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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Earth movers



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.

-Sixbears

11 comments:

  1. I've got about three years on you, but it sounds like you have me in ditch-digging. As for star drills, the old timers doing serious work had one guy hold and one guy swing. My dad was the only guy I would hold for; I didn't trust anyone else. We never did much of it though. Most of MY rock busting was just putting big rocks in the driveway and then making them smaller.

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    1. It's surprising how you learn to eyeball a rock and get to know just where to whack it to break it up.

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  2. Like Gorges, I'm a bit older and still have a single callus from my hand shovel days, and hoes, and racks, and sledge hammers, and splitting mauls...oh hell, I like machines too.

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    1. Once you've done it by hand, you really appreciate the marvels of good machines.

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  3. Thank you for bringing back some memories of which I'm rather fond. I grew up with my fair share of the same. There is something to be said of direct, hard, strenuous manual labor. One can find peace and serenity in swinging a double jack or an axe.

    I grew up on a tractor. Pa wasn't lucky enough to have the tractor growing up and instead walked behind ole Beck. He was born in 26, so his first memories were of the depression. He was 49 when I was born.

    At about 8, I remember rubbing linament on his shoulders after a hard days work. Under the skin I could feel vertical striations, old scar tissue. When asked he explained at about age 6 the family needed fuel for heat and they made night-time trips to the local railroad cars to steal coal. A grass-sack with coal, hauled over the shoulder... after a few miles the skin blistered. Then broke. And after a few years of this, scar tissue.

    To this day I can't bear to let a complaint pass my lips. If one even starts I think of a kid in the depression era hauling coal till his shoulders bled.

    Nope, no need to complain about anything. Those modern conveniences are right nice. I wonder how long we'll have them.

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    1. I wonder how long indeed. It would be quite a shock for today's kids.

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  4. I used star drill back on my first job, but I put them in bottom end of a jack hammer. Is that cheating?

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    1. Yes, and cheat every chance you get. Wish I had a jack hammer back then. I'd have cheated like crazy.

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  5. Having done a bit of manual labor in my short time, I certainly prefer cheating! And you're right, $20 worth of gas in a tiller still beats doing it by hand any day.

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    1. Somes uses of petro make sense even when the price gets fairly hight. Man muscles don't have my horse power compared to machines.

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  6. with the excavator i run that waterline would take about 10 min after you cleared a 10ft wide path for it.I have dug some by hand myself and i must say i prefer the seat

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