One job on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth was to walk just-cultivated corn or soybean fields to find the cultivator parts — disk blades, sweeps, even whole shanks — left broken and unseen by my quiet, iron-bending great Uncle Honey earlier in the day.
Honey was a skilled cultivator killer. The problem wasn’t the design of our Case cultivator. The problem was that it was rear-mounted and Honey rarely looked back to see, well, anything such as a cultivator, silage chopper, or even yesterday.
I never minded the searches and, after a bit, got pretty good at reading the cultivator ridges — or, really, the lack of ridges — that hinted on what row I might find the missing parts. Along the way, I often found other items like arrowheads, musket balls and wrenches dropped by You Know Who.
Then, sometime in the late 1970s, an acquaintance brought a metal detector to the farm to, as he explained, “see what we couldn’t see.” One afternoon in a field with the detector delivered several broken ½ -inch cultivator bolts (no surprise), a handful of musket balls (whoa), and a wooden-handled (missing), foot-long monkey wrench.
Monkey wrenches were Honey’s favorite tool because they allowed him to over-tighten every bolt on the cultivator and, if the need arose, a quick turn of the wrist transformed the tool into a serviceable hammer to “persuade” any balky part into some level of submission.
A month ago, I returned to the fields of my youth with a metal detector more advanced than the one we used 40 years ago. My detector (I sold my bicycle and reinvested in a hobby with less chance of permanent injury) discerns between iron, aluminum, silver, nickel and copper.
My two days of detectoring, as purists insist on calling any search, suggested we had farmed more acres of aluminum beverage cans, T-top posts, and hog wire than we did corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Stray metal was more bountiful than dirt clods.
The most prominent metal parts were, no surprise, broken cultivator bolts. There were so many, in fact, that when the detector indicated “Iron 4 inches +” deep, I quickly learned to see Uncle Honey, not a centuries-old French knife or Native American ax head.
Honey of a find
Then, on a slow mosey along a deep dead furrow in a soybean field, the detector buzzed “Iron” so loudly and so long that I had to dig to see if, just maybe, Honey hadn’t buried the entire cultivator.
Two shovelfuls of tough, dry clay uncovered a short length of round, rusty steel about one inch in diameter. Ooh, French flintlock rifle maybe?
More shovelfuls of stickier, heavier gumbo revealed the rusty steel bar angled so steeply downward that I couldn’t budge it. Finally, several minutes more of sweaty digging told the tale: the bar had an unnatural bend — a Honey-made unnatural bend — about a foot down its steadily thickening shaft.
I knew from that bend alone that I had found the farm’s monster, 20 lb.-plus pry bar that everyone called the “railroad bar” because, with the right fulcrum, one person could move a railroad car with it.
How did it wind up angled deeply into the gumbo abyss in the middle of this field?
When I asked my brothers that question, all replied with the same two words: Uncle Honey.
Our collective best guess is that Honey likely used it to pry something — maybe a steel fence post — from the cultivator and, when done, tossed it and the pry bar across the cultivator and forgot about it for, oh, say, 38 years.
Why 38? Because soft-spoken, machinery-bending Honey joined the heavenly chorus 38 years ago so that pry bar was sent to its dark, gumbo purgatory sometime before 1983.
Still, finding ironclad evidence of his earthly journey is now as reassuring as finding a musket ball or arrowhead. All speak to me, but only Honey makes me smile.
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