Wednesday, June 8, 2011

August Splits Rails: Pioneer Tales of Arkansas' German Immigrants

Arkansas Echo, December 8, 1893
Another Piece About "August" 
       --or -- 
Long Fence Rails

As I have already mentioned, August was a practical man. He always had his own ideas, and he tried to make every job as easy and comfortable as absolutely possible
Unused Wine Bottle Label; Kupferle was a German Immigrant

So, once he had observed rail splitting and had immediately seized upon an idea:  Why, he thought to himself, do the dummies chop through the thick trees two or three times instead of first splitting it all in half lengthwise and then chopping through the thin pieces.  That would be faster and would also be more comfortable. If I make rails sometime, I will try this method.

Sometime after that, August took off into the woods armed with a terribly thick axe and the other tools needed in order to, as he told his wife, make 100 fence rails by night fall. 

He selects a slim, thin tree since, he thought: a person begins with a thin tree and stops with a thick one. He begins to cut diligently, but not according to the old way, on two sides; instead August went all the way around the tree, and as a drop of water finally hollows a hole in a rock, so at last August brought it to an end, and the tree fell over.

It seems to him to have taken forever, and, in addition, the dumb tree had the idea to fall not where August had determined, but instead directly across a fence, whereby it destroyed a dozen fence rails.

A nice beginning, thought August, and wiped off the drops of sweat. Now the method of splitting can begin. He places the wedge on the tree, but on the butt end, and swings mightily. But the wedge is difficult and awkward, and it simply will not go in. 

"Well, if you won't go in voluntarily, I will use force," he thinks and pounds twice as hard, such that after a little time, bathed in sweat and gasping for breath like a fish, he had to sit.  However, a tree does not split itself and he had to start on it again. And to his pleasure, the split gets wider and wider, until he reaches a limb. Here it means, "Doubled strength."  Then all at once the sledgehammer shatters, and a piece of it flies closely by his nose.

"Thunder!" he screams, startled, over and above everything else. "This is dangerous to my life!"

To the devil with the person who invented rail splitting. Real cruelty!  What now? He then hears the voice of his foot warmer who calls him to lunch. "What," he shouts, astounded. "Already noon and so far nothing accomplished."

"Well, well, things are certainly beginning well."  And annoyed, he strolls homeward.

He did not have a big appetite, and in response to the questions from his wife about how the rail splitting was going, he says quietly, "Not yet the greatest, but I am not yet in full swing."

He then takes another sledgehammer (since with foresight he had put four of them in stock) and goes forth again with fresh courage to his work. And after awhile he had the pleasure of seeing before him the tree split in two halves.

Now, celebrated August, it's going better, I am getting into gear. And, in fact, it went somewhat better for him. Of course, it took him almost the entire afternoon to split through two halves. Now he had to knock off for the night, and he saw to his consternation that of the 100 posts that he had wanted to make that day, there were 96 lacking, and in addition the four that were lying there were not entirely finished.

"A nice start," he muttered. "The devil take this rail splitting."

Naturally he may not tell his foot warmer the true story, but he says that he is four short of the intended 100 rails. And he resumes pounding with the hammer during the night, such that his wife had to forcibly restrain him since, unfortunately, he hit her a few times in place of the wedge.

The next morning things begin again in the woods and to his surprise, he see his neighbor "M" sitting on the tree stump. He seems to be sunk into deep thought, since he hardly heard August coming.

"Good morning," calls August, "up and out so early, and what are you staring at so closely? The fence rails?"

"Fence rails," he says.  "I have been trying to figure out for a long time what you intend to do with those long pieces of wood. I thought you wanted to make some kind of hen roost out of them." 

And August told him the whole story of the preceding day and expanded upon his ideas. "What?" growls the old man. "Stay with the old way. Believe me, young man, I have tried all different ways and the old way is always the best."

"I don't have any special plans for today and therefore want to show you this morning how rails are made in this region. Afterwards, you can do as you like."  And it did not take very long until August understood that the man was right.

He was cured of his ideas and in the evening, he could truthfully tell his foot warmer that he had that day made 100 rails, or even a few more than that.

He was frequently teased about the hen roost, but August became a tolerably good rail splitter, not according to this new method, but in the old trusted way.

(Translated by Dan Durning, all rights reserved)

[Note: since few of us have experience splitting rails, I looked up the instructions on the internet. They are simple:  (1) cut down the tree by chopping on two sides so the people cutting the tree can make it fall where they want it to, (2) cut the trunk into sections about 12 feet long, removing all limbs as close to the trunk as possible, (3) in each section, chop a wedge-shaped opening about an inch deep on the top side, near the smaller end; place the point of an iron wedge in this opening and pound the wedge with a sledgehammer until the wood splits, (4) repeat step three with all of the half logs, and (5) keep repeating with quarter and eighth logs until you have rails the desired thickness.  In this story, August did the first step wrong by chopping all around the tree and he did not do the second step, instead trying to split the tree its entire length. He also put the wrong end of the wedge into the tree. Sounds like stuff I would do.]

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