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Our County Agent Extends a Hand

COMES a sad letter from Elizabeth Thorogood of Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., who tells me the Extension Service has gone downstream lickety-post. I have been out of touch and haven't inquired, but I hope to hear that it ain't so, Joe, from readers who will tell me that if I am so inclined I can still get help for my puny squash vines and pamphlets on rose-hip jelly. If the Extension Service is also bureaucratized into computer sections, we are, as Pliny the Elder observed at Vesuvius, in trouble.

As a member of 4-H and the Farm Bureau, I had all knowledge at my fingertips and developed the rare intellect I now place at public disposal each week. At 10 I had never shod a horse, but I had a free booklet that told me how, and at 18 I repaired a track pipe organ for the Uni-Uni church. Elizabeth assures me that the Extension number will now get me only a clerk who wouldn't know a fence-yoke from an offset Pitman Rod, but will send me a fax of an info-copy designed to cover all subjects in all fields.

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As usual with such helpful letters, I am reminded of many things. It was, I think, in 1923 that our county agent, Sherman Rowe, came to our weekly meeting of the Up-'n'-Atom-Boys, the Four-Aitchers, and when asked for remarks by Skinny Witzel, our president, remarked: "Mr. President, members, parents, friends, and advisers. First let me congratulate Mrs. Danse, Mrs. Thurgin, Mrs. Dudley, and Mrs. Piper for the continued excellence of the club's refreshments. It's always a joy to break bread with this club, and I hope you won't be offended if I visit again in the near future. [Laughter.] Thank you.

"At this time I'm going to ask for volunteers to prepare demonstrations for the state contest. I would like to find two gentlemen who will do a poultry demonstration. Last year no such team came forward in the other counties, and that may be our best bet this year for winning. The state champions will get expenses to the state 4-H convention at Portland, and to a week at Camp Vail in Springfield, Mass., during the Eastern States Exposition."

Dick Marston and I worked up a demonstration, and won the state title. We lectured on how to find out if a hen is laying, or will lay, without picking her off the nest to look. We had a jolly time at the big exposition, going by train with the other winning teams: bread-baking, sheep-shearing, hog-raising, dressmaking.... It was pretty hard to get any of us to speak slightingly of the Extension Service. I was 14.

Much after that, in another county, the county agent became a family friend, and frequently invited himself to our farmhouse for research into my wife's cooking. His name was Charles Eastman, and at the drop of a thin suggestion would fetch me information about spraying apples, picking okra, sizing for wallpaper, starting mushrooms, threshing millet, aging cheese, folding the flag, pickling eggs, stoning a well, curing buckwheat, measuring loose hay in the mow, making ladders, pruning grapes, drawing up a bill of sale, washing goose feathers, mixing grout, finding a circle's center, making screens, how to dovetail, and any other matter about which I might, as a Farm Bureau member, inquire. I had only to indicate an urgency, and the agent would drive out to the farm as a free service.

One spring we had about 300 maples tapped, and on a Saturday the family, plus a million school chums, were in the bush with a rolling boil. County Agent Eastman chanced to drop by, on snowshoes. He pitched in to help, had dinner in the sugar camp, and as he made ready to leave he said: "Oh, by the way, I'm supposed to schedule a mowing-machine demonstration come May, and I've set it for your place. Is that all right?"

"Certainly, but why me?"

"You're the only man I can find who still mows with a mowing machine."

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I said, "Well, my ancient Buckeye is in good shape, and as long as it cuts I'll use it."

County Agent said, "Overhaul it, anyway, and I'll let you know the date." He added, "Thanks for the lunch."

COME May, I trundled my old mowing machine out under a tree on the right Saturday. Charles came with all manner of tools, including a portable forge, and he made ready to demonstrate how a farmer should keep his mowing machine ready to go. Even though Marm had cookies and lemonade, nobody came because nobody any longer used the old-time machinery for haying. The children attended, but not so many school chums this time, and our son, then big enough to be curious about machinery, stayed close to the agent.

I hadn't expected this demonstration to be so comprehensive. It amounted to taking the whole mower apart, replacing worn parts, and using the portable forge to heat the frame and bend it back where it had once hit a rock. The entire demonstration was for son John, who hung on every word and tested every tool. We paused for nooning and resumed at 1 o'clock.

When the demonstration was over, I had the equal of a brand-new mower, Charles was covered with grease, and so was our son. The cutter bar, also, was well oiled, sharp, and purring. I was grateful to the Department of Agriculture and the Extension Service. And we found our son had oiled all of Mr. Eastman's tools. His files in particular.

One does not oil files. A file that has been oiled is no use at all. Mr. Eastman told our son he must never oil another. He added some remark about a good spanking. I assure you, our son never has. The Extension Service could teach anybody anything.

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