also must have kicked it out of gear because that tractor started moving down the hill, gathering speed as it headed for the creek. I looked behind us, and here came a big black man running for all his worth. Not knowing the danger we were headed for, I wondered why he wanted to ride, too. Fortunately for Bill and me, he jumped onto the drawbar and smashed his foot on the brakes, bringing us to a stop before we went into the creek and certain injury.

In a similar manner but with smaller numbers of involved men, we “filled silos” every fall, usually in September. This involved first cutting the stalks of corn as close to the ground as possible, laying the stalks in armful-sized bundles on the ground, and then hauling the bundles of corn stalks to the ensilage cutter. The ensilage cutter was a stationary machine with a set of knives that cut the stalks into small pieces, then used a large fan to blow the pieces up a long pipe to the top of the silo. The ensilage cutter was powered by a tractor with a pulley and belt. This was some of the hardest work I ever participated in as a youngster, but fortunately for me, most of this work was done when we were in school, although we did help on Saturdays and non-school days.

Next: A Clermont Childhood — The Mice that Roared