Time was this time of year, farmers had mostly wrapped up the harvest of their small grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—and were looking towards threshing it. Because back then, those were two different, extremely labor-intensive processes.
Nowadays, of course, grain farmers use giant combines to harvest, thresh, and winnow small grain—if they’ve grown any of it, of course.
Farming’s changed considerably during the last 70 years. Back in 1950, almost all farming operations were diversified, meaning farms produced both grain and livestock, from cattle and hogs to sheep and poultry. These days, farms specialize in either grain or livestock. And for grain farmers—the vast majority of today’s farmers—the types of grain grown here in northern Illinois have changed considerably. While you can still spot a few fields of traditional small grains here and there, for the most part farmers around these parts today grow corn and soybeans. Oats, wheat, rye, and barley have mostly disappeared from the area’s agricultural landscape. But for a century after the settlement era, Kendall County produced a LOT of small grains, both for market and for use on the farm. Oats, in particular, were valuable, both as a cash crop and on the farm itself to feed the horses and mules to power the farm equipment of the era.
There was a huge settlement rush into northern Illinois in 1833. Known as “The Year of the Early Spring,” the weather warmed earlier than usual drying out what roads and trails there were and greening up the prairie grass providing ample forage for the teams of horses and yokes of oxen pulling the settlers’ wagons.
The crops those pioneer farmers planted were largely the same as the ones they’d grown back east. Corn was a staple, and so was wheat as well as oats, rye, and barley along with flax for making linen thread.
And while experiments had been ongoing for a long time on mechanizing parts of the farming process, about the only thing that could be called a machine they used was a plow. And the ones of that era were nothing to write home about, either. While their iron plowshares and wooden moldboards worked in the thin stony soils found back east, they proved inadequate when working in Illinois’ deep, rich loam. John Deere eventually solved the plow problem, which was a definite help, but that only put a shallow scratch in the problem of easing farmers’ backbreaking labor.
Those small grains needed for survival on the prairie—wheat for flour, oats for food for both man and beast, rye for flour and whiskey, and barley for food as well as beer and whiskey—were terribly labor intensive to grow and harvest.
Grain seed was broadcast by hand and then worked into plowed ground with harrows after which it was a chore to keep birds and other critters from eating all of it. Then weeds had to be hoed out as the crop matured. When it did, the real work began. First the grain stalks had to be cut and gathered into bundles. That task was done with large sickles called scythes with contraptions consisting of flimsy wooden fingers called a cradle attached. An experienced farmer could cut the grain, gather the stalks on the fingers of the cradle, and lay them in a neat row behind him as he worked through an entire field. A good man with a scythe and cradle could cut up to two acres of grain a day.
After it was cut, the grain had to be gathered into bundles, each tied with a stalk of grain in a backbreaking process of stoop labor. The bundles were then neatly piled in small stacks called shocks, with roofs created by skillful placing of other bundles to shed most of any rain to allow the grain in the shock to dry. And that wrapped up harvesting.
After the grain bundles in the shocks dried they had to be hauled up to the barn where the threshing process began. Barns of the era had threshing floors where the boards were tightly fitted to allow no grain to escape. The bundles were laid in a single layer on the floor and then beat with a flail to separate the wheat, oat, or other grain from the stalks and hulls. Stalks of the straw had to be removed by hand and stacked for later use as livestock bedding, with the grain swept up and put into bins or barrels.
But the grain was still intermixed with a lot of dust and hulls, so it had to be winnowed. Using large, flat baskets or trays, the grain was tossed into the air on a windy day allowing the breeze to blow the lighter chaff away from the heavier grain. Then the clean grain was stored in bins for use on the farm or put directly into sacks to be hauled to whatever market might have existed.
As settlement moved west, pioneer farmers left the dense woods of the east and entered the Prairie Peninsula. The huge tallgrass prairie region was a rough triangle stretching from northwestern Indiana northwest through Illinois, Iowa, and western Minnesota to extreme eastern North Dakota, then straight south to the Kansas-Oklahoma border and then east and north back to northwestern Indiana.
The region was underlain with rich, deep soils created by the last glacier and, as its name implies, thickly covered with prairie grasses and other plants sometimes seven and more feet tall. It was a revelation to eastern farmers who’d had to wrestle every acre out of dense forests, an area conducive to much larger farms. But there were problems.
First, labor was in short supply on the Illinois frontier. Second, as noted above, grain farming was extremely labor intensive. In 1830, it took around 300 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat and around 90 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn, with the whole family pitching in to help. Big farm families were a definite help, but it took a while for kids to get to an age when they were more help than hindrance.
So western farmers naturally started looking for ways to ease the labor needed to produce those crops. Which is where American ingenuity came in. The first area addressed was the initial harvest with scythe and cradle. Harvesters pulled by horses that cut grain stalks allowing a person riding on the machine to rake the stalks so they fell in rows behind the machine were first developed in the 1830s, with Cyrus McCormick’s machine gradually becoming dominant over its competitors.
Here in Kendall County, Royal Bullard of Millbrook bought one of the first McCormick Reapers in 1844. Three years later, Cyrus McCormick traveled out from Chicago and contracted with Daniel J. Townsend of NaAuSay Township to build and sell reapers for the 1847 crop. Townsend’s steam-powered factory was located in AuSable Grove, miles from any town and only operated for a few years.
By the late 1840s, however, reapers were being replaced by harvesters, machines that allowed workers riding the machine to bundle the grain by hand after it was cut, dropping the bundles on the ground. The Plano Harvester Works here in Kendall County manufactured hundreds of the machines each year until they, too, were replaced by the grain binder. Those machines cut and automatically bundled the grain, allowing one man to do the work it previously took three to do. The Plano factory manufactured 2,000 Gordon patent binders in 1877 and early 1878 for the 1878 harvest. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, 10 improvements patented for the Gordon machines were developed by Kendall County residents.
In addition, the first practical mechanical threshing machines were beginning to appear on the Illinois prairies in the 1840s and 1850s. John Avery and Hiram Abial Pitts had patented a successful machine in 1837 that not only threshed the grain, but also mechanized the winnowing process. Their machines were animal-powered using simple devices that allowed horses hitched to horizontal arms to walk around a circle while gears powered a pulley. A belt from the pulley powered the machine. By the 1870s, steam engines were being used to power threshing machines, a novelty reported by the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Aug. 21, 1879: “A steam thresher is the latest enterprise added to the business institutions of this town; the proprietor of it is Wm. E. Smith. It was set to work Saturday out at Wm. Pearce’s and being the first thing of the kind in this vicinity a large number went there to see its operation and all expressed themselves highly pleased with it except a few of whose running horse-power machines, who of course saw disadvantages in it and predicted trouble.”
Threshing machines continued to improve, as did the steam engines that almost exclusively came to power them. But a threshing outfit was far too expensive for average farmers. So they combined into neighborhood cooperatives to buy the equipment. Each cooperative had its own rules and regulations and during the harvest, each member was entitled to have the equipment used on their farm, with all the members and their families contributing to the labor. The threshing outfit moved from farm to farm around the neighborhood, and so the cooperatives began to be called “rings.” Threshing rings operated in Kendall County up until the advent of affordable combines farmers could buy on their own. Combines were originally called combined harvesters because they mechanically combined harvesting and threshing in one piece of equipment.
Advances in harvesting and threshing technology, coupled with improvements in plows and other crop preparation equipment plus progress in new varieties of wheat had huge effects on farm production. While it took around 300 work hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat in 1830, by 1890 it was only taking about 30 hours.
Ironically, by that time, wheat was no longer a major crop in northern Illinois, it being discovered wheat grew much better farther west where the climate was dryer. In 1860 Wisconsin and Illinois were the nation’s chief wheat states. By 1910 North Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota were the chief wheat states as the Midwest’s eastern states began concentrating more and more on growing corn as well as oats and the other small grains.
The remaining small grains were also on the way out. Kendall County’s oat harvest reached its height in the early 20th Century. The county produced 2.1 million bushels of oats in 1910 that went to feed horses used on the farm as well as in town. But with horses being rapidly replaced as the prime movers both on the farm and in town, oats were no longer so much in demand. In 1940, the oat harvest in Kendall County was down to 1.8 million bushels and down further to 1.6 million bushels by 1958. From there, the bottom literally dropped out and by 2007 so few bushels were grown that the U.S. Census of Agriculture for Kendall County didn’t even report them.
In the 1930s, realizing that the days of Illinois’ production of small grains was numbered, the Farm Bureau partnered with the University of Illinois Extension Service to begin pushing soybean production. With a few inexpensive modifications, the same equipment farmers already owned could be used to plant and harvest beans. By the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture took the 2017 farm census, Kendall County farmers were producing 3.1 million bushels of soybeans annually.
If you drive around the countryside this time of year, you’ll still see a few acres of oats and wheat ripening in area fields. You might also get a chance to see a farmer using his combine to harvest those rare fields of small grains. While farming is still hard work and the hours during planting and harvesting seasons are long, today’s powerful, comfortable, computer-assisted equipment is a far cry from the days of cradling, bundling, and shocking grain by hand and threshing it with a flail on the barn floor.