The Show and Tell of a Farmer’s Life

Written by Bob on November 30th, 2009

Cow BellsLR.2
When Dan Healy’s great grandfather came to America from Ireland in 1868, he brought this cowbell with him.
Story and Photo By BOB OTTO

CALIMESA, CA – There’s no doubt, Dan Healy loves stumping his buddies at Uncle Ray’s Donut Shop in Yucaipa when they gather for their daily coffee klatch.

“Do you know what this is?” or “Have you ever seen one of these?” he’ll ask while lifting up and brandishing some unusual looking object. It’s as if Healy’s playing a game of show and tell.

One morning the 79-year-old retired high school teacher walked in carrying what looked like some sort of antique paint scrapper. We guessed the scrapper part right. But what it was used for, we had no clue.

“It’s for scrapping the hair off hogs when you butcher them,” Healy said, his face lighting up.

Healy’s a fourth generation family farmer. He, along with his great granddad, granddad, and dad, all worked the family farm near Wenona, Illinois.

Then in 1966, Healy packed up his belongings, left the farm behind, and headed for California. He still owns the farm, but leases out the land.

But once a farmer, always a farmer. Healy has never quite shed the farm way of life no matter how far away he moved. And he’s always kept remnants of his past to remind him that at heart he’s still a farmer.

Many of his farm implements and tools date back to the 1800s and early 1900s. Like the corn drier – a chain like contraption with three-inch hooks used for drying corn.

Of course, his buddies at Uncle Ray’s had no idea what it was.

“I guessed that maybe it was something you hung chickens on,” said “Big Q” Quiller Holt, a regular at Uncle Ray’s.

Big Q wasn’t even close. The corn driers were used by farmers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to store and dry the best ears of corn as the seed for next year’s planting.

“My grandpa would bring in the corn from the field and us kids would take the husks off and stick the cobs of corn on the driers,” Healy said. “Back then we were still picking corn from the fields by hand with a wagon and a team of horses.”

Recently, Healy brought in a valuable family heirloom: A metal cowbell that his great granddad, Timothy Healy, brought to America in 1868 from the family’s native land of County Cork, Ireland.

The cowbell still works fine and still makes the same ear-shattering clanging noise like it did in the 1800’s. And early cattle farmers couldn’t do without their cowbells.

“The farmers built little one-room shacks and lived close to the railroad tracks because it was free grazing for cattle there,” Healy said. “There were no fences, so the bell was put on the lead cow so farmers would know where the cattle were at when they wandered away.”

Healy’s collection also includes an 1800’s wooden wagon seat, a 1955 Oliver Super 88 tractor that he bought new, a 1924 Ford Model T that his dad bought new, and a pair of cow kickers.

And again, when Healy held the kickers aloft for his buddies to see, they were stumped.

Healy and his dad milked a herd of Holstein cows. When a heifer (young cow) gave birth to her first calf, she was ready for milking. But some of the skittish heifers weren’t too keen about a farmer messing around with their udders. And they could raise quite a fuss during their first few milkings. A young, spry heifer can be dangerous because they can kick like a mule.

“When a heifer would freshen, they’d sometimes try and kick the heck out of me when I tried to milk them,” Healy said, adding that the kickers locked the back legs together, preventing the heifer from raising her leg and kicking the vulnerable farmer hunched down close to her udder.

In 1988, Healy sold most of his farm implements and tools. But he’s kept a few things for memory’s sake. And every few years he takes a trip back to the family farm. He reunites with his family and renews old friendships with the farmers he grew up with as a youngster.

“Sometimes I miss the farm life,” he said.

But his buddies at Uncle Ray’s are glad he’s chosen to stay in Southern California. And they’re happy that he shares his memories of an earlier time, a simpler time, a farmer’s time, with them.

“I didn’t know much about farming until I met Dan,” Big Q said. “His things are pretty neat.”

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