Celebrating the ox at the local Oxenfest

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Columbia - posted Tue., Jun. 4, 2013
Roll, half of an ox team from East Lyme, waits patiently in the sun for his partner, Rock. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Roll, half of an ox team from East Lyme, waits patiently in the sun for his partner, Rock. Photos by Melanie Savage.

It was extremely hot on June 1, and at 2,700 pounds and covered in a heavy fur coat, Roll was feeling the heat. The red short-horned ox - one-half of a pair with his team mate, Rock - was panting and clearly uncomfortable. “Can we move into the shade to talk?” asked his handler and owner, Nancy Kilal, from East Lyme.

“The hoof on an ox is much thinner than that of a horse,” explained Kilal, as she led the patient, stately animal across the parking lot. “He will be much more comfortable standing on the grass than on the hot blacktop.” Sure enough, Roll visibly relaxed as he hit the shady grass alongside his trailer, and immediately lowered his head to graze. “That’s better,” said Kilal, giving the huge animal a pat.

Rock and Roll comprised one of two oxen teams at Oxenfest on June 1, held at the Szegda Farm in Columbia. The event was a collaboration between the Columbia Historical Society, the Agriculture and Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, and the Szegda Farm Committee.

“Oxen were such an important part of the agricultural heritage of Columbia, but also the region,” explained Andrea Stannard, from the Historical Society. Oxen came through Columbia by the hundreds during the Revolutionary War, explained Stannard, when teams of six would have been used to carry heavy carts laden with troop supplies.

“But the main focus is the agricultural focus,” said Stannard, noting the presence of sheep, from Columbia’s Little Bit Farm, at the event. “Columbia had quite a hat industry,” said Stannard, noting that much of the area’s wool would have gone to production of hats.

As for the ox, he was an indispensable part of a farm family’s life, according to Kilal. “They can pull half their weight without training,” said Kilal, adding that an ox would generally begin training within days of birth. “When they have the yoke on, they know it’s time to work," said Kilal. "They will stand and wait patiently until you give them a command.”

Kilal said that most farms would have three teams of oxen at any one time. “Because they were your livelihood,” she said. Oxen were used to plow, to move goods to market, to log, to move supplies during the building of a home, to move firewood, and for a variety of other chores. “Horses were a luxury,” said Kilal. Crops had to be planted for horses, and they tended to be flighty, she said. “Oxen can fend for themselves,” said Kilal. “And they’re not flight animals. Oxen are calm and dependable.”

Kilal said that she makes the rounds of events with her oxen in order to educate. “People are afraid of them because they don’t understand and because they’re so big,” she said. But actually, said Kilal, oxen are quite calm and easy to handle. “Oxen are very intelligent,” she said. “They’re just wonderful animals.”

 


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