It had its own distinctive rhythm and sound. Chop…chop…chop…chop. A short pause, and then again. Chop…chop…chop…chop.
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It didn’t echo from the woods. It didn’t come from the direction of the woodshed. It came from the barn. It was the sound of the fodder chopper coming down atop a log round, and it was familiar to a hundred generations who lived on farmsteads.
Freshly mown grass was cut into short lengths, making it easier to digest, especially for older animals afflicted with dental problems. Turnips, mangels, swedes and other root crops were chopped into small pieces so that pigs and horses didn’t choke on them. Whole potatoes were cut into pieces with one or two eyes, for use as seed. Animal bones were chopped for access to the marrow. Small branches were chopped into short lengths for kindling. The heads of chickens, bound for the stew pot or frying pan, were lopped off. Whatever needed to be reduced in size went on the chopping block.
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Before mechanical choppers were introduced in the early 1800s, most chopping on one-horse and no-horse farms was done by hand, with a heavy knife, atop a log round or a heavy, purpose-made bench. Often as not the knife—a cleaver, bill hook or machete—was freely swung. But a fodder chopper—a cleaver anchored to a ring or staple by a hook forged into its tip—was just as common. It was less tiring to use and safer. A blade anchored at one end applies leverage instead of being entirely dependent upon momentum for its force. And a blade anchored at one end makes an errant blow—the sort that gashes a wrist or severs a finger—less likely.
Recently, I needed to photograph one of those old-time choppers for a book I’m writing on garden tools. In the end, it was easier to forge one than to fetch around museums and historical sites for one to borrow. I grabbed a short length of truck spring out of my scrap iron pile, sketched the basic steps on my worktable, and proceeded to heat and hammer. When it was done, I tried the tool out and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to chop fodder and make seed potatoes. Here’s how it was made.
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- Approx. 1 foot of truck leaf spring (3/8-inch x 3/8-inch x 1-1/2-inch strip of high-carbon steel)
- At least 8 inches of 3/8-inch-diameter mild steel rod
- One 5-1/2-inch file handle (bored to 1/2-inch diameter and 3 inches deep)
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.