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Sunday, May 23, 2021

Riding a Stone Boat

by Judy Ann Davis

If you’ve ever planted a garden or dug in a flower bed or walked on a plowed farm field, you know how those pesky stones poke up unexpectedly from the earth. 

May is the month when farmers plow, harrow, and sow their crops here in the Northeast. Winter, and the snows it brings, has finally disappeared. Now that rainy April has shut off the water spigot in the sky, the drier fields await attention, and their only gift to the farmer is stones. 

When the last glacier came down from the Arctic region, it kneaded stones into the soil at varying depths. And when the mile-high ice sheet eventually melted away, it deposited rocks which had been embedded in the ice. When the fields are plowed for planting, the frost action often lifts these rocks to the surface. 

For many farmers, this meant the back-breaking work of picking these stones before planting could begin. How did they do it? With stone boats, also called a drag or skid boat. 

A stone boat is a long, low, flat sled-like contraption, often homemade and consisting of wooden planks mounted across a pair of wide runners similar to a sleigh. Some are built with a turned up nose to make dragging it across the field easier. It’s surmised that this upturned prow reminded early farmers of a boat gliding through water. The stone boat in theory glides over the soil.  

In the early days, stone boats were pulled by horses. Later, they were dragged over the fields by tractors. Our stone boat was hooked to our Farmall tractor with chains, probably the same hitch that was used when my father farmed as a boy. 

I remember picking stone with Dad on a field where we usually planted corn. The back-breaking technique of the job has not changed over the years. You pick up the larger stones and place them around the outside of the boat and throw the smaller ones inside. 

Once the stone boat is filled, it’s taken to the back or low end of the field where the hard work of touching each stone is once again needed to unload the boat. I should mention that some thought does go into this simple tiresome process. You must decide where you’ll deposit the stones before you begin. Stone boats can’t be backed up. If you take a drive into the country, you’ll often see these “stone piles” alongside farmer’s fields where a piece of land has been cleared. However, stone piles have now dwindled as construction companies request the crude stone to use in building houses and replicating stone walls.

Is there any joy in picking rocks? Only one. Once the boat is loaded, you get to hop on and ride the boat to the stone pile where you unload it. 

                                                        Judy's Amazon Author Page Link


  1. Judy, I've wondered how the fields were cleared of rocks. In West Texas where I grew up, the problem is not stones but is mesquite. Mesquite will take over a field unless a rancher or farmer is diligent in removing it. When my late uncle moved to West Texas, he spent several months clearing land before he could plant his crop and garden. He had to pause his clearing for a few weeks and work in town for the money to buy the family's necessities. He was a hard worker and savvy in growing cotton and maize, mostly cotton.

    1. I have no idea how the farmers could maintain such a persistence necessary to clear the land even before they planted. Talk about people who were the backbone of America and hard workers.

  2. What a great post. I live in a neighborhood where those big rocks are common and the bedrock is so close to the surface that most people use container plants to landscape. I can sympathize with the farmers!

  3. That is such a great post! I have seen the stone fences and and houses but never considered they were a gift of nature. Growing up on the farm, we did not have rocks like that, however, they could have been cleaned by generations before us. I I will say though, you get a couple of us southern hillbilly kids up there- we could help. My bothers hooked an old car hood on the back of Daddy's Cub tractor - but not for work, merely for sledding pleasure.

  4. How interesting. Since I'm a southern girl, we never had that problem. Out in West Texas and New Mexico, caliche rock is a concern, but it's more like layers rather than stones as you described. Caliche is a mineral deposit of gravel, sand, and nitrates--kind of a natural concrete.


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