This story begins very close to where the very first column I wrote started, near the intersection of Old Chapel and Bishop Meade roads at Millwood, Va. Unlike that story, I’m not trying to locate the source of a mysterious barbecue fragrance. In fact, if there is any fragrance involved, it may not be as pleasant — I’m arriving at a stable to fix a manure spreader.
It’s around the winter solstice. We’ve just had several inches of snow with more on the way. This is a pleasant day in between. It’s a given that every winter, someone will attempt to spread a load of manure that has frozen in the bottom of the manure spreader. Sure, the manure usually insulates the bottom of the pile and warmth from decomposition helps to keep it from freezing. However, if it rains or snows on the load, which is largely straw or sawdust such as is the product of horse stables, cold coming up through the relatively thin bottom of the spreader can freeze the slats to the bed.
Two flat chains with slats about a foot-and-a-half apart reaching across the width of the spreader floor are moved by gear-driven sprockets at the rear of the spreader. These slowly move the material to the rear of the spreader box. This assembly is called the “floor chain.” The floor chain moves the manure to the beaters that throw it into the air. Ice is an irresistible force — it cracks boulders and engine blocks. Ice can also be the immovable object and can stop bulldozers and battleships. For ice, freezing these steel slats to a manure spreader floor is small potatoes.
Arriving at the job, I see an impressive stable/residence complex with a vintage International horse van (probably retired) and a more modern 4×4 pickup and trailer horse-moving outfit nearby. A few cars — BMW and Lexus, are parked around the place. I count the stall windows down one side of the stable: seven. Subtracting one as the tack room and another as the granary on the other side, there appear to be a dozen stalls. Looks good so far.
I pass a gentleman on horseback — friendly smile and enthusiastic wave. This little Clarke County enclave has been the center of my activity for nearly 20 years, so he no doubt knows who I am. If he is charged with the responsibility of stable cleanup, then I am about to make his life a lot easier — I would smile, too. I find the manure spreader hooked to a Ford 2600 gas tractor. The ramp used to load the spreader is part of an old banked barn foundation. The barn is no longer there — more of Mr. Sheridan’s work, I suppose.
During the Civil War, in an effort to starve the Confederacy, Gen. Ulysses Grant gave orders to disrupt agriculture in the Shenandoah Valley “so that even the birds flying over must carry their own provender.” The valley thus bears evidence of this effort in the form of old foundations of barns that were burned as Union infantry commander Phillip Henry Sheridan carried out this order.
A dog ran out to greet me — Border collie — they’re usually friendly and, if not exactly friendly, at least polite. The spreader is an upscale specimen, if there is such a thing, a New Idea Model 217. The spreader is fully loaded, which limited my capabilities on this visit. Friendly competitor Lee Sisk of Bluemont, who works with lots of cattle farmers and thus deals with a heavier, more pungent material, says that when he runs into one of these he just starts his time and “goes to forkin’.”
I hadn’t thought to bring a fork (I usually do on spreader calls), and I didn’t know where the customer would like the load forked to. Lying in the snow and horse manure, I recorded the information from the serial number tag and measured the length of the box as well as one of the slats. I knocked off a 6-inch sample of the broken chain.
The gearing that operates the floor chain is ponderously low in order for the chain to move slowly. Thus, much energy is developed then suddenly released when a floor chain breaks. In almost all instances, the customer comments that the break sounded like a shotgun firing or a tire exploding. I would like to hear one of these thunderous reports, but I’m always called to the scene long after the dust, or whatever, has settled. If I were to enjoy one of these explosions, I would have to spread manure regularly and hope for the best. While some readers may be quick to note that I do a fine job of spreading manure in these pages, the necessary energy is seldom, if ever, developed in this manner.
I’m always a sucker for a pretty voice, and the beautiful, slender and articulate Shenandoah Valley horse ladies have me wrapped around their collective little fingers. On the next visit, I agreed to fork the load of manure off. The area selected was around a limestone outcropping where the material was to be used as mulch since they couldn’t reach to mow there. I was supplied two long-handled forks — one heavy, one light. I don’t know which one I wound up using, as they seemed identical. I chose the one with the notches carved in the handle — branded as someone’s preferred fork, which was a little hard to imagine.
I pulled the empty spreader alongside of the remnant of an old “hedge apple” fence (Osage orange trees planted very close together to form a sturdy fence) and began the repair. These chain links, known as “flat detachable,” can be slid apart when placed at a 90-degree angle. This can sometimes make them a little tricky to handle.
Installing a repaired slat about midway on the spreader’s wooden floor, I twisted the slat’s link this way and that concentrating on putting these stubborn links together. What I hadn’t noticed was that in so doing, I was disassembling the other end. When I finally got the slat in place, I looked across the spreader floor to find a neat little pile of disassembled links.
And so it went. However, the chain proved to be too far gone and was crumbling as I tried to assemble it. Because of the considerable expense of a new floor chain assembly, many spreader owners will cobble up these assemblies as long as it is economical to do so. After that, maintaining a worn out and corroded floor chain is the poster child for throwing good money after bad. I so informed the owner and made arrangements for the delivery of a new floor chain assembly.
All of this caused me to reflect on some of my many manure spreader adventures. I had noticed that the best-preserved manure spreader chains had received a regular application of some lard-like substance. This material may have come from some butchering or rendering operation on the farm or, the less romantic possibility, from a farmer’s offspring who works at McDonald’s.
While working on a spreader near Opequon, I thought how its dry, squeaky floor chain could benefit from some animal grease. A part of the gear mechanism needed to be re-fabricated, so I took it to Miller Machine and Tool in Winchester. There, ahead of me, was a fellow with an emergency job — something to do with a large, well-used commercial stove hood that obviously hadn’t been cleaned in some time.
The inside of the structure was thick with smelly cooking grease. While everyone else present took a step back so as not to lose his or her lunch, I was coveting the stuff. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow for collection of the grease, and I had to settle for spray-on gear oil.
A summer spreader repair near Clearbrook involved cutting rusted bolts with an abrasive wheel. Sparks from this process set the dry leaves in the nearby woods ablaze. Skillful stomping put the fire out just before it went out of control. On the other side of the woods was a rock quarry’s dynamite storage shack. The old Black Truck is equipped with a spray-painting apparatus, and I painted this old John Deere spreader on a breezy day. I wound up wearing as much paint as the spreader did.
To quote Kermit the Frog, “It isn’t easy being green.”