From brawn to horses to tractors,
farm work has changed during the century

This article written by Connie Williams.

Logo (Editor's note: For the next year, we will present a series of articles that examine the years around 1900. Our purpose is to provide a comparison of the beginning of the 20th Century to its upcoming end.

The author, Connie Williams, is doing graduate work in history at St. Cloud State University and has worked at the Paynesville Area Museum for several summers.

Deadrick Olson came from Norway and cleared 40 acres of land south of Paynesville and built a log house around 1880. Murlin Olson, his grandson, was born in that log cabin. His grandfather cleared the woods with an axe. He trapped wolves, fox, raccoons, and even lynx and traded the fur for cash or groceries. He mortgaged the farm to the bank in Atwater for $25 and paid them off at $5 per year.

The planting and harvesting was done with horses. Farmers used to sow the seeds, haul the manure, and pick rocks with horses. Normally, planting started in April. In those days, the farmer planted wheat, oats, and barley. Corn was planted in May. Soybeans were also planted in May after the danger of frost was gone.

Farmers first plowed the fields in the fall before the State Fair. The next plowing came in the spring. Curt Wegner said that first you worked the field to kill the first flush of weeds. You worked it two or three time before planting.

At the turn of the century, some farmers used a one-bottom Sulky plow, which was a three-horse riding plow. The fields were usually disced following plowing in the spring. The fields were then dragged to level them.

A grain drill was used for planting grain and corn was planted with a hand planter. In later years, Deadrick Olson harnessed up the horses to the corn planter and filled two little boxes with corn. He went down the row and the corn would drop out of the box. Gophers liked to hang around and dig up the corn. It took him only a day or two to plant because he had only a small farm. It was nothing, though, to work from sunup to sundown in the field and then take care of livestock.

They used to check the corn in the early part of the century. Corn was planted so that you could see the rows in every direction. They had a wire that had a knot in it about every 38 to 42 inches. It was hooked onto the planter and followed to the other end of the field and as the knot hit an arm it would trip the corn into the ground. When you got to the other end of the field, you turned around, moved your stake over, and stretched the wire and hope you got it equally as tight. This was so you could cultivate both ways. Not as much cultivating is done today as most farmers use chemicals to kill weeds.

The horse-drawn cultivator is a bunch of shovels that loosen up the ground and dig up the weeds. The cultivator was steered with your feet. The farmer carried a stick to uncover a plant if it accidently got covered up with dirt. You went one way and a couple of weeks later you went the other way because there were rows going both ways. They liked to cultivate about five times, three times lengthwise.

You couldnšt cultivate after the corn was three feet high. This was because the cultivator would start breaking the corn off as the cultivator straddled the corn row. After the corn started getting big enough to shade the ground then the weeds didnšt grow as fast.

Early in the century, farmers did a lot of rotating crops. They planted alfalfa, oats, wheat, barley, and corn as the main crops. Each crop put something different into the soil. They rotated the crops into different fields each year. Today, with the use of fertilizers, the same crop can be put into the same field year after year.

Today there is more corn and soybeans planted and less wheat. A crop you donšt see much anymore is flax.

The flax fields were a lovely blue when in blossom. The straw from flax was used to make linen. The oil was used to make linseed oil for paint. Today, most paints are water based (latex).

Women used to make a waving lotion for their hair out of flax. They would boil it, then put in in their hair to hold the curl.

Besides the fact it isnšt needed for paint anymore, one of the reasons flax isnšt planted so much is because it is a broad leaf plant and most weed killers kill plants with broad leaves.

Open pollination
There was a lot of storm damage at the turn of the century because farmers didnšt have hybrid corn. The best farmers could do was to use open pollination which was when they saved the best of their own seed year after year. They used to hang it on strings to dry. Then they put it up in the attic for the winter and you could hear the mice running around having a field day. By selecting out the best seeds, they hoped to get the corn stronger against storm damage.

Today, seed companies plant different varieties of corn and detassle the ones they donšt want to cross. The hybrid corn is stronger and more vigorous, standing up better against storm damage.

Threshing Before tractors, often one farmer owned a threshing machine and a steamer. He would go from farm to farm with his machinery to thresh. Farmers would pay him to come to their farm and do their threshing, but neighbors were also needed to help. Threshing was a lot of work and required a lot of people.

Manford Theel said there was good and bad to this. If you were last on the list, it could be 12 days before the thresher got to you. If it rained during the wait, the family could lose their crop.

The top picture shows farmers threshing with horses. The bottom shows the same group using a steam engine.

Theel said he was one of the last farmers around to give up threshing. ŗI was an old German diehard,˛ he explained. Everyone else around him had switched to combining.

Grains would be cut with a binder, then gathered into shocks and then left in the field to dry. People would then haul the shocks to the threshing machine and load them from both sides. It would take eight to ten horses and wagons hauling steady to do the work.

Theel said that in 1935 or 1936, the horses started contracting sleeping sickness. Many horses died from this. A fellow from Annandale would come and bleed the horses. He would take a quart of blood from the vein in the neck of the horse and for some reason, this sometimes helped.

The dying of these horses was a shame, but at the same time tractors were starting to become popular.

The John Deere dealer was Willard Nehring and he would trade horses in on the John Deere B, which could do the work of four horses.

Threshing machines were run by tractors for many years before combines replaced the threshing machine. Now you can combine grain in one operation instead of cutting, stacking, and then threshing.

Theel said when you had straw piles left from the threshing, you usually had one out in the field and one in the yard. Small animals, like pheasants, fox, etc., could burrow under the piles for protection. Now every scrap of everything is taken off the land.

Using the crops
Corn cribs were for storing corn, granarys stored the grain, and hay went into the hayloft.

Farmers would shred the corn stocks. The shredder had two rollers that took the whole stock. It had four knives on it to shred the corn stocks which were then used for bedding the cows.

Theel said they used to mix barley, wheat, and oats into a mixture called succatash, which they used for cattle feed.

Hay was pitched with a pitchfork onto a wagon. Two ropes were put on the bottom of the wagon and, when it was half full, two more ropes were hooked on the front and back. When you got to the barn, you pulled down a pulley with a rope hitched to horses on the other end. The hay went right up into the hayloft half a load at a time.

While talking about planting, it is worthwhile mentioning the family garden, which was also very important to survival in those days. Most farms also had large gardens. The women would haul pails of water to water the gardens and did most of the work. When the produce ripened, it was canned or stored in a cool place, like the cellar, to keep for use during the winter.

(The May Turn of the Century column will be about schools and graduation.)

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