The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Girl Plow Hand

By Grace Cash © 1987

Issue: September, 1987

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

The summer of 1927 Papa got a job, helping build the Chicopee Textile Mill, located several miles south of Gainesville, Georgia. He rode to work with a neighbor in a Model T Ford - open windowed when the flaps were down. For the duration of the planting and cultivating season, Papa had abandoned the farm. This was his first - and only - public job. He came home at night, full of stories about the enormous buildings that would house the manufactory. Most of his work was on the red brick houses that were coming up, like a flower garden, over an expansive plot that formed the village residential area.

As time passed - Papa at Chicopee, earning two dollars a day and my brothers taking over the jobs he once supervised with a firm hand - the farm took on a new look. Frank, at sixteen, appointed himself "Farm Boss." He plowed the powerful, high stepping, red mule, named Belle, and Carl was assigned the much lesser, aging, red mule, whose mane was sprinkled with gray hair. Moisture formed in his big rolling eyes, as though he might be crying, when the pulling and chugging over steep, rocky field taxed his strength.

That Spring Frank ran the guano distributor in the cotton beds, and Carl followed with the cotton seed planter. The same pattern was followed with planting corn and syrup cane. Mama planted her garden, and the barnyard showed a fine habitation of boasting roosters, clucking hens and all variations of chicks, from the straggly winged first hatched to those whose beaks has newly been pipped. The crops came up a good stand, and the plants showed steady growth. It had all been smooth sailing - so far.

Yet nothing stayed smooth at our house for a lengthy time. When the leaves on the cotton plants looked like fifty cent pieces in the June sun, Carl got sick. Summer sickness, Mama called it, caused by eating new Irish potatoes at the table, and green apples on the sly. It was nonetheless an illness that forbade working in the fields.

It was a worrisome circumstance for one of the "furnished" mules to be idle during cultivation, but that problem was quickly solved. It had always been my contention that farm girls had to work harder than farm boys, that hoeing the crops was more strenuous than plowing, and I volunteered to plow until Carl got well. The regular hoe hands - Mama and Irma - could get along without me, although I had been hoeing a third row along with them since the cotton came up, and I was using a grown folks' hoe, not those on the market fitted for a child's age and size. Mama was expecting her ninth child in December, but she worked in the fields, and left the housework to my younger sisters.

My new plowing job fell at the time when my brothers were running furrows between the cotton rows. It was getting on close to the Fourth of July, laying by time. Carl instructed me patiently on the directions intended for the mule to follow in obedience to the growling words "Gee" and "Haw." But he parked himself at the end of the field, and watched with amusement, during the time he wasn't under a nearby shade tree. He was thoroughly enjoying himself - it was all a joke as far as he was concerned.

Red obeyed my orders, even though I occasionally said "Haw" when I meant "Gee" for a right turn, and "Gee" when I meant "Haw" for a left turn. I allowed no cropping of the cotton plants, and no stamping down on the stalks by the hard cloven feet when I turned the plowstock around at the end of the row. The old red mule and I managed equally well the intricate short rows and terraces, and finally the field below the barn lot was finished.

We moved the next day to a steep, sloping field across the highway facing our house on the hill. The road had been paved since we migrated from the Macedonia area in 1924, and there was a lot of traffic dividing Gainesville and points south, toward Winder and Macon. Neighbors, church people and rank strangers would slow down their vehicles - Fords, Chevrolets and an occasional Buick or Dodge - and stare at a twelve year old girl in a cotton printed bonnet, a hickory shirt and blue overalls out plowing in a cotton field. The home made bonnet told the people I was a girl, and girls didn't plow. Plowing was considered, by everybody, a man's job.

Papa didn't seem to notice - or care - that I was plowing Carl's mule, as he most assuredly would have done if he had still been "Farm Boss." He was ready at night for a fresh vegetable supper, served with a thick pone of cornbread and Brindle's pasture fed buttermilk. Besides he had stories to tell, gathered for the most part from the lunch hours, when the workers sat down on the timber pile and ate their bag lunches. He told of a young black fellow, sitting nearby him on the lumber, and described how he would brush houseflies off of a sausage biscuit and scold the fly, as he would a person, "You ole fly you, you git off my sumpin to eat. Shoo, fly, be gone from here. Git you sumpin to eat where you fine it, leave me be." Papa talked to four footed animals on the farm, and they understood his orders as well as we did, but he had never heard anybody talk to insects.

After Carl's recovery, he took over his old job as though nothing had transpired. Yet a great deal had. During those three days, I had proved that a girl could plow, and I had satisfied myself that plowing in a field was indeed easier - and much more pleasant - than digging with a hoe. Feeling triumphant as I did, I felt no resentment to hand over the job to my brother.

He wrapped the plow lines around his hands, and in a sing song, lazy way, he called out, his voice echoing back from the wooded hills, "Gee ee, Red," and "Haw aw, Red," acting as though it took a boy's voice to make a mule understand. I believe Red did understand that he was lucky to have Carl, instead of a perfectionist girl, or a quick tempered, demanding plow hand like Frank, who was paired just right with the high stepping, heavily built Belle.