First Trip to Delaware River Kilns an Experience for a Boy

Spoke Making a Lost Trade

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N. J.
published in the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, April 21, 1932

Bewick OakIn recognition of the belated arrival of spring, I offer Mr. Bush’s tale of how farmers got lime for their fields in the mid 19th-century. And among those “Other Things,” Mr. Bush describes the business of spoke making.

As our forests were cut off and the stumps rotted away, the land was found to be or soon to become more or less sour. The sorrels began to grow plentifully, especially the tall, reddish brown one that we called “horse sorrel.” That was later known as a sure indication that the land needed lime, tho in the earlier stages little was known about sour land or the indications, or even about lime as a sweetener. Such knowledge, like almost every other kind, grew gradually with experience and observation, until science took hold of such matters and showed us to be sometimes on the right track without knowing exactly why.

farm wagon
not a lime wagon, but a great old photo anyway

Not many of you can remember the rattle and rumble of the lime wagons as they bumped over the rough roads in the days of long ago, on their way to Mike Uhler’s kilns, a mile beyond Frenchtown on the other side of the Delaware. But in their day they carried on a lively business that seemed to be satisfactory at both ends of the route, tho laborious at both and all of the long way between. A few will recall experiences similar to those of the writer; not identical, of course, but sufficient to make us old fellows related by lime, if nothing more.

Lime! The thing is among my earliest and most vivid recollections. No doubt this is because the carting of it caused so much worry. The railroad up the Delaware was a new thing then and much discussed in my hearing. In going and coming it had to be crossed at Frenchtown. People had thoughtlessly so pictured the dangers to be feared from the madly rushing trains, that escape from being killed at the crossing seemed to be only by chance or miracle. The distance was called seven miles, and if there were ever any longer ones they are yet to be discovered. Anyhow, that made a long day for watching and waiting for my father to return with his load—if he was ever to get back alive. For during two or three years he refused to take “that toddling boy on a trip like that.” This fixed lime in memory as an unfortunate factor in farm life, good for the land perhaps, but hard on foolish boys.

How I wanted to go along! If there must be trouble, it was better to be in it than at home worrying about it. Of course that was a mere feeling at that time of life, not reasoning at all. But to this day, with the folks away and exposed to danger, that feeling has defied reason, experience and everything else, call it what they will and ridicule it much as they please.1

First Trip to the Kiln

The first trip on the lime wagon is well remembered, even the appearance of the broad, flat rocks over which the brook was playing along the roadside. The mind was eased, but there was a very tired little body. All that distance, with not even a “spring-seat” to reduce the jolts, was trying enough. But there was no fear and no worry. Anything was better than waiting and worrying at home.

A few years of “going along” broke me into managing the team, which achievement was soon followed by “going alone.” That was the most welcome change of all, tho often very trying, especially when there was a long siege of waiting my “turn at the kiln.” For only one kiln was open at a time, and often there were many wagons to be loaded ahead of mine, and nothing to do but wait, take care of the team and move up gradually so as to hold my place. The toughest of those waitings was on one particular day not to be forgotten. That was to be a quick trip. Up at 2 o’clock. Feeding and cleaning the horses, getting everything ready and then some breakfast, took perhaps an hour and a half. Then we were off, hoping to be the first at the kilns. No trotting, however. There were two reasons for that. The team should not be jaded for beginning the home trip with the load; and maybe quite as strong a reason, I never could stand the jolt of a farm wagon going faster than a walk; so I got credit for saving the team, and also an indispensable part of the benefit, whether deserving credit or not.

Imagine my disgust upon arriving! Wagons, wagons, wagons everywhere, loomed up in the semi-darkness! There seemed to be no end of them. It later appeared that two “lime frolics” had each as a body and all unknown to the other, determined to be at the kilns when business opened, in spite of habitual early comers. Converging at their destination, they seemed hopelessly mixed up. However, their untangling was not my worry. My great care was that all these numerous wagons must be loaded before mine. Any attempt at refreshments for beast or boy would throw me behind those who had come later, and make matters worse. We got home well on in the evening, very tired and too hungry to eat. Poor horses! They could protest only in the many ways by which domestic animals express their contempt for the senseless management of silly men.

Honnes the “Dutchman”

I can never forget Honnes, the old “Dutchman” who loaded practically all of the lime there for many years. Some would say that he was as broad as he was long, but that would be just a slight exaggeration. An amusing character was this man Honness. Not generally inclined to talk, but rather to taciturnity, at times he would suddenly break out with some comical remark long to be remembered. On one occasion, the lime remaining in the half-empty kiln suddenly came tumbling down. That reminded Honness of another such occasion on which he had not been sufficiently alert. “One big stun sort o’ joomp oud,” he explained, “hit me right on mine head an’ knock me sensible for fifteen minute.”

On another occasion Honness had been working hard and the day was. hot. Straightening up, he wiped the sweat from his face and spoke out: “Boy, can’t I make a schmile oud o’ you on hot day like dese?” I handed him a dime. Relief was not far off, and Honness soon became quite another man. After that, “Boy” was a close relative of Honness, and never suffered any bad consequences from the relationship.

Twenty-five bushels made the usual load. Honnes used no paper or pencil for keeping tally. A block of wood perforated by 25 holes was fastened at the entrance to the kiln. A pin so shaved as to fit nicely into these holes was fastened to this block by a string. After the first bushel had been emptied into the wagon body, the pin was stuck into the first hole, to be moved forward one hole at each emptying. I never knew Honnes to make a mistake, either by moving too far or forgetting to move at all. But there were tricks in measuring lime, as well as in most other things if one cares to employ them. Big lumps could be made to fill the measure rapidly, leaving great empty spaces. Correct measure would at least partly fill such spaces with the finer lime of which there was usually enough. Some men fared better than others on certain occasions. Draw your own conclusions as to the spaces which Honnes left when measuring for “Boy.”

Slacking the Lime

The slacking was never left to rainfall. That must be done very carefully. The first bushel unloaded must be moistened just enough by water carried from the spring. No tiny stream must be allowed to run from the wetting. That would show too much water and a waste of lime. During the whole process of unloading, water must be as carefully used, so as to keep all steaming and gradually slacking. By the time the load was off, the heap if properly treated had 40 or 50 bushels in it, and was still growing rapidly. Additional loads were placed at the side of the original, so as to climb perhaps half way up the first heap. When several hundred bushels surrounded the central pile, if placed there a load at a time, one could count the loads by the number of cone-like heads.

Then came the spreading, which was always done with a shovel. We had no broadcasters or other machines for applying lime in those days. And nobody seemed to want any such device. The farmer felt himself able to put on just as much as he wanted and to do it well. Fifty bushels to the acre was no unusual allowance, which meant almost 75 bushels of the slacked lime. This was probably an excessive use of this valuable article. But we were good Americans, and therefore must go to the extreme. The land eventually got enough lime and began to fall of[f] the proper response. Then our farmers took the other tack as heartily as they had spread lime in its heyday.

A Kiln Near Croton

The numerous mounds, once lime kilns, still to be seen in limestone regions, and some far away from such ledges, attest the early enthusiasm for lime. I remember one such mound which was easily recognized in my boyhood days. It may still be found tho hardly recognized in Croton, for miles around a region of “blue jinglers,” with no limestone nearer than ten miles. The unburned stone had to be carted to this kiln, as to various others, to be burned near the land to which the lime was to be applied. I was never able to learn the history of that kiln, much as that history was desired. Who ventured upon the enterprise and how he fared in his venture, were already too far in the past. How I should like to find an account book in which lime from that kiln was charged to a customer!

But something besides lime was promised at the outset of this article, and here we are with the space almost used up. While the sawmills of our “medieval” days—and particularly the portable ones—were slaughtering oaks and ashes and various other kinds of trees, even cutting the hickories into planks for “bent felloes,” then coming into general use, still another industry was developing to menace the forests. The “Spoke makers” were pushing their way into tracts as yet denied to the mill. They liked to get in ahead and cut out the tall hickories that waved so beautifully in the wind, and threw down showers of nuts for the boys and girls in the days of golden autumn. The graceful bodies of those trees were cut into lengths and split into pieces suitable for the spoke factories, with which the county was well supplied.

“Making spokes” was a business by itself. Success depended upon knowing how and being able to do it. A green or awkward man was worth something less than nothing at this job. The best of them did good and profitable work in their own calling, but they always left the once beautiful timberland strewn and cluttered up with the unsightly remains of what had been fine hickories for the admiration of two or three generations.

Expert Spoke Makers

Two men come to mind in this connection; two men who claimed the making of spokes as their chief occupation for several years—William B. Potts and William Leonard. The latter was a Civil War veteran, who died at or near Flemington a few years ago. They were well-matched workers. Leonard declared Potts to be a master, and Potts said, “Leonard: never spoils a spoke.” This meant that he got every possible spoke out of a given block, never sacrificing one by mis-stroke or miscalculation: a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but pardonable.

Memory says that the price of spokes at the mills was about $30 a thousand for the lighter grades, in which most makers specialized. Sometimes the makers bought the trees, sometimes they paid by the thousand, and sometimes they made them on shares. The element of uncertainty, was always present, for nobody could tell exactly how the timber was going to “work out.” But with experience and good judgment, fair wages could usually be made.

Lime as we know it is among the things of old. Now we get our modest supply of lime, either ground unburned or already “hydrated,” neatly done up in paper bags, like so much sugar. And machines do the spreading better than the best old-time expert could do, it. Tho regretting the loss of that peculiarly clean and pungent smell of fresh lime, we can all agree that the new ways are better than the old. But the loss of “spoke making,” now also a thing of the past, is quite another matter. Not only is the business gone, but the grand old trees upon which it fed, are gone with it, never to return. Old people may partly console themselves with joyful memories of the trees as they were; but even such memories will be wholly denied to our posterity.

  1. According to Snell’s History of Hunterdon & Somerset Counties (p. 394), John Lequear was the one who introduced the use of lime to Kingwood farmers, in 1830. In 1832 he built a kiln on the Delaware River.