Ditches, One Car Accidents, and The One Hoss Shay


Our summers were usually dry and seldom offered enough rain to keep things green beyond July 1.

There was one–just one summer in which there was enough rain that the water did stand deep enough and long enough in the roadside ditches to support a small and short-lived tick community.

On the day in question, I was headed for the side of our big country lawn–which was just an area near the house that was kept cut short and the horse shoe pits were there–I was headed there because the ditch between the lawn and the road was actually filled with green grass about eight to ten inches high. I’d never seen anything so lovely on our roads or in our yard during the summer and I wanted to play in it.

But someone called, “Sharon! Don’t! There are ticks in the ditch.” Of course, that led to questions. Ticks were not common at all; our ditches usually offered other problems that had to do with vehicles ending up in them due to snow or ice or mud.

OHS3There was a certain kind of mud in the spring resulting from early thaw which created a skim of moisture on the top of still frozen mud. That’s really slippery. So if somebody from town was foolish enough to drive too fast, they would very likely end up in the ditch somewhere along the six miles of not paved road between our house and the state highway.

They would be kindly pulled out by the first farmer who came along and saw their predicament. Even if he was headed to town on important errands he would stop and talk with the unfortunate one, then turn around and go back home to get the tractor. Drive the tractor back to the location of the Ditched Town Person, hook up the chain, get them pulled out, drive the tractor back home, and then resume his errand to town…now some hours later than intended.


Ditches along country roads were an appreciated feature and a great improvement over what, fifty years earlier, had just been tracks across the prairie. ...(J)ust tracks across the prairie will always be muddy to the point of undrivable almost immediately in a heavy rain.

In winter they would drift over and become invisible within an hour whether it was a full storm or just heavy snowfall.

Having effective ditches helped with runoff and visibility, and kept the roads open longer in any season.

There still might be significant ruts formed after a steady rain. Hence the country guideline, “Pick your rut carefully because you’re going to be in it for the next twenty miles.” If muddy ruts formed in November just before final freeze-up then we had mighty rough road to drive on for many weeks, because after the first hard freeze the roads could stay frozen for the season.

Ditches were a good gauge of rainfall. They were usually green in June and brown by August. During June, they would be concealing a few Virginia bluebells. Other little wild flowers that never had names added color.

And best of all–the wild roses. They scatter themselves here and there across thousands of acres, finding homes in the ditches and OHSeeealong the edge of the pits where local trucks get the scoria which is  used in lieu of gravel which was far too expensive.

The ditch roses in June were as faithful as the crocuses in April…asking for nothing and giving everything. They didn’t mind extreme conditions. They were seldom noticed (if for no other reason that most days no more than three or four vehicles would travel those roads) and they were never gathered for a bouquet. During the years that our family backpacked in the Sierras, there were flowers concealed off the trail, behind a tree or under a log, beyond a mountain–flowers that very likely no one saw. Ditch roses are like that.

Now a daisy trail as a set up for the one car accident story: If our farmhouse was considered to sit in the SW corner of a square mile, there were four other farmhouses within that square mile, but if you stepped beyond any of them in the direction facing away from us, there were no other farms for miles.

The original decisions about “where to build the farm house and the barn” were apparently made on the old practice of huddling together somewhat at the corner(s) of one’s property, for security and fellowship. This strategy meant that in the later years, although there was a little series of driveways right in our little neck of the woods, a mile or two down the road, a wandering driver who went off the road, or a truly disoriented person who should have never left the OHSddpavement and it is perhaps February and snowing hard….could immediately be in life-threatening danger.

Ninety percent of the farms did not have phones and even if they did–there was no one to call. We took care of ourselves and each other on an individual basis. Literally.

So one summer day the new preacher from our country church had been driving around his 20 square mile parish to try to find all the farms of the good people from his congregation (and within that parish spread, with the exception of one Catholic family, they were all Danish Lutherans….that was not a matter of deliberate exclusion, only a result of a bunch of Danes Homesteading all at the same time around 1905-1906…nothing nefarious about it). Well, the preacher was driving and visiting and then moving on. As the story went, after he left our uncle’s farm a mile north he decided to try to head on into town nine miles distant using the roads we would ordinarily use instead of those familiar to him.

Now all real country roads have a certain feature that is a variation on this:

….suddenly there are two or three sharp curves in succession, ….the road is just as narrow as it is everywhere else, ….and within this series, there is also a sharp change in elevation….. As luck will have it, frequently there will also be a fifteen or twenty foot section of such a bit of road where there is an obvious tilt on the grade, and thus, the whole road leans right there.

~~~~One car accident coming up~~~~

The preacher needed to multi-task. He noticed the unfamiliar curves just ahead. He noticed that he didn’t have any visibility with regard to oncoming cars. There no trees, but the sharp little hill that conceals the scoria pit effectively blocks his line of sight. He’s feeling very vulnerable so what is he to do? It is inevitable also that the right side ditch at this point on the road is about twelve feet deep due to this side of the road being along a sharp little hill. So, careful driver that he is, he pulls to the far right as he commits himself to being as a safe as possible just as a fly that has been aggravating him taunts him to the point where he feels compelled to try to swat OHS4the fly with his preacher hat, stretching with his right hand as he steers with his left and, of course, right there he falls/drives off the road.

I described already how our farms were huddled together at a general point where the properties met. Because of that situation, he was wa-a-a-a-y over off and gone in an area where there were no farms anywhere around. Our farm was about two miles straight through pasture land full of gullies and steep little hills with no recognizable features for a not-country-dude such as himself, so the poor guy just made the best of it. He headed in the general direction of our farm and after some hours of effort, came over the hill about a half mile from the yard, found his way past the garage and was discovered there, sweaty and exhausted and, thankfully, actually uninjured. So the tractor is brought out and several miles down the narrow roads to get his vehicle back on the road.

Cars were tough back then. Almost always drive-able after such an accident, after being put right side up and restored to the road, they were usually driven on home by their owners who had a new story to go with the new dents.

We had learned Oliver Wendell Holmes’ great poem in school, and when there was a mishap with a car it was predictable fun for both young people and adults to start making jokes about the vehicle involved being just like the one hoss shay.



 The Deacon’s Masterpiece

or, the Wonderful “One-hoss Shay”:
A Logical Story


 Oliver Wendell Holmes 


Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it — ah, but stay,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits, —
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five.
Georgius Secundus was then alive, —
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
OHS1That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock’s army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on the terrible Earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot, —
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace, — lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will, —
Above or below, or within or without, —
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
A chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
With an “I dew vum,” or an “I tell yeou”)
He would build one shay to beat the taown
’N’ the keounty ’n’ all the kentry raoun’;
It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown:
“Fur,” said the Deacon, “’tis mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
’N’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain,
Is only jest
T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.”

So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke, —
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees,
The panels of white-wood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;
The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,” —
Last of its timber, — they couldn’t sell ’em,
Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he “put her through.”
“There!” said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”

Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren — where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; — it came and found
The Deacon’s masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten; —
“Hahnsum kerridge” they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came; —
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arrive,
And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.

Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundreth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. — You’re welcome. — No extra charge.)

FIRST OF NOVEMBER, — the Earthquake-day, —
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be, — for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thills,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whipple-tree neither less nor more,
And the back crossbar as strong as the fore,
And spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

First of November, ’Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
“Huddup!” said the parson. — Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday’s text, —
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the — Moses — was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet’n’-house on the hill.
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill, —
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet’n-house clock, —
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
OHS9As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, —
All at once, and nothing first, —
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.



This entry was posted in Mailboxes and Old Barns Essays, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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