Carroll Co. park turns to ox power to move a 19-foot, 3,000-pound log

3 teams from out of state aim to do the job today

May 16, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Piney Run Park in Sykesville needed a log mover, able to relocate a 19-foot long, 3,000-pound, felled white pine to its Nature Center.

The solution came from an Internet query posted by a park naturalist. Two ox drovers answered, offering three teams of oxen, sure-footed movers, willing to travel from out of state and work on a Sunday.

So the park decided to host its first Moovin' the Big Log today, and billed the event as a demonstration of the power and ability of working cattle.

"We had this log, and we had carvers who could turn it into a dugout canoe for our Native American Exhibit," said Tom Harbold, the park's assistant naturalist. "But, we couldn't get the log to the carvers. Then, I thought of draft animals."

Ox power would certainly be in keeping with the park's mission, he said.

"Oxen are more earth friendly, and they operate in small areas," he said. "There is not as much exhaust activity and what there is benefits the fertility of the earth. And, they grow their own replacements."

These oxen have had no real experience in logging, but their drovers -- those who drive or lead them -- say the animals are up to the task.

Bill Speiden, drover and owner of two of the visiting teams, defines an ox as "a steer you put to work instead of in the freezer." An ox is typically a 4-year-old castrated bull that can be nearly any breed of cattle and "will never be endangered, because there is no such species," he said.

Nip and Tuck

He promised to show park visitors how well his Holstein Brown Swiss Cross, dubbed Nip and Tuck, and his pair of Dutch belteds, named Pole and Cat for their striking black and white coloring, work together, respond to commands and entertain.

"My message at these events is always that oxen played a tremendous role in our history, and there are still uses for them," said Speiden, a retired dairy farmer from southern Virginia. "They are very intelligent and easily trained. They are more even-tempered, more adaptable to rough conditions and less flighty than a horse. Their cloven hoofs also get better traction."

Nip and Tuck, who each weigh about 3,000 pounds, can shake hands, lie down and stand on a pedestal, he said. They can lug the cumbersome log in no time and have energy left to perform stunts, cart children and pose for cameras.

"They have enough of a brain that they get bored when they are not working," said Speiden. "They like to get out and do things. Hauling a log will be a challenge, because they haven't been training this winter, but they are up to it."

His teams will work with Paul and Silas, a pair of Dexters from Ohio, owned by Vicki Solomon, president of the Mid West Ox Drovers Association.

"It surprises people how smart oxen are," Solomon said. "There is a relationship of trust and respect between animal and driver. They willingly follow directions and they are observant, watching you more than listening to you."

She said that oxen can solve problems and that they have a tremendous memory. Paul and Silas remember the exact spot on the farm where they stepped into a hornets' nest three summers ago and won't go near it, she said.

The 4-year-olds she has raised since they were calves will be the smallest team at about 950 pounds each. They still have their winter fat, but are also ready to get to work, said Solomon.

"We will hitch all three to the log and give it a real go," Solomon said. "Bill has the big, experienced teams that will provide the most muscle. Mine are not so athletic, and they have had no real experience with logging, but they are ready for the challenge."

Solomon also is bringing a fourth team, 8-week-old Boone and Crockett. Too young to drive, they came along for the ride and to learn from their elders, she said.

Speiden has worked with cattle most of his life. Solomon and her husband, Mark, are relative newcomers to the farm, having moved to one from Cleveland about six years ago "and gone totally hayseed," she said. They are all solid fans of the ox, an animal they say is intrinsic to North American tradition.

On the trails

For centuries, drovers trained oxen to help with farming and logging. More than 30,000 oxen a year pulled wagons on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.

"Your chances of getting there were a whole lot better with oxen than with horses or mules," said Speiden.

In the United States, tractors long ago replaced oxen on the farm, but worldwide more than 400 million animals work on farms, and about two-thirds of those are oxen, according to United Nations statistics.

The ride to Maryland won't faze Speiden's teams. Nip and Tuck have been to Wyoming twice for trail re-enacting, and both teams will be working at a museum in Idaho this summer.

"These animals travel really well, and they do well in public," said Solomon. "They are just user friendly."

Moovin' the Big Log runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Piney Run Park, 30 Martz Road, Sykesville. There is no charge for the event, but the park will charge the regular admission of $4 a car for county residents and $5 for others. Information: 410-795- 6043.

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