Local Teamster hangs up
the harness for good
...and on the eighth day, God created MULES, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever they darn well please, in divine grace.
In honor of our Veterans during November, this previously published article comes to you as I originally wrote it:
Folks, some sad news during this year’s Veteran’s Day tribute; our friend Fred DeWalt passed away on October 9, 2011.
He was 85 years old.
There were no calling hours, and Fred was laid to rest at the Southside Cemetery, near Shermansville, in a hand-fashioned cedar casket that he made himself.
It was pulled graveside by a team of mules, followed by a New Orleans-style procession of friends and family, accompanied by a simple brass band of two trombones and a drum.
A fitting salute to a US Veteran, friend and horseman.
I was hoping to change the birthday numbers, as usual, but not this year.
Community News is proud to say this classic Horsin’ Around is continuing in a yearly tradition.
God bless the US Veterans!
“Old Teamsters Never Die”
My stubborn printer just would not spit this one out, folks, perhaps a hint of the story contained herein. Here’s an oldie, but a goodie from the past, and I’m not just talking about Fred De Walt:
This week I was able to score an interview with the great Mule Driver himself, Fred DeWalt, of the Shermansville area.
Not only is he an expert Teamster, he is a WWII veteran. Salute! x 2 !
Via telephone, from his 6-acre farmette in the hills overlooking the remnants of the old Erie Canal, Fred recalled stories and events from a long and interesting lifetime. Tales of hard work and farming in a bygone era, of post-Depression hardships and Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
A way of life that is all but forgotten, that modern-day young people sadly know nothing about, was to Fred everyday living and the way he grew up.
At 10 years of age, Fred’s Grandfather, David Sloan, taught him how to harness and hitch a team of Heavy Draft horses to do the hard labor that was required to run a farm.
The Sloan Farm was located near the Allegheny River and Old Mr. Sloan did all the fields and farm work himself, with a team and horse-drawn machinery.
Recalls Fred about the various Draft horse teams he’s driven over the years, “I always wanted the perfect hitch, but it seemed perpetually there would be a good working horse and a cranky one put together.”
Handling a big team and keeping a watchful eye on both of them requires good Horsemanship skills. Those big boys can come on real strong, and a steady hand and confident voice are good things to have to keep them in hand. Fred has had a fondness for horses and driving all his life, and he has had many years of experience.
Old Mr. Sloan had a 2-horse cultivator that steered with wheels. The driver sat in the middle and placed his feet in stirrups and used them to control the direction of the machinery. Guiding the team down between the rows of corn, the field could then be cultivated.
Since the fields near the river were stony, it was young Fred’s job to follow behind the cultivator on foot and pick up any stones that had fallen on top of the corn sprouts. Phew! I’m tired just reading that one.
And since these fields were steep and hilly, sometimes the 2-horse cultivator and team couldn’t make it up the slope. Grandfather Sloan would then get out the smaller 1-horse cultivator and Fred would climb up on to the horse’s back, a straw pillow in hand.
Imagine trying to ride and steer a Draft Horse on, while sitting atop of harness, hames and all the gear. Even with a straw pillow it became tedious after a while.
Fred would line up the rows between the horse’s ears, steer it straight and cultivate the field, with Grandfather Sloan walking behind the machinery.
At the end of the field, the horse would go a short distance further and Fred would use the overcheck to turn the hitch around.
One time Fred’s father found a calf yoke for .50c at an auction. His grandfather loaned him a couple of heifers and they hitched and broke them to the yoke. He mentioned that tying the heifer’s tails together “kept their hind ends from drifting.”
When Fred turned 15, he was ready to plow the fields by himself. With the Draft team, he would plow all day for .50c.
America had just come through the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in office. Everyone wanted to give the “New Deal” a chance.
The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was one way that men could get a job and earn some money. The CCC had military-style camps and they wore crisp uniforms, and a lot of young men or city folks were finally able to work and get paid.
Farmers were giving a new method of fitting their fields a try, with the help of the CCC. It was called “Contour Plowing” and young Fred was on the cutting edge of the new agricultural philosophy.
While Fred was not a member, the CCC came to the farm to stake out the contours of the fields by leaving markers on the slopes in a long, sideways method instead of straight up and down. The farmer used these markers as guidelines to fit the field. It would protect the valuable topsoil from eroding away.
This made the fields very long, and at age 15, Fred thought he was plowing forever.
In 1936, Fred’s father moved the family to the Harmonsburg area. A cabinet maker by trade, Mr. DeWalt kept a wood shop in Meadville.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Fred went off to war to fight in the Pacific Theatre.
He became a Quartermaster and Signalman on an LCT. A Quartermaster is in charge of Helm and Steering and an LCT is a “Landing Craft Tank.” These things could haul 6 Sherman Tanks weighing 35 tons apiece and would be the first wave of attack for an invasion force.
I’d like to be the first to say “Thanks” to Fred, a US Veteran, on behalf of all Americans. Because of brave men like Fred DeWalt, none of us have to eat our breakfast with chopsticks.
In the summer of ‘46, after returning safely from the war, Fred was drawn once again to the Teamster way of life. He took a job cutting and skidding logs with Draft horses, using the old-fashioned crosscut saws seen in the early days of the timber trade. No chainsaws here.
That same year, he married Miss Ann McIlvaine. Together they raised a family of three sons.
At summer’s end, he went into the cabinet business with his father at an old schoolhouse out in Espyville.
His father retired and in 1960, Fred moved the business to the house he’d built near Shermansville.
“Pretty quick after that,” he acquired another hitch and also began to break a few horses on the side, to ride and drive. Mostly for friends and neighbors, including the late Max Hyde.
Fred recalls a flashy Palomino that Max had, but it kept throwing people off. Fred broke the horse and Max eventually traded it to him for another horse.
The story would not be complete without the mention of Fred’s beloved Mule, “Don Quixote.” Don was part of the DeWalt Family and even went swimming with Fred, Ann and the boys on occasion in the summer time. Fred did some trail riding in Clearfield County and some light trail riding around Shermansville, but mostly he enjoyed driving with Don.
During the winter, Fred and Don would skid cherry logs out of the woods together and the logs would be sent to the sawmill and then back to the cabinet shop to be made into cabinets. Don even hauled the logs to build the barn where he was stabled.
You’ve heard the saying, “Stubborn as a Mule;” Don Quixote was no exception.
Fred wasn’t always enjoying quiet drives in the idyllic countryside...
When Don was 3 years of age, Fred recalls the mule (cantering) dragging a barn beam 12x12 inches x 10 feet long across the farm. A cantering plow animal is scary.
And then there was the time Fred was raking leaves into a sled that Don was pulling. Every time Fred went to rake the pile of leaves into the sled, Don would take a couple of steps forward, pulling the sled with him, just out of Fred’s reach.
There were times Fred went yard-skiing or did the old snake-in-the-grass slide and came up still holding the lines. At one point Fred thought he had a permanent grass stain on his chest.
Like I’ve said, these things can be funny, but only when they happen to someone else.
How many hours does it take, eating dirt sandwiches or pretending those blisters the lines just ripped into our hands don’t hurt?
Eventually, Ann would gently call out from the house, “Now, Fred, that’s enough of you and that Mule.”
Don Quixote helped Fred break a Brahma Bull named “Oxley” to drive. Don was the perfect Schoolmaster (1), and the two became team mates.
“Oxley” and Don would plow the DeWalt’s driveway in winter with Fred ground driving an 8-foot wide V-shaped wooden blade. Fred even has photos of the two animals in harness together and he never had to hire anyone to plow their driveway.
That Mule lived to be 35 years old.
I’m sure Fred didn’t wonder when the last time would be that he’d ever get to drive Don, but I’m sure he remembers the twinkle in Don’s eyes or the sound of his bray as he called for his supper, or the thrill of just having the absolute good time when the Mule had given the perfect drive on the perfect summer day.
Fred isn’t doing much driving these days, he’s not keeping any horses in his stable and he won’t come out to help you break an ornery colt.
At 84 years old, he loans his 70 years plus of Horsemanship expertise to a younger generation. Proteges such as Lisa Houserman and her pony “Joe,” or admirers such as myself, who are always eager for a helpful tip from a teamster who’s been down the road a few times.
They say old Mule Drivers never die...
Folks, the sun is setting and it looks like Fred may be hanging the harness up for good.
Send a good thought his way, and save a few for Oxley and DonQuixote, while I leave you with the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”
(1) Schoolmaster: A Dressage term for the perfect teaching horse. While a Novice rider will make many mistakes in learning to ride, the steady Schoolmaster overlooks them, will not be ruined by them, and continues dutifully on with the task at hand.