The recent Copperheads column came to my mind when I thought about writing this one. These are peanut poles or peanut sticks.
In the 1950s, each farm had a collection. They were a precious commodity, stored in a shed where they were carefully protected from the elements. That’s what reminded me of the Copperheads. We rarely got sticks of peanuts out of the shed without finding at least one of the little vipers under the heap where he was watching for mice.
Growing peanuts has been an evolving agricultural practice since it became financially viable in the late 1800s.
Farmers were constantly trying to improve yields by saving their best peanuts as seeds for the coming year.
Meanwhile, agricultural equipment makers were looking for better ways to plant, grow, and harvest peanuts.
The peanut digger, first pulled by a horse and then pulled by a tractor, has probably evolved less than most of the equipment used in peanut cultivation. The makers of the first peanut extractors understood the principles pretty well, and then it was time to refine them.
The Ayers peanut planter was a giant leap forward, allowing a farmer to mechanically plant acre after acre of peanuts with one power then a tractor, rather than one peanut at a time with a punch stick.
And the really big breakthrough was the stationary peanut picker, which was digging the peanuts out of the vineyard, replacing large groups of people who were sitting in a field and picking the peanuts from the vines by hand.
Throughout this period, until the advent of the peanut combine and drying trailer, the only constant was the peanut stick.
Once dug, the peanut vines and the peanuts they contained had to be dried or they would rot quickly. Peanut sticks were seven-foot poles that were originally made on the farm from young deciduous trees. The bark would be torn off and “cleats” nailed to the bottom of the posts to keep the peanut vines off the ground. After World War II, farmers typically bought peanut sticks from sawmills, which tore white oak into 2-inch square stakes and milled the ends into a sharp point.
Peanut sticks were placed in holes in the ground in what were called shock rows. The sticks were then tamped securely into place with a stick (often the one that could have been used years earlier for planting peanuts).
Then the rows on either side of the shock row were hollowed out and the vines were shaken by hand using small pitch forks to remove loose dirt that had been dug up with them. Then the “shockers”, which were generally taller and stronger than the “shakers”, lifted piles of vines above their heads and slid them over the peanut sticks, creating a vines shock.
These shocks, tightly packed and rounded on top to keep rain out, would be left on the ground to air dry. The shocks would then be removed from the ground using a shock cart and transported to a peanut collector for the final goober harvest.
The peanuts were sold, the peanut vines kept for food and / or bedding, and the peanut sticks would be carefully stored for use next year.
Peanut combines, which allowed peanuts to be harvested directly from the swath rows after they were dug out and left to partially dry, revolutionized the peanut harvesting cycle. After the combines have done their job, the partially dried peanuts are placed in drying trailers where the hot, dry air precisely dries the peanuts to the desired humidity level.
Peanut sticks became redundant once combines were introduced, but for years you could still find a collection of them under a shed, abandoned and generally forgotten.
In recent years, hobbyists have used old peanut poles to make the stripes of a wooden American flag, a beautiful tribute to a uniquely American agricultural tool.
How many rows?
I don’t know how many rows of peanuts were placed in a “shock row”, but I remember there were about 12 of them with the 13th being the “shock row”. But it could also have been 10.
Unsure, I called Herb Jones, a retired extension worker, as well as a longtime friend and source for all things agriculture. This call led to a pleasant exchange between the older county farmers.
Herb, unsure of the answer, called a farmer who remembered those days and asked him. He wasn’t sure either, even though 12 rows seemed right. He suggested that Herb call another farmer, who also thought “maybe” 12 was correct, but suggested he call a third. He did, and the third farmer said:
“You know who to call – John Edwards. He will know. And this is often the case when the old people are trying to remember details about things that happened over 60 years ago. The subject just goes round and round.
John Edwards is editor emeritus of the Smithfield Times. His email address is [email protected]