Barn Preservation Society
to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns
SPRING 2002, Vol. 15, Issue 1
NEW YORK STATE IN 1680
(Continuing the series on the history of the American Dutch
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
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
"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
(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.
SPRING 2002, Viol. 15, Issue 1, part two
Dutch Barn Preservation Society
The Mabee Farm Historic Site
1080 Main St. (Rt. 5S)
Junction, NY 12150
Phone: (518) 887-5073
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