“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Theodore Roosevelt appealed to Americans to “make do” with what they had at the time. Throughout our country’s history, people have met the challenge, none more admirably than the farmer. And, the machine that takes first prize for usefulness? The one and only genuine original manure spreader!
Also called a muck spreader, honey wagon, and a few other names that cannot be printed in this column, the manure spreader’s purpose was to cast the natural fertilizer produced by farm animals onto fields to enrich the soil. Our machine was green with wooden sides and bottom, one of the first models made to be pulled by a tractor rather than a team of horses. Two conveyor chains ran along the bottom of the wagon toward the rear where an auger and beaters were attached. Levers that turned the chain movement on and off extended to the arm’s reach of the tractor driver. The moving mechanisms were powered by the two wheels on the spreader. The wheels turned, moving the chain, pushing the contents through the beaters and throwing the organic matter up in the air and out the back and sides.
On our farm the implement proved practical for many tasks and was often used to carry other materials. Amazingly, every spring rocks pushed their way out of the South Dakota dirt, and farming rocks is not a practical practice, so my brother and I “picked rock.” Delmer hooked the manure spreader onto the John Deere 520, and we rode out to the field, parking next to the biggest boulders. The wagon was not very high, so we hefted the heavy hunks into the wagon and hauled them to the rock pile at the end of the field.
Hay rack not handy? No problem. Use the manure spreader! Delmer and Don could pack in 15 or 20 square hay bales if they leaned a few back over the beaters. The cattle in the barnyard welcomed the sweet-smelling feed.
The wondrous wagon also proved perfect for fence repair days. The guys loaded up posts, diggers, rolls of wire and staples and maneuvered in right next to the fence in need of fixing. The tractor and spreader combination comprised the ATV of the twentieth century.
Dad and Mom told stories of an extremely unconventional use of the manure spreader, the wedding chivaree. The chivaree was an old tradition of harassing the newly-married couple as much as possible on their wedding day. Long ago, someone got the brilliant idea of stealing the bride and hauling her around town in the manure spreader, and it stuck. The bride endured the ride until the bandits returned the relieved groom’s honey to him. This was obviously the origin of the alias, “honey wagon.” (Now we know the rest of the story.)
In those days, most farms had livestock, and when you have livestock, manure happens. Our green refuse-hauling machine often fulfilled its intended purpose, spreading the nitrogen-rich compost onto bare fields. However, emptying the old wagon was the easy part. Filling it was a sweaty, smelly job. The men in our family usually hefted the heavy forks and shovels of straw-laden waste and tossed them into the spreader, which was parked just outside the chicken coop or hog house doors. The pungent aroma of the ammonia-rich matter compelled the guys to tug the red bandanas out of their back pockets and tie them over their nose and mouth. The red fabric was seldom used for anything other than a handkerchief. Only in dire circumstances (shoveling out a dusty grain bin, dragging a field on a windy day or an occasional bank robbery) was the red fabric used for a face mask. Forking feces was serious business!
Once the spreader was full, the tractor towed it to the waiting field where it did its duty. The tractor driver reached back and engaged the levers that moved the cargo and the beaters that shot it up and out of the wagon. This distribution of compost demonstrated the most valuable and practical use of the manure spreader, the education of the young man driving the tractor.
Meteorology, physics and driver education combined into an unforgettable lesson. Remember there were no tractor cabs then. The tractor driver was exposed to the elements, whatever elements that were thrown at him at the time. The spreader was wheel-driven. The faster the wheels turned, the farther, faster and higher the dung flew. Quite quickly, the farmer learned that wind direction, or rather driving direction, was critical. (This is also why farmers wore caps.)
When I grew up there were no signs flashing as you drove under bridges on the interstate: “Watch your speed,” or “Speed kills,” or “Drive, don’t fly.” They weren’t needed. What better way to educate a teenage driver than a wheel-driven manure spreader? Driving too fast? A shower of sludge rained down his neck. Cut a quick corner? Fast-flying fertilizer might become face paint. The all-purpose manure spreader, along with its other practical uses, effectively taught safe driving techniques.
President Roosevelt would have stood behind our farming practices. He would have stood behind our creative uses of the wonderful sludge-slinging machine, but I am quite certain that the wise man never, ever stood behind a manure spreader.
And that’s no compost!
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 five books, "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com.