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The Hand Operated Blackhawk Corn Sheller

04 shelling corn

I mentioned in passing to a friend of mine that I was looking for an old-time hand operated corn sheller, and that I had seen a couple on the inter-net but, since they are made of cast iron, the shipping was outrageous. He called me about a week later and said, “I’ve got something in the back of my truck that you might be interested in.” It seems that he had come across his late uncle Wallace’s corn sheller out in the barn, and it was just sitting their getting rusty. He offered it to me on loan saying that it was just going to ruin in the old barn and that if he needed to use it he would know that I had it. I told him that it sounded like a great deal to me, so I went over the next day and picked it up. It was a Blackhawk sheller; patented in the late 1800’s and probably came into uncle Wallace’s possession in the early 1900’s. It was rusty, but not real, real bad; and, to my surprise, it was mounted on a really nice collecting bin that would funnel the shelled corn kernels into a waiting bucket. I dissembled the sheller, worked it over with a wire brush, oiled it good, replaced a couple of bolts, and re-mounted it on the collecting bin. The collecting bin itself was very well crafted (uncle Wallace had been carpenter), and all I had to do was repair a broken leg and give it a good coat of paint.

01 sheller

02 sheller

03 corn bucket

Shelling corn by hand is a pain, and since every little farm grew their on corn for food and livestock feed, these shelling machines were very common back in the day. The way it worked was that farmers would grow a good size crop of field corn and let it dry out on the stalk. For animal feed you would carry the corn, cobs, and stalks to the local co-op and have it all ground up into feed. The corn alone was too rich, so you had the cobs and stalks ground up with it. For people food you shelled the dried corn off of the cobs and carried the corn to the local grist mill to have it ground into meal. You could pay the miller to grind your corn, but it was more common to pay a toll by allowing the miller to keep a portion of your cornmeal. The miller would then turn around and sell the cornmeal to city folks or people who didn’t raise a corn crop. There was a little mill still in operation close to my farm as late as the early 1980’s; but, sadly, it is now gone. Turns out that this was the very mill that my friend’s uncle used to carry his corn to.

If you’ve never seen one of these shellers in action, they are really very ingenious. They will shell an ear of corn and then spit the cob out in a heartbeat; much, much easier than doing it by hand. I’m going to try out a little new (for me) technology here and attach a brief video of the Blackhawk Corn Sheller in action.

Well the video worked on my preview, so maybe it will work for you also.  Geez, I’m just getting to be a technology wizard.  Next thing you know I’ll learn how to work an ATM machine.


Bicycle Power for the Country Living Grain Mill

One of the things that I promised myself that I would do after I retired was to start grinding all of my own wheat and baking all of our bread.  I have owned a small Victorio grain mill for a couple of years, and I have used it occasionally with good results; but I felt that if I was going to grind two to four pounds of wheat every week that I needed to have a better mill.  I have wanted a Country Living Grain Mill for a while, and my wife finally took the hint and bought me one for Christmas.  I unpacked it and set it up about a month ago and started grinding away, so I thought I would do a post about my impressions of this mill.

First of all, everything that you have heard about the quality of this mill is true.  It is super well made.  You can look anywhere on the net and get all the specs about the materials and design of this mill, so I won’t belabor all of that.

I will make one comparison between the Country Living Mill and the Victorio Mill.  The grinding plates on the Victorio Mill are approximately 1 3/8 inches in diameter, whereas the grinding plates on Country Living Mill are approximately 4 5/8 inches in diameter.  So turning at the same revolutions per minute the Country Living Mill will process way more grain than the Victorio Mill.  But, here’s the drawback; the turning radius of the handle on the Victorio Mill is 6 inches.  That’s a 6 inch long handle turning a 1 3/8 inch diameter grinding plate.  The Country Living Mill has a handle with a radius of about 5 ½ inches.  That’s a 5 ½ inch long handle turning a 4 5/8 inch diameter grinding plate.  Guess which one is easier to turn.  But remember, it’s a trade off.  The Victorio is easier to turn, but you have to turn it a lot more times to grind the same amount of grain. Top, Victorio grinding plates; bottom, Country Living grinding plates.

01 victorio grinding plate

02 country living grinding plate

Country Living sells an extension handle that gives you a little bit better mechanical advantage when hand turning the mill, but I decided to skip right past all of that and go straight to peddle power.  I kept my eyes open at the local thrift stores for a few weeks until I came across an old Sears exercise bike.  This is a super basic machine.  Just a seat, handle bars, peddles, and a wheel.  I picked it up for $9.99, and it was perfect for what I needed.

03 sears bike

The wheel has a hollow but rigid tire on it.  I was able to use a utility knife and trim off the outer half of the tire.  The inner half of the tire remained firmly fixed on the wheel and since the tire was hollow, it left a nice groove to slip a V-belt around.

04 cut tire

05 grove in tire

The Country Living mill has a large pulley on it that is already set up for a V-belt, so it would be a simple matter to link the bicycle to the mill once I had them both mounted on some kind of a platform.

06 pulley on mill

Never one to waste a dollar, I dug around in the shop and came up with a couple of old two-by-tens and a two-by four that I could re-purpose to make the platform.

08 materials for platform

Before I could start cutting and building, I had to find a V-belt that would be long enough to go around the mill pulley and the bicycle wheel/drive pulley.  This ended up being my biggest expense on the project.  I bought a V-belt that is used to drive the blades on riding lawnmowers.  It cost me $21.00 and change at Home Depot.

07 v belt

Once I had obtained a V-belt, I did some rough calculations as to how long the platform would needed to be, cut all my lumber, and screwed everything together with some old dry-wall screws.

09 screwing platform together

10 finished platform

When mounting the mill it is important that the mill pulley is in the center of the platform where it will line up evenly with the drive wheel on the bicycle.

11 positioning mill

I used the mill as a template to mark where I needed to drill mounting holes, and bolted the mill down.

12 marking holes

13 drilled holes


14 mill bolted down

I wanted to mount the bicycle so that it would keep good tension on the V-belt, but I didn’t want it to be so tight that it would cause undue wear on the bearings in the mill.  I decided to nail a board across the platform that would hold the front feet of the exercise bike in place and keep the bike pulled back tight away from the mill.  What I ended up doing was putting the belt on the mill and the bike, laying the loose board across the platform, and then pushing the board (and bike) back as hard as I could by hand, and marking the position of the board.  I then unhooked the belt and moved the bike out of the way.  Now I scooted the loose board 3/8” farther away from the mill than my mark and then screwed the board down.  When I positioned the bike behind the board and reattached the belt, the belt was tight enough that it actually held the back end of the bike about an inch up off of the platform.  When I sat down on the bike it snugged the belt up nice and tight so that when I peddled the bike, the mill hummed right along.  It was not necessary to make any kind of permanent attachments to hold the bike down on the platform.

15 bike in place

That pretty much completed the project.


16 finished peddle mill

I did build a little removable platform that holds my flour bin under the grinding plates of the mill.

17 movable shelf

I loaded up the hopper on the mill and did a little test run.

18 ready to grind

19 flour

It worked fine. Much easier than turning by hand, but still a pretty good workout.  Speaking of workout, be sure and remove the tensioning knob from your exercise bike if you build a set-up like this.  The mill will give you a good workout without adding any more resistance to the peddles.

Chili-Lime Squash Chips – A Healthy Snack from the Garden

I love it when I can solve two problems at the same time, and chili-lime squash chips do that very thing for me.  First they provide me with a healthy and tasty snack; second, they give me a way to use up some of those nine-jillion extra squash that come out of my garden at this time of year.   Here’s how to make chili-lime squash chips:

First, select several large squashes (my dehydrator will hold about 5 or 6 squashes after they are sliced up).  I have used yellow squash and zucchini with equally good results.

01 yellow squash

Now, slice the squash into thin pieces, about 1/8th inch thick, and place the slices in a bowl.

02 sliced squash

Pour about a quarter cup of lime juice into the bowl and use your fingers to lightly toss the squash and coat it with lime juice.

Now you can add your spices.  I use salt, garlic, and chili powder.  How much to use is entirely up to you. Toss the squash a little more to make sure that it is evenly coated with spices.

03 spices

04 spiced sprinkled

05 spices tossed

I use a Nesco counter top dehydrator to dry out my squash chips. You can use whatever type of dehydrator that you have, or you can use your oven.  If you use an oven, set it at about 150 degrees and leave the door propped open.

06 nesco dehydrator

07 dehydrator loaded

To get the chips really crisp takes a long time.  I leave mine in the dehydrator for about 9 or 10 hours.

08 dried chips

When they are nice a crunchy, I let the chips cool and then store them in plastic zip-lock bags.

09 chips in bag

I eat them with my lunch instead of potato chips, and they are really good.  If you are plagued with excess squash, give this recipe a try. I bet you’ll enjoy it.

Start Your Own Sweet Potato Slips

Sweet potatoes were developed several thousand years ago by Native-American tribes in Central America.  Sweet potatoes are only very distantly related to “Irish” potatoes.  Sweet potatoes require a long growing season, warm temperatures, plenty of rainfall, and light soil.  They grow best in sandy, acidic soils.  They do not tolerate a frost.  In the tropics, sweet potatoes are a perennial plant that can be harvested as needed.  In temperate regions sweet potatoes are planted as an annual.  They will store for several months after harvest.  Sweet potatoes grow best when average temperatures are 75 degrees F or higher, and they require around 120 days to reach maturity.  The sweet potato puts out very long vines, 15 feet or more, so they require a lot of room in the garden.  Sweet potatoes have few natural enemies, and they can be grown without much in the way of fertilizers although a light dressing of 10-20-10 will help improve their production.

Unlike Irish potatoes, which are traditionally planted from seed potatoes, sweet potatoes are usually planted from slips.  The slips are small leafy shoots that grow out of mature sweet potatoes, and there are a number of different methods for growing slips.  The method that I am outlining here is the one that I consider to be the simplest.  It requires very little space and no special equipment.

First you will need two or three mature sweet potatoes to grow your slips from.  You can beg, borrow, or buy these potatoes from someone who already grows their own; or you can buy them at the grocery store.  Some store potatoes are treated with a sprouting inhibitor, but this only “inhibits” sprouting, it doesn’t stop it.  The sweet potatoes shown below were purchased from a local grocery store, and they sprouted without any problem.

Growing the slips takes a pretty long time, so you will want to start your slips about ten weeks before you plan on putting them in the ground.  In my area, slips are put in the ground from around mid-May to the first part of June.  Backing up 10 weeks from this date, I usually start growing slips around the first of March.

Growing the slips is simplicity itself.  Just take a wide mouth glass jar that your sweet potato will fit down into.  Hold your sweet potato upright and stick four, evenly spaced, tooth picks about half-way up the potato, and set the potato into the jar.  The toothpicks will support the potato so that it doesn’t rest on the bottom of the jar.  Now fill the jar with water to about a ¼ inch from the top.  You should now have the bottom half of your potato submerged in the water and the top half sticking up out of the jar.  Set the jar in a sunny window and wait.

And wait……and wait……..  You will be convinced that this is not going to work; you will be tempted to throw everything into the trash and forget it, but be patient.  During this waiting time the water in your jar will probably start to turn green.  When it does, empty the water out and refill the jar with fresh water.  By the way, I have a water well; so my water doesn’t have any chemicals in it.  I don’t know if treated, city water might affect the slip growing process.  If you are using city water you might need to run a bucket full and let it sit for a few days before using it on your slips; or you could catch rain water to use.

So, back to the process.  After two or three weeks you will begin to see little white spindly roots growing out of the underwater portion of the potato.  The roots pictured below are well established.

02roots in jar

A few days later you will notice small purple buds appearing on the un-submerged part of the potato.  Your slips are about to take off.

01buds forming

As the slips and roots begin to grow they will start drinking up the water in your jars.  You will probably not have the water-turning-green problem anymore, but you will have to check your jars daily and keep them topped up with water.  You don’t need to add any fertilizer or plant food to the water.  The slips are feeding off of the nutrients stored in the mother potato.

When the slips are four to six inches tall and have several leaves growing on them, you can begin to harvest the slips.  Just break a slip off right up next to the mother potato and then place the slips in another jar that has a couple of inches of water in the bottom.  In this jar the slips will begin to sprout their own roots.

03slips forming

04slips in jar 05roots on slips

You will get many slips from one mother potato over an extended period of time.  When I have fifteen or so slips in the rooting jar, I start putting them in the ground.

09holding slip in place

10dirt around slip

11bed of slips

The mother potatoes will continue to produce slips, and you can continue rooting and planting them.  As long as you still have 120 days to the first frost, any slips that you plant will grow to maturity and produce potatoes.  The slips pictured below have been in the ground for a little less than two weeks. They are well established and ready to grow into good sweet potatoes.

12 established slips

Sweet Potatoes as a Long-Term Preparedness Food

Irish potatoes are fun to plant in the garden and fresh from the garden potatoes taste way better than what you buy in the store.  Irish potatoes are planted from seed potatoes that are cut into small sections, each section containing a sprout or so-called “eye.”  What you are doing is actually cloning the original seed potato.  Many gardeners here in the southern United States plant one crop of Irish potatoes in the spring, save some of the potatoes for seed, and plant another crop in the fall.  This will work for a year, and if you are lucky you may be able to plant several generations from the original seed, but eventually you will have problems.  You see, “Irish” potatoes aren’t Irish at all.  They were developed by Native-America tribes in the high mountains of South America, and this is their natural environment.  When you try to raise generation after generation of Irish potatoes in the warm, humid climate of the southern United States they will eventually develop diseases that they do not have a historic immunity to.  Witness the fact that most seed potatoes in the U.S. come from the high and dry states of Montana and Idaho.

Sweet potatoes are the traditional potato crop of the South.  Sweet potatoes are also a Native-American plant; but, unlike the Irish potato, sweet potatoes were developed in the warm, humid climate of tropical Central America.  The long, hot growing season, the acid soil, and the abundant rainfall of the South are ideal for growing sweet potatoes; and they can be cloned for generation after generation without problems.  This makes sweet potatoes an ideal long-term survival crop for the southeastern United States.

Because they require a very long growing season, raising sweet potatoes is more problematic in northern latitudes; but it can be done.  Starting young vines in cloches or starting them in a greenhouse and transplanting them when the weather warms make it possible to raise sweet potatoes in cooler climates.  The one thing that you definitely must have in order to produce good tubers is loose soil.  Sweet potatoes do not do well in heavy, clay soils.  They need loose sandy soil to give the tubers room to expand and fill out.

In my next post I will show you how to get a bed of sweet potatoes started

How to Get Free Sand for Your Garden

Many gardeners face the problem of having soil that is too heavy.  The soil on my farm has a lot of clay which holds water for a long time and gets really hard when it dries out.  Some crops don’t seem to mind this too much; but some, like onions and sweet potatoes, need loose, well drained soil to produce a good crop.  I am currently putting in a small bed of sweet potatoes, and I really need to amend my soil to loosen it up.  I have grown sweet potatoes in the past but, because of the heavy soil, the tubers tended to be long and thin and very misshapen.  Nothing like what you find at the grocery store.

So I need, basically, two things to add to the soil.  I need sand and compost.  The compost is no problem because I make my own, the sand is a little more problematic.  I thought about buying some bags of sandbox sand at the local hardware store, but the price was a little steep ($3.50 per bag).  Gardening is fun, but I also want it to be cost effective.

00 bagged sand

It doesn’t make sense to spend $20 on dirt to grow $5 worth of sweet potatoes, so I started looking around for an alternative.

I found the alternative less than a mile from my farm.  East Texas gets a lot of rain, and nearly every road has what we call bar ditches dug on each side of the road to channel run-off away from the road.  When we get a good rain it washes sand off of the nearby fields, if they have a lot of sand in them, and deposits the sand in the bar ditches.  The county road crews have to constantly clean out the bar ditches because they fill up with sand.

01 bar ditch sand

I found a bar ditch that was loaded with beautiful, clean, washed sand; and I decided to save the road crew a little work.  I took my truck, a five-gallon bucket, and a shovel down to the bar ditch, and in about 20 minutes I had scooped up eight or ten buckets full of sand.  Probably the equivalent of about 5 or 6 bags of sandbox sand.

02 sand in truck

I spread the sand out to turn into by future sweet potato bed.

03 sand on garden bed

04 sand raked out

It is perfect, and I saved myself about twenty bucks by using free bar ditch sand.


Make a Fast, Simple, and Effective Baited Deadfall Trap

Improvised traps are a great hunting tool.  They can hunt for you while you are doing other thinks, but they do have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing trapping is a numbers game.  Not every trap will catch an animal every time; so the more traps that you can set, the more you increases your chances of catching some dinner.  The second problem with traps is that, if they are very complicated, they can take a long time to construct.  The figure 4 deadfall is a beautiful trap and very effective, but it requires a lot of material selection, whittling, fitting and balancing.

The deadfall trap illustrated below requires very little preparation.  If you already have something to bait the traps with, you can make a lot of them in a very short time, and they work. The most time consuming part of setting these traps will probably be finding a good trapping location for them.  To make this trap you will need a flat rock to use for the deadfall, and a couple of strait sticks.  The size and length of the sticks will depend on how big of a trap you make.  A pocket knife will make it easier, but you can build this trap without one.

First you will need a good, heavy, flat rock to use for the deadfall.

Now take one of your two sticks and whittle or grind one end of it to a point.

Hold the deadfall up and place the other stick along the underside of the rock with your bait wedged between the stick and the rock.

Now place the pointed stick with the flat end on the ground and the pointed end against the bait stick.

deadfall trap1

deadfall trap2

That’s it!  When the animal tries to pull the bait out, it will move the bait stick a little bit.  This will cause the pointed stick to become dislodged, and the trap will spring.  Quick and easy  The only thing that you have to look out for is to be sure and position the pointed stick so that it doesn’t catch the deadfall and keep it from collapsing to the ground.

You can increase your chances for success by placing a second flat rock on the ground under the trap.  This will catch the animal between two hard surfaces and insure a quicker and cleaner kill.

You can use this same basic concept to make a trap that is faster and a little less likely to hang-up, but it is more complicated.  The trigger is illustrated in the two photos below.  In this configuration the upright stick is moved out to the very end of the stick that lies on the underside of the rock.  A baited cross-stick keeps the trap from springing until the bait is moved.  This set-up will throw the upright stick out and keep it from accidently catching the rock as it falls. It’s a good trigger, and the notches are not nearly as complicated as a figure-4 trap, but you almost need three hands to set it.  If you are working with a partner, this is a good trap to use.

deadfall trap3

deadfall trap4


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