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.
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.
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.
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.