Growin’ oats is a storied past for farmers

Oats fields

During the 19th century, there were three well-known humorists in this country, Mark Twain, Petroleum V. Nasby, and Josh Billings.

Billings, whose real name was Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885), used contemporary slang and strange phonetic spelling while telling his stories. In the following, Billings expounds on oats.

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Oats are a singular grain, perhaps I should say plural, becuz there’s more than one uv them. They grow on the top uv a straw about 2 foot, 9 and _ inches hi, and the straw iz holler.

The straw iz interestin’ becuz of its suckshun. Dip a short piece uv it, mebbe 8 inches or so, into the boozum of a cherry cobbler and suckshun up the whole cobbler in 4 minnits by the watch. Now I hav never tried this, but I kno lots uv young and reliable men who stand reddy to prove this, if sumbuddy will fetch the cobblers.

Now I ain’t sartin uv this, in fact I hav lost confidence in most ever’thing that haz to be proved, ever since I got so terrible dizzy, some four years ago, tryin’ to prove to the chaplain uv a engine company that lager beer wuz not intoxicating, but was full sister to filtered rain water.

Back to oats

If I had time I wood relate more about this circumstance, but I must get back onto oats agin. I like to see a man stik tite to hiz text, if he haz to bite into it to do it! I’d’a made I good parson, az far az stayin’ with a text iz consarned, for when I git thru with a text you cain’t work what’s left uv it into ennything else, not even a rag carpet.

Speakin’ uv rag carpets brings my wife to mind. My wife haz got a kind uv hidraphoby, or burnin’ fever uv sumkind, for rag carpets, and I don’t hav but one suit of close at a time on this account, and these I put to sleep under my pillow at nite when I go to bed.

She watches my close just like a mule duz a bystander, and I have told all my best friends if I am ever lost and can’t be found soon to look for me in my wifes last rag carpet. But for all this I luv my wife with the affeckshun uv a parent (she is sevral years inferior to me in age).

And I had rather be rag carpeted by her than to be honey fugled, with warm apple sass, by enny other woman. But I must git back onto oats agin. Oats grow on the summit of some straw and are sharp at both ends.


They resemble shoe pegs in looks and it iz said they are often mistaken for them by near-sited hosses and shoemakers. Now I don’t meen this remark az enny insult to shoemakers in the lump, for I hav often sed in my inspired moments that if I couldn’t be a shoemaker I wood like to be a good lawyer.

Oats are a funny grain, 8 quarts uv them will make enny hoss laff, and when a hoss laffs, you may know he is tickled somewhar. This iz the natur uv oats, they amuze the stummuck uv the hoss with their sharp ends and then the hoss laffs.

Now I hav never saw a hoss laff, but I hav heard that it happens. There iz a grate menny folks, uv good moral karakter, who wont beleev enny thing unless they see it, and theez kind of folks are always the easiest to cheet.

They won’t beleev a rattle snakes bite iz pizon until they try it. This kind of proof always costs more than it is reelly worth. It iz a middlin’ wize man who profits frum hiz own experience, but it iz a good deal wizer wun who lets the rattle snake bite the uther fella.

Selling oats

Oats are sold by weight or measure and are seldom if ever sold by count. Eggs and money are counted, but eggs never. It wood be well for beginners to recall this as it wood save them a good deel of time when sellin’ oats.

Time iz said to be same as money and if this iz so, old Methuseler died rich! Methuseler wuz 999 years old when he died; now multiply this by 365, witch wood only allow him a dollar a day for hiz time and you will see what he wuz worth.

Oats are only worth frum 40 to 75 cents a bushel and ain’t good for much only to tickle a hoss. They will choke a goose to deth quicker than a paper of pins, and enny thing that chokes a goose is very skarse. Oats are a very eazy crop to raze.

Raising oats

All you hav to do to raze sum oats iz to plow the ground deep, then manure it good, then sprinkle the oats all over the ground, then worry the ground all over with a harrow, then set up nites to keep the chickens and woodchucks out uv them, then pray for sum rain, then cut them down with a kradle sye, then rake them in bundles with a rake, then tie up the bundles with sum straw, then stack them up in a stack, then thrash them out with a flale, then clean them up with a fannin’ mill, then sharpen both ends uf ’em with a nife, then stow ’em away in a granary, then spend wet days and Sundays trappin’ rats and mice. It ain’t nuthin’ but fun to raze oats-try it.

Reely, the best way to make money off’n oats iz to feed the oats to sum chikens, then murder the chikens and sell them for 25 cents a pound.

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OK, if the humor of Josh Billings leaves you cold, just consider this: our ancestors didn’t have access to all the hilarious (insert sarcasm here) TV sitcoms as we do today.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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