Rick Houser: A lesson in self-preservation

Clermont County's Rick Houser has released a second book, this one titled "Memories from the Heart."

In those years when I was growing up down on Fruit Ridge Road individual craftsmanship was something that I really didn’t understand. What I mean is folks did so much to get by in their lives to make ends meet or make some money only with their bare hands and a gift of how to do it in their minds. What I was witnessing was a lot of things in our world were made from ideas that came from the hills of Kentucky and it was called the Appalachian way.

One prime example was my friend Charlie Marshalls’ grandpa Herbert Marshall. He came from Wallingford Kentucky and I really didn’t get to know the man until he was in his middle to late seventies. He was thin in that there wasn’t an ounce of fat on the man at all and he had the look of a man from the hills of Kentucky. Where Charlie lived it was less than five hundred feet to the driveway of his uncle Richard Davis and this is where Herbert lived. Richard had a cottage behind the main house and the cottage was a great fit for Herbert.

To make some extra money he would take a cross cut hand saw and go into the woods and cut down a good sized Hickory tree. He then would get Richard who to my knowledge was the last man to farm with horses to take his team to the log and pull it to the barn yard. Herbert had cut the large tree down with only the use of a cross cut saw which as anyone who ever used one can tell you are no fun to use. Next he would cut the log into four foot lengths and then using a wedge and a sledge he would split the Hickory log into fourths.

The four foot lengths were so when he was done he would have split out tobacco sticks to the correct lengths. To split the log he used a tool I had never seen before that he called a froe. It looked kinda like a miniature axe. The froe would be lined up so as to split out a stick at the correct thickness. To drive this tool through the log he used instead of a mallet a knot from an Oak tree and cut the limb to a length that was good for him to swing and with his homemade club he would turn a log into a pile of sticks. With each whack from the club he would give the handle a tug. What looked very hard to do he made it look easy. Somewhere in between was how hard it really was.

Herbert would sell a few hundred each year to the surrounding farmers but one year and I think it might have been 1963 the government increased the size of the bases they would put a support price on. With the increase came the need for a lot more sticks and the farmers around him gave him a need like he had never seen. I know my dad ordered a thousand just for himself. That spring and summer Herbert could be seen out by that fence splitting tobacco sticks. I know because Charlie would go help him some and of course I had to be there also. He never looked worried or hurried. Just steady and as he worked he would sing those hymns which must have been calming to this man.

I have no idea if he filled all the orders but I do know that the Maus brothers and dad got theirs. He said he had done quite well and I mean he was after all charging a nickel a stick. (Big bucks don’t you think?) All done with a saw a couple of tools and endless hours of using his talent to make a tobacco stick Now a hickory tobacco stick is one of the most durable sticks a farmer could have. I’ve seen a tractor run over one and it wouldn’t break. There was of course one downside. Those sticks were splintered from one end to the other and I’m not talking a little splinter. It is safe to say it took a decade of use to wear away all the splinters. But if you did you had a tobacco stick for as long as you were going to farm.

When it was time to begin cutting tobacco dad hired Herbert to help in the field and in the barn. Most all men would drop the sticks between two rows and that would end up being one. But not Herbert. He would drop his sticks and cut three rows that made one. Seemed odd to me but he said it just felt right to him. Why should I question how he did this? The year he cut for use was the year he made all the sticks. I failed to mention he was seventy-eight years old! Now he didn’t lead the cutters across the tobacco patch but he wasn’t the last one across either and he did it with three rows. (Kind of like playing with a handicap as in golf.)

One afternoon we stopped to take a fifteen minute break in the shade as we did every day. As the men were laying in the shade they began to brag as to how strong and how tuff they were. Finally Herbert stood up and said now boys I am seventy- eight years old and as you know I have worked with all of you this week. And they all nodded that that was correct. He then stretched his arms above his head and asks them if any one of us could do this. He then lowered his arms towards the ground and touched his palms on the ground. This caused some eyeball popping and a couple did try and did fail. That is another rare sight I will never forget. He was as tuff as raw hide to say the least.

The only person I ever heard talk poorly about old Herbert was his grandson young Herbert. You see along with always suffering from allergies to the rag weed he was given the job to drop those sticks. Dad gave him extra burlap bags to cover his shoulder, arm and neck hoping to give him some protection from those tons of splinters. Sadly that first year in use the splinters were way too strong for the burlap to be of much help. So between the sneezing and watering eyes and being scratched unmercifully young Herbert mentioned his grandpa quite a bit but I never heard him refer to old Herbert as grandpa. Nope not once!

Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. If you are interested in reading more of his stories they can be found in his books ‘There are Places to Remember” and’ Memories ARE from the Heart.” He may be reached at houser734@yahoo.com.