Almonzo’s Shaving Horse

Not long ago, I ran across this passage from chapter 5 of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1933 book Farmer Boy.  The book follows a young boy named Almonzo through a year on his family’s farm.  On his birthday, he watches his father shave shingles at what he calls a “shaving bench”:

Father sat astraddle on the end of the shaving-bench, by the window. The bench slanted upward toward him, and at the top of the slant two pegs stood up. At his right hand was a pile of rough shingles which he had split with his ax from short lengths of oak logs.

He picked up a shingle, laid its end against the pegs, and then drew the shaving-knife up its side. One stroke smoothed it, another stroke shaved the upper end thinner than the lower end. Father flipped the shingle over. Two strokes on that side, and it was done. Father laid it on the pile of finished shingles, and set another rough one against the pegs.

His hands moved smoothly and quickly. They did not stop even when he looked up and twinkled at Almanzo.

“Be you having a good time, son?” he asked.

“Father, can I do that?” said Almanzo.

Father slid back on the bench to make room in front of him. Almanzo straddled it, and crammed the rest of the doughnut into his mouth. He took the handles of the long knife in his hands and shaved carefully up the shingle. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. So Father put his big hands over Almanzo’s, and together they shaved the shingle smooth.

Then Almanzo turned it over, and they shaved the other side. That was all he wanted to do. He got off the bench and went in to see Mother.

Williams’s illustration, drawn 20 years after the book was written, does deviate from the text. Wilder tells us the billets have been split out with an axe, but Williams puts in a froe and club instead.

The bench is different from other shaving horses in that it has no moving parts. It has merely a bird’s mouth and two pegs for stops, which I imagine get chewed up by the drawknife pretty quickly.  The bench is made for a single purpose: shaving shingles of one size.  I don’t know how common these shaving benches were in early America, but in this short, rich passage, Wilder has preserved a clear picture of the process.

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3 Responses to Almonzo’s Shaving Horse

  1. Bethany Bear says:

    I remember reading Farmer Boy when I was a little girl. More than anything, I remember how hungry the book made me — the family seemed to have amazing meals in every chapter!

  2. Don’t they, though! I recall one or two of the books from my childhood, but I think my brothers and I found the books less interesting than others. Now that I have daughters, I’m having to revisit these books.

  3. You know it’s funny how the memory works.

    As soon as I saw that picture I knew I’d seen it before. How in the world did I recognize a picture from 30-35 years ago!??

    My mother forced me to read the whole series as a boy. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to that before.

    It’s good to get things off your chest, ha, ha.

    Good find!

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