Monthly Archives: July 2022

One of agriculture’s once-busiest seasons has virtually disappeared from northern Illinois’ farm calendar…

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.

Harvesting grain with scythe and cradle.

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.

Shocking oats. (Wisconsin Historical Society collection)

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.

McCormick’s patented reaper. Daniel J. Townsend manufactured McCormick reapers under license in rural NaAuSay Township in 1847

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.

A brand new 1881 Plano Harvester outside the firm’s Kendall County plant.

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.”

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the move from one member’s farm to another sometime around 1900. The ring was comprised of members living in the Harvey and Wolf’s Crossing roads area. (Dale Updike collection)

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.

The East Oswego Threshing ring in a photo taken by Malcom Rance during the 1911 season. The East Oswego Ring also included some farmers from Wheatland Township, Will County. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

The modern oat harvest–what there is of it in the Fox Valley these days–is now on.

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.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Technology

Will your Fourth of July be another noisy old-time Independence Day?

So what are you planning for this year’s Independence Day observance?

Around the Fox Valley, there is no lack of festivals, from old-time traditional ones like Yorkville’s, to slightly slicker ones like Aurora’s.

Independence Day has been a festive occasion ever since the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Not that those signing the document thought it, in and of itself, was such a big deal.

The actual legal separation of the 13 American colonies from Great Britain took place July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress formally voted to approve a resolution of independence. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to adopting the Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their momentous decision. The Declaration was written by a committee, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the Declaration, finally approving it for publication on July 4.

The Continental Congress voted on independence from Britain on July 2, but didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence until July 4. Either could have been termed Independence Day, but the people chose July 4 as the day to celebrate.

John Adams, then serving in the Continental Congress, wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3 that he believed July 2 would go down in the nation’s history as a day of thanksgiving and celebration for generations to come. Predicted Adams: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Well, he was close, but didn’t win the celebration prediction cigar. Instead of the vote to separate from Great Britain, the nation chose to celebrate the date Jefferson’s elegant prose comprising the Declaration was approved. But to give Adams his due, ever since, it really has been “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”

Our ancestors had a great time every July 4, both with formal celebrations, and until they were banned as too dangerous, by firing off “illuminations” in every back yard, often to the annoyance of the neighbors.

It wasn’t as if our ancestors were a staid and stolid bunch, as you quickly find out as you read accounts in the local papers. As in modern times, celebrations sometimes got out of hand, propelled and lubricated by alcohol.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in July 1869 that “Probably owing to the approach of the 4th, a good deal of hilarity, stimulated by whiskey and lager, has been manifested among a certain class during the week; on one occasion, a young man got his countenance disfigured, caused by bringing it in contact with another’s fist or boot. Some boys more patriotic than honest broke during last night a light out of Coffin’s store window, and stole some fire crackers. A large flag is suspended across the street from the Drug store to Coffin’s and the cannon is fired on the old National [hotel] lot.”

Which suggests that in 1869, Oswego had its very own cannon. Unfortunately, by the time I came along it was long gone, probably snapped up in a scrap metal drive or maybe sent up-river to Aurora to quell some civil disturbance and never returned.

Anyway, two years later the village cannon was still around because the Record reported from Oswego that “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The amount of the holiday’s hilarity continued to ebb and flow. The next year, 1872, the Record reported that “The quietest 4th ever experienced in the annals of Oswego was the one last week; the patriotic drunks were limited down to a very few.”

While some succeeding years featured ad hoc celebrations gotten together on the spur of the moment, other years were marked with elaborately planned events.

The Record reported on July 1, 1875 that Oswego residents were invited to participate in a community-wide celebration in Judson’s Grove, the area just north of the current Oswego Cemetery on the west side of South Main Street. Reported the Record: “On Saturday will be held the celebration of the Fourth of July in Judson’s Grove; the procession will form at 11 o’clock; the Rev. T.F. Jessup, of Kendall [Township], will be the principal orator, also Rev. Beans will make a short address. The proceedings will be enlivened at intervals by the band; and there will be singing; croquet playing will form part of the amusement, and there will be races. No popping of fireworks will be allowed on the grounds.”

But despite strictures like that, it was always the noise the holiday’s celebration generated that seemed to make people feel good on July 4. If it wasn’t firing cannons or firing off firecrackers, it was firing anvils.

The Record reported from Oswego on July 6, 1882, that “The glorious racket was commenced early this morning with thirteen anvils before sunrise; the weather was gloriously chilly; the Garfield pole was lowered yesterday, the rope adjusted and from it the glorious old flag is now waving.”

What, exactly, was firing an anvil? Well, it was a truly glorious way to make a heck of a racket without benefit of a canon that looked much like one of the experiments they used to conduct on The Discovery Channel’s old “Mythbusters” cable TV show.

Firing the anvil during a 19th Century July Fourth celebration.

Firing an anvil requires at least two large iron blacksmith anvils, one of which is placed upside down on the ground with its base facing up. The base, which is slightly concave, is filled level full or a bit higher, with black gunpowder, a fuse inserted, and the second anvil (called the flyer) is placed carefully, right side up, on the base. The fuse is lit and the resulting explosion can blow the flyer up to 250 feet into the air, depending on how much gunpowder can be loaded in the base anvil. Some guys, of course, thanks to the invention of electrical and duct tape have figured out how to double the gunpowder charge to get the flier’s altitude increased—because guys and blowing things up are just sort of natural companions.

This year’s Fourth of July will undoubtedly involve plenty of noisy and entertaining celebrations, not to mention the neighborhood explosions the local cops pledge to stop every year and which every year continue unabated.

But part of the annual fun of this particular holiday (as long as you don’t have to cope with pets who are terrified on the seemingly non-stop explosions) is realizing our great-great-grandparents could be just as whacky as we are today.

If you’d like to watch an actual anvil firing, go to this web address: and enjoy.

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Filed under entertainment, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego