November 16, 2011

Hollywood Heads to Floyd County, Virginia

Ax Men, one of those rough-and-tumble Ice Road Truckers kind of shows from the History Channel, spent the last couple of weeks filming with Jason Rutledge of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation. Way to go HHFF!

Here is an excerpt from my 2009 interview with Jason. Here, he reflects on his early days on the farm and the influence of his grandfather on his life and work: 

       "After serving as a mentor to many younger horsemen over the years it’s interesting to reflect on those who influenced me in the past. Born to a teenager in 1950, I was raised primarily by my grandparents. My male role model was my grandfather, Willie Farrar, who I called Papa. Papa was born in 1905. His father was a Sergeant in the Confederate Army and fought in the civil war. They lived on a farm at a time when animal power was the only method available to average people in rural America. Papa was illiterate and couldn't read or write much more than his name, though he could count pretty well. My grandmother said he had no choice but to work on the farm to help the family survive the early parts of the twentieth century.  
       My family was poor, but there was always plenty to do. My earliest memories include the life of being a sharecropper in Southside, Virginia, a place that came to be called Tobacco Row. We would move from farm to farm making crops that we would sell at markets. Our work was always done with black sharecroppers who lived in tenant houses on the farms where we worked. We all worked together and shared the proceeds equally.
       I remember waking up in a tobacco slide on the way to the pack house being pulled by a gray mule. The mule operated on voice commands and knew exactly what to do. I never remember Papa being loud with his animals. He was always quiet and deliberate with them. I remember he always had favorites because those were the ones he would allow to baby-sit me. I often rode them while he worked, holding onto the hame balls, part of the harness tack on a horse team.

       I remember the smell of sweat, human and animal, and the smells of tobacco, sorghum, sawdust, and manure. After the crops had been sold, the molasses made, and the hogs killed, we went to the woods for the winter and worked there until it was time to put in the plant beds for the coming season.

       At this time, there was of great abandonment of farms throughout the country. People were moving to towns and cities to find work in factories and industry instead of maintaining a life on the farm. My grandmother always had a job in town as well as working at house and on the farm. Papa did the farming and looked after me. Since he made his living by working with animals, I was exposed to the skills of farming and logging with horses and mules from an early age. Papa was my mentor without me even knowing it.

       As I grew into a teenager, my grandmother, as she describes it, “Broke Papa of his farming habit.” He would work a public job as a tractor dealer or head into town to see what other work was available. But he never quit messing with animals. He had a relationship with the man that ran the killer barn that slaughtered horses for export. It was called Cavalier Export. This fellow would call and say he had a nice pair of horses and Papa and I would go pick them up and bring them home. The killer man didn't like killing good serviceable animals, so it was a win-win for him and Papa.

       Papa and my grandmother finally bought a little piece of land that sat on the side of a major highway between Lynchburg and Richmond. He had a big garden that was visible a long distance from both directions. He would bring the workhorses home from the killer barn and work them in that garden spot until they were content to stand. He had me make a sign for the roadside that read: Garden Horses For Sale. We would drive the horses around and around the patch of tilled ground until they would learn to stand quietly. Papa would sit under a white oak and sip on a PBR that he kept hidden in a cinder block hole under a board where I sat. He always pretended to hide it from grandma, but she knew it was there.

       During these years I met other horsemen and farmers who all addressed my grandfather with great respect. I remember his being called to pull out trucks that were stuck in the woods and in ditches. People throughout the community called him to work their gardens. He’d always go if it was within driving distance with the animals—and he always included me in those activities. We enjoyed the work together.
       After I went on to school and did some military service, I came back to the area and found land that I could afford. When Papa was on his deathbed he told me to go to the farm and get all the stuff I wanted to farm with. I still have some of his plows and hardware today. When logging with one horse I still use his singletree to bunch logs for the team or to train young horses in the woods. I feel very lucky to have had this cultural background and I try to offer the same experiences to every young person I can. The important thing about being a mentor is recognizing how important those early experiences are for beginners. Those are experiences that will last a lifetime."

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