Sunday, September 9, 2012
We take our heavy machinery for granted. It wasn’t all that many years ago when most things were done with hand tools. The basement of a local church was hand dug, long after the church was built. There are still a few old timers who remember working on it.
The water line from my well to my house is 66 feet long and a minimum of 6 feet deep. I know this because I dug it by hand 40 years ago when I was 14. It seems a good part of my youth was spent digging ditches, moving dirt in a wheel barrow, and splitting rocks. I got pretty good at swinging a sledge hammer.
Anybody remember star drills? They looked a bit like chisels with odd shaped heads, maybe a foot or so long. The drill is held against a rock with one hand while the other ponds on in with a big hammer. The drill is turned a bit after each hit. After banging in it for a while you stop and sweep out the rock dust with a stick. The idea was to drill a line of shallow holes then drive in wedges to split the rock. The work was tedious, hard and a bit dangerous. The best thing that could be said about it is that it would do the job.
Thats the sort of thing I did during the summers of my early teen years. My dad would kick me out of bed bright and early every morning to do that type of work. The afternoons were mine to do with as I pleased. It was a relief when I was old enough to get a job. Nobody expected me to split rocks at work.
What impressed me was how much a single person could do over a few months with simple tools. Picks, shovels, grub hoes, pry bars, hammers, rope, bock and tackle -all simple tools, but effective over time.
Anyone driving the back roads in New England are impressed with all the old stone walls. Those walls aren’t necessarily there because a wall was needed. What was needed was a clear field to plant crops in. Once all the rocks were cleared out, something had to be done with all the rocks.
The people who built those walls were the lucky ones back then. They at least had draft animals that could haul rocks away on a stone boat. Some old fields don’t have walls. Instead they have random piles of rocks. Those poor people did everything by hand. Rather than carry rocks a long way, they just piled them in heaps.
When good rock free farmland in the Midwest opened up for settlement, New England was depopulated as farmers flocked to easily tilled fields. Having moved my fair share of rocks and earth, I can understand their excitement.
One thing about doing everything by hand, the job is given a lot of thought before beginning. Inefficiency translates into more days of blisters and sore backs. You want to do it right the first time.
How long would it take to bury that water line using today’s machinery? It couldn’t be done that way, at least not nearly as neatly. The water line is buried in a steep hill. I was able to dig between all the major trees without killing them. Sometimes the only way to do something is by hand.
For everything else, be glad there’s machines for that now. If fuel was $20/gallon, it would still be cheaper and faster to use a machine. There’s a tremendous amount of energy in fossil fuels. We take it for granted today, but I had a taste of what it was like in the old days and don’t want to do that again.