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Beasts of burden

by Tom Chillemi

Not so very long ago, a hill was a huge obstacle to transportation.

Drivers scarcely think of it today—pushing down on the gas pedal is all they need do to defeat gravity.

Calvin and Hobbs help Ric Davila move large timbers around his garden at Cooks Corner in Middlesex County.  (shot by Tom Chillemi, edited by Mike Kucera)
However, up until the early 20th century animals such as teams of oxen provided power on land. These beasts of burden built civilizations. They were the “bulldozers” and trucks of ancient man. With them, humans could clear land, plow fields and pull carts loaded with grain to be stored for the winter.

Their brute strength allowed humans to farm and stop being nomadic hunters and gatherers. Mankind could stay in one place and build cities. Oxen also propelled about 500,000 people in wagon trains across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains from 1843 to 1869 during “the great migration” to the West.

All the while, oxen required only grass for fuel. 

A local man is working to preserve that nearly forgotten art of working oxen. Luke Conner of Cologne in King and Queen County got interested in draft animals when he was 5 years old. Today, he takes his team of oxen, named Calvin and Hobbs, to shows, events and fairs.

Recently, Conner and his yoke of oxen helped Ric Davila move large timbers around his garden at Cooks Corner in Middlesex County.

“I’m trying to do more farming and logging with them,” Conner said. “I’ll start logging on the farm where they are kept and then try to find jobs in the area.”

Conner explained that oxen can maneuver in tight areas and not disturb the ground as much as some tractors do.

Calvin and Hobbs know 25 to 30 voice commands—”gee” to turn right, and “haw” to go left.

Oxen are much calmer than horses, whose defense is to run away from danger, be it real or imagined.

As oxen mature, they will pick up on the actions of their trainers and handlers, who are known by a variety of names. The more popular names include “teamsters,” since they are handling a team. “Drovers” is another name. And for those heading West in the mid-1800s, “bullwackers” was the preferred term.

Oxen instinctively know what to do, explained Conner, especially if they are in a routine. “They figure the job out in a few repetitions.”

Almost all of their movements are controlled by voice commands. “They are like any kid and will space out and not listen,” he said. “I just need to say something in a sharp voice or growl, and they know to pay attention.”

Conner said Calvin and Hobbs will grow to weigh 3,000 pounds each. They are a cross between Holstein and Brown Swiss, two dairy breeds that he prefers over the beef breeds that get so stocky they can be hard to fit a yoke. An ox is a bull that’s been neutered.

Strength and stamina

Conner and friend Bill Speiden of Somerset dress in the clothes worn in 1849 during the era of the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush, or colonial garb.

Contrary to the movies, oxen were preferred over horses for pulling the “prairie schooners,” a homemade farm wagon, or the much larger Conestoga Wagons that could weigh 2,000 pounds when loaded.

Oxen are much stronger than horses and have greater stamina. They didn’t need steady refueling. Since they have four stomachs, oxen can eat their food whole and digest it later. Oxen can make do by simply eating in the morning and evening.

On days when there is no grass to eat, the oxen really prevail because they can store food in their four stomachs.

Horses weaken quicker. Horses have to eat almost constantly, and need a lot more nutrition and required grain that would have taken up space in a prairie wagon.

It took six months for wagon trains to go from Missouri to Oregon. There were markers along the trail showing where the wagons needed to be in order to make it across the Rocky Mountains before winter. “They had to make it to Independence Rock by July 4,” said Connor.

In a narrow rock pass in Guernsey, Wyoming, there are 4-foot-deep ruts cut by the steel-rimmed wheels of wagons. The middle had to be chiseled down so the wagon’s axles wouldn’t drag. “Every wagon pretty much went across the same spot,” said Conner.

Pioneers who had enough money would have four oxen, using two at a time to pull a covered wagon. Others went with three oxen, using one as a spare. During those days, an ox cost about $75—a year’s wages. A horse cost twice as much.

When climbing big hills, the settlers would combine teams, up to 20 oxen strong, to pull each of their wagons up the hills.

Going down hills required hooking a second team to the back of the wagon to help hold it back. They also used a “skid lock,” a 3 or 4 foot long wedge put under a wagon wheel to ensure the wagon skidded down the hill slowly.

Conner also cleared up a common misconception brought on by the movies. The phrase “circle the wagons” was not a defensive tactic. With the wagons placed end to end, the center was a corral for the livestock at night. “The Indians actually traded with the early settlers and helped them more than they hurt them,” he explained.

The Oregon Trail ended with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. With the age of locomotion dawning, the need for oxen gradually declined.

But for Luke Conner, the satisfaction of working with Calvin and Hobbs continues.

posted 12.03.2008

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