Twenty thousand years ago, a glacier covered eastern South Dakota. On its amazing trek over mountain ranges, it broke off, moved and deposited rocks. The rocks varied in size and shape and mineral content, and much to the dismay of the farmers who came along hundreds of centuries later (and farmers’ children), that glacier left a lot of them.
Every spring, like thistles, the rocks popped up from the fertile black prairie. Moldboard plows and field cultivators wrenched more stones up to the soil surface. Stones raised havoc with combines, pickers and planters, so when the menacing chunks of mineral dotted the hillsides and Dad announced Rock Picking Day, even the girls had to “put on the big boots.” (I am pretty sure we complained, but we did so very softly.)
If the event occurred in early spring, we used the hayrack or the “tin,” a long sheet of heavy metal with a chain attached that hitched to the tractor. One of the girls drove the tractor, slowly pulling the tin sled or hayrack from one congregation of rocks to the next while the rest of the crew walked along, tossing on the larger stones. It was not possible to get them all, so we scouted for those bigger than a baseball.
When we reached the end of the field, we unloaded the rocks, one by one, onto a pile in the fence line and went back for another load. With each round, the pile grew into a bigger mountain.
My brother Delmer remembers often picking rock in newly planted cornfields. The cultivator tended to push the stones next to the emerging plants. No farmer wanted to see rocks as he gazed down his perfectly planted rows. They needed to be picked. This work required the manure spreader and a skilled driver who could steer between rows. It would not do to wipe out an entire corn row. Occasionally, a young driver stepped up to the task and failed. After a few seedlings were flattened, Dad shook his head and called in a more experienced operator.
The soft soil worked against the walkers as we trudged over and between hilled rows from rock to manure spreader and back again. Even on a cool day, the heat of the sun bounced back at us from the dark dirt. When asked about memories of rock picking, all four of my siblings responded with the words, “hot and sweaty.” Even though the event occurred only one or two days every year, we were all relieved when the tedious, back-breaking work was over.
Of course, times change. Inventors constantly concoct contraptions to make life easier, and creating something to move rock was no exception. Mechanical rock pickers entered the farm scene. Tractors tugged machines that scooped up stones and tumbled them into a hopper that dumped with the flick of a lever. Farm youngsters breathed a sigh of relief.
Confucius once said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” That is what we did. Working together. One stone at a time.
On my recent visit to my hometown, I learned of another work-saving invention that makes rock picking obsolete—the land roller! Used mostly in young bean fields, instead of picking up the rocks, it pushes them back into the soil. In the fall when the farmer harvests his/her soybeans, no rocks or hard dirt clumps get thrown into the combine. Though not as memorable or as inspiring as moving a mountain, it does have its advantages.
Hmmmm. What will they think of next?
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of books, "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com. Watch for her new book to be released later this year, a compilation of Nooks and Crannies column stories.