Eli Shetler revives lime pile farm technique in Mount Eaton

By ARLEN D. MILLER

MOUNT EATON, Ohio — What would motivate a 64-year-old to invest 90 hours of intense labor breaking up 30 tons of hard blue limestone and 7 1/2 tons of coal?

On Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, Eli Shetler of Mount Eaton, began building a “lime pile” by laying out 8-inch wood timbers and covering them with rough-sawn wood planks for the floor.

Shetler built the round base 18-inch diameter with a 12 by 10-inch high chimney. He cut four vent holes at the base of the chimney on each side to give an indraft of oxygen so the fire would be drawn into the lime.

“In every way, I did it like the old-timers,” said Shetler.

He started with lime stones about 2-inch square and beat them into pieces about 2 1/2 inch thick by 8 inch wide.

Family

“My dad started building these lime piles in the early ’30s,” he said.

Shetler’s father, Mose L. Shetler, paid Shetler’s Uncle Valentine 50 cents a day to go to the area near Kidron where they dug limestones out of the ground and beat them to smaller blocks before hauling them 3 miles to the Shetler farm.

Mose Shetler moved his family to five different farms in the Mount Eaton/Kidron area.

“Local people said my dad would be reduced to poverty if he moved to the farm of ‘Yun Byler,’” Shetler said.

Shetler’s father built a lime pile and spread it over the land of the Byler farm, which was known by neighbors as a low-producing and poor performing soil.

Lime

In the first year, the corn crop was so large that they needed to add on to their corn crib, and even that addition did not contain all the corn produced from those rejuvenated fields.

The lime works extremely fast on poor, acidic soil. Oftentimes, the first crop is doubled after spreading the “gray gold” on poor soil.

Shetler recalled an experience during the time his father was renting the farm where Eli and his wife, Fannie, currently reside. The first cutting of hay yielded five loads.

Immediately after the first cutting, they spread the “gray gold” by scooping it from a flatbed ladder wagon. It was impossible to spread it evenly, but the mix sure did the job. The second cutting was exactly doubled to 10 of the loose hay loader loads.

Burning process

What is special about this additive that raw lime doesn’t have? Shetler says the burning process is very important because it makes the nutrients in the lime immediately available to the soil. Raw lime has around 60 essential minerals, and the coal contributes 40 more.

The burning process makes all of these minerals available. Shetler’s own lime pile has not yet matured and for this reason has not been tested to determine exact analysis — but this kind of lime is not currently available on the market. It is very potent and should be used on soil when no plants are present, ideally in the spring, late fall, or between cuttings.

Recommended application amount is about one-half-ton per acre. It can be applied every three or four years, but too much will burn the crops.

Shetler says this kind of lime stays on the land and remains effective longer than raw (unburned) lime.

“It has nothing in it except minerals,” he stated. If this process was so effective in its day in the 1960s, why is it not being done today? Has everyone forgotten about it?

“It is very hard work and it is time-consuming. It is very strenuous to beat up the limestones,” Shetler answered.

“The result is incredible — that’s why I can’t understand why it isn’t done anymore,” he said. “There were only a few people around who did it then.”

Raw lime

Raw lime is available for purchase and so much easier, with hardly any additional labor compared to the “burning lime with coal process.”

The last lime pile known to have been built in the Wayne County area was built on his farm by Shetler’s father in 1964.

Process

When building the lime pile, it is important that the pile is tapered similarly to that of an Egyptian pyramid. If it is built square, it won’t burn properly.

Shetler continued his project by setting 2 inches of coal on the bottom layer around the chimney, following with 8 inches of stone set on edge for the second layer.

Then he continued with another layer of 2 inches of coal and 8 inches of stone, alternating until reaching the top. The chimney height needs to be calculated to extend above the finished pile about 30 inches.

Shetler’s pile was lit on New Year’s Eve, with about 40 people coming to witness the event. The pile burned for about nine days.

After the fire goes out, the pile needs to slake — a process to turn the limestone into powder — which happens simply by being exposed to the weather for an extended period of time.

Shetler expects his pile to be completely slaked by April 1. The length of burning time depends on the size of the pile.

Shetler started with 30 tons of blue limestone and 7 1/2 tons stoker washed coal. A pile of this size will typically burn for 9 to 14 days, according to Shetler.

Shetler’s brother Joni recently reminded him to “figure in the sweat” if anyone attempts to build a lime pile like this.

Reasons

“My personal reason for bringing this back to the farmers is so the farmers would learn the great value of this kind of lime,” Shetler said.

Shetler also had another reason for building the lime pile. In 1989, while he and his father, Mose, were farming in Mount Eaton, Eli promised his father that he would build a lime pile in the fall after the crops were harvested.

His 86-year-old father really enjoyed building lime piles over the years, and no one had built one in the community for decades. He longed to see another pile. However, before harvest was over, Shetler’s father passed away Aug. 3.

As a result, Shetler lost interest. Twenty-one years later, Shetler’s mother, 91-year-old Barbara Shetler, was delighted to hear of the lime project and seeing pictures of it.

She is at her winter home in Pinecraft, Fla. “I realized I am about at the age that I won’t be able to do it anymore,” Shetler said. “I found it pretty strenuous to beat the stones apart. All the people that came around — it seemed like no one wanted to help. They would beat one stone apart and walk away and say that I am crazy for doing this,” he said.

Shetler made it clear that it was a very strenuous undertaking. “It is like concentration camp work,” he stated. “It is very, very hard work.”

Help

He did end up with several helpers along the way. Eli’s wife, Fannie, made a contribution by gathering coal and chopped limestones for use on the pile.

And neighbors, Mose Yoder and Emmanuel Schlabach, helped out, along with several family members.

Shetler had no other reference than his memory when he began building his lime pile. He had not seen or been involved in building a pile since he was helping his dad in 1964.  

“I remember it well — being 18 years of age and doing all the strenuous work.”

Shetler and his father and his brother Norman dynamited and hauled 80 tons of lime out of the neighboring Isaac Miller farm via horse and box wagon. Shetler didn’t do any preplanning on paper before laying the floor timbers for his project in November.

It all came from memory. He said he was fascinated when his dad did it.

“It was vivid in my mind from 45 years ago.”

Shetler knows there are probably less labor-intensive ways to build a pile like this; however, he hopes this is only the first of its kind in a comeback of “burning lime piles” and reviving the lost art in the local area.

He would like to see community farmers doing the same thing — building a lime pile and reaping the benefits.

One Comment

  1. luis amato says:

    Would like to see furthur Illustratons or instructions about this. I’ve heard old time greenskeepers talking about this.

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