Agriculture in the North
Agriculture in the North
Promised Land. When Indiana farmer Jacob Sickler wrote to his brother back home in New Jersey in 1846, he summed up the attitude of many Northern farmers: “I of ten think of you when I come in at night and place a candle on the stand and take the rocking chair and newspaper and compare our two situations[.] you have been all day… spending your strength and time striving to get some thing to stimilate the old sand to raise a poratop whilst I have been to Lafayette with a load of grain and think that a task[.] you had better just take a peep out here some of these days and see the differents. I can truly say I have got right down lazy this winter never felts so independent as regards a liveing in all my life [al] most to lazy to husk the corn.” Sickler’s brother never moved to Indiana, but in the decades after the War of 1812 hundreds of thousands of migrants did follow Sickler’s advice to go West. Land sales at federal offices north of the Ohio River jumped from less that 50, 000 acres at the beginning of the War of 1812 to 823, 264 acres in 1814 and 2, 064, 177 acres in 1819.
Clearings. Farm families moving west preferred to travel in late winter or early spring. Leaving in March or April allowed them to avoid the worst winter weather on the road but still arrive before the end of June, just in time to get a crop in the ground. Upon arrival in the West, as soon as they had tackled the immediate problems of securing food and shelter, migrant farmers set about the laborious tasks of clearing fields for planting. This presented a great challenge as forests of amazing heights and thickness covered much of the Old North-west. Travelers recorded sycamores twelve feet in diameter and white pines two hundred feet tall or more. Abraham Lincoln, eight years old when his family migrated
north and west to Indiana from Kentucky in 1816, later recalled that “the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task a head” and that he “though very young…had an axe put into his hands at once” to help out. Caroline Kirkland wrote in her memoir of Michigan frontier life that farmers in the 1830s looked upon the vast encircling woods as an obstacle “which must be removed” so that “not one tree, not so much as a bush, of natural growth, [can] be suffered to cumber the ground.” In reality few farmers had the time, tools, or inclination to clear their fields completely in the first year of arriving at a new farmstead. With help from neighbors and family they usually chopped down as many trees as possible and destroyed others by fire or “girdling,” peeling off the bark to deny nutrients to the trees and causing them to die in the field. Girdled trees were nicknamed “widow-makers” for their tendency to drop heavy limbs, or fall over completely, on unsuspecting farmers.
Women’s Work . The saying “a woman’s work is never done” applied quite literally on Northern farms. Outdoors, women and girls milked the cows, collected eggs, butchered the roosters, churned butter, made cheese, rendered maple syrup, and made cider and apple butter while also planting, weeding, and harvesting a garden of half an acre or more. Young boys might help with these tasks, but they risked ridicule if they continued to do “women’s Work” after ten or twelve years of age. Inside the farmhouse women cooked huge meals over open hearths, using iron pots and pans hung directly over the hot coals although cookstoves were coming into general use by midcentury. Since cooking was an all-day activity, the cooking fire was never completely extinguished, even on the hottest summer day. Cleaning occupied most of the time not devoted to cooking and often required separate fires for making soap or doing laundry. Finally, farm women were responsible for making all of the family’s clothes, including spinning the thread on a spinning wheel and weaving as much as forty yards of cloth per year on a family loom. Though machine-made textiles largely replaced home manufactures by the Civil War, women still spent time repairing and altering the family wardrobe to keep hand-me-downs in use. As if these tasks were not enough, women bore the additional burden of frequent pregnancies, nursing, and child care as well as an occasional turn in the harvest field. The first Department of Agriculture report in 1862 did not exaggerate in stating that “a farmer’s wife, as a general rule, is a laboring drudge… it is safe to say, that on three farms out of four the wife works harder, endures more, than any other on the place.”
The Farmer’s Year. Whether on the Western frontier or back East, farms required long hours of labor. Most farmers went to bed not long after dark and rose when the first tinge of gray touched the sky, a time referred to as “long before day” in country parlance, maybe as early as 5 A.M. Starting in mid March the farmer and his sons headed out after breakfast to clear and drain land, manure and plow the fields, or plant crops. Wheat, the main cash crop in the North, was sown broadcast (flung from a bag of seed carried around the farmer’s neck), while corn, the staple of the Midwestern diet, was planted in hills. Sheep shearing, goose plucking, collecting maple sap, and finding beehives were other common tasks. As the days lengthened in summer, the workload increased. Corn needed hoeing to keep down competing weeds while hay had to be cut, cured, and stored for winter livestock feed. A short rest from heavy labor came in August, when the maturing crops had outgrown the weeds, or vice versa; August was (and still is) the traditional time for fairs in the Midwest. September and October brought a new frenzy of activity as the harvest season arrived. Until the 1850s most farmers still cut, bound, and shocked wheat, oats, and barley by hand while cornpicking remained a predominantly manual operation until well into the twentieth century. As the days shortened and cooled in October and November, farmers turned to threshing and storing the grain, husking corn, picking fruit from orchard trees, and butchering hogs for the salted and smoked pork that would tide the family over until spring. Cabins and barns required repair before winter blasts sought out cracks and crevices. Winter itself offered something of a respite for the farmer. The most industrious would spend the season mending fences, clearing more land, or hauling manure from the barn or feedlot to next year’s fields, but for most farmers winter meant a time to visit with neighbors, take surpluses to market in wagons or flatboats, and plan next year’s crops.
Communal Work . Seasonal social occasions matched to the work cycles of the farm alleviated the isolation and constant labor of the farm family while also providing much-needed help during the periods of greatest labor demand. Harvest gatherings, logrollings, cabin raisings, and husking bees gave both men and women an opportunity to socialize and work at the same time. The women of the household hosting one of these events spent days preparing food for the gathering. Visiting wives would help the hostess prepare the biggest meal—at midday—and then gather to exchange information while sewing together. Men, on the other hand, used communal occasions to display their strength and athletic prowess. Farm families in the newly settled regions of the Midwest relied on these communal activities not only as excuses to drink, dance, fight, and gossip but also for their economic benefit. With no modern harvesting machines and a limited labor supply, many farm tasks could not have been done without help from neighbors. Farmers regularly exchanged labor, livestock, and crops for goods and services they could not provide for themselves, such as blacksmithing, glassware, coffee, and harvesting help.
Prairie Farms . By the late 1830s migrant farmers had settled most of the prime farmland in the southern tier of the Old Northwest. What had been an almost impenetrable forest now echoed with the ring of axes and the scrape of plows. More farmers came to fill in the empty spaces, but most of them paused at the edge of the great tallgrass prairies that stretched in an almost unbroken carpet west across the glaciated plains from northern Indiana into and past Iowa. Farmers found these grasslands formidable obstacles. In summer the prairie’s big bluesteam grasses, forbs, and wildflowers could reach ten feet in height, hiding herds of buffalo, packs of wolves, and panthers. Moreover, the prairie flatlands were full of slow-moving streams considered ideal breeding grounds for malarial fevers. Nor did farmers yet know how to farm the prairies. Accepted wisdom said that heavily forested land promised greater fertility, and farmers incorrectly assumed that prairie lands would not support heavy cropping. Even when farmers tried crops on the prairies, the matted roots of the ancient grasslands flung cast-iron plows aside. Only the big, expensive prairie plows hitched to sixteen or more oxen could hope to turn the prairie sod. Last, but certainly not least, the prairies lacked human inhabitants. Until the 1840s only the occasional squatter or fur trapper was brave enough to venture permanently out onto the flatlands, where nothing stood in the way of the winter winds or the late-summer prairie fires that raged for miles. Not until the advent in the 1840s and 1850s of John Deere’s self-scouring steel plow, McCormick’s reaper, and the railroads, would extensive settlement on the prairies begin.
Paul Wallace Gates, The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture, 1815–1860 (New York: Holt, 1960).