SHAKER VILLAGE — There's a new Moon and a new Star roaming around the restored 19th-century Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.
Now, usually, it's the old, not the new, that gets emphasized at Pleasant Hill, which celebrates the hard work, elegant craftsmanship and religious faith of the Shakers who built it.
But this new Moon and new Star are links to the past.
Moon and Star are a pair of 5-month-old bull calves in training to become oxen.
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They're just babies, looking tiny standing alongside Buck and Bronk, Pleasant Hill's two resident adult oxen. That pair stand 16 hands high, weigh about 2,500 pounds each and are among the stars of the farm's living-history farming exhibit.
But Moon and Star are so cute and cuddly, they've already become favorites with younger visitors to Pleasant Hill.
In a few years, after they fill out and bulk up, they will take over as the centerpieces of the farm history exhibit, so that Buck and Bronk can be, well, put out to pasture.
For now, though, the calves are just learning their trade under the skilled hands of Pleasant Hill employee George Morse, 62, who began training oxen as a boy growing up on his family's farm in Vermont.
"They're coming along fine," Morse said last week. "The hard part for these boys is really over, and that was just getting them used to being led around.
"They were like puppies on a leash: They either wouldn't want to go, or they'd want to go too fast. But the more you play with them, the better they get. In another month, I won't be using a rope on them at all."
Oxen are cattle that have been trained to work as draft animals. Any breed can serve, although larger, bulkier breeds traditionally have been the most popular.
Teams, or yokes, of oxen were common on early American farms, used for plowing fields, hauling timber and many other jobs. Many covered wagons crossed the prairies on their way west pulled by teams of oxen. Gradually, however, oxen were supplanted by horses, which were were considerably faster, although not any stronger. These days, farmers use oxen in less-developed counties, but the animals have all but disappeared from American farms.
A few traditionalists, however, continue to train and use oxen as a hobby. And visitors can glimpse the huge animals at Pleasant Hill, where Moon and Star will soon be keeping the tradition alive.
Morse already has equipped the young calves with a small yoke — a heavy length of timber that sit across their shoulders and is held in place by oxbows, wooden loops that fit around the calves' already thick necks. A chain, attached to the center of the yoke, is tied to the load to be pulled.
Right now, Moon and Star aren't pulling anything heavier than a hefty chunk of firewood.
"It's not about the pulling," Morse explained. "It's really to get them used to having something behind them, the sound of the chain rattling, and having the chain touch their legs when they turn."
You don't use reins when driving oxen. Instead, the driver walks alongside the animals, giving verbal commands — "gee" and "haw" — which he might supplement with light taps of a long-handled whip.
"They learn pretty quickly, and their disposition is great," Morse said.
The next step in Moon and Star's training will be a little less pleasant. In about a month, the two will be castrated, an operation intended to make them more gentle and placid, better suited to draft work.
They also soon will be pulling a heavier load, called a stone boat, a wooden sled that, in earlier times, was used to haul rocks off pasture land. In parts of Center Kentucky, they were called "slides." Loads will gradually get bigger and heavier as Moon and Star grow and as their horns get longer and stronger.
Horns are important for oxen, Morse said, because they keep the yoke from sliding forward when the animals are going downhill with a load.
Moon is a Durham shorthorn — sometimes called a milking shorthorn — a popular breed for oxen. Star also is a shorthorn, with some Angus thrown in. Moon was bought in Indiana earlier this year. Star was born at Pleasant Hill and was hand-fed with a bottle.
"He's the biggest pet on the farm," said Pleasant Hill employee Billy Pruitt, who looked after Star in the first few weeks.
Pets they might be, but they won't be small for long.
Morse said they'll be a lot bigger even a month from now. And in a few years — they can't be officially called oxen until they're 4 years old — they should be as big as Buck and Bronk.
As for power, well ...
According to Morse, a team of oxen can pull about double their own weight if they're in top condition. For Buck and Bronk, that would be almost 10,000 pounds, he said.
Alas, Buck and Bronk are a bit out of shape, a result of the soft life at Pleasant Hill, where they give regular demonstrations for visitors but never have to do any heavy pulling. Moon and Star can look forward to a similarly leisurely lifestyle, Morse says.
Morse kind of stumbled upon Pleasant Hill after moving to Lexington from Vermont a year and half ago. Always interested in the history of farming, he visited the restored Shaker farm several times, noticed Buck and Bronk grazing in the field, and made some inquiries. It turned out that the farm needed someone who could handle oxen, and Morse quickly signed on. The chance to train Star and Moon made the whole thing complete, he said.
"Working with them is a lot of fun, but it's more fun for me when people come out to watch," he said.
Morse plans to stay around to complete Moon and Star's training and see them become the new celebrities at Pleasant hill.
"I'm old school," he said. "I love it here."