Homesteading, Ox Driving, and Lessons on the Nature of Bodies
Late Thursday night before the Common Ground Country Fair began, I pulled up to the well-lit ox barn and took in the scene I was there to join: a cadre of Yankee teamsters who knew each other from decades of New England country fairs, busy settling their animals in for the night. I was the only newcomer and the only woman. And as I went to get my yearlings out of their trailer, I guessed I was also the only teamster whose animals were going berserk.
Smokey and Carl were straining at their halters, blowing hard through their nostrils. I stood for a while, procrastinating, afraid to release them from their confinement. A tall, middle-aged man made his way over and introduced himself; His name was Dwight. “Good-looking steers,” he said. “How long you been working with them?” And then, the obvious: “Need any help?”
Smokey was six hundred pounds of defiance as we wrangled him off the trailer and into a stall. I secured him to the hitching rail with relief. His back stayed arched, the hairs along his spine standing on end, as we repeated the process with Carl, who tossed his horns and was no easier to handle.
I didn’t know what to make of their demeanor. I puttered around the stall, adding bedding, hanging my farm sign, pondering the steers’ unruliness. I judged they were unnerved by the new surroundings, or maybe by the long ride in the trailer. I was unnerved too—by the feeling of fear. It was the first time “my boys” had acted so uncontrollably, and the first time I felt they could be dangerous.
Dwight was leaning on a stall divider, smoothing out the bow of an ox yoke, shaving splinters off the wood the traditional way, with a piece of broken bottle. Beyond the barn, an older man emerged from a dilapidated school bus that was parked among the teamsters’ row of motor homes and trucks. I’d noticed the rig when I arrived: the words “Newt’s Toybox” were hand-painted on the cab, and the bus was fitted with a wall in the middle so the back end could be used as an animal trailer and the front end used as a camper. As he came into the barn he picked up a manure fork and saluted Dwight. “Hey, ya bastard, why’re you still out here? Come over to the Toybox and have a drink!” He scuffed the rake through the bedding behind a young team of Ayrshire cattle, found nothing, then looked down the aisle at me. “Well, hello there, young lady. Is them Swiss your team?”
“They’re some lively, that pair,” Dwight interposed. “Let’s go have a pour, Newt, and figure on what we can do for this gal, to keep her from getting killed.”
In the 1980s, a weekend camping trip in Maine had reset the course of my life. My girlfriend and I had stumbled upon an old farmstead near the ocean, with a tumbledown house and barn, priced at $45,000—affordable even on our hand-to-mouth freelance incomes—and soon we left Brooklyn with plans for making use of the thirty acres around our new home. We were vegetarians, and in short time the garden was vast. Chickens filled a henhouse, and eventually Saanen goats were providing milk for the table as we tried to live closer to the land than to the store. As we shifted to the realities of eating food we had raised and grown, we even started eating meat. Male kids came with the territory of raising dairy goats, and other animals could be raised for the freezer on the grass around the farm.
The idea that a team of oxen could contribute to our self-sufficiency was a dubious leap. But at agricultural fairs I found myself smitten with draft power, and in particular smitten with Brown Swiss cattle: a huge, fawn-colored breed with ears that looked like fuzzy white lilies. When a dairy farm downstate advertised two Brown Swiss bull calves for sale—“Well matched, would make good working team”—I put down the paper and got on the road. Smokey and Carl came home with me on a day in late November when they were two weeks old. They fit, just barely, in the covered bed of a Toyota pickup truck.
During the snowy months, our farmhouse was an extension of the barn, instead of the other way around. Fifty-pound bags of milk replacer leaned against the kitchen cabinets. In the dish drain, half-gallon plastic baby bottles and humongous rubber nipples air-dried along with our supper plates. Feeding the calves was the focus of my day, as if I’d given birth to them myself. In the mornings we took long training walks, with the calves in a lightweight yoke. Some evenings after I put down fresh straw for their bedding I’d nestle between them for a while to listen to NPR, which played all day on the radio in the barn. Smokey stuffed his head in my arms, wanting to be scratched between the ears. Carl slathered my face with his huge scratchy tongue.
The need for de-sexing weighed upon this idyll. Our local vet was persuasive about using a bloodless procedure involving a clamp that would crush the vessels leading to the testicles. She assured me that clamping caused only minor discomfort—but she needed me to hold the squirming calves. It was terrible. Smokey and Carl’s cries made me regret my trust in the vet. The calves’ trust in me, however, was poignantly unaffected.
After neutering, the calves were now considered steers. They muscled out, and in the spring I put them in a bigger yoke. They began to do real work, hauling brush on a sled and wheeling their own manure to the garden in a cart, stepping out eagerly and responding to commands with delightful attunement. Puffed with confidence, I signed up to bring them as a demonstration team to a fair in the coming September, which was still some months away.
Smokey and Carl lazed in the pasture during the summer growing season, but as the weather turned toward fall it was time to yoke them up again. The weeks off seemed to have made them churlish—our old rapport was missing. They each weighed several hundred pounds, and their horned heads were level with my shoulders. I pictured the scene we would face at the fair—an elbow-to-elbow crowd of some 60,000 people—and I set to working on their attitude.
On the first morning of the fair, I topped off the coffee in my travel mug with a healthy slug of Kahlua before leaving my campsite to take the edge off my dread about the coming day. Other teamsters were already at the barn feeding their cattle when I arrived, and I noticed that my steers had fresh water in front of them and clean bedding underneath.
Newt met me with a diagnosis. “You know you got bulls, there, deah?” he asked gravely, with an inflection that was deepest Maine. “Notice the back side of ’em. Come along, and let me show you mine.” Oh Jesus, I thought. Taking me over to the Ayrshires, Newt gave a squeeze to the scrotum of one of his steers. “Feel this,” he commanded, pointing to the silky sac of skin. Dutifully I squeezed. “See, ain’t nothing theyah—they’re cut! Now come try these,” and he motioned me down the aisle to an older Holstein team that had no visible balls at all. “See, these ones were banded. But look at yours.” We stood behind Smokey and Carl and appraised their junk. “Look at the size of that cod!” Newt said. “Feel it!” He took hold of Smokey’s sack and tested for ripeness. “Them’s testicles, young lady. The vet should’ve cut these boys—those clamps ain’t worth a damn. These bulls are after the dairy cows, on t’other side of the bahn.”
The dairy cattle weren’t going anywhere over the next three days, and neither were the testes of my bulls. But Smokey and Carl seemed less feisty after a night in the stall, and I decided to try things out before the crowds arrived. I yoked them but left their halters on. I attached a lead rope to Carl and unhitched them from the rail. They peeled around in unison without waiting for a command, then bolted from the stall, knocking over some decorative corn stalks on their way out. I collected length on the rope and tried to get some leverage.
No china shop could have beckoned my bulls more than the heifers on the opposite side of the building. But Smokey wanted to go left toward the fragrance of cow, while Carl wanted to go right. Thwarted by the yoke, they ricocheted without progress, two brains battling over twelve hundred pounds of bullish ardor. The lead rope was nearly useless; I simply stuck close until the team’s own isometrics finally tired them out. I tugged them back to their stall and tied them off to the rail for good.
We still had three days to spend in the ox barn. Newt saw it as an opportunity to train me up. Borrowing other teamsters’ cattle, he put me through my paces, insisting I work with pair after pair: old oxen, young steers, New England teams in simple neck yokes, and Nova Scotia teams in fancy head yokes with gold and fringe. Every so often he and Dwight slipped over to the Toybox for more “coffee,” announced with a dramatic wink. His teaching style involved rough critique and outright insults—he was a curmudgeon straight out of the movies. But he was all in about making me a teamster.
No one in the ox barn felt certain about whether Smokey and Carl’s “stagginess” would actually be solved by castration or whether it was too late. On Sunday night as I readied for the trip back home, Newt came over with some final advice. He hoped I would start a different team—a smaller breed, like Red Durhams. “These two may settle after they’re cut, deah, but they’re gonna outgrow ya,” he warned. “They’re gonna eat you out of house and home, and get so big you won’t be able to put a yoke on ’em. Do yourself a favor and sell ’em before you get too attached.”
But I had bottle-fed and trained and put my heart into Smokey and Carl. All they needed was to be truly castrated. I started to explain, but Newt had seen that coming. “You’ll do whatever you’re gonna do, young lady. Good luck to ya. I will say, you’re a gritty little shit.”
On the four-hour trip home from the fair, we passed a clinic that said FARM VET, and I laid on the brakes. The vet was in. Sure, he had time to get those balls in a bucket, on the spot. The animal trailer offered perfect access for surgery from behind. Within an hour, the incisions were stitched back up and my bulls were truly steers.
Smokey and Carl became mellow again, with gratifying speed. We worked through the winter and into the spring. They skidded logs from the woods and hauled rocks from the garden before loafing in the pasture for another summer amid plenty of grass. Each season the yokes got bigger. When the steers were bedded in the barn for the winter, I could sprawl my whole body along Smokey’s massive back while I listened to the radio. The volume of firewood they could scoot around the dooryard was enormous. Also enormous was the volume of fuel their bodies needed—one hundred pounds of grain per week to supplement countless bales of hay.
Another spring, and they were sledding buckets of maple sap from the sugarbush, wearing yet a bigger yoke. In the summer, the grass in the pasture was no longer enough to maintain them; I spent hours fencing forage and moving them around. I bought grain by the ton and charged it to a credit card. By fall, the steers needed a yoke that was five feet across and weighed close to a hundred pounds. I needed help to lift it onto their shoulders. Once the ground was frozen, I led them to their winter stall. Carl’s nose touched the wall in front of him and his rear end touched the back, making him stand at an angle. It wasn’t clear where Smokey was going to fit.
For four years Smokey and Carl had been the center of my world, but Newt had, of course, been right. Not only had my team outgrown me, they had outgrown the barn. My beloved steers would have to go.
There’s no rescue group or shelter for gigantic teams of oxen. And I had seen firsthand why Brown Swiss weren’t in demand as a “farm team.” You find Bunyanesque oxen like Smokey and Carl mostly in one place—in the pulling contests at big fairs, where many teamsters use the goad stick with abandon in their frenzy to win the lucrative Sweepstakes Pulls. The astonishing amount of meat that Smokey and Carl represented, weighing more than a ton apiece, also meant the odds were high of a buyer cashing in on the difference between their value as draft animals and their value as hamburger. I didn’t want to sell them to a stranger through the classifieds; I wanted them to be in loving hands. To euthanize them and bury them like pets was out of the question. Putting hundreds of pounds of beef in the ground would be a wanton act, not an act of affection. The choices narrowed to just one.
The butcher got out of his truck with a cattle prod in hand. “Don’t use that,” I said. “I’ll load them.” Carl followed easily behind me into the trailer. “Wow, I can see he’d do anything for ya,” the butcher said. Smokey plodded into the trailer to join his yokemate. At the other end of the trip, the butcher’s work was careful: swift and quiet.
When they came back home, Smokey and Carl still took up a lot of space. We bought two chest freezers for storing all those one-pound packages.
In the long-ago days when I was still eating a vegetarian diet, I was invited to the home of a new friend for a supper that turned out to be a big bowl of chili—not an entrée where you could work around the meat. I found myself faced with the option of explaining my diet or just saying “thank you” and graciously eating the meal. I cringe to look back on my choice: refusing the beef. I couldn’t have predicted how the imperfect quest for self-sufficiency would turn some principles on their head. One thing I do know: I wouldn’t choose to go back and take Newt’s advice if I could do things over with Smokey and Carl. I relished every minute with those steers, from the early nights snuggling in the barn to the last bite of meat from the freezer. Twenty years later a series of yokes is still hanging from spikes on the barn wall—small yokes at the top and larger ones toward the bottom—along with a huge yoke too heavy to hang, which sits on the floor like a tombstone to another era of my life. That’s not how I think of it, though. For me, that massive yoke is a monument to the things in life we don’t see coming, like the way a few years on a farm or a weekend in an ox barn can offer up humbling lessons if a person is (let’s say) a lesbian vegetarian full of youthful certainty. But I also keep that yoke because it’s the proof that I was a gritty little teamster.
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