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Playing with dynamite

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 27 December 2018

“As kids, my brother and I took dynamite into the desert and blew up sagebrush.” That statement came from my grandfather in 1978.

“You did what?” Surely I hadn’t heard him right.

“Well,” he said, “we found some dynamite left over from a road construction crew. But don’t worry, we didn’t get in trouble. We took it clear out into the desert so nobody’d know.” He thought the important part of that statement was not getting into trouble? What about getting blown to bits – did that cross his mind?

“How old were you?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.

He flicked his hand like maybe the details weren’t important and said, “Maybe 8 or 9.”

I heard this story when, as a summer project, I interviewed my grandfather for his life history. He came to Idaho as a young 6-year-old boy with his sister, brother and parents, who were German immigrants. Land could be homesteaded under the Cary Act, and a new irrigation project promised water. It was a chance for penniless but hardworking immigrants to own land – to live the American dream. Apparently, that dream included dynamite.

Then this week I ran across a 1912 Farmer’s Handbook published by DuPont, with “instructions in the use of dynamite for clearing land, planting and cultivating trees, drainage, ditching and subsoiling.” (Conveniently, DuPont also sold dynamite at the time.)

This little book is a gem. The first 23 pages convince you (backed by more than a dozen testimonials) you have no idea what you’re doing if you’re using a stump puller instead of dynamite. One testimonial from Pennsylvania claimed a man was using “a ton of dynamite a week” for stump removal, loosening subsoil and “mudcapping” rocks. A ton – a whole freakin’ ton.

Then the narrative switches to forming ditches and drainage ponds with dynamite. And heaven forbid you should dig a hole with a shovel to plant a tree – no sir, just blast a hole in that hardpan. The narrative boasts the quantity, quality and color of fruit is better with a dynamite-blasted hole than with a spade-set tree because much more hardpan is broken up which allows root growth (which actually makes sense). Mrs. John Rawley reported, in fact, it worked so well in their orchard she decided to use half sticks of dynamite to make a rose bed and a border of peonies.

There was one part in the book that warned thawing frozen dynamite (it froze at about 45ºF) was not advised in front of an open fire or in an oven. Just think about that for a minute – I wonder what knucklehead needed that instruction?

But that’s not all. Red Cross Dynamite’s (the brand sold by DuPont) planting theory was not only used for creating tree holes but was extended to general crop production. This method was used in cornfields, tomato patches, cotton fields and anywhere deep plowing happened. The uses for dynamite were plentiful, from log splitting to well sinking. And hey, “… as the charge is usually effective principally underground, it is not necessary for the blaster to keep any great distance away from the explosions,” so that should relieve any worriers, right? It claims responsible people can use and handle dynamite “just as safely as they can handle gasoline, matches or coal oil.” Sure, I know a lot of 9-year-old boys who can handle gasoline and matches – not.

Well, this was news to me; how naive I was. Apparently, this was a very common practice, and I should not have been dismayed at my grandfather’s admission. Blasting wasn’t just a turn-of-the-century practice but continued into the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t until the 1970s when federal legislation restricted explosives.

The big question here is not how I had previously missed this important part of history but whether, in researching this, I’ll now be investigated for dropping into several internet sites relating to dynamite.

Well, that’s it. I didn’t have any grand scheme with this editorial topic – no direction whatsoever. I was just re-reading the “Old Iron” column Lance Phillips wrote (Old Iron: Oliver: For men who grow), and he made this comment, “… but the sad part is the sources of my info are getting older and in some cases passing on. It’s hard to replace the vast knowledge of the people who have actually built, used or collected ….” It just made me realize that, should I ever need to use dynamite to blast a rose bed, I won’t have Grandpa around to tell me how it works.  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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