Interpreting Colonial Farming

Generations of family farmers inspire David Nielsen in his work in the rural trades.

Learn more: Historic Farming


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking David Nielsen, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he is a historic farmer apprentice. And I have never heard that title before in my life. How do you get to be a historic farmer apprentice, and what is it?

David Nielsen: Well, it’s a new one. There’s never been one before; I’m the first. Historic farmer apprentice is essentially a program that was designed by several long-time historic farmers to formalize the education of what a historic farmer should be. So, I’ve got about a hundred or so different skills to learn. I’m about half-way through – everything from hoeing corn to selecting large trees in the woods and cutting them down without getting hurt.

Lloyd: Well, that would have a certain skill…

David: …and animal health. Another issue. Livestock health – more complicated things than just digging in dirt.

Lloyd: Yeah, I was trying to think, how much apprenticeship do you need to hoe corn?

David: It’s level one, that’s for sure. (Laughs)

Lloyd: Now, cutting down a large tree, yeah, because if you are standing in the wrong place, that can hurt.

David: Mmm-hmmm…Plowing with a horse, or a team of horses, controlling them, making sure you know how the horse is feeling, those types of things are higher up, and I’m still in the process of that.

Lloyd: How long will it take for you to learn the hundred necessary skills?

David: Well, it’s a five-level program, and when you complete the fifth level, you’re considered a journeyman tradesman in farming, and by then I should have completed all... you can take any amount of time to do it. If you are really good, you could do it in three or four years. If you are slow and take your time, [you could] do it in five or six years. I would think one level a year is appropriate. I’m about that way myself. I started at the farm in ’02, and it’s ’06 now, and I’m just at level three now, so I’m not rushing it.

Lloyd: I find it hard to believe that a boy grows up saying, “Boy, when I grow up I want to be a historic farmer apprentice.”

David: Well, I didn’t say that. I did not want to be a historic farmer apprentice. But my grandfather was a farmer, and when he died, [he had moved to Florida five years earlier] he really missed the farm. We still have the land up in Illinois, and I’ve always wanted to get a hold of that land. It’s several hundred acres – enough for a small farm. I don’t think I’ll be able to get it, so this is my way of carrying on the tradition. He carried on the tradition that his father had been through. It goes all the way back to the 1830s, or 1840s, this farm. Sometime after World War II, my grandpa was advised to get out of farming because it was dying. He tried working in the city, didn’t like it, went back and worked the farm. He just did an extra job, even through the 20th century as a dump truck driver, just so he could keep his farm. So he cared about it that much, I’d like to have something I care about as much as he did.

Lloyd: Why do you say you’ll never going to get to it?

David: I don’t think I’ll ever come up with the money to retain it, and my grandmother is probably going to need it to pay for her care as she gets older, so I don’t expect to get it.

Lloyd: On the other hand, you could get land someplace else, although it’s getting more and more difficult to find that sized lot.

David: And what do you do with it? I’ve found that doing things with my hands the old fashioned way, slogging it out, really is fun. Working with animals is more fun than working with a tractor. Tractors don’t smell real good…

Lloyd: …neither do horses!

David: Well, a grass-fed animal doesn’t smell as bad as an oil-fed machine.

Lloyd: Okay, I’ll take that. You said earlier that one of the things you had to learn plowing with horses is how the horse feels. Okay, for a city boy like me, what do you do, walk up to the horse and say, “How do you feel?”

David: You can do that. It won’t speak in English, but you can pretty much tell by the way it reacts to you. You touch its shoulder; you look at it all over the place. One thing you know when you are working the animal, if it starts to cough or huff while you are having him pull, he’s getting tired, and that means, “Hey I’m getting tired; let’s find a place to stop and rest.” When you hear that, you make sure he’s doing his share, but then you rest him in the shade. Once you’ve established that trust between you and the horse, you just pretty much know the animal.

Lloyd: What about the other animals? Are there other animals?

David: There’s a team of oxen. They’re not the same as horses, they’re – I don’t want to say “easier,” because I’ll get in trouble – but they don’t require the same amount of communication, eye-to-eye contact, “How are you feeling?” I mean you want to know what their health is, but you pretty much tell an ox what to do, and it does it, or else. You ask the horse, and the horse will do it if you have a good rapport. That’s the difference between oxen and horses.

Lloyd: I’ve never heard it explained that way before – it’s interesting – that an ox will just do it because he’s told to, but a horse has to be sort of invited, “Would you like to do this today?”

David: The tool you use with an ox is called a goad. You goad the animal. It doesn’t mean you have to hit ’im, you touch ’im with it. With a horse, you use lines, lead lines, you just kind of ... “Come over this way, come over that way,” but with the ox you just sort of wave the goad around, and say “Get up.”

Lloyd: What else do you have to learn? It never occurred to me somebody would have to learn hoeing.

David: Well, there is a little bit to it. It’s mainly endurance, I think. Once you get the general idea of getting under the weed, flipping it upside down so that it dies, then you just have to be able to continue to do it. One of the first things I did as a historic farmer, first day out, I was digging water furrows with a hoe. We didn’t have the plow at that time. I had to dig a trench, basically, with a hoe, between two rows of corn. I almost died the first pass through, but after a while I could do it without even thinking about it, without getting tired. That’s the big issue with hoeing – raising hills to plant in, mainly an endurance thing. Once you get it, it’s definitely not a science in and of itself. Maintaining the hoe, making sure the wedge stays in, making sure the tool handle is right, that it’s cocked at the right angle.

Lloyd: Of course, you also have to do that, because there is nobody to do that but the farmer.So you are learning that…

David: I’ve got it down…

Lloyd: You’ve got it down now?

David: You get it down pretty quick.

Lloyd: What takes a while?

David: The horses take a while, the animals, they can be dangerous, you have to take care of their feet, you have to pick up their hooves and pick them out. You have to break them back in in the spring, because in the winter they’re not out there a whole lot, because there’s not a lot going on at the farm in the winter that people can see. Learning about woodworking, crude woodworking, hewing fence posts square, making tool handles for, say, your felling axe, those can take a little bit of time, a little bit of skill, because you don’t get to do it every day. As a farmer, in the summer and the spring it’s all dirt, and plants, and animals. And then in the fall and the winter, it’s a little bit of dirt and a lot more of woodworking, fence building, construction-type things, really simple stuff like fence rail splitting, so you just sort of switch back and forth between two different zones of skill. You use different muscles, too. When I go to hew a fence post in October or November, I am aching after the first few swings of the axe. But when I go to start raising hills this April, I’m probably going to be sore in my gut and up in my shoulders.

Lloyd: Okay, your grandfather was in Illinois, a farmer, and you though that was kind of neat, how did you get to Williamsburg?

David: Well, my dad got a job transfer in 1990 to Florida, where all the business people wanted to be. I missed the four seasons that we had in upstate Illinois. And, when my grandpa died – they left the farm around the same time, because he was heading toward kidney failure. They went down to Florida, too, and five years later he was dead. I had known him at the farm when he was able-bodied, and he had the pickup [truck], and we went around and looked at soybeans and cattle and stuff. When he died, in his dementia, he would imagine himself back at the farm. I just kind of adapted that [love of farming], I guess. I thought from the amount of stress that my dad was under in his job, and the gentleness that my grandfather always exuded, I suppose, I just thought it would be the better life than going into business – not much money in it, but I think you’re happier over all.

Lloyd: So, from Florida you worked your way here?

David: Oh yes, yes. We visited Colonial Williamsburg shortly after moving down to Florida. I thought it was nice. I thought about it again as I graduated from high school. I was interested in history, of course, that’s a given. I thought, wow, I really don’t like having to hold down a boring job unloading trucks, or such, while I try to get through college, I ought to get a job I can keep and try to get through college, so by the time I get out of college, I’ll have something good on the resume anyhow. So, I went up to Virginia, and I applied for work at Williamsburg, and got it after a couple of months of slogging it out in a fish market in Newport News, and started working in products, got to know the right people, made the right impression I guess on several folks, and when the interpretive positions came up for availability in ’98, I applied and got one. I wasn’t very good, but by 2000 I was in some character work and started back in school. I guess that’s it.

Lloyd: When you start, you don’t necessarily have to be very good at it.

David: Apparently not. They hired me.

Lloyd: Well, look at what you’ve learned.

David: I’ve learned a lot.

Lloyd: You’re now the leading historic farmer interpreter…

David: …uh…no…

Lloyd: …well, not necessarily, but you’re working your way up toward it.

David: I work with two very, very strong masters of that arena. They’ve got 20 years experience apiece, so I’m really lucky in that regard to have them teaching me, and they both have different sets of skills. One guy knows everything about the history of farming, everything about how much a slave was supposed to be able to do in a day, and the other guy knows everything about the practical work of animals, doing certain types of tasks.

Lloyd: Do you have to know the history, too?

David: Yeah, we’ve got plenty of research behind us, [we do] lots of reading, we write a few pieces. If you need to know something about corn, I can whip you out a page on corn…

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *