MOUNT VERNON, Ohio – Except in the far southeast corner, Ohio is no longer known for the hardwood forests that once covered the state in an impenetrable mass.
Forests and woodlots these days are restricted, for the most part, to marginal land not suitable for agriculture. Marginal land planted to trees, with proper management, add beauty to our landscape, prevent erosion, provide wildlife habitat, restore oxygen, and generates income when harvested for lumber.
There is some lumbering here in Knox County, but much of that lumber is cut from small, farm wood lots.
The trick to making a profit on selectively cutting these small stands is getting the trees from the stump to a yarding area economically and without tearing up the landscape.
Since much of this woodland is hilly or otherwise too rough to farm, it also presents a particular problem to logging.
It is dangerous to drive log skidders or other power equipment over this kind of land.
But being farm country, it is usually a rather short haul to the nearest road.
It is the perfect place to employ a good team of draft horses.
Before World War II just about everybody farmed and hauled lumber and cord wood with horses. Amish farmers still do, and there are a good many English farmers who have never given up their horses.
The love of the heavy horse seems to persist especially in Ohio, the heart of draft horse country in the modern farming era.
Dave Keys and Bill Cole of Mount Vernon have had horses around them all of their lives.
Dave grew up with horses and mules and was a ferrier at one time – until a couple of back operations prompted him to find less strenuous work. He is especially fond of mules, big mules, for draft work.
He has worked over the years with a lot of mechanized loggers in situations were draft animals are a better choice.
Dave and daughter Debbie have been a familiar sight around Mt. Vernon, driving their mule hitch in every local parade. They are also regular participants at plowing matches around Ohio and neighboring states.
Bill Cole comes from a family of draft horse teamsters. Bill and his father Harold have been logging with draft horses for a long time. Bill also does quite a bit of horse and mule pulling. He finds that hauling logs in the woods is a great way to keep a pulling team in shape.
When I heard that Dave and crew were going to be cutting near by on Mike and Stephine Frazier’s farm, I hustled over.
Dave had a team of heavy mules, and Bill a 3-year-old team of 18-plus hands high roan Belgians.
At 3, this team is big and still growing. It will be a pulling team to contend with.
Falling a tree where you want it – without splitting or breaking it or damaging a lot of other trees – is an art that comes of experience.
Monie Raber and Samuel Miller were on the chain saws. The remarkable thing about Samuel is that he lost his left arm at the shoulder when he was a kid, but never let it stop him from doing a good day’s work.
He can handle a team, and do just about anything else. Watching him working in the woods with only one arm was an experience for me.
What was it Kipling wrote? “Your a better man than I am, Gunga Din”.
It was a rare pleasure that few people enjoy today watching this crew expertly fall, limb and cut trees trunks into lengths to be hauled out by the teams.
At the end of the day a surprising number of prime trees were cut and hauled out. A few crooked, diseased and damaged trees were left, along with tops and branches for firewood.
Few were damaged in the process and the woodlot was left in a healthier condition than they found it.
These logs of cherry, oaks, beech, hickory and other species will be milled into lumber for cabinets, furniture, flooring, trim work and other purposes.
The Fraziers will have money to pay farm expenses; Dave and Bill will be able to feed and keep their teams; Samuel and Monie will collect wages for skilled work; the truckers that pick up the logs will be provided work; the logs will provide work for mill operators, cabinets shops and carpenters; the results will be useful wood products that will add enduring beauty and value to any home or business.
The wealth will be spread around and kept in the community, and it was the teams of draft horses and mules used to pull out those logs that made it all look so easy.