Local Yoke Jerry Courser
Jerry Courser is perhaps the nicest Yankee farmer you’ll ever meet. He waves to just about everyone in town. He and his brother Tim work some land in Warner that’s been in the family since 1904. His true love is oxen, and he knows them well. For nearly 50 years, he’s been breeding, showing, competing, training, lecturing on and judging them — and bringing along the next generations through 4-H.
Courser is pictured with two of his animals, "Bimbo" and "Curley"
Photo by David Mendelsohn
In his own words:
- Growing up on a farm, there was always something to do. It seems there still is.
- In Colonial times, they cleared and plowed the land. Oxen pulled the carts and hauled the timber. They were trained and used before horses because that’s all they had.
- A steer is a castrated bull. An ox is a steer that has been trained until 4 years of age. They their prime between ages 5 and 10.
- They can weigh 3,000 pounds each if you really put the feed to them.
- Training begins as calves. They can begin pulling at 3 or 4 months. You just can’t overdo it.
- I was once hired to drive my oxen and a cart in the movie “The Crucible” ... you know, with Daniel Day Lewis. This was around 1996 and they were shooting in Essex, Mass. We were in two quick scenes. There was a lot of waiting around, but the food was great.
- A team is preferred to be similar in size, confirmation and color. Sometimes twins or at least the same breeds are used. They should work to pull together well.
- They now test for steroids. If there is a blue ribbon and five dollars to be won, some people will try to get that extra edge. It’s just like in baseball.
- Oxen live an average of 12 to 15 years. Generally, they go because they wear down their teeth. They kind of need them to eat.
- They go through a regimen of strength training every day. Once in a while, if the snow is too deep, they get a few days off.
- The saying “dumb as an ox” doesn’t apply. They respond well to the teamster’s voice, body motion and exercise. These animals can learn pretty quickly.
- All yokes are handmade. There are a couple of guys around here that do it. You just can’t drop by the store and pick one up.
On the other side of Mt. Kearsarge from Courser’s farm is the home of famous poet and essayist Donald Hall, who wrote the timeless classic children’s book “Ox-Cart Man.” Courser says he knows Hall, but “I knew his kids and grandmother better than him.” His review of Hall’s book contains a spoiler. “Pretty accurate of the way they lived back then. Truth is, it’s a long walk back from Portsmouth though. Sometimes the ox and the cart didn’t get sold along with the rest of the stuff.” (They do in Hall’s book.)