Woodbury County, Iowa Genealogy
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From The Sloan Centennial Book 1870-1970.
FARMING OVER THE YEARS
by Jesse Copple, Rex Fountain, and N.P. Juneman
“I always maintained that all tractors made too much noise. I wanted them to be quiet, like a car, so you could listen to the World Series while plowing.” N.P. Juneman, Sloan, Iowa
In the latter part of the nineteenth, all corn cultivation was done with single-row walking machinery, the farmer holding the plow in the ground as he trudged behind it. After the planting and three or four cultivations (corn borer was unheard of then), the stalks were cut, shocked, and picked later.
The first improvements in harvesting came when a wagon was drawn through the field with a man on each side picking two rows and throwing the corn in, while a third man picked the row broken down by the wagon. This way, three men could get five rows each trip threw the field.
The addition of a bangboard did away with the down-row, so that one man using steel hooks on his hands would take the two rows through the field. If he were a fast worker he could pick about two acres per day. (Many a farmer spying a rabbit in the field would fell him with a well-aimed ear of corn.) This method gave way to the use of self-propelled husking machines.
As there were no fertilizers, except manure which was spread by hand, farmers, raised small grain, wheat, barley, and oats, for crop rotation. The broadcasting of seed and the midsummer harvest were all done by hand. The first horse-drawn harvester cut and ran the grain off to one side, but it was not until the binder came into use that the farmer was relieved of collecting and tying the bundles of grain.
Threshing out the grain from the shocks or stacks was a big event. Usually the farmer was able to get a twenty-man crew together in part by exchanging work with neighbors, but the operators came with the machine. At noon the men washed in basins placed in a shady spot of the farmyard, and from there went to the elongated tables where they were served a dinner consisting of well-prepared meats, home-made breads, jams and jellies, fresh garden vegetables, and a variety of pies made by the women who came to ‘help out in the kitchen’.
Some of the pests of this era were the large green-headed flies with stinging bites, bumblebees which occasionally became so numerous that portions of the field had to be abandoned, yellow jackets and hornets which built cabbage-head nests, and above all, the huge black buffalo fly, which drove horses crazy and caused many a runaway. A well-protected horse wore fly-nets.
Farmers picked apples by the wagon load, selling them by the bushel, packing the best ones in barrels for the cave, and putting the bruised ones through the cider press. Some of the cider was made into vinegar. Thorn apples or red haws, wild grapes and wild plums (all of which made delicious jelly), gooseberries, hazel nuts, and black walnuts were abundant.
The first row crop tractor came on the market in 1922. Farmers were slow to buy tractors because it was the belief that proper farming could only be done with horses. It was in the 1930’s before many tractors were on the farms; rubber tires weren’t used on tractors and farm machinery until after 1942. The early tractors and machines were made to travel about three miles an hour in the field, and used two-row equipment. Mechanics were paid eighteen dollars a week, and were paid only during the harvest season. Most of the farm machinery was kept in condition by blacksmiths.
Financing of the purchase of farm machinery has always been available through the manufacturer. Banks frowned on such financing from the start, feeling that only the very extravagant would own a tractor. Banks generally would not permit their debtors to pay on machine obligations if they could prevent it; they were of the opinion that they were helping their customers. In more recent years, banks have changed their views. Shortage of farm labor, the high cost of farm labor, and the idea of keeping young people interested in farming have all contributed to brining about a change in farming.
In the late 1920’s, the first activity is the fields was the breaking of the corn stalks. This was done while the ground was still frozen. The farmer would pull a long heavy iron rail with his tractor at high speed in order to break off the stalks at ground level. Later when the ground was good and dry, he would rake the stalks and burn them. The young generation that has not seen the burning of the corn stalks at night missed a great sight. About 1940, good stalk cutters came on the market and the farmers could pulverize the stalks instead of burning them.
The most common steel-wheeled tractor in the 1920’s was the Fordson. This tractor was inexpensive and it could pull a two-bottom plow (if you could get it started). Another early tractor was the Romley Oil Pull tractor. It was a large, slow-moving chunk of iron that reminded one of a railroad engine. This tractor was quite dependable for power for the threshing machine as well as the plowing. John Deere made its first tractor in about 1927. It was a slow-moving, two-cylindar, three-plow tractor. It did a lot of snorting, but was a successful tractor from the start. Anyone with a crescent and a pair of pliers could service it. The early implement dealers selling tractors often took horses in trade; for some it was a costly lesson in horseflesh!
The first mechanical corn pickers came out about 1934. The corn was then open pollinated and it was tall, with large ears. By the time the corn was ready to be picked, much of it was on the ground. Many farmers were unhappy to see the machinery running over the ears on the ground. As time went on, corn improved more than the pickers did. Hybrid corn came in with shorter stalks and smaller ears, and by 1940 every farmer wanted a mechanical picker.
Iowa farmers are noted for being good neighbors. Many times a group of farmers can be seen harvesting a neighbor’s crop or plowing his fields because that neighbor is in distress. It’s quite a sight to see twenty tractors all plowing in the same field, or to see fifty acres of corn picked in one day by friendly neighbors. These are heart-warming experiences.
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