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Of Ox Bells and Christmas
Terry Todd
December 24, 1984
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December 24, 1984

Of Ox Bells And Christmas


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Lunenburg County is a handsome piece of real estate on the rocky south shore of Nova Scotia. Settled primarily by Germans in the 1750s, the county enjoys its greatest fame as the birthplace and home of the undefeated schooner Bluenose, but it also deserves to be known for two other reasons that intertwine like the spiky branches of a holly wreath. One is that Lunenburg County's combination of soil and climate has made it the center of the Christmas-tree industry in northeastern North America. In its damp dells the steeple-shaped balsam fir—the ne plus ultra of Yuletide decorations in Canada and on the East Coast of the U.S.—is a hardy native, springing up unrelentingly no matter how many times an area is cut over.

The other reason to celebrate Lunenburg County has to do with the fact that when the original settlers landed along the south shore, they brought with them a tradition: the castration of young bulls and the use of the resulting oxen in yoked pairs as draught animals. And a useful tradition it was, in the heavily forested, boulder-strewn places the settlers shaped into homesteads. That it thrives can be seen any July when more than a hundred beautifully groomed oxteams glisten fatly in the sunlight as they parade at the Lunenburg County Fair. All those well-broke oxen in the fair are a clear indication that there are hundreds more in the surrounding area whose owners chose not to go to the trouble of exhibiting them. It's likely that there are more working oxen in and near Lunenburg County than in all of the rest of Canada.

In the summer of 1870, John Gaetz drove an oxteam from Riverport, near the mouth of Lunenburg County's Lahave River, to New Germany, 40 miles upstream, then turned right and headed farther inland to reach the Stanburne road. He'd bought the old Goudey place there—225 acres, with a house that was even then the oldest in the community—and he was bringing his family and possessions with him in a wagon. The house had, and still has, 36-inch-wide baseboards of pine that were cut on the place, and many of the doors in the house are simply single pieces of old heartwood pine.

John Gaetz was known as a good oxteamster—and there were many such in those days. The oxen he drove up to Stanburne were probably not the first to graze that hilly farm, but they are the first still well remembered.

The senior rememberer now is his grandson, Sumner Gates, the old name Gaetz having been abandoned generations ago as being too "Dutchy." "Them oxen of my grandfather's was the first around here we know about for sure," Gates recalls, "but there's been many a one to follow." And Sumner has seen most of them himself, having lived on the farm for 92 years. "Since we came here the place has never been without the sight of oxen and the sound of ox bells," is the way he likes to put it, speaking quietly from his couch by the wood cookstove, tobacco smoke lifting straight as a sunray from the bowl of his pipe. "Oxteams don't just happen, you know. You've got to get the creeturs when they're small, and mate them well for size, and lead them by their halters with ropes. And then you've got to put the head yoke onto 'em. That's when the fun begins."

The head yoke to which Gates refers is different from the more common bow yokes seen in U.S. museums or in history books. "Bow yokes fit around the shoulders of the oxen sort of like a horse collar," Gates explains. "But the German-style head yokes we use up here are all hand carved from yellow birch to fit the head and horns of each ox in a team. And with a young team you have to carve a new one every year till they're six years old."

As Gates talks, shortly before last Christmas, surrounded by the woven smells of mincemeat pie and baking bread, he often glances out the window and seems to be listening for something. And then he hears it. The heavy, unmistakable ringing in the December air of the ox bells on the straps around the necks of Bright and Lion, at more than 2,000 pounds apiece the largest oxen in the county, as they ease up the ice-slick hill from the barn toward the farmhouse. They're led, as they always are these days, by the voice and whip of Sumner's son, Harold, the fourth Gates oxman to work the family farm. "Haugh, Lion! Haugh! Hup!" he cries as the huge beasts heave themselves forward into Sumner's view.

"My Jesus, but they're some lovely," he says, as his old eyes follow them through the wavy, lightly frosted windowpane, the vantage point from which he observes what he can these days of the goings-on at the farm. "I don't get out and around now like I always did before," he observes, without rancor. "I usually just stay handy home here since my feet went religious on me."

"Religious?" a visitor asks.

"Oh yes, I was always quite a step dancer, you know. I even stepped on stage in Boston during the first war, but then here a few years ago my feet went religious and wouldn't dance for me. But by then Harold, although he can't step dance a lick, was a better teamster than I was, and I knew the farm was in good hands."

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