How Philip Henderson became Oxen Teamster Philip
I began visiting the annual Orange County Fair in the late 1990’s
inspired by my friend Robert Eto. Robert showed me a blue
ribbon he won for baking a cookie in the annual cooking
contest. Robert told me that he used a recipe for a diabetic
cookie that his mother had used for many years. I thought,
Robert doesn’t know how to cook, how can he win prizes at the
Orange County Fair. I decided to enter in the next year’s
contest. I entered and won several ribbons for my cooking. I
was hooked. I entered every year winning several prizes each
year. I would attend the Fair three or four times each year
spending time looking at the various exhibits.
At the 2003 Fair, I was looking through the schedule
of activities and noticed there was a demonstration of goats in
the Livestock Arena. I knew nothing about goats so I choose to
see this exhibition. At the conclusion of the goat exhibit I
noticed a fellow bringing a cart into the Livestock Arena . . .
the cart was pulled by two large bulls with enormous horns. The
fellow walked alongside the bulls and they appeared to be
following his instructions. I looked at the daily schedule and
saw this was the Oxen Team from the Centennial Farm. I decided
to stay for this show. I was spellbound. The fellow bringing
the oxen into the arena was Bill Richards, a volunteer at the
Centennial Farm. He called himself an oxen drover. The oxen
were beautiful. Drover Richards showed they were smart too! I
wanted to know more.
At the end of Bill Richards demonstration, he asked for questions
from the audience. I asked the first question, then the third
question, then the fifth question. In short , every other
question was from me. When Richards announced that his time in
the arena was over, my final question was can I follow you back
to where you are going. Richards invited me to join him in his
exhibit only about fifty yards away from the Livestock Arena. I
stayed with him for the next three hours until it was time for
me to return home. I promised to bring my wife to see the
cattle the next weekend. Merna was curious about my interest in
the oxen and agreed to join me. Merna agreed that the oxen were
beautiful. When I suggested that she might want to become an
oxen teamster her first response was no. she complained that
they had enormous horns and weighed more than 2,000 pounds . .
. too large for her comfort zone.
I finally was able to convince her to learn to be an oxen drover,
by suggesting that this could be a husband-wife joint
experience. I would join her in the work. You see I was not
interested in becoming an oxen teamster. I just thought she
would enjoy being outside at the Centennial Farm showing
children the farm animals. Merna loved animals and children. I
had had limited experience with animals and no experience with
children. At age 56, I didn’t think it was time for me to add
farm animals and children to my resume. On the other hand,
this seemed to me to be a perfect mix for Merna. In September
2003, Merna and I began our volunteer service at the Centennial
Farm. We started serving as docents giving tours to the
children who visited the Farm. After a couple of months we
began working with the oxen. We helped to give them a daily
bath. We groomed them and learned how to give the oxen
commands. By March 2004 it was clear to me that Merna was still
uncomfortable around the oxen. She told me that they appeared
gentle enough but their sheer size was intimidating to her.
While Merna excused herself, I continued to volunteer at the
Centennial Farm. As of May 3, 2013, I have volunteered or
worked at the farm for 9 years and 9 months. I have been a
temporary employee for eight of the last nine annual Fairs. I
am a volunteer during the school year.
Since I began volunteering in September 2003, I have presented the
oxen to more than 300,000 schoolchildren, giving more than
10,000 individual presentations. I have been fortunate to
spend about 1,000 hours each year with the oxen. Every moment
with these wonderful animals is a blessing. Cattle radiate
peacefulness. I consider the time I am with the oxen a
therapeutic session. We pass peacefulness back and forth to
each other. They are as comfortable with me as I am with them.
The greatest honor I receive from the oxen is their acceptance
as a member of their herd. I know that they are grateful to
have me as a herd member. When I enter their corral the oxen
notice me but do not make a big issue of my presence. If I want
them to move they will go where I desire them. However, if I do
not give a command, the oxen will resume the activities they
were about before I arrived, whether that was eating, resting,
and investigating something new in their corral.
I have become a better human being since I started driving the
oxen. The oxen teach me humility. The oxen have taught me that
it is important for me to be human and feel a wide range of
human emotions, and to feel them deeply and fully. Cattle enjoy
a rich emotional life. Patches and Freckles have invited me
into the world of cattle. Because they treat me as an equal, I
feel that I have been elevated. Patches and Freckles were three
years old when we brought them from New Hampshire in May 2007.
Each ox weighed about 1,600 pounds; today, fully grown, each ox
weighs almost 3,000 pounds. They stand about six feet at the
whithers, and stretch more than eleven feet from the tip of
their nose to the base of their tale. These are large, powerful
animals. They are gentle animals. Smart too! They appear to
possess prodigious memories about other animals, especially
humans. They can read the emotions of humans with outstanding
accuracy. I am grateful to have cattle in my life.
I did not have a lifelong desire to be with cattle. My discovery
of these animals was merely accidental. If you had asked me in
September 2003 if I wanted to become an oxen teamster, I would
have said no. I am just doing this to encourage and support my
wife’s interest in animals. However, today I cannot imagine
what my life would be like without cattle. I was feel very
lonesome. In 2003 the oxen team were Devon Cattle, Bill and Bob
were there names. When Bob died at age 13 in 2007, the folks at
the Centennial Farm chose to continue the oxen program with a
new pair of young oxen instead of attempting to find a partner
for Bill. I checked all over the Internet for a trained team.
Eventually I discovered that the Rural Heritage website had the
best listing of oxen for sale. Searching their Oxen for Sale
page I identified seven or eight oxen teams that on paper seemed
to meet our needs at the Centennial Farm.
I traveled to New Hampshire in the Spring of 2007 to test drive the
selected teams. Evy Young, the director of the Centennial Farm,
and I flew to Manchester, New Hampshire and rented a car.
Heading due North we completed a huge circle around the White
Mountains stopping at small farms that we had to discover
through perseverance. Altogether, I test drove nine teams of
oxen. We had some great choices because four of the teams were
outstanding. Each brought their own strong characteristics that
were different from each other. We chose Patches and Freckles
because: (1) they were well trained, (2) they had great names
for our audiences, (3) they had an attractive appearance, and
(4) they are from a heritage breed of cattle the American
Lineback. Lineback are a rare breed, fewer than 2,000 are alive
today. The breed was started about 200-years ago as a dairy
breed. Today we rely on the Holstein for ninety percent of
dairy, thus the breed has languished. We are pleased to have
this American breed represented at the Centennial Farm.
Bill and Bob were also from a heritage breed, the American Milking
Devon. The Devon breed was the favorite of famed
agriculturalist, President George Washington. This president
was as important for his contribution to agriculture as he was to politics and government. George Washington’s home, Mount
Vernon, operates today as an example of an experimental farm
that still houses heritage breeds of fowl, swine, and bovines.
Mount Vernon even has a working team of Milking Devon oxen to
plough their fields. The next time I visit the Washington, D.C.
area, I will be certain to make a side trip study this national
I have worked with Bill, Bob, Patches, and Freckles. Each animal
has his own personality. Bill is my all time favorite. When
Bob was alive the teamsters referred to Bob as the Sweet, and
Gentle Ox; Bill was to everyone El Toro Loco, the Crazy Ox.
Bill was not a little bit loco, he was Grande Loco. I
was never sure how Bill would behave, even in a circumstance he
had experienced thousands of times before. Bill knew how to
introduce the teamster to a surprise! I miss him a lot. I have
at least one hundred stories that I collected while handling
Bill. The good side of being with a crazy ox is that it makes
handling Bob, Freckles, and Patches easy by comparison. The
photograph with me and Bill was taken five days before his
death. Teamster Nancy and I had just bathed the big baby. He
was enjoying standing in the sun to dry when Nancy snapped this
Bill was a crowd favorite at the OC Fair. At the end of our
presentations in the Livestock Arena, we invited guests to pose
with the oxen in the arena. When Bill was part of our show,
people would wait in line to approach him even when Patches and
Freckles were available. Bill was special to everyone who got to
Patches and Freckles were the stars of the 2012 Orange County Fair
oxen exhibit. Tens of thousands of visitors posed with them for
photographic souvenirs of their visit to this year's OC FAIR.
More than 1,300,000 visitors came to enjoy the exhibits, fried
food, entertainment, and pure fun at the 2012 Fair including
Brianna and Judy Bodwell. Judy purchased the oxen as
four-week-old bullocks and her daughter Brianna trained them to
become oxen. We were pleased to have Judy and Brianna as our
special guests the first two days of the 2012 OC Fair.
Last year, the oxen teamsters broke open a 30-inch diameter
Sycamore log (Platanus Racemosa). It took us most of the
Fair to break this beast of a log. We undertook this project as
the first step in carving a new yoke beam for the oxen team.
The log was seven feet long and weighed more than 2,000 pounds.
After cracking the log open, we began the tedious task of
carving it down to size. I am happy to report that the yoke
beam is almost complete. I am merely waiting for the iron
hardware to finish the project. The iron rings are used as the
hitch so the yoke can be linked to a chain or a wagon tongue.
We will be using the new Sycamore yoke at the 2013 edition of
the Orange County Fair. When you see me, ask me how we carved
the yoke. It is a long story, but a good story. We used only
hand tools to create this new yoke. Several hundred hours of
carving produced a strong and beautiful new yoke beam. See you
at the Fair!
The MAY 2013
is available now!
Leadership Essay: Earn
the Right to be Called an Ox
SO FAR FROM HOME: Lost and Found in our brave new world © 2012
by Margaret “Meg” Wheatley, PhD
It is Your Right to Write
Empathic Listening: Listen
to the Sounds of WAR
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A Leadership Essay:
Carving an ox yoke using
SO FAR FROM HOME: Lost and Found in our brave new world © 2012
by Margaret “Meg” Wheatley, PhD
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