Oxen Free

From Gazette editions of 1964:

The Gazette has recently carried the report of the sale of the last pair of oxen on the Island by their owner, Granville Belain of Gay Head. They were not old cattle or particularly heavy animals, and the article quoted Mr. Belain as saying that they had become too frisky for him to handle.

These oxen, showing unmistakably the strong strain of Holstein blood, were the wiry and fast-stepping cattle associated with Gay Head for generations. They had taken prizes at the Island fair whenever they had been exhibited and measured up well to the Island tradition that Gay Head oxen were outstanding when working on rough and hilly land. Such was the pronouncement of old ox-drivers through the generations who entered their working cattle at the Island fairs with a sense of foreboding when in competition with teams from Gay Head.

These oxen have been photographed many a time by summer visitors to Gay Head. Rare indeed had become the sight of a yoke of working cattle. Now, with their disappearance from the Island scene, a certain sense of loss is felt by those who remember other days when oxen were more plentiful.

The only records which offer any idea of the number of oxen that might have been on the Island are those of the yearly exhibition at the Island fair.

Virtually every man who tilled the soil owned at least one pair of oxen, and many owned several, for teams were worked in shifts on the larger farms, or when employed for road work. There was also a movement of a marketing nature, oxen being bought and sold both for farm use and beef, for with an increase in livestock, the Island had become a beef-eating community, which conclusion is arrived at by consideration of the number of tanneries which were operated.

Early breeds of these oxen were the old English tried and true variety, Devon, Durham, Alderney, Sark, Ayrshire and Guernsey, and the Jersey also, were introduced at an early date. Some of these breeds are recognized as “cream” cows, and that is why they were here. As early as 1721 the Vineyard was exporting butter and cheese by the vessel-load, but when raising oxen, these cream producers were not favored. The intermingling of breeds eventually produced an animal that was smaller than the Durham, heavier than the Guernsey, quicker than the heavier breed but rugged enough to make a dependable draft animal. Throwbacks to this mixture can be recalled today, and particularly in Gay Head where oxen remained popular as draft animals long after they had become scarce elsewhere.

A pair of oxen, marked like Jerseys, creamy white with black faces, short, slender, with sharply curved horns and ears colored umber inside, came out of Gay Head more than 50 years ago and excited the admiration of professional ox-teamsters of the mainland. Shod and driven on the highway with reins attached to their horns, they would trot as smoothly and steadily as a horse and make even better time. In the cedar swamps, where the mud was soft and deep, they performed far better than heavier animals, and they responded to the voice of the driver with unusual intelligence.

Mr. Belain’s pair of oxxen was a fine example of the Island mixed breed animals, trained by Gay Head drivers who have always possessed an instinct for the training of oxen. Tales of old ox-teamsters indicate that they taught the Indians their methods, and the lessons were neither forgotten nor outmoded. Elsewhere matters were probably different. Not everyone enjoyed driving oxen after horses became common, and as soon as the motor truck arrived on the scene, distaste for driving oxen became more acute, except perhaps in Gay Head.

Only elderly men, or those instructed by them, have ever been good ox-teamsters in recent years. Such men were sparing of the long-lashed whip. Only those men gave their command to haw and gee in a moderate tone of voice. An old ox-teamster once said, “No oxen will work for a man as they should unless they love him.” Perhaps that was the answer. Certainly it was true that a pair of cattle once yoked would follow the driver to whom they were accustomed wherever he might lead. Oxen seemed to have developed instincts to be responsive to kind treatment. Granville Belain was the right kind of driver, and although his oxen ranged as free as wild deer while grazing, they were docile under the yoke.

The vanishing of this last pair denotes the final flutter of a page long in turning. There remains nothing more save to hang up the hand-hewn yoke, polished by much use, on the gable of some summer residents to puzzle future generations that will never see such things in use.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner