The other day on Facebook, a guy got to wondering about an old sign he’d come across that advertised the Wheatland Plowing Match, which was once a big deal in eastern Wheatland and eastern Oswego townships here in northern Illinois.
Noting some of the information on the sign, he wondered: “Apparently plowing competitions were once a thing, but I am stumped as to how they incorporated a ‘ladies fair’ into such an event…:
To dig into this topic, we’ve got to go back in time to the region’s pioneer era. In the 1840s and 1850s, farming families from Scotland and Germany immigrated to the United States, and they wound up settling in northeastern Kendall and northwestern Will counties.
The Germans brought their rigorous work ethic to an area that was also being populated by their German-speaking cousins from the Pennsylvania Dutch region, who were arriving here in northern Illinois about the same time, and the two groups formed a cohesive German-speaking settlement that soon became known for its prosperous, well-run farms.
The Scots came seeking better, cheaper farmland than their thin-soiled rocky homeland, as well as more opportunity. Scotland was in the throes of a socio-economic revolution as large landowners forced farmers off their rented lands in an effort to maximize wool production. But Scotland’s loss was our gain, as dozens of skilled farmers decided to cross the Atlantic and try their luck with the rich prairie soil of Illinois.
The hardworking Germans and the canny Scots soon came to respect each other’s strong points. And the main strong point of the Scots farmers was their scientific approach to tilling the land.
By the early years of the 19th century, the British Isles had become the center of an agricultural revolution, combining increasing mechanization with scientific techniques to increase the yield of both crops and livestock through genetic manipulation and land use practices. Farmers experimented with machines like seed drills, invented in the early 1700s, that proved superior to the old method of broadcast seeding and faster than planting individual seeds by hand. New plow designs were created, wet land was drained, crop rotation was analyzed and scientifically improved, and livestock breeding was placed on a scientific footing.
These techniques and more were brought to eastern Oswego and western Wheatland townships in the 1840s by Scots farming families with names like Patterson, Clow, Stewart, Ferguson, McMicken, and Harvey. By the 1870s, they were operating successful, growing farms and had also built churches and helped establish public schools they shared with their German-speaking neighbors.
In an effort to promote best practices in agriculture and to recognize those who were excelling, three prominent Scots and English farmers decided to use that idea to establish a new kind of farming festival. At the urging and invitation of James Patterson, Henry Massey and A.S. Thomas, a dozen farmers met at a one-room country school in Wheatland Township on July 15, 1877 and voted to establish what eventually became the Wheatland Plowing Association. The first competitive plowing match was set for Sept. 22 of that year on the farm of Alexander Brown.
The idea behind the match was to assess skill in plowing. Plowmen were to be judged on straightness, neatness, and evenness of their furrows. Depth of the furrow was to be no less than five inches and each plowman was required to plow a half-acre in no more than three and a half hours. The grand prize winner that year was James King, who took home the $15 prize. His descendants would continue to excel at the craft of plowing until the last match was held. Runners-up were John Thompson, Henry Westphal, Edward Green and Chris Catchpole, while the boys’ category winner was John Netley, who took home a neat $8—$187 in today’s dollars. The
first match also reportedly had exhibits of farm implements displayed by local dealers, a feature that would grow during the next century.
By the next year, the plowing match had started to turn into an event whose size surprised everyone—perhaps even its creators. As the Sept. 26, 1878 Kendall County Record reported: “Saturday, Sept. 21st was the day advertised by the farmers of Wheatland township, Will county, (better known as Scotch settlement) for their annual plow trial. The trial was held on the farm of Robt. Clow Esq., about nine miles east of Oswego. To our great surprise the attendance was as large as the first day of the Will County Fair. A better show of plowmen and plowing would be hard to find. As the plowing progressed it was generally conceded that the Sulkies [riding plows] did better work than the Walking Plows, the work being side by side could be easily compared.”
And the Wheatland Plowing Match was off and running.
In those early years, the match was shared around the neighborhood, the neighborhood being the area along modern Ill. Route 59 from today’s White Eagle Club south to 127 Street, east to the DuPage River and west to the Kendall County line. And it didn’t take any time at all for the area’s German-speaking farmers to join in the event. After all, the Scots and Germans had already begun to intermarry, with, for instance, Minnigs, Lantzes and Schals marrying into the Patterson clan.
So by 1895, it was common for the match to be hosted by German farmers, including my Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandfather. The Record’s NaAuSay correspondent reported in the paper’s Sept. 25 edition that: “The plowing match at Wheatland on Saturday on the farm of Peter Lantz was a great attraction for farmers for many miles around. NaAuSay had a good share of its farmers there. It was estimated there was about nine to ten thousand people present.”
You read that right: nine to ten thousand attendees in the days of travel by horse and buggies.
The plowing match became so much a part of the local farm calendar that other unrelated events were scheduled around it. Starting in 1933, for instance, my family simply stated the usual time for their annual family reunion would be the second Sunday after the plowing match.
The matches gradually grew in size, too, eventually incorporating such county fair-like attractions as baking and sewing contests. School kids submitted samples of their cursive handwriting for prizes and agricultural-based businesses flocked to set up booths to advertise their wares. My favorite was always the fire insurance booth that featured a miniature house that would catch fire after being struck by static electricity-generated “lightning.” The displays of the latest farm equipment offered irresistible opportunities for youngsters to climb on. I even took my first airplane ride at a Wheatland Plowing Match. We must have been 7 or 8 years old when my buddy Bob Chada and I were strapped into the front seat of Earl Matter’s bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub and were thrilled to see our farm neighborhood from the air.
The matches were only interrupted by the two world wars, skipping one year for World War I and four years for World War II. With peace finally at hand, the Record’s Oswego correspondent gratefully wrote on Sept. 18, 1946: “Nearly everyone and his brother attended the Wheatland Plowing match on Saturday. The weather was perfect for the event and the crowd was very large and happy to meet after four long years.”
The plowing match continued to attract large crowds through the 1950s and 1960s, but then interest began to wane. Increased urbanization in DuPage and Will counties where the matches were held and decreasing numbers of farmers due to technological advances finally led to the event’s last hurrah in 1976.
Today, the Wheatland Plowing Match is but a footnote in our area’s agricultural history and traditions. But its one that left lasting memories for many of us and a lasting legacy of promoting the best scientific farming practices while providing a bit of rural entertainment for hardworking, innovative prairie farmers.
Note: If you’d like more information on the plowing match, the Wheatland Plow Match Association records from 1898 to 1978 are in the Regional History Center at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. The Naperville Heritage Association Library and Archives at the Naper Settlement also has a small, but nice collection of Wheatland Plowing Match memorabilia including several Wheatland Plowing Match Ladies’ Fair booklets from the 1890s and early 1900s.