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The Nation’s Oxen

  • Wayne Wheeler of Plainfield gets an oxbow caught on the horn of Lewis, right, a milking short horn ox, while preparing to yoke him up with Clark, left, for some exercise in Plainfield, Tuesday, September 20, 2013. The oxen belong to veterinarian Kate Whybrow of Plainfield who has raised them since they were five days old. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Wayne Wheeler of Plainfield gets an oxbow caught on the horn of Lewis, right, a milking short horn ox, while preparing to yoke him up with Clark, left, for some exercise in Plainfield, Tuesday, September 20, 2013. The oxen belong to veterinarian Kate Whybrow of Plainfield who has raised them since they were five days old.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kate Whybrow of Plainfield grew up working with cattle in 4-H and purchased Lewis, right and Clark, left, her team of oxen five years ago. She has used them to haul firewood but now finds they demand time and attention she is not able to give while tending to her veterinary practice and her children. Whybrow recently made the difficult decision to sell them and the team will move in October to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Kate Whybrow of Plainfield grew up working with cattle in 4-H and purchased Lewis, right and Clark, left, her team of oxen five years ago. She has used them to haul firewood but now finds they demand time and attention she is not able to give while tending to her veterinary practice and her children. Whybrow recently made the difficult decision to sell them and the team will move in October to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kate Whybrow of Plainfield practices driving her team of five-year-old milking short horn oxen Clark, left and Lewis, right, in Plainfield Tuesday, September 24, 2013. Whybrow selling them to be working animals at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Kate Whybrow of Plainfield practices driving her team of five-year-old milking short horn oxen Clark, left and Lewis, right, in Plainfield Tuesday, September 24, 2013. Whybrow selling them to be working animals at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wayne Wheeler of Plainfield gets an oxbow caught on the horn of Lewis, right, a milking short horn ox, while preparing to yoke him up with Clark, left, for some exercise in Plainfield, Tuesday, September 20, 2013. The oxen belong to veterinarian Kate Whybrow of Plainfield who has raised them since they were five days old. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Kate Whybrow of Plainfield grew up working with cattle in 4-H and purchased Lewis, right and Clark, left, her team of oxen five years ago. She has used them to haul firewood but now finds they demand time and attention she is not able to give while tending to her veterinary practice and her children. Whybrow recently made the difficult decision to sell them and the team will move in October to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Kate Whybrow of Plainfield practices driving her team of five-year-old milking short horn oxen Clark, left and Lewis, right, in Plainfield Tuesday, September 24, 2013. Whybrow selling them to be working animals at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Under one of those crystalline, cloudless blue skies for which New England autumns are famous, Lewis and Clark, a team of Milking Shorthorn oxen, are being worked in their summer pasture in Plainfield. They’ve been the property of Kate Whybrow — or is it the other way around? — since they were just five days old, relative lightweights at less than 100 pounds each, born at the Taylor Farm in Meriden.

But Lewis and Clark are more interested in examining visitors who’ve come into the pasture than listening to Whybrow. They’re balky, pulling this way and that, or slowing to a halt and refusing to move. They put their faces up toward the visitors, nudge at their sleeves and blow on them with breath that is grassy and sweet. They swing their horns, but not out of animosity; they’re trying to rid themselves of the flies that collect around their faces.

“They’re usually much better behaved,” Whybrow said. “Ho, ho,” she said, urging them on. Lewis and Clark comply somewhat grudgingly, and move forward at a pace that can only be called dowager-like.

“They were born so close together that the (Taylors) recognized they’d make a potential team of steers,” said Whybrow, who is a veterinarian at Riverbend Veterinary Clinic in Plainfield and lives with her family in town.

Knowing of Whybrow’s love for animals, the Taylors contacted her to see whether she would take in the two calves, born just five days apart. “Steve (Taylor) knew I was kind of a softie,” she said.

One of Whybrow’s children happened to be reading a book about Lewis and Clark when the pair of oxen came home: hence their names. Now 5 1∕ 2 years old, Lewis and Clark tip the scales at about 1,000 pounds each, and are 5-foot-6 at the shoulders, which puts them in the small to medium range for oxen.

As a child, Whybrow raised a team of Holsteins, and she’s always felt the pull of oxen. “I just love working with ’em. I don’t know why. Why are you a cat person or a dog person?”

Not giants like the massive Chianina cattle of Italy, nor as compact as the Dexter, an Irish breed of cattle, the Milking Shorthorn is a breed favored in New England, and is a descendent of the Durham, one of the earliest breeds of cattle to come to this country from England. They have an estimated life expectancy of 15 years.

The historical significance of the Milking Shorthorn is why Lewis and Clark are leaving Plainfield Oct. 9 to make the 542-mile trip to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, in Pope’s Creek, Va., on the Potomac.

The site uses animals and poultry likely to have been used when the Washington family lived there, said Dick Lahey, a park ranger who is in charge of the livestock program. “We tend to raise livestock ... in need of preservation,” he said in a phone interview.

Technically, the Milking Shorthorn didn’t appear in the colonies until the 1760s, Lahey said — and Washington was born in 1732 — but the breed is close enough to the Durham to warrant the team’s use on the Washington farm. The other breed of cattle the site keeps on hand is the now-rare Milking Devon, which was once “the backbone of cattle in America until the Shorthorns,” Lahey said.

Other heritage breeds at the site include Hog Island sheep, an old breed that adapted to life on one of the Virginia barrier islands, and Ossabaw pigs, another feral, barrier island breed from Georgia. There are no records or inventories from the site, Lahey said, so the choice of these breeds to represent what the Washington family might have kept are educated guesses.

When they arrive in their new home, Lahey said, they’ll rest for a day or two but then he’s going to put them to work. They’ll be used to pull carts and do demonstrations for tourists. Lahey looked to this region for oxen because, he said, “there’s not much of an ox tradition left in Virginia,” and he knew that there was a long history of using oxen in agriculture in New England.

Indeed, oxen were never much used to plow fields in Virginia, he said. Farmers preferred horses and mules because of the flatter terrain. Still, the Washington family would have kept oxen to pull out tree stumps and to pull carts, Lahey said.

Whybrow reluctantly put the pair up for sale on ruralheritage.com earlier this summer. “I advertised them but I wasn’t trying very hard, let’s say.” She hated to part with them, but the expense of keeping and feeding them had proved onerous. And her schedule is such that working the oxen, which is necessary for their health and temperament, isn’t easy. So when Lahey contacted her, she decided to let them go.

A few years ago, another town resident, Wayne Wheeler, himself an ox man, stopped by to look at the pair. “I said ‘Come and help me,’ ” Whybrow recalled. It really takes two people to lift up the 90-pound yoke and settle it on the oxen’s shoulders, and it’s just easier all around to work them and deal with them with two.

“It gets in your blood,” said Wheeler, who raised a team that was part Ayrshire, part Holstein. He carries with him a 30-year-old walking stick he crafted out of a limb of striped maple he found in the woods. He repeatedly rotates the honey-colored, smooth-as-polished-stone stick with his palm, while he talks about Lewis and Clark.

“Clark is the thinker. When you see him standing there, you know he’s scheming,” Wheeler said. “He’s observant.”

Both Wheeler and Whybrow maintain Lewis and Clark have a sense of mischief. They like to roll bottles and jars along the ground, and shake apple trees in the pasture for the fruit. “A few weeks ago, they got out of a pasture just because they could,” Whybrow said. They’ve been known to roam where they shouldn’t, and look sheepish when caught.

Lewis is the dominant one, but Clark is more aware of his surroundings, more inquisitive, Whybrow said. And it’s Clark that Whybrow will most miss, even though she plans to visit the team in Virginia.

“We as humans get attached and then we sometimes have to say goodbye. Even when it’s really for the best it can still break our hearts. Saying goodbye to Clark, especially Clark, is going to be awfully hard for me,” she wrote in an email.

But earlier in the day, she regarded her large charges with affectionate exasperation as she tried to maneuver them into position for yoking, telling Wheeler, “They’re going to be the worst they’ve ever been today, I guarantee it.”

Once that was accomplished, she drove them out into the field. “Get up. Gee. Get up, Lewis,” she said, trotting after them.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.