Monthly Archives: December 2014

Prairie farming by the rhythm of the seasons…

If there’s one profession that is still tied to the turn of the seasons, it’s farming.

When I was a youngster growing up on a northern Illinois farm back in the early 1950s, my father followed the rhythm of the agricultural year.

During the winter, my father fed cattle and hogs, kept the family cow milked, repaired equipment, and started thinking about spring planting season. Spring was given over to planting corn, oats, and soybeans and sowing alfalfa and timothy seed on land that had been corn ground the year before. During the summer months, crops were weeded first with the tractor-mounted cultivator and then by physically walking the rows of soybeans and hoeing out volunteer cornstalks and the ever-present velvet weed. Late summer and fall were harvest seasons and in late fall, we butchered cattle and hogs and froze the meat, after which winter arrived and the cycle began again.

In general terms, that had been the practice throughout the Midwest for decades before, and with some fairly major changes in emphasis, it still works pretty much the way today.

But what about pioneer times? What was the rhythm of the seasons our great-great-great-great grandparents observed on their farms during and immediately after the settlement era?

Unfortunately, most of those hardy pioneers left no record of how they lived their daily lives. But once in a while historians are lucky enough to stumble across accounts of pioneer life recorded by the settlers themselves.

This image of the Bossin Farm, Clinton County, Iowa, gives an idea of what the Savage farm may have looked like. (Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library)

This image of the Bossin Farm, Clinton County, Iowa, gives an idea of what the Savage farm may have looked like. (Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library)

One such account was left by John Savage, son of William Savage, a New Yorker who brought his family to Salem Township, Henry County, in the southeast corner of Iowa in the mid-1850s. The state was brand new and was the new frontier between settled areas to the east and the untamed shortgrass prairies to the west inhabited by immense herds of bison and the Native Americans who subsisted on them. But land was of good quality and inexpensive.

Young John Savage gradually took over the farming operation, continually improving the land originally purchased by his father. But while always looking ahead to what the Savages considered a better future, they kept close attention to the yearly routine of a prairie farm. In 1861, the year before he married Tacy Crew, John recorded a full year’s worth of that routine, an interesting window into the 19th Century farming cycle.

The Savages’ farm year started in January when the family butchered hogs for their own use and hauled corn from shocks in the field to the farmyard where it was hand-shelled and fed to the livestock. In the farm’s timber area, there were rails to split and put by for fencing come spring, and firewood to harvest that warmed twice, once when cut and again when burned in the stove. Cutting firewood and splitting rails continued through February, as did hauling in corn from shocks in the field.

This is what a properly built split rail fence looks like. Rail fences were timber-intensive and required constant maintenance, but they were relatively cheap during the settlement era.

This is what a properly built split rail fence looks like. Rail fences were timber-intensive and required constant maintenance, but they were relatively cheap during the settlement era. They were replaced with wire fencing as soon as it became practical.

In March, while continuing to split more rails, John and his father started clearing 10 acres of brush they planned to plow for the first time in the spring. In addition, sheep gave birth that month. In April the Savage men painted their apple tree trunks with lye and lime to combat insects and sowed oats. Generally, oats were sown by hand on ground that had been plowed and harrowed using a homemade horse-drawn drag harrow consisting of a wooden frame with metal or wooden teeth that smoothed the ground. It was harrowed again after planting to cover the oat seed.

May was time to plant potatoes, sorghum and corn. Work wrapped up clearing the brushland. They hauled the rails they’d split during the winter to repair fences around all of their tilled cropland, plus the newly cleared 10 acres. Late in the month, the sheep were washed in preparation for shearing by driving them into a gravel-bottomed stretch of creek that had been deepened with a temporary dam. Sheep with long fleece (which traps air) float and are fairly strong swimmers, so it was possible to give each a short but vigorous washing, sometimes using homemade lye soap. Released, the animals swam back to shore.

In June, the clean sheep were sheared and the wool taken to market. Mandatory township roadwork was completed (if it wasn’t, a tax was levied), and the cleared brushland was plowed. Cornfields were cultivated or “plowed,” as they termed it, to retard weeds. In early July, the corn got its last pass with the horsedrawn cultivator and was laid by. The first hay cutting was completed and late in the month, the “small grain” harvest got underway in the oat and wheat fields.

August opened with oats and wheat stalks cut and stacked in shocks to dry, followed by hauling manure from the barnyard to fertilize the Savages’ proposed winter wheat ground. In September, the winter wheat was planted and the hogs were brought in from the pastures to be penned and fattened for market. A new stable was built, and repairs were made to the barnyard fence. Sorghum was harvested and readied for grinding and pressing and the Savages started their share of work with the neighborhood threshing ring.

When ripe, corn was cut and gathered into shocks, which were allowed to stand in the field to dry. The ears were later husked and the kernels shelled. When mechanical corn huskers were perfected, corn shocking disappeared, except for use as autumn lawn decorations.

When ripe, corn was cut and gathered into shocks, which were allowed to stand in the field to dry. The ears were later husked and the kernels shelled from the cobs. When mechanical corn huskers were perfected, corn shocking disappeared, except for use as autumn lawn decorations.

Threshing continued in early October until all the ring’s members’ crops were finished. Corn was cut and bundled into shocks to dry, apples were picked and stored, and potatoes were dug and laid by in the root cellar. In November, standing corn was hand-husked and fed to the livestock and husking started on the corn shocked earlier that fall. Fattened hogs were driven to market, and more split rails were hauled from the timber to repair fences.

There was little snow early that December so the Savages continued clearing brush. They split more rails for fences around the fodder stacked in the farmyard to keep the livestock out. Then, as 1862 dawned, the process started all over again.

If you’re interested, you can read the whole story in From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century by Allan G. Bogue (Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1963).

These days, we’ve become largely disconnected from the seasons as we pursue our urbanized nine to five jobs, but from the era of pioneer prairie farming right up to the present day, out on the farm the seasons were real symbols of the way the world worked.

 

 

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The civilizing influence of cleanliness…

When Steven Johnson decided to tell the story about How We got to Now in his book and accompanying series on PBS last fall, he chose six technologies he decided explained how life came to be the way it is these days including glass, cold, sound, time, light, and hygiene.

The idea that hygiene is a crucial technology that helped create modern life might seem odd, but cleanliness as it as evolved to the way we consider it today has been absolutely vital in creating modern society.

I remember one time as I helped my mother do our regular Saturday housecleaning routine (my job was to dust the legs of the dining room table and chairs, the buffet, and the kitchen table and chairs since I was the youngest, shortest, and therefore closest to the ground) I asked whether her house was as clean when she was growing up as ours was.

“Well,” she said after thinking about it for a moment, “Clean is relative.”

What she meant wasn’t entire clear to me at the time, but her “Clean is relative” comment stuck with me. Because what we consider a clean house today was certainly not at all what it meant a century and more ago. Back then, the thin ingrain carpeting of the time or strips of rag rugs sewn together to create room-sized carpets, were often padded with a layer of straw. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the problems with cleanliness that would cause.

This Hoover vacuum ad from 1931 suggests that only the best families own electric vacuum cleaners, and further that it's necessary since the help can be so slovenly. My grandfather was an early-adopter of vacuum technology, but was far from as wealthy as those at which Hoover was aiming their ad.

This Hoover vacuum ad from 1931 suggests that only the best families own electric vacuum cleaners, and further that it’s necessary since the help can be so slovenly. My grandfather was an early-adopter of vacuum technology, but was far from as wealthy as those at which Hoover was aiming their ad.

Especially in the era before electric vacuum cleaners had been developed (along with the easily available electricity needed to power them), carpet sweepers were the implements of choice to clean rugs and carpets in place, and while they’d sweep up surface dust and debris, ground-in dirt was simply beyond them.

My grandfather was always fascinated with technological innovations. He had one of the first gasoline-powered tractors in the neighborhood and one of the first big Atwater-Kent radio sets. After electrical service was extended to our farming community, he became a self-taught electrician, and also bought one of the first electric vacuums in the neighborhood. He was so enthusiastic about its cleaning power that he took it around to the neighbors’ to demonstrate how well it cleaned. At one neighborhood farm, however, about all he managed to do was convince the farmer his wife was shirking her housewifely duties.

This past year, we got another lesson in relative hygiene when the Ebola virus staged another outbreak in Africa, the most severe yet. The big difference this time is that the virus managed to jump the Atlantic Ocean and ended up here in the U.S., where two visitors from abroad died and a few other healthcare workers were stricken. But unlike Africa, where cultural traditions and lack of what we consider basic sanitary conditions encouraged the virus’s spread, Ebola was pretty much stopped in its tracks here, despite the hysteria encouraged by those who ought to have known better.

The time was, however, and not all that long ago, that the lack of good hygiene and ignorance of its effect on our lives proved deadly and not just embarrassing like the dust my grandfather extracted from neighbors’ carpets.

In particular, the ignorance of how disease spreads due to bad sanitation took a long time to penetrate the lives of most Americans. Diseases such as typhoid fever, spread through lack of knowledge of how human and animal waste can contaminate water supplies, took a frightful toll on lives. And wealth was no barrier when it came to catching this deadly disease. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, contracted typhoid fever and died while living Windsor Castle in December 1861. Just a month earlier, his cousins, King Pedro V and Prince Ferdinand of Portugal, had also died of typhoid.

We now know that typhoid is spread through consumption of food or water that has been contaminated by an infected person’s feces. Which is why a number of government regulations now mandate how far, say, a private water well must be from a home’s septic system.

Although we now have antibiotics to treat the disease, we also know that typhoid must be treated by keeping the victim hydrated and making sure caretakers are careful not to infect themselves. A century and a half ago, doctors were still unsure of the efficacy of sterilizing their hands, instruments, much less the impact of contaminated water supplies.

Here in Oswego, typhoid was a constant threat, often striking entire families and their neighbors. A good illustration is Lorenzo Rank’s report in the Oct. 6, 1881 Kendall County Record:

“The typhoid patients are all on the gain except Jennie Hubbard, whose case is said to be precarious; her mother, Mrs. C.E. Hubbard, is convalescent; Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Smith are improving slowly.”

Oswego's first fire brigade poses in front of the village's new water tower in the summer of 1895. The tank atop the tower was made of basswood. (Little White School Museum collection)

Oswego’s first fire brigade poses in front of the village’s new water tower in the summer of 1895. The tank atop the tower was made of basswood. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, however, it became clear that towns that had central water supplies instead of relying on individual wells were healthier places to live, even though the exact reasons for that were still unclear. Oswego was finally able to establish its own municipal water system in 1895, using saloon licenses to pay for drilling the municipal well, laying the service pipes, and building the water tower. The system was inaugurated in July 1895, with Rank writing in the July 3 Record:

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost. They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has.”

The new steel water tank atop Oswego's 1895 cast iron tower is nearing completion in this 1906 photo. Officials were aghast at what they found floating in the water of the old basswood tank when it was finally uncovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new steel water tank atop Oswego’s 1895 cast iron tower is nearing completion in this 1906 photo. Officials were aghast at what they found floating in the water of the old basswood tank when it was finally uncovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

But while the new system was a marvel, folks continued to contract various waterborne diseases. In March 1906, the village board decided to replace the old 20×24 foot basswood tank, which had begun leaking, with a larger 18×30 foot steel tank. When the wooden tank was removed from atop the cast iron tower legs later that year, village officials were aghast at what they found. As Rank reported on July 11:

“We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”

That could have been one reason people kept contracting typhoid in Oswego. For instance, Rank reported on Oct. 31, 1900 that the entire Ellis Darby family was down with the disease. The other reason could have been the lack of a municipal sanitary sewer system, too, with outhouses being the primary method of dealing with sanitary waste. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Oswego voters decided to finance construction of a municipal sanitary waste disposal plant, after which the village had finally caught up with municipal water and sewer service enjoyed by Ancient Romans 2,000 years before.

These days, we take the disposal of sanitary waste, rules and regulations that protect both public and private water supplies, and other advances such as the elimination of horses from cities as the main power source for delivery vehicles, whose manure and carcasses (in 1912 alone, Chicago public works employees disposed of 10,000 dead horses from city streets) created nearly unimaginable pollution.

We take clean for granted these days, at home, in the food industry, and elsewhere—and for good reason. But all this cleanliness didn’t just happen. It came from hard-fought victories led by everything from women’s magazine articles to efforts on the part of organizations from the Farm Bureau to labor unions.

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Pre-Christmas nostalgia seizes blogger…

So Thanksgiving is over and now we can start looking towards Christmas?

Although merchandisers have been looking towards Christmas since before Halloween, I always try to restrain myself until all the turkey leftovers have been eaten, the leaves taken back out of the dining room table, and all the glassware and silverware has been shined and put away.

Just a bit ago, I noticed it was flurrying past my office window here at History Central in downtown Troy, which is a lot better than the rain that was falling when I got up this morning. To me, there’s not much more miserable weather than 35° and rain.

At this time of the year, it’s difficult not to reflect on Christmases past. The holiday was a big deal when I was a kid. My grandfather was an enthusiastic fan of Christmas, although at the time I would not have said my grandfather was enthusiastic about anything. He was, with us younger kids at least, gruff and a man of very few words. I don’t remember him ever calling me by my first name, in fact. But at Christmas he became a much more mellow fellow, wandering through the crowd of children and grandchildren, and later, great-grandchildren, with a grin on his normally uncommunicative face.

The CB&Q Aurora Shops car department, woodworking mill in 1898 where my grandfather worked building boxcars and cabooses. The smaller building at right was the steam power plant where my great-grandfather worked.

The CB&Q Aurora Shops car department, woodworking mill in 1898 where my grandfather worked building boxcars and cabooses. The smaller building at right was the steam power plant where my great-grandfather worked. (Library of Congress photo)

His family were Germans from Germany, as opposed to my grandmother’s family, who were Germans from Pennsylvania. Both of them grew up speaking German at home, even though my grandmother’s family had immigrated to the colonies back in 1750, while Grandpa’s family arrived in the early 1880s. But while Grandma’s family wasn’t much on religion or holidays, Grandpa’s certainly were. He brought those family traditions with him when he and Grandma and their three kids, at my grandmother’s increasingly desperate pleas, moved out of Aurora to a decrepit Wheatland Township farm.

In Aurora, they’d lived in a new house—my great-grandfather gave them a lot in between the great-grandparents’ house and the lot they’d already given to their daughter and her husband—who was my grandmother’s brother. It was a situation that led, a century later, to make for some interesting genealogy charts.

The problem was that my great-grandmother and her daughter did not get along. There was constant yelling back and forth between the two, with my grandmother literally caught in the middle of their incessant arguments after which either or both would take to their beds whereupon Grandma would be forced to care for either or both of them. After 11 years of that nonsense, she’d had enough and began begging Grandpa to move to a farm, where, she promised, she’d milk cows, feed pigs and chickens, can fruit and vegetables, and generally run the place all on her own, if he wanted.

My grandparents, my Uncle Earl (center, first row), my Aunt Evelyn (left, standing), my Uncle Gerald, who my grandparents raised and then adopted after his mother (my grandmother's sister) died in childbirth, and my mother, about 1944.

My grandparents, my Uncle Earl (center, first row), my Aunt Evelyn (left, standing), my Uncle Gerald, who my grandparents raised and then adopted after his mother (my grandmother’s sister) died in childbirth, and my mother, about 1944.

At the time he had a pretty good job as a crew supervisor working in the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops in downtown Aurora, a job he didn’t want to give up, at least not right away. But luckily enough, there was an interurban trolley line about a mile and a half from the farm they rented. So every morning four days a week (according to his paybooks, which I still have, his crew worked four 10 hour days a week) he’d walk down and catch the interurban to downtown Aurora, work his 10 hours, and then take the trolley home, and walk the mile and a half home. On his three-day weekends, he’d do the heavy farming work out in the fields while Grandma, true to her word, milked eight or 10 cows, fed the pigs and chickens, tended the garden and the orchard, canned and otherwise preserved the fruit and vegetables she grew, and took care of her three kids, one of whom, my Uncle Earl, was afflicted with infantile paralysis and had to be carried just about everywhere.

1920 Holzhueter farm moving day

Moving day in 1920 at the Wheatland Township farmhouse my grandparents rented from Louis McLaren. It took a few weeks to make the place livable and was a far cry from their two-story Queen Anne house on Aurora’s East Side.

But even as hard as their lives were, Christmas on the farm was an important piece of the family’s year. They’d go into Aurora on Christmas Eve so Grandma and the kids could go to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church for the German language service while Grandpa went in search of a Christmas tree and other holiday goodies. He always maintained the best deals on Christmas trees were found on Christmas Eve, in which he was entirely right. It’s just that the trees were always—and this continued right up through the day and age when I was married with my own baby girl—about as forlorn looking as the one made famous by Charlie Brown. But after the bubble lights, ornaments, and the tinsel were applied, they looked festive enough.

Grandpa was startled to find that in the country, living as they did among English and Scots neighbors, Christmas just wasn’t that big a deal. Their neighbors across the field had a son who, like my Uncle Earl, was crippled and who one summer day happened to mention to my grandfather that he loved looking across the frozen, snowy fields at Christmas and seeing the gaily lighted tree in my grandparents’ window. The child’s father offered that Christmas decorating was foolishness that cost a lot of money for no gain to the farm at all, an attitude my grandfather had a hard time getting his mind around.

So the next Christmas, my grandfather bought two Christmas trees at Joe Hauser’s store on Aurora’s East Side, plus some extra decorations. After putting up the family tree, he decorated the other one, and carried it across the field to the neighbors’ house where the youngster was absolutely shocked to find this bit of Christmas cheer was for him to enjoy. And Grandpa did the same thing for the few years the child had left before he died.

My mother and father made a big deal out of Christmas, too. On Christmas Eve, we all went to the church Christmas program, and then enjoyed the gift exchange after. Then it was off to the Bower’s house next to the church where we admired their tree and drank a little eggnog before heading home. Once in a great while, I’d get to open a gift on Christmas Eve, not often. That was saved for Christmas morning. Later that morning, we’d pack up the car and head the two or three miles to my grandparents’ farm, where we’d have Christmas dinner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, eating around the big table in the long, narrow dining room that, outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas, was used to feed threshing and bailing crews, followed by a gift exchange (we drew names at Thanksgiving). The thrill of the day was when my mother wandered around handing out envelopes with $5 bills to all us grandkids from Grandpa and Grandma.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn's 1956 catalog.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

I can still remember the thrill of opening the Lionel train I got one Christmas morning, with switches and a signal tower and a boxcar with a guy who actually slid open the door and popped out! After we moved to town, I found a brand new Schwinn bike standing by the tree one Christmas morning. It was a honey, too, a Schwinn Corvette, with chrome fenders and a three-speed gear shift, not to mention caliper brakes, which took some getting used to.

Though the Schwinn is long gone, I still have my Lionel O-gauge train set, packed in a couple boxes in the attic. The engine still smokes if you put the little white pills down the stack, an the man in the orange boxcar still opens the sliding door and pops out when it’s over that special piece of track. And as the holiday season progresses, I’m hoping I can infuse a little of the Christmas spirit that my grandfather so loved into my own grandchildren.

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