I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.
Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.
Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.
In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.
Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.
One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.
In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.
I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.
But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.
But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.
The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.
It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.
Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.
We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.
Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.
In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.
We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.
But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.
Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.
During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.
As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”
That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.
The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.
And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.
Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.
That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.
Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.
I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.
Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.