Wearing the gumboots

Author’s note: My parallel universe (tractor repair) has been keeping me occupied with emergencies as the tractors that I’ve been servicing over the years keep trying to return to the Earth from which they were originally mined. Here’s another “encore presentation.” “Gum Boots” first appeared in Antique Power Magazine in the spring of 2012.

Those of us who often find ourselves in areas occupied by poultry or livestock are certainly familiar with gumboots. I’m talking about the knee-high slip-ons with aggressive tread, the classier versions even featuring a steel toe and shank.

While we might approach a muddy, manure-laden patch tentatively and with reservation in lesser shoes, gumboots are the mud bogging 4-wheel drive of footwear which allow us to simply forge ahead. After barnyard duties, the boots may be cleaned with a short walk in the creek much to the delight of bottom feeding suckers and carp.

I seem to be attracted to little towns of obscure notoriety. Last mud season was especially wet in Fort Ashby. These few weeks were largely dedicated to reviving the Allis Chalmers WD 45 at the Siple farm where it had reposed in a barn without being started for about 10 years.

The many mud puddles containing rotted hay, corn stalks, cow manure and a trace amounts of leaked diesel fuel and hydraulic oil, could very well have been the primordial soup of evolution. Had anything actually formed and emerged, the tenant farmer and myself, being pretty much sold on Creation, might have inadvertently run it over with a tractor. Contrary to popular belief, this proves conclusively — and I’m sure that Darwin would agree — that there were no John Deeres present at the dawn of time.

After inflating the flat tires, I was able to roll the old Allis out under an open shed roof and begin the more or less routine barn-find go-through. This job caused a little stir in ol’ Fort Ashby. West Virginia Public Broadcasting came out to film part of the process and the local newspaper did a front-page article about it as well. The shed roof was very close to Patterson Creek Road — a small tar and chip thoroughfare. Because of all the publicity and the general good nature of the people of Fort Ashby, I had plenty of opportunities to walk through these ripening puddles over to the fence for some roadside conversation. My new gumboots were getting a workout. As the days warmed and the spring rains kept falling, it was also becoming increasingly evident that the area once served as a hog lot. My suspicions would soon be confirmed.

Springtime also sees multiple loads of poultry litter arriving at the farm on the tenant farmer’s tandem Kenworth. This litter is then spread as fertilizer on the pastures and hayfields. Though I personally find the resulting fragrance to be reassuring, such is not the consensus among the people of Fort Ashby. Indeed, as I would learn, the farm has long enjoyed a reputation as a poor upwind neighbor.

Passing through Fort Ashby on other occasions, I had noticed a particularly informal and friendly looking tavern and planned to make a brief stop there after the day’s work was done. I hadn’t brought along any other footwear so I needed to wash away the fragrant material that clung to my gumboots. There had been no electric service to the farm for some time so washing the boots with running water wasn’t an option — I headed for the creek.

To my surprise, I found my access to the creek blocked by a tight wire fence. Moreover, the attitude of the Black Angus bull on the other side was a sharp contrast to what I had so far experienced locally. I would have to forgo my stop at the Corner Tavern or go into the bar sporting eu de agriculture. “Oh well. It’s farm country.”

As expected, the folks at the Corner Tavern were friendly and easy to converse with and all seemed to know that I had been working at the Siple farm. I thought that they were so informed by the newspaper article but I finally caught on when I noticed that the older gentleman seated to my left was holding a finger to the right side of his nose.

“Is it that bad?” I asked. The old fellow laughed.

“When Junior Siple was raising pigs, he would stop by here in smelly gumboots and a cap that read ‘Farming is Everyone’s Bread and Butter,’” he explained.

Apparently, the present circumstance was helping him and some of the other patrons relive some fond memories. It seems that I was literally following in the footsteps of Farmer Siple — in gumboots, of course.

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