Could he break a guaranteed pitchfork handle?

Dad brought home two new pitchfork handles with the maker's guarantee they couldn't be broken.

Dad brought home two new pitchfork handles with the maker's guarantee they couldn't be broken. It seemed remarkable, given how many had been broken pitching manure from the bullpen and calf pens. The manure — especially near the bunker where hooves pounded wasted hay into concrete-like hardness — required a cautious approach.

However, it was a chore that was worth doing. Pitching manure, we knew, would build muscles and a freshly bedded and clean pen was proof something important had been accomplished. The barn on our new place was a drive-through and much more convenient than the old one. Older brothers used a wheelbarrow to truck the waste up wood planks to the spreader. Few, even when it meant they could skip church, relished the responsibility.

Cleaning calf pens was, at minimum, noble work compared to dishing out the chicken coop after a long winter's accumulation. Chicken manure could be both wet and dry. The aroma, particularly beneath the roosts, seemed an ammonia overdose. It was sometimes necessary for Mother to beg for someone to volunteer, and when that failed, the youngest in the family was conscripted.

At least there wasn't any fear of a broken handle or broken spreader. Dad depended on buying gently used spreaders and worked them until every inch of reasonable use had been extracted. When an apron and its links busted, the spreader had been filled full with manure.

Dad started with horse-drawn spreaders and said working the horses in winter was good for both him and them. Horses that had the winter off could not be worked too hard during spring fieldwork out of fear they might break down.


Dad was loyal to the Minnesota equipment and supply line. Stillwater Prison inmates produced wagons and spreaders along with twine and license plates. License-plate-making served no useful purpose outside of the prison walls, but equipment manufacturing created marketable skills, work ethics and pride in accomplishment.

Farmers benefited, too, because prisoners produced quality products.

The Minnesota Historical Society reports the Stillwater State Prison started making twine — marketed as Stillwater Twine — in 1891, and by 1941, farmers had bought and used a billion pounds. Prisoners also produced hay binders, corn harvesters, hay rakes, mowers, wagons, cultivators, spreaders and more as demand remained strong. Machinery production started in 1909 and continued into the 1980s.

In 1919 — after the first world war ended but agriculture was still in a golden era of high prices because of worldwide demand — the prison produced 4,500 binders, 6,000 mowers and 3,500 rakes. Minnesota officials bragged that the state had created the most humane prison system in the country and other states took notice.

Other farm equipment manufacturers complained their market share was unfairly hurt by prison labor, but their complaints never became too loud. Prisoners stopped producing twine in 1970 after officials concluded the skill didn't translate into meaningful outside jobs. Wagons and gravity box production ended in 2006 because the enterprises were no longer profitable.

The guaranteed-not-to-break pitchfork handle did indeed break. It did so, I suspect, because we wanted to prove we were strong enough to break it.

Minnesota wagons are commonly seen today, though the huge grain carts make the old wagons seem like sandbox toys.

The best part of cleaning the chicken coop involved the arrival of fresh sawdust and ground corncobs. Nests were filled with new oats and straw, and the young hens produced well heading into winter's doldrums. I didn't understand why Dad's friends rolled their eyes when he told them the hens were laying two eggs per day. A good story-teller, who spoke without malice was much appreciated when farmers gathered to play cards and drink a few beers on cold winter nights.

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