The Gleaner
Agriculture

‘Century farming’: 97 years of views from the hill

In 1925, the globe was catching its breath after World War I and was in the midst of the economic upswing of the “Roaring 20s.” The Canadian population had gradually become more urban than rural, with new industries drawing manpower into the cities. That same year, though, two boys were born to families on Covey Hill, and there those boys have stayed. Garth Waddell and Oscar Maynard have known one another since the days of their youth, and though both will be celebrating their 97th birthdays later this year, their exchanges are still lively and youthful when they get together for a chat these days – as they did one afternoon in late June, with a Gleaner journalist in attendance.

 

Two elderly men sit indoors on rocking chairs in front of several photographs, paintings, as well as a cabinet full of china
Oscar Maynard and Garth Waddell will celebrate their 97th birthdays later this year PHOTO Chantal Hortop

 

“I’ve been on Covey Hill [all this time] except for two years,” says Waddell. Maynard counters, “I got a job [in the city] for one day, and the next day I came home.” There was no shortage of hard work back on the farm, but when they speak of their lifetimes of living on the hill, the men’s happiness with the life they both chose shines through.

In Waddell’s childhood, “it was mixed farming at that time,” he says. “Everybody had mixed farms.” His father started his apple orchard the same year Waddell was born, and just “kept planting trees.” He says, “Apples weren’t selling like they are today”; he remembers delivering them to Steinberg’s grocery store in Montreal for $2 a bushel, with juice apples selling for just a fraction of that. “We worked a lot for nothing,” Maynard adds. In the winter, Waddell says, “We got done chores in the morning, and no matter what the weather was like, we hitched up the team and went out and cut wood… there were no chainsaws.” Maynard says, “We didn’t have any breakdowns!” and adds, “[the horses] worked hard.”

Both boys attended school down the hill from Waddell’s home, and the highlight of winter school days was sliding down to school on sleds, which was much more fun than the mile-and-a-half walk they took during the summer. Waddell explains that their sleds would fit into the frozen tracks hardened up by horse-drawn cutters, which meant the children could build up a good head of steam on the slope. Maynard, whose farm was higher up than Waddell’s, says, “When we went by here, we were travelling!” Things got even more exciting if they met someone coming the other way, Waddell remembers. “We’d say, ‘Hang on, there’s a horse and cutter coming!’” and they would have to fling themselves and their sleds into the ditch.

Horses were definitely the main form of transportation at that time. “There were no cars on the road when we were kids,” Maynard says, adding he remembers that when he was in school, if the students “heard a car coming, they would all jump up and run to the window.” Gradually, however, motorized vehicles made their way into the boys’ lives. Waddell says when his family bought their first tractor, he “drove it [home] from Huntingdon, [and that was] 78 years ago.” When they purchased a mower to go with it some time later, “That was the last time Dad had to hook up the team.”

As for his childhood, Maynard jokes, “I’m poor now, but I was even poorer then!” He worked not only on his father’s small farm, but also for neighbouring families. “The first job I had was to weed turnips. I got 40 cents that day… I thought I was rich that night!” In 1958, Maynard bought his own farm and still lives there today, though the land is now owned and worked by a younger farmer. “Between the ups and downs, we made it!” he says.

Both he and Waddell married and started families, each having two sons. These were the milestone happy times, and there were also many smaller happy occasions in the evenings after the work was done. “There was always someone around who played violin,” Waddell says, and barn dances were particularly popular as a form of entertainment. “Someone would mention a dance, and all of a sudden there would be 30 people there!”

Times have surely changed over the years that the two have worked the land. They agree that the biggest shift has been in the machinery. With today’s equipment, Waddell says, “One man can do all the hay himself,” whereas before, “Everything was handwork…we got along fine.” He also notes, however, that one “cannot afford [the modern] machinery on a small farm.”

The two are still up and about on their respective farms, getting around with four-wheelers and tractors. “I’m alright as long as I’m sitting down… if you break down, that’s the problem!” says Waddell. Maynard muses: “We do things, you know, Garth, that we shouldn’t do… but what are we going to do, sit and twiddle our thumbs?”

Maynard and Waddell speak of the lives and farms they built for their families with utter contentment and pride. “It is the life I came up with and I don’t want to ever leave it,” Waddell says. “It’s a life I wouldn’t trade for anything. There is easier work in this world than farming…” At this point, Maynard throws in, “Hard work isn’t going to kill you!” He says farming “was what I wanted from day one … when you are farming, you are free.” The days spent working on farms on Covey Hill, Maynard says, were “long days, but happy days, [and] there was always someone coming in with some kind of story to tell.” Much like the stories told by two old friends on a summer afternoon.

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