Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER SPRING 2002, Vol. 15, Issue 1


(Continuing the series on the history of the American Dutch Barn)

By Robert J. Andersen

The story of wheat begins with domestication, propagation by seed, 10,000 years ago. The nomads, who roamed with their animals, decided to stay put and nurture the wild grass from sowing to harvest. This was the first time there was a need for a residence. This led to the origin of villages, towns, and cities. Through the millenniums, the culture of wheat underwent many changes. The stage of sophistication in colonial times was still very crude. This was before the industrial revolution and things mechanical.

To produce a crop of wheat the Hudson valley colonial farmer would start as soon as the previous crop was cut and moved to the barn. This was in August in the Hudson valley. With a target date for sowing of September 15, there was a period of four or five weeks to prepare the seed bed for a crop of winter wheat. Some plowing could be done in early summer but it would be deferred during July and August, for the harvest season. This sowing gave a period of six to eight weeks of growth before freeze-up. Six inches of growth was adequate to insure survival of the plants over the frigid winter. It should be noted that the preferred winter wheat far out yielded spring wheat.

The tillage required was a type that can be traced to Egyptian wall paintings in 3000 Be. A team of horses or a yoke of oxen pulled a single bottom plow for the Dutch farmer. (DBPS Newsletter, Spring 1992 PAGE 3 "Dutch plow") They also pulled a harrow to smooth the seedbed. To prepare an adequate seedbed was not different from today except for the size of the implements and the power applied.

Today a plow has 10-20 bottoms and is pulled by a tractor of 100 HP, or more. It is essentially the same operation, as of old. The same could be said for the harrow, which is still dragged over the surface to smooth the seedbed. Plowing or deep tillage as it is called, is being resisted. Recently we see the beginning of new methods of no-till, minimum till and chemical weed control that disturb the soil very little and are considered conservation tillage.

FIGURE 1 THE MONTHS ca. 1540, By Simon Bening. This scene shows plowing, sowing, and harrowing, as also done, in the early Hudson valley. In the painting, the likely locale is Flanders. Bening was a Frenchman.

The grower would walk the fields, sowing, casting the seed from side to side by hand. Then, once over again, with the harrow, and the seed was nestled in its bed to germinate. (See figure 1.)

Winter wheat was very hardy, obviously, it could survive winter conditions. To what degree would depend upon snow cover, the wet condition of the soil, and the severity of cold. When the plants began to grow they were subject to damage from predators who would graze and stomp the tender plants. Deer and turkey could be especially damaging. (Were youngsters drafted as chasers?) What crop survived the ravages of weather, insects and disease in early summer would be ready for harvest in July. The various operations facing the producers were reaping, binding, shocking, hauling, storing, threshing, winnowing, and sacking.

As the stalks headed-out, and changed from green to golden yellow, the feel of the kernels of wheat, between his teeth, told the farmer when the crop was ready for reaping. He would have to allow for drying in the shock and drying in the barn. Ideally, after a short time in the barn the sheaves were dry enough to be threshed. The kernels were by this time very hard to the bite. Timing was crucial, for any delay in starting the harvest meant a smaller window in which to accomplish the job. This cash crop would be grown to its maximum, all that the harvest crew could handle. "All hands, turn to." Over ripe grain was subject to shattering and sprouting. Storms could cause lodging and this disarrangement of stalks made reaping and binding very difficult, or impossible. Prolonged damp conditions could cause molding or sprouting in the shock and in the barn. Speedy storage to the barn was always the best. The farmer's capacity for reaping binding and storing determined how much grain he could grow and therefore how much profit he could make, (Money, so dear to the Dutchmen.)

Figure 2 DRAWING, By the author. Taken from a wall decoration in an Egyptian tomb, (3000 BC) on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York City.

Figure 3 Detail of a VAN GOGH drawing, National Museum Amsterdam, Holland. Shows the wrist support on the sith.

Two tools used to cut the wheat, were the sickle and the sith. The sickle traced back to the Stone Age when it was fashioned with flint. The stone was imbedded in resin on a crescent shaped frame or a straight stick to make a serviceable blade.

Sumerians, who had no stone, made sickles of earthenware. The wide ceramic blade was support for the fragile material. Metal became the standard material, and it was manufactured in various weights and balances.

The sickle was an instrument of millenniums, 3000 BC-2000 AD (figure 2). It was capable of reaping as much as a third of an acre per day. The tool could be used by all members of the family. The cutting stroke was simple. With the tool in one hand the free hand would grasp a handful of stalks that were sheared with a quick pull of the sickle. A large number of stalks could be drawn together with the tip of the blade to facilitate a large handful. The blade was then slid down to the appropriate height for the cut. It was a great advantage to be able to place the cut stalks on the ground with precision, heads in one direction, for the binder.

In the early Hudson valley the sickle was a secondary instrument used by women and children. The Dutch brought with them a centuries old tool called a sith capable of twice the production of a sickle or two thirds of an acre per day. It was twice the size and required extra physical effort, and some dexterity to use. The sickle was handled with the wrist while the sith required a swinging motion of the arm, as it was held in one hand. The handle of the sith had an appendage to support the wrist. See Figure 3.

FIGURE 4 THE MONTHS ca. 1540, By Simon Bening. Harvest scene showing the family at harvest. Man resting and eating, with the sith and mathook lying by his side. The woman sits with her sickle. In the background are two reapers at work with sith and mathook. At the right is a huge load of sheaves on its way to the barn.

There is much confusing testimony on how the sith and mathook were manipulated. The descriptions are brief and incomplete. One would be hard pressed to emulate the movements. It may be very true that extra labor was required to, "clean up the mess."

(DBPS News Letter, Fall 1992 Roderic Blackburn,
et al.) "....... the reaping hook (mathook) in his left hand held the stalks together at an angle to more easily cut them, then deftly position them on the ground for subsequent binding into sheaves. ... The cut stalks were shaped into a sheaf with the mathook and the right foot. Then the sheaves were bound by the binders and finally put in shocks to dry."

(Attributed to Peter Cousins in The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association. March 1975) "With this hook he collects the standing corn (i,e., wheat) and lays it toward the left, while the right hand (with the sith) cuts it close to the ground. The cut corn leans against that which is standing."

(Agricultural Hand Tools, By Roy Brigden, Shire Publications Ltd.) "The blade of the bagging hook was used with a pronounced Swinging stroke, penetrating up to 1 yard (1 m) into the Standing corn. The bagger moved across the face of the Crop, and at right angles to the direction of cut pushing The stalks back away from him with a hooked stick before each stroke. At the end of his line he walked backwards rolling the corn just cut under his foot until he reached his starting point with a bundle big enough to make a sheaf The procedure was then repeated. ... Greater speed left more stray Stalks and loose corn on the ground to be raked together by the pair of laborers who bound and stooked the sheaves produced by each bagger."

The sith remained the tool of choice in the Hudson valley for about a hundred years. The cradle, a much more efficient reaping toot, took over for the next hundred years until the invention of the reaper-binder machine which lasted about a hundred years.

I fear that the technique of the sith and mathook is going to be lost to antiquity. It is important that anyone having first or second hand knowledge of this come forward and make a written record of what he/she knows. The record of the successor to the sith, "Cradle" is well known and is regularly demonstrated on the many working farm museums. Antique reaper-binder machines can be seen in any farm museum.

One binder, man or woman, could follow two sith reapers. He or she would twist some stalks of wheat together to make a short rope and bind (wrap) an armful of wheat together to make a sheave. This made a neat package able to stand together with other sheaves in a shock or stook. Heads upwards to dry in the sun.

NEWSLETTER SPRING 2002, Viol. 15, Issue 1, part two

The Dutch Barn Preservation Society

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