The Farm Chronicles: The Dung Gate

The winter of 1960 in Northeastern Ohio was rough–A lot of days of below-normal temperatures and several winter storms giving us the “lake effect” of snow coming off of Lake Erie. The ice and snow and mud made it difficult to spread manure because the mechanics of our old manure spreader couldn’t work if the back wheels couldn’t turn. This meant that the barn didn’t get cleaned out as much and the manure in the barn was piling up. Dad never was too much on keeping the barns tidy. He had different priorities. So he left the manure up to us kids. But by springtime, that barn was in pretty bad shape—you see shoveling manure wasn’t my brothers’ priority either, and I was only going on five years old.

One warm sunny spring Saturday, Dad decided that the manure had to go. The ground had firmed up. The wheels on the spreader would turn. The fields needed that natural fertilizer. It was time to take a deep breath—well not too deep or too often—and pick that manure out of the barn. That is the day I became quite acquainted with that old rickety New Idea manure spreader. Up until then, it was kind of a play thing. I would sit on the old iron seat and pretend in my grandeur of western attire to head West as my horses pulled my covered wagon. In reality, it was a wooden manure spreader, rusted gears, a hand- lever that engaged the back wheel to turn the dual square-chain link and conveyer bars, moving the manure through the beaters. Dad had converted the spreader from horse-drawn to tractor-pulled.

My brothers Chuck (18) and Larry (13) and I trucked off to the barn with pitchforks in hand. Chuck opened the door flat against the outside of the barn while Larry pulled the spreader up close. And we got on the manure spreader to duck through the door into the barn and step across. At five years old, I was the only one who could stand up straight—that’s how high the manure had piled up. It’s true. And we started digging. Fork-load by fork-load. I can’t believe I was much help, but my brothers were happy to have any little help they could. This was like the Greek myth where Sisyphus was in the endless loop of rolling the stone to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down again. We toiled all morning and hardly put a dent in it.

After dozens of loads in that old manure spreader, and filling our lungs all day with the aroma of cow manure, we finally hit bottom in early evening. I remember how the three of us celebrated when our fork prongs hit concrete and we could start using scoop shovels! Mom didn’t even want to let us in the house—we had to wash up in the watering trough and she sprayed us down with the garden hose. Nehemiah 2:13 talks about how the prophet was observing the work needed to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, “And I went by night by the gate of the valley even before the dragon well, and to the dung gate…” That day and that old manure spreader recalls a lesson that remains with me—everybody has their own dung gate, and it’s best to keep it cleaned out otherwise there are deep consequences. Real deep.

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Bill Wilson