The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mountain Memories of Ted Rorrer

By Theodore R. (Ted) Rorrer © 1984

Issue: December, 1984

Editor's Note... The following article was sent to us by Mr. Ted Rorrer of Madison, North Carolina shortly before his death. Mr. Rorrer was from this area and still had a house in Mayberry, Virginia. In this article, he told about his early memories of farming as it was done in the days of his youth and compared them with today's modern methods.

I am well past 80. I thought some of your far away readers might be interested in the way we did things back then and the changes that have taken place.

I was born in Carroll County, Rorrer, Virginia about half a mile from Reed Island Springs Church. My nephew, Ivern Turman, owns the home place at present.

My father was George F. Rorrer and about 1880 he married Susan Ingram Handy. They operated the hotel at Stuart, Virginia and Dad was also the jailer. He and his brother, Charlie Rorrer moved to Carroll County between 1880 and 1885. They proceeded to build a general merchandise store at the forks of the road a few hundred yards below Reed Island Springs Church and secured a charter for a new post office called Rorrer, Virginia.

Around 1900 they sold the store and I understand the post office was operated in the old Stanley home of Mrs. May Stanley Scott and Mrs. Edna Stanley Turner. It was merged later with the Mayberry post office and located in the store of Mr. S. C. Scott where the Mayberry Trading Post is now located. It was later merged with Meadows of Dan.

Dad operated a Government Distillery. It was the only one I know of in that area. He finally give up because the customers could buy moonshine whiskey for less than the Government Tax or legal whiskey.

When I arrived I was the youngest of 10 children. Dad was farming and while there was about 140 acres in the home place, there was not enough cleared land. I helped clear a new ground. It is quite vivid in my mind. None of you will ever see anything like it because the chestnut timber is all gone because of the blight. The area was covered with virgin timber. There were beautiful oak trees up to four feet in diameter and chestnut trees six feet through in addition to maple, black gum, hickory and poplar. Our tools were a saw, axe, mattock and bush blade. We cut the smaller trees into fire wood and hauled it home. The brush was burned. Then we cut a circle around each tree through the bark and into the wood. This killed the trees. The next year it was a desolate sight with all those huge trees dead. You scratched the surface as best you could and sowed some rye and grass in the area. You pastured the cattle there for a few years while the roots decayed.

The work was just getting started. Bark peeled off the trees and limbs would break off. You had to go over it every spring. Then the trees started to blow over. We cut up the chestnut trees and split the logs into rails. President Lincoln was not the only rail splitter. All fences at that time were made from chestnut rails. We sawed the other trees into short lengths and burned them. Some of the stumps stuck around for 20 years.

The modern way. Two or three years ago, Gene Barnard who lives just across the road from my cabin, was up in the hillside with a bulldozer. He pushed it all up by the roots and into piles around the edges. In about two weeks he had the area sowed in grass. Later when the trees and stumps had dried, he burned them. It hurt my feelings when I thought about how I dreaded to pull a cross-cut saw through the huge chestnut logs years ago.

Somewhere I recall the quotation, "bread is the staff of life." It did not say what kind of bread. To us mountain people, corn was literally the staff of life. We ate corn bread twice a day. We had to have corn to feed our horses, our chickens and our hogs. The fodder was used to feed our cattle. It is almost unbelievable the amount of work we went through to produce a small amount of corn compared to our present methods.

An average hill country farmer figured on about 10 acres. Some more and some less.

I saw people plowing with oxen but it was terribly slow. A man with a small team of horses could plow from 1 and 1/4 acres a day. A larger heavier team with larger plow could go to 1 and 1/2 acres. Then it was gone over with a drag harrow. You won't know what real walking is until you have followed a drag harrow for 10 hours in soft plowed dirt. At the end of the day it is about all you and the team can do to get home.

Now you are ready to plant. To operate smoothly, you need four people. One has a horse attached to a shovel plow to lay off the rows which are about three feet apart. One carries a bucket of fertilizer and drops a small handful about every 30 inches. The next one follows and drops in two grains of corn. the last one follows with a hoe and covers the corn.

After the corn is a few inches high, the same crew of four goes out to hoe the corn. One man with a horse and double shovel plow goes twice between each row. The other three proceed to hill up each stalk with fresh dirt and dig up every weed and sprig of grass. About two or three weeks later we go through the same procedure.

When the corn turns brown, there were two ways of harvesting. One was to cut the stalks close to the ground and put them is shocks. These were large upright bundles tied around the top. After the corn had cured, these were shucked in the field. The fodder was tied in bundles for cattle feed.

The other method was to pull the fodder below the ear and tie it in bundles. Then the top part above the ear was cut and bundled for cow feed. After the ears had cured, they were pulled from the stalks and hauled to the barn where it was shucked on warm nights and rainy days by the entire family.

Some had corn shuckings. They invited their neighbors. The men shucked corn and the women tried to cook up enough food for the crowd. That night they had a dance for the young people.

The corn was in a large pile and the men sat in a circle and told tall tales. Some wouldn't do to print even in the present modern times. The host was supposed to furnish liquid refreshments. They usually passed around a half gallon jar, with a jug or jugs handy for a refill. Their capacity during an afternoon was amazing.

Now they don't even have to plow the corn field. They spray it to kill the vegetation, then go over the field with a machine that plants several rows at a time. It opens a furrow, puts in the fertilizer and corn and closes the furrow. They do not hoe or plow the corn. When it ripens in the fall, they run a machine down the row which shucks the corn and puts it in a trailer attached to the harvesting machine.

Corn was value when I was a boy. It sold for $1.00 per bushel. A man worked for 10 cents an hour. If he was short of corn, he would work 10 hours for a bushel. Back then we only got 25 to 30 bushels per acre. Now they expect from 100 to 150 bushels. On test acres they have reached nearly 300 bushels to the acre. The millers back then who ground the corn into meal took a toll of 1/8th or one gallon out of each bushel. Corn at present varies from $2.50 to $3.00 per bushel.

Hay was and still is an important feed for cattle and horses. We cut the hay with a mowing blade. This is a long blade three or four feet long attached to a long curved handle. There were two hand holders on the handle. The grass was cut with a long swing of the blade in a half circle. The grass would catch to the handle and leave the cut grass in rows.

Then we raked the hay up with a pitch fork and placed it in large piles called shocks. These would be four or five feet in diameter and about the same height. We pushed two slender poles under the bottom and then two men would carry it to a location and place them in a circle. A pole eight or ten feet high would be placed in the center. One would place the hay around the pole and another would hold to the pole and walk around to press the hay down. When we got to the top of the pole, we had a hay stack.

Modern machinery cuts hay, rakes it and ties it in bales or rolls so fast, that hay is no problem.

Oats, rye and buckwheat were sown by hand. Usually two rows of sticks were placed across the field spread apart the distance the man could sow the grain. He made one trip to sow the grain, another to sow the fertilizer and then the sticks were moved up.

The grain was cut by hand with a cradle. This was on the order of the mowing blade but the blade was longer and there were four or five wooden rods about six inches apart above the blade. These would catch the grain. The man would drop it in small piles and another man would tie it in bundles. Later it would be hauled to a thrashing machine to separate the grain from the straw.

Now they have drills in different widths that plant the grain as fast as a tractor can run and combines that cut the grain and thresh it equally as fast.