Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Six…

Been a few days since I’ve checked in as we continued our Undaunted Courage 2017 Tour up the mountain chain from Salt Lake City into Montana, the main reason being contracting a nasty case of bronchitis.

But I’m feeling well enough to finally make some sense when I write—although I’m sure plenty will contest the fact—so it’s time to get back to recording things before, as happened to the unfortunate Meriwether Lewis, the account of our trip is lost in the mists of history.

The trip north out of Salt Lake got off to a slow, rainy, start since, as it turns out, rush hours in big cities is the same the nation over. As we inched north on I-15 it occurred to me that big city traffic and streetscapes are pretty much the same everywhere we’ve traveled.

But after getting north of the city center, traffic eased considerably as we drove into cattle, mining, and oil country.

2017 9-15 Lima, MT s

Although it was snowing pretty good in Lima, MT, it fortunately wasn’t sticking to the roads as I snapped this shot in the parking lot at Jen’s Cafe & Cabins.

Along about Idaho Falls, we got into what turned out to be a fairly vigorous series of snow squalls that followed us north along the chain. By the time we stopped for lunch at Jen’s Café & Cabins just across the Idaho state line in tiny Lima, Montana, there was about 5” of the stuff on the ground, with more coming down. Definitely a day for hot beef sandwiches. The locals were shaking their heads; Sept. 15 is a mite early for more than a dusting of snow, even in this high country.

Driving ever farther north, we eventually ran out of the snow as we crossed the continental divide twice.

Speaking of undaunted courage, you can’t get away from the redoubtable Lewis and Clark on I-15, passing as you do right by the Clark Canyon Reservoir and Clark’s Lookout State Park. Looking at the landscape as we drove, it wasn’t hard to imagine it as it was when the Corps of Discovery marched through—outside infrequent fences and pumping oil wells, the landscape itself hasn’t changed a whole lot.

At Butte, Montana we picked up I-90, and headed farther up the mountains to Missoula. From there U.S. Route 93 took us right north up to the foot of Flathead Lake and the town of Polson where my childhood buddy Bob and his wife live.

It was definitely cattle and horse country, but it also turned out to be wheat and potato country. Farmers rotate their potato and wheat crops to benefit the soil that’s none too deep in the river valleys where farming is conducted. We drove through just after the wheat harvest had been completed and the order of the day was baling straw, stacking the huge round bales modern machinery creates, and hauling them to market.

Unlike Illinois’ rural areas, local gravel roads are still the norm in the west. In the urbanizing Midwest of northern Illinois we’ve gradually replaced most rural gravel roads with either tar and chip or asphalt-surfaced roads, that are cheaper to maintain and which are more economical for drivers. Blacktopped roads create far less wear and tear on vehicles, and both cars and trucks get far better gas mileage on hard-surfaced roads.

Back in the 1920s when Illinois was considering how best to spend proceeds of a $63 million bond issue voters had approved in 1918, they paid attention to studies carried on concerning fuel efficiency on various road surfaces. In July 1922, Concrete Highway Magazine reported that a road test in Cleveland, Ohio measured fuel efficiency on five 2-ton White trucks loaded to capacity traveling over roads with various surfaces. The trucks averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon of gasoline over concrete roads and 9 mpg on gravel roads.

Driving as we were on a mixture of concrete and asphalt hard roads, I got to wondering about the relative fuel efficiencies of the two surfaces. Especially since concrete roads sometimes create really annoying road noise while asphalt roads are pretty quiet as a rule. I checked out various hypermiling sites on the Net—if you want to find out a bunch of tricks to stretch your gas mileage, the hypermiling guys and gals are your ticket—and the consensus seems to be that the hardest surface provides the best mileage. Period. Asphalt, it turns out, has a softer surface that offers a big of ‘give’ which cuts down on mileage. Not a lit, but a bit.

So up to Polson we drove, arriving when it was a bit cloudy, but where the backdrop was spectacular. Pulling in, Bob happily greeted us as we stretched our legs a bit. “So, what do you think of those?” Bob asked, waiving his hand towards his back pasture.

Yak

Home, home on the range where the deer and the yaks play.

We were farm kids together, and his dad kept Brahma bulls that, crazy kids we were, we used to tease with red handkerchiefs, so I was ready to see some prize cattle or horses (Bob’s sort of retired these days, but he’s still an honest-to-God cowboy), but instead I saw a group of short shaggy black animals ambling around out by the pasture’s back fence.

“Nice yaks, don’t you think,” he asked with a little grin.

More later…

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Five…

We’ve spent the last few days in Salt Lake City visiting my aunt and cousin and seeing some of the sights, and I have to say I’m underwhelmed.

Not sure what I expected to find out here, but it definitely was not a bit of industrial America plopped down in the high desert around the Great Salt Lake.

2017 9-14 Salt Lake 1

The Great Salt Lake is at a relatively low level these days thanks to drought. The sandy area along the shore was previously under water.

Driving through Salt Lake City and its numerous suburbs today reminded me strongly of driving through Joliet and some sections of the South Side of Chicago. Downtown Salt Lake City, particularly around Temple Square, is immaculate, kept that way by numerous city workers driving miniature street sweepers. But get away from the city’s religious-government precinct and you find just another inner cityscape.

We started the day by driving out to see the Great Salt Lake because if you manage to get here, you’ve really got to see it. It was big, but was sort of down-at-the-heels looking. No vegetation can grow on the lakeshore except some of the very hardiest, salt-tolerant bushes and grasses. And there aren’t many of them. So it’s a lake with no greenery on its banks—which I thought I had been prepared for, but really hadn’t. It’s a desolate looking body of water with a rocky shoreline.

2017 9-14 Copper Smelter

Kennecott operates a large copper smelter across from Great Salt Lake State Park, somewhat marring the lake’s shorescape.

One of the interesting things about it was the sand along the lakeshore. Walking on it gave the same feeling as walking on dry dirt back in Illinois. A very strange feeling.

In keeping with the region’s mineral production history, we found a giant Kennecott copper smelter right across the road from the entrance to the Great Salt Lake State Park.

We had much the same feeling when we visited Green River, Wyoming. For some reason, I had envisioned Green River as a sort of oasis where the Mountain Men came to rest and relax, but it’s a pretty hardscrabble place. My wife suggested there might be as many rail cars on sidings in the middle of town as there are residents.

The drive from Green River down the mountains to Salt Lake City certainly met expectations, with spectacular mountain scenery all the way.

So a mixed bag. Beautiful scenery interspersed with mineral extraction sites and pipelines with few people and lots of railroad trackage on the way to Salt Lake City, a general letdown when we got here.

Tomorrow, we drive up the mountain chain to Polson, Montana. Fortunately, they’ve been getting rain up that way today, which has washed some of the smoke from the firs west of there out of the air. We’re looking forward to visiting with friends there before we swing back east again as we return to the Midwest.

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Three…

Day 3 of our Undaunted Courage 2017 tour got off to a good start this morning at Laramie, Wyoming. Had a great shower and a good motel breakfast, and then hit the road west.

The last two days, we saw a number of utility repair trucks in groups of two or three headed east, probably either to Texas to help recovery from Hurricane Harvey or maybe all the way to Florida to get the electricity back on for the millions without it thanks to Hurricane Irma. But not today; not a bucket truck in sight all day as we headed farther west into the high plains.

We gradually left the rolling shortgrass plains behind and got into the land of buttes and coulees where there appeared to be a lot more horses and cattle than people. It’s empty country west of Laramie. And that isn’t just a feeling, either. Wyoming has about the same population as Kane County back home in northern Illinois, the county that borders my home county of Kendall to the north. And Kane is just one of 102 counties in Illinois, so wide-open spaces Wyoming certainly has.

2017 9-12 Ft Bridger, WY

No worries about whether I-80 might take a sudden turn on this stretch just past old Fort Bridger. And I bet you thought Montana was the Big Sky Country!

It was interesting seeing the name of Jim Bridger frequently popping up on the Wyoming map. Bridger was the quintessential mountain man who engaged in the fur trade both as a trapper and as a trader, acted as a guide for the U.S. Army, and helped guide wagon trains to Oregon and California. As we drove west on I-80, we traversed Bridger Pass, a route over the Continental Divide he discovered in 1850.

Hydrocarbon extraction is still big business in Wyoming, and we passed one huge open pit coal mine serviced by a busy rail line. In addition, oil wells and their accompanying storage tanks dot the landscape. But so do the wind farms that, along with solar and other renewable sources, will likely replace all that mining and well drilling.

We made a brief stop at Green River, Wyoming for lunch, and enjoyed great tacos, steak for me and fish for Sue, before we hit the road again. Green River was a popular rendezvous for the mountain men after the fur trade moved to the far west. No trapper worth his salt set out unless he had a Green Rive knife on his belt.

2017 9-12 Entering the Wasach

As we entered Utah’s Wasatch Range, we were still climbing, but a little later we started a steep descent. No topography like THIS back in northern Illinois!

After crossing the state line into Utah, I-80 makes a dramatic descent of what seemed to be roughly 1,000 feet from those high plains across which Clint Eastwood’s man with no name drifted down to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Driving it in clear, warm weather was exciting enough for us Illinois flatlanders. We could only imagine what it must be like during the winter when it’s snowing and blowing.

We made the drive in good time, managed to find our motel with only a couple glitches, arriving as we did during Salt Lake City’s afternoon rush hour, and then had a nice dinner with my aunt and my cousin and her husband. Tomorrow will be given over to resting up and doing some family history.

I’ll check in again when we get back on the road.

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Undaunted Courage 2017, Day Two…

So day two of our Undaunted Courage 2017 expedition to Salt Lake City and beyond saw us starting out from Lincoln, Nebraska. We stayed last night at the Lincoln Fairfield Inn, which offered one of the best motel breakfasts I believe I’ve had. Highly recommended.

I drove the first two-hour leg, and enjoyed the cheerful sunflowers growing in thick patches along I-80’s wide Nebraska shoulders.

Nebraska’s a lightly-populated state—its current population is less than the combined population of Kane, Will, and DuPage counties in northern Illinois—and it occurred to me as we drove west what a marvel the interstate highway system really is.

The initial construction project was certainly a marvel, especially with routes like I-80 as it negotiates Nebraska’s sparsely populated shortgrass prairies. Just marshaling the construction equipment and building materials, especially the concrete, in some of the nation’s least populated regions must have been a lot like the logistics planning it took to win World War II.

It took decades from the initial pitch of the idea for the nation’s interstate system to become a reality thanks to the strong push the idea got from President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower cannily touted the system as part of the nation’s life or death struggle with worldwide Communism—authorization came in the National Interstate and Highways Defense Act. Ike didn’t invent the concept, but he made sure it got pushed through and begun as what became the nation’s biggest public construction project ever.

Russia is often compared to the U.S. in terms of it’s vast spaces and wealth of raw materials. But Russia has always suffered from its lack of a national highway system. There is no such thing as a transcontinental Russian highway, much less a continent-spanning superhighway system like we have in the U.S.

Lincoln Highway badgeWe, on the other hand, started experimenting with cross-continent highways more than a century ago when the Lincoln Highway Association was organized in 1912. The highway’s boosters envisioned it as an all-weather hard road running from New York’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Today, I-80 parallels the old Lincoln Highway—basically today’s U.S. Route 30—right across the western prairies. And the long-established U.S. Routes 34 and 6 are also close at hand. The thing is, a transcontinental highway is not only challenging to build, but also requires an extensive on-going support infrastructure of motor vehicle service stations, hotels and motels, restaurants, and all the other things we expect to find when we travel. The whole thing really is a modern marvel, one that is so amazingly ubiquitous in this country that everyone takes it for granted.

The idea of communicating from coast to coast, or at least all the way across the vast western plains, is far more than a century old, of course. For instance, the I-80 also parallels the route of the old Pony Express. One of history’s greatest publicity stunts, the Pony Express carried messages—NOT the U.S. Mail—for 19 months between April 3, 1860 to October 1861 in a bid for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to win a government mail contract. While it garnered lots of publicity it failed to persuade the government to grant the company a mail contract. And it was ultimately killed because stagecoach lines and the coming of the telegraph made it superfluous.

Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie as it looked in 1837 near the end of the fur trade era. Painting by Jacob Miller.

We were also interested to note that our trip west is paralleling yet another historic route, that of the Oregon Trail.

And tonight, we find ourselves not far from the site of old Fort Laramie where so many mountain men exchanged furs for money and so many emigrant wagon trains paused to rest and refit on their way west. Knowing a bit of the history of the region through which you’re traveling isn’t necessary, I suppose, but it certainly makes for more fun on the road.

Tomorrow, it’s on to the city by the Great Salt Lake.

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Undaunted Courage 2017, Day One…

Today was the first day of our “Undaunted Courage Expedition, 2017,” and things went pretty good, all things considered.

We got a good early start, a healthy heaping breakfast at the Scottish Restaurant (known to some as McDonald’s) and then hit the road west.

We’re on the way to visit my Aunt Shirley in Salt Lake City, after which we’ll hang a right and drive up along the eastern slopes of the Rockies to Montana where we plan to visit Rob, someone I’ve known since first grade. Rob was one of five of us in our first grade class at Church School–so named because it was right across the road from the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church. We went through all 12 grades together before we graduated, he getting married and moving to Montana and me not only continuing to live in my home town, but spending all those years in the house I grew up in.

While we’re not Lewis and Clark nuts enough to actually follow their entire route from Hartford, Illinois up the Missouri River, we are paralleling parts of the explorers’ route, thus the title of this year’s trip. By the way, if you haven’t read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, you really need to–it’s truly spectacular.

Anyway, we were lucky enough to get to Iowa’s Amana Colonies right around lunch time, and so stopped at our favorite restaurant there, the Ronneburg in Amana, Can’t beat good German food, and the Ronneberg provides lots of it.

Runza

An original Runza with no fancy trimmings. The bread, by the way, is to die for.

Then it was back on the road to finish the first leg of the trip at Lincoln, Nebraska. Whenever we travel, we really enjoy experimenting with local specialties. In Iowa, it’s Maid-Rites or Canteens; in Kansas City, it’s (obviously) barbeque; down in our Illinois state capital, Springfield, it’s ponyshoes and horseshoes. We had no idea Nebraska had an actual ethnic treat, but they do and they’re called Runzas.

A Runza is a loose meat sandwich like a Maid-Rite or Canteen, except for some major differences. Runza fillings include not only ground beef with mild (but tasty!) spices, but they are cooked with shredded cabbage and onions. Then the loose meat mixture is served in a special bun that superficially resembles a hot dog roll, except it’s freshly baked at the restaurant.

2017 9-10 Runza

My cheeseburger Runza with a side of onion rings, which were hand-cut and lightly coated with a corn meal breading.

According to Wikapedia–which is never wrong, right?–the Runza sandwich originated in Russia during the 1800s and spread to Germany, probably brought home by descendants of the German farmers who were lured to Russia by Catherine the Great and who settled along the Volga River. It was then brought to the U.S. by Volga German immigrants as a favorite family dish. Then in 1948, Sally Everett opened the first Runza restaurant here in Lincoln, Nebraska. She began expanding outlets in 1966, and today there are 88 of them in Nebraska and neighboring states.

I ordered the cheeseburger Runza with fresh-cut onion rings, while Sue stuck with the original Runza and a side salad. The cheeseburger Runza is dressed not only with cheese, but also with mustard, ketchup, and pickles. They were both delicious, another tasty regional treat to add to my preferred list.

Because the Matiles travel on their stomachs. From Chesapeake Bay crab cakes to German delicacies  at Schmidt’s in Columbus, Ohio;  to Arthur Bryant’s barbecue in Kansas City to those Canteens in Ottumwa, Iowa, regional specialties really are the spice that makes travel in the U.S. so much fun.

Tomorrow, we hit the road to Laramie, Wyoming. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

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Don’t worry Dave; I still haven’t run out of local history to write about…

Even as a kid I was interested in history. Not sure why; maybe because family was such an important part of my life growing up—and my family on my maternal grandmother’s side had been here since before the French and Indian War.

Then during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, I discovered I could write things that people enjoyed reading. As part of the publications committee of the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission, as I wrote and co-wrote and helped edit monographs and a new county history, I became fascinated with local history, something I found that few knew much about. But the topic increasingly interested me, particularly how national and international history affected folks living here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. So I started looking into what was happening around these parts during the fur trade era, the nation’s various wars, the era of settlement, and the area’s growth and maturity from a frontier farming community to burgeoning suburbia.

Then, thanks to a cascade of health problems, in the late summer of 1977 I found myself out of work and looking for a part-time job. At the same time, Dave Dreier was looking for a couple columnists to punch up the Fox Valley Sentinel, one of Oswego’s two weekly newspapers.

Dave had started the Sentinel in 1973 as competition for the Oswego Ledger, which had been published since 1949, and was the new paper’s editor and publisher. He and I went to elementary school together before his family moved to North Aurora during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. But we still knew each other, so when I pitched the idea for a column on local, county, and state history, he said he’d take a chance and see what I’d produce. He asked me to write three columns of about 900 words each and he’d let me know his verdict after he read them. I later discovered that three-column thing was a good way to gauge how serious someone is about becoming a columnist. Just about everybody has one good column idea. Some people have two. Very few have three—a lesson I took to heart a few years later when budding columnists would pitch their ideas to me.

I dropped the columns off and Dave read them and said he liked what he saw. His one serious question was whether I thought I’d have enough material to keep the column going for a full year. I said I was pretty sure I would.

And, in fact, I’ve now been writing about local history in all its odd, wonderful, and sometimes startling twists and turns each week for four decades. Oh, I’ve missed a few weeks here and there for occasional hospitalizations for ulcers, installation of a new hip and a new heart valve, and whatnot, plus a few other pitfalls of adult life, but in general, I’ve churned out my average of 1,000 words, week in and week out, since Dave printed that first Fox Valley Sentinel column on Sept. 1, 1977—just 40 years ago today.

So at one paper or another, I’ve been covering the news, both contemporary and historical, for longer than I ever would have thought possible.

Forty years not only seems like a long time; it IS a long time. In January of 1977, Jimmy Carter had taken the oath as President, and things, unfortunately, pretty much went downhill from there. Carter’s Presidency wound up with Iranian religious fanatics seizing 52 American hostages. His administration’s handling of that crisis even had an impact on the Fox Valley Sentinel.

Sentinel flag

The flag of the late, and still lamented Fox Valley Sentinel, which ran upside down during the Iran hostage crisis, much to readers’ confusion.

The banner with the newspaper’s name at the top of the front page, in journalismese, is called, the flag. Dreier, in a patriotic gesture, decided that we would fly the Fox Valley Sentinel’s “flag” upside down (the international signal for distress) until the hostages were released, something we all agreed would be a wonderful expression of American solidarity. Little did we know the crisis would drag on for 444 days. Week after week, we printed the Sentinel’s flag inverted, and week after week we fielded calls from puzzled readers wondering whether we noticed part of the front page was printed upside down, to the point that we quickly started adding a note at the top of page 2 informing readers that, yes, we know the flag is upside down, and explaining the reason for it. After the Farrens bought the paper, Oswego’s era of upside-down journalism ended. And now you know, if you happen to look at microfilm copies of the Sentinel from those years, the upside-down flag is not exactly a mistake. Miscalculation, yes; mistake, no.

Returning to the kind and decent Jimmy Carter for a minute, he has definitely turned into our nation’s finest ex-President.

Dreier had perennial problems trying to keep reporters on staff—he was a first-rate journalist, photographer, and page designer, but not so good at actually running a business—and so one day when I stopped down at the Sentinel office to drop off my latest column (no email in those days), he asked if I’d be willing to cover some public meetings and write news stories about them. I told him I’d never taken a journalism course in my life and had no idea how to write news stories.

No problem, he said, plucking an envelope out of the wastebasket by his desk. “This,” he said drawing an upside-down pyramid on the back of the envelope, “Is an inverted pyramid. It’s how you write news stories, with the most important things at the top, and moving down to the least important things at the end. That’s so the editor can cut the copy if necessary and the most important things will still make it into the newspaper.”

But how do you write news, as opposed to the columns I was doing? Dave said the two styles were pretty much the same; include the things you think readers need to know, make sure of your facts, and do your best to explain them in plain English. He concluded by remarking the two basic things everyone wants to know about any local governmental issue are how much will it cost, and who’s going to pay, a bit of wisdom I carried with me the rest of my newswriting days.

Ledger flag2000

The Ledger-Sentinel flag flew over the “Reflections” column from 1980 until the name of the paper reverted back to its pre-merger Oswego Ledger last year.

With my first and last journalism lesson under my belt, I ventured forth with some trepidation to cover Kane County government (where I learned how knowledge of parliamentary procedure can be used as a political weapon) and the West Aurora School Board. Later I added the Montgomery Village Board, the Oswego School District, the quasi-governmental Boulder Hill Civic Association, and the Oswego Village Board. I was destined to cover Oswego’s school board for more than 25 years all together, something that gives me a somewhat different perspective on the perennial questions that arise about public education than most folks.

In the summer of 1980, finally deciding there wasn’t enough advertising revenue in Oswego to support both his Sentinel and Jeff and Kathy Farren’s Oswego Ledger (subscriptions just about cover the cost of printing a newspaper, but nothing else, including personnel, office rental, utilities, or equipment), Dave decided to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The columnist-editor-reporter on a Wednesday morning in 1989 helping publish the Ledger-Sentinel using the latest Mac and TRS tech.

Jeff, who started working at the Kendall County Record when he was a teenager (back when type was set on a giant Linotype hot-lead machine), and Kathy were both Northern Illinois University journalism grads and were then publishing the Record in Yorkville, the Ledger in Oswego, and the Plano Record. They asked if I’d stay on as the new Ledger-Sentinel’s part-time editor. I reminded them that I had no editing experience, but I agreed to give it a try, starting out as the paper’s reporter, editor, and columnist.

It’s been quite a ride, this past 40 years has been. While chronicling the area’s history, I’ve seen Kendall County’s population balloon from 1980’s 37,000 to today’s estimated 130,000. In fact, the population of my hometown, Oswego, is larger today than the entire county’s population in 1970. The county was still overwhelmingly rural in 1977. Today, the number of farmers and farms continues to shrink as farms get bigger and bigger even as residential and commercial subdivisions gobble up additional hundreds of acres of once-productive farmland every year.

Fortunately, Dave Dreier’s fear that I might run out of history to write about didn’t come to pass. But times did change. Dave’s heart failed and he died in 2011, and my friends Jeff and Kathy Farren sold the Kendall County Record, Inc. to Shaw Media in 2016. Even the Ledger-Sentinel itself has changed again, its name reverting to the Oswego Ledger that was on the flag when Ford Lippold started publishing it on a Mimeograph machine in his basement back in 1949.

Not sure how much longer I’ll keep writing about local history, but it’s so much fun and so interesting that I don’t plan to quit any time soon. There’s always something new to learn, new people to learn about, and new clarity to bring to how our local communities came to be what they are today. So unless life intervenes (which, I’ve learned over the years, it has an annoying habit of doing) I’ll continue writing “Reflections” for the Ledger and the other Shaw papers in the Kendall County Now group, as well as in this space for History on the Fox, occasionally marveling that blogging didn’t even exist when I started writing and doing local history in 1977. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

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Reapers have vanished, but not reaping…

The other day, as I was driving there and back again, the CNBC business news came on the radio, and the newsreader launched into a piece about the weather affecting crops in the Midwest. Farm income is expected to decline, he reported, and as a result stock prices for farm equipment manufacturers are expected to decline. That’s because, he said, farmers will be “buying fewer tractors and reapers.”

In reply to which I muttered under my breath that I suspected the horse collar market would be pretty soft, too. And the buggy whip market didn’t even bear thinking about.

To be fair, the newswriter was probably trying to get the idea across that farm equipment manufacturers in general might be seeing some tough times on the horizon. You can almost see the words rattling around in the writer’s heat—what do farmers use out there on the (as the Chicago Tribune once put it) the rural plains? Well, tractors, sure, but what else to farmers do? They sow and they reap—they must use reapers!

You’d think the media big boys would be able to afford to hire folks who know a little something about what they’re writing about. It’s entirely possible farmers will be buying fewer tractors next year, but farmers haven’t bought reapers for well over a century now.

Cutting grain with scythe & cradle.jpg

Using scythe and cradle grain was cut by hand. Then it had to be gathered into bundles and piled in shocks to dry before it was threshed, again by hand.

A reaper, like a corn planter or a hay rake, was a machine with a special purpose—it cut “small grain” (oats, wheat, rye, barley) and prepared it to be bundled and allowed to dry before it was threshed—the grain separated from the stalks and chaff.

Reapers were some of the first harvesting machines and were the product of Yankee ingenuity. Before their advent, grain had to be cut by hand with scythes and then gathered into bundles by stoop labor that was laborious indeed. Only after the bundles were stacked into shocks and allowed to dry would they be hauled to the barn where they’d be threshed to remove the stalks and then the grain winnowed to remove the chaff.

McCormick Reaper

Cyrus McCormick’s reaper mechanized the grain cutting process, significantly improving farm productivity. McCormick Reapers were manufactured in Kendall County in the early 1840s.

With the frontier moving west into the prairies of Illinois where the rich soil produced bumper grain crops, Cyrus McCormick was among those who identified a need for a machine that would ease the labor and quicken the pace of the harvest. He came up with the first commercially successful harvester, a machine drawn by a horse or team that cut the grain stalks and laid them out where two men riding the harvester could bundle them and drop them on the ground to be later stacked into shocks to dry.

McCormick’s genius was his decision not to immediately manufacture all his own harvesters, but instead to sell franchises, letting others bear the cost of building manufacturies and producing his machines. Here in Kendall County, Isaac Townsend bought one of the first McCormick franchises and in 1841 began manufacturing harvesters in a small factory just off what is today Grove Road south of Oswego.

McCormick Binder

McCormick’s binder provided one more step in increased productivity by automatically tying the bundles of grain.

Powered by a steam engine shipped all the way from New York State, Townsend’s Oswego Manufacturing Company produced harvesters for a few years before the realities of his factory’s distance from raw materials and lack of a good transportation system led to its shutdown. But Townsend and the other franchisees helped spur others to perfect and then improve on McCormick’s basic design. In Plano, for instance, the Hollisters and Stewards developed an improved harvester that eventually added the capability to mechanically create and bind the bundles of grain. The development of the binder meant fewer farm laborers were needed to harvest much more grain, and productivity took another giant leap.

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

Binders, combined with steam-powered threshing machines provided another huge jump in productivity. Above, the East Oswego Threshing Ring harvests grain in 1911. (Little White School Museum photo)

But even with the binder, bundles of grain had to be stacked to dry and then threshed. The invention of the threshing machine—also called the separator because it separated grain from stalks and chaff—in the 1840s helped a lot. With the invention of self-propelled steam engines that could not only move themselves from farm to farm, but could also tow a threshing machine, too, productivity got another big boost as farmers banded together to buy the expensive steamers and threshing machines.

The increase in U.S. farm productivity in the 60 years between 1830 and 1890, thanks to increasing mechanization, was nothing less than astonishing. In 1830, it took about 300 man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, thanks to mechanization, it took just 50 man-hours to produce that same 100 bushels.

Modern combine

Modern combines have reduced the labor needed to produce 100 bushels of grain by 300 times compared to the prairie farmers of the 1830s.

Farm equipment manufacturers continued innovating and with economical internal combustion engine-powered tractors they also came up with a combined harvester that not only cut ripe grain in the field, but also threshed it to remove the stalks and winnowed it to separate out the chaff. These combines (combined harvesters) were first pulled by those new internal combustion tractors. Later, but not much later, self-propelled combines were introduced. It didn’t take long for the innovators to realize that the same machine could be used for both harvesting small grains as well as the newly introduced soybeans. And then somebody figured out how to design a combine that, just by changing the head—the mechanism that cuts and gathers the grain—on the combine you could turn it into a machine that also picked, husked, and shelled corn. And that leap led to the gigantic harvesting machines you see working in the fields from late summer on—one machine that replaced the harvester, the binder, the threshing machine, the corn picker/husker, and the corn sheller.

What has been the effect of all that mechanization on farm productivity? Nowadays, it takes less than three man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat—100 times less labor than it took our ancestors in the 1830s.

So here we are, nearly into September and the harvest of small grains is finished, the soybean harvest is coming up, and the corn harvest is at least on the horizon. For one more season, the farm calendar is shedding pages as folk in the country look forward to bringing in another crop.

 

 

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