Rollin in the Cow Patties

It was one shitty day. This is not a figurative description of a bad day. Literally it was. Ok, what happened? It was hay season on the Preston farm. I was about ten years old. Hay in the 1960’s was baled onto flat wagons from the baler, similar to the picture below. The crew was one tractor driver and one man or two boys stacking the bales. We always built the loads 6 bales high; six lengthways on the bottom, two courses three across, then two, two and one row across the top, all to “lock” the bales in from sliding. I think the wagons were 20 feet long, so with an 18” x 18” x 36” bale size; about 148 bales per load. The weight of each bale was 40 – 70 pounds depending on moisture and content. (Alfalfa being dense). Alright, you get the picture. I liked to ride the top of the wagon when the loads were being transferred from field to barn. With the wagon deck at about 3 ½ feet off the ground and six levels of bales, my perch was over 12 feet high. Great for scenery and excitement.

Hay baling 2

Side view of a square bale load.

hay bales

Back to “that day.”  My grandfather was delivering a load of hay to the neighbouring farm, that of Norman Lillico. Our path meant travelling through the barn yard. A barn yard in summer with a herd of twenty cows eating fresh pasture is very full and very fresh. Walking was treacherous. The barnyard also, had a slope, running down from the silo, to the milk house and gate. If you enjoy Stewart McLean stories, I think you know what is going to happen.

We get started behind the barn. I clamper up to my perch. My grandfather hitches the tractor and we are off, slowly descending the gentle slope. Except there is also an “S” turn across the slope. We start the turn, the wagon groans. The bales start to slide sideways; a slow shift. I am now riding the wave, down. However, I don’t land on the bales. I land in the cow patties.

My grandfather sees a mess: the bales. Oh, and me. I have shit in my hair, on my face, arms, pants, and shirt. Ugh! I roll in the long grass, removing some, smearing the rest. Off to the house I go yelling for my grandmother’s help. She will know what to do. She hustles from the summer kitchen door, apron on, then stops in her tracks. “Not one step further!” she yells. “Go to the wood shed. Strip to your underwear. Leave your clothes there. Get a bath. Make it two baths!”

I did. She washed and dried my soiled clothes. Isn’t that what grandmother’s do? All was well.

That story was a favorite of my grandfather. Mine too, after the cleanup.

The Peterborough Farm

One hundred acres. Ah yes, remember. Pull out the mental images of the early 1960’s. Interesting, those images from childhood are still fresh. I can see the gravel laneway, diving the farm, leading from the barn straight back to the 7 acre sugar bush. On the west, there were 4 fields and the east side, 5.  The fencing was a mixture of wire on wood posts and split cedar rail. Apple, hawthorn, cedars and other wild bushes filled the fence lines in the “back 40”. The sugar bush was full of maples which my grandfather tapped in his early farm years. I recall a dilapidated cedar plank shack, tucked into those woods.

North Monaghan Township in Peterborough County was surveyed originally in 1817. Blocks of 1000 acres were measured, into 10, 100 acre lots, the size deemed appropriate for a successful family farm in the horse-powered days. A 100 acre farm was 20 chains wide by 50 chains long. (A chain is 66 feet.) Concession roads were built between every back to back farm, at 1.25 mile intervals, giving each farm road access. Thanks to Google maps and satellite views, I can measure the position of the barn, house and other buildings as they are still standing today. The farm exists on Lansdowne Street West, Peterborough, its fences removed, but from the satellite view you can still see the sugar bush and laneway. The City of Peterborough continues to move west, and today is literally right at the farm gate.

The current barn on the Preston farm was built by my grandfather with a contracting crew, in the midst of the Great Depression; the summer of 1932. Other farm buildings included a machinery shed, a milk house and chicken house. Attached to the house was a driving / wood shed, providing space for a car and winter firewood. The farm layout is below.

Preston Farm 1965 A


It was always a mixed operation, with dairy cattle, egg laying chickens in the early years and some cash crops; wheat and oats.

New barn 1932 A

Here is the new barn in 1932: A simple L shape with high mows for hay and straw storage and stable places for cows and horses. (more later).

A farmer is proud of his or her work. Growing food. Stewarding the land. Hard work of sweat, aching muscles, of gains and losses that one hopes will result in good quality and good yields. My grandfather was proud. He exhibited a quiet pride of accomplishment from his farm business, with a decent but small Holstein herd, good productive land, and a good family. The work was of his hands, his mind and his heart.

Me as a Child – Starting the Conversation

I had a special relationship with my Grandfather. As a child, I thought that I was that special grandchild. I was his third grandson, but Grandpa had eight such relationships, with four grandsons and four granddaughters. He was generous of his time, interested in what each of us were doing. He was that sort. Not outspoken, when he did speak, it was with purpose. “How is your hockey team doing?” “How many goals have you scored?” “Tell me about school.” These would be questions posed to me as a boy.

Because I had similar mannerisms, and a keen interest in the farm as a lad, we got along very well. On the farm, I was his shadow, from age seven to twelve, from dawn til bedtime. I looked forward to the one or two weeks visiting Grandma and Grandpa on the farm, usually as soon as school was out; haying time. I am sure I asked lots of questions to which Grandpa would answer. For me, the farm was one big science exhibit to be explored, hands on. Questions I’m sure I asked: “Why does hay have to be dry? Why do calves get the first milk from their mothers? Why do you have fallow fields?” The question of “Where do calves come from, was never answered even if I did ask that one.” (Partial answer – the Seymour farm, a kilometer away had one monstrous mean-looking Holstein bull, which I assumed “did the job” at the Seymour farm. The Prestons had no bull. Therefore, the male genes were from a borrowed source or possibly Artificial Insemination). The summers when I was eleven and twelve I did field and barn work. Hard. But they were the best summers! (More later)


So, how does one carry on a conversation with someone dead for 28 years? Talk to one of his photos? Pray? Apologize for bad behaviour? Reminisce with still living family members? Write a blog?

All these could be done. I will blog. I will tell stories of a boy’s memories and now from the perspective of an older man’s keyboard.

The child – grandparent conversation is not equal. The elders guide, instruct, listen, and converse at a child’s comprehension level. The child is inquisitive, unbiased and honest in his or her questions. You can never have that mature adult conversation as a one on one. The equalization comes later, when that child grows up, ages and has witnessed and lived life’s cycles. He then, can impart that guidance and wisdom learned, long ago to the current young ones.


April 1959, dinner with family in the Preston farm kitchen.


My grandfather and me: summer 1960 on the orange Allis Chalmers tractor. My seat position: always tucked on top of the mini tool box, wedged beside my grandfather.

I drove this tractor for the first time at age 12. Trust from my grandfather. I drove a distance, hitched up a wagon by backing into the wagon safely, and returned. I did OK.