The Ancient Technology Of Farming: Ohio 1910
The tools for growing corn have changed so completely in this century that the way it was done eighty years ago is all but unrecognizable today
On our 125-acre northwestern Ohio farm, back in the first fifth of the twentieth century, agriculture was a subject we read about. Farming was what we worked at.
Countless pages have been written by careful scholars about the economic, political, social, and régional aspects of agriculture. Much less is ever written about the actual practical details. These details have changed so much in my lifetime that the way they were in 1910 would be unrecognizable to someone growing up on a farm today. Simply describing them makes very vivid the change that has occurred. 1 propose here to attempt the history of one year’s corn crop, on one farm in 1910, as it progressed by dint of hard physical labor and skill from planning to maturity and utilization.
The first steps toward a corn crop were taken the previous year. After the hay harvest, in August, the stables and cattle yards were cleansed of their accumulated manure, and a two-horse spreader scattered it over the hay stubble. Then one morning the horses drew a walking plow—one pulled by horsepower but guided by a man on foot—onto the field. The first furrow it dug was critical. It had to be in the right place and straight. After that the procedure was slow but simple: Just keep on turning furrows of the right width and depth. To plow two acres was a good day’s work. If the plowman finished a single eighteen-acre field in ten 10-hour days, he did well. The turned furrows were left to absorb snows and rains over the winter while the bacteria we knew little about converted stubble and manure into what we called humus, nutrition for next year’s corn.
While 1909’s corn was being husked, Father watched vigilantly for especially large ears with straight rows and well-filled butts and tips. These went into a special basket to be carried to the house and laid out in racks in a storeroom above the kitchen. These were the seed ears. In March they were carefully tested. Father lined a square, open box with muslin cloth and marked off numbered squares in it. Each ear received a numbered tag. With his jackknife he carefully lifted three grains from each ear, from the tip, butt, and middle of different rows, and placed them in one of the squares. Muslin was spread on top and kept moist. A few days later Father inspected the seeds. If any had failed to sprout or by discoloration showed evidence of disease, the ear from which it came was put aside for chicken feed.
“This,” Father said, “is the most important job we do all year.” The good and healthy ears were then shelled and bagged to await planting time.
Preparing the soil to receive those seeds occupied most of the springtime. First came spring plowing. The usual crop rotation called for a year of wheat or oats, clover the next year, then hay, and finally two years of corn. So last year’s cornfield was upturned. The sod plowed the previous fall had to be sliced with a horse-drawn disk harrow. That was followed over both fields by a spike-tooth harrow, which broke the lumps and clods into smaller particles. Then the spike-tooth harrow was driven crosswise.
After all the disking and harrowing, the fields were smoothed, with either an iron roller or a “drag” made of heavy planks. All this machinery was pulled by horses, and its sole purpose was to permit each grain of seed to be safely deposited in well-broken soil.
Our anxiety to finish planting before or very near to May 10 gave urgency to the spring rush. Corn planted later would yield less. Planting called for a precision machine and a precision operator. Rows were spaced forty-two inches apart. The two-row planter was equipped with round boxes on each side to hold the seed. The bottoms of the boxes held flat plates with holes so spaced that the seed grains would fall evenly down between wedge-shaped steel blades that parted the soil to receive them. The specially shaped rims of the planter’s wheels then covered the seeds and compacted the earth around them.
Father himself always manned the planter; this was no job for a boy or an untested hired man. He had a choice of planting in drills or in checkrows.
In the checkrow system the distance between hills of seeds in a row equaled that between rows. The corn rows thus ran straight across the field in each direction, making cultivation easier. The first necessary step for checkrows was to unwind a strong wire in which knots had been woven at forty-two inch intervals. Each knot of the wire tripped a device attached to the planter’s seed box, spacing the rows evenly in all directions, up, down, and across. The wire had to be fastened to iron stakes at each end of the rows and moved after each crossing, and the wire tension had to be kept absolutely uniform to align the cross rows accurately.
Although Father used the check row for certain fields, he usually preferred to drill. Drilling required no wire and dropped the seeds individually a few inches apart instead of in hills. This, he thought, gave each stalk a little more growing room and a chance to produce a better yield.
May sun and a shower or two brought the first leaves through the surface, and, soon after, Father strode along the rows bearing his “jabber.” This was a hand planter. If any hill or space did not display growth, he thrust this instrument into the spot and clicked more seeds into place.
Not only the corn began to sprout. Weeds grew, and Father considered every one of them to be competing with the corn. The spike-tooth harrow again came into use, this time with its teeth so slanted that they avoided the corn but pulled up threatening weed starts. Also, the harrow loosened any crust in the soil caused by evaporation.
Soon afterward the high-wheeled, horse-drawn cultivator went to work for several weeks. The cultivator had six shovels suspended under it, three on each side. Using stirrups, the seated operator could move the shovels closer to or farther from the row or shove them deeper. The cultivator did two jobs: It uprooted or covered weeds, and it helped keep the soil moist and friable. Corn was not considered well tilled until the cultivator had gone over the field three times. Checkrows permitted one cultivation to be done crosswise.
However efficient the cultivator, some weeds usually managed to keep growing. Then the hoes were sharpened, and Father, a hired man, and a boy trudged up and down the rows, which had not before seemed so long, and chopped out persistent weeds, with special effort to slay those that grew up close to the rising cornstalks. The hoe and the cultivator were our only herbicides. Birds were our only insecticides.
After the third cultivation the corn was usually laid by. “Laid by” meant that the cultivator had finished its work, for the corn was too high to pass under it without breaking. A few bold weeds seemed never to understand about “laid by.” While we were busy with the hay and small-grain harvests, they thrust themselves up between the rows. Two weapons were used to thwart them, and both were slow: a small, hand-guided cultivator pulled between the rows by one horse, and that familiar implement the hoe.
In due time tassels began waving from the tops of the stalks. Ears appeared below, soon adorned with wisps of silk. By late August the ears had fully formed, and the leaves in the earliest field had begun to edge with brown and gray. It was time to start the most laborious, least pleasant work of the farm year, the corn cutting. This usually began about September 1, and it continued for weeks.
Mother took the first step. She cut and sewed sleeves from worn denim overalls to fit over our left arms. Fastened at the shoulder with safety pins, the sleeves protected our flesh and shirts as we gathered and carried the stalks. In another preparatory step the corn knives were pressed against a whirling grindstone until their edges were as sharp as possible. These steel knives, machete-like but straight, had a blade about two feet long riveted to a wood handle.
Father made the next move. He decided the area for each shock—usually ten hills or steps square—and stepped off intervals. At each place he tied together the top halves of four hills, or their equivalent, to make a gallus, a firm support for the armloads of severed stalks in that shock.
Corn cutting was such vigorous activity that just to describe it is tiring. The worker enclosed a few stalks within his sleeved arm, swung his blade, and slashed the stalks off about ten inches above the ground. He stepped forward and repeated the process, carrying along the cut stalks until his arm could hold no more. He then carried the burden to the shock. He carefully set the stalks vertically against the supporting gallus, then returned to do the same thing again. If he encountered stalks that had fallen or been blown down, he lifted them into his armload.
Grab, slash, chop, lift, carry: all quite simple but seemingly endless. Tens of thousands of stalks to be cut, hundreds of shocks to be completed and tied up to prevent their falling or blowing apart. Before all the corn was cut, maturity and frosts had dehydrated the leaves so that they abraded our necks and ears, and the drier stalks required especially vigorous knife strokes.
There was an easier way to cut corn when nature permitted all the stalks to remain erect: Father carpentered up a triangular sled—a platform on oak-plank runners, its rear a few inches wider than the corn rows. On its edges he riveted keenly sharpened old crosscut saw blades. With a man on each side of the sled and a well-trained horse ahead, the cutting went rapidly. At each shock the horse was stopped and the armloads were carried into place.
By 1910 the corn binder had come into the neighborhood. It could cut, bundle, and tie the stalks mechanically, but Father rejected it; it knocked so many ears from the stalks that the field had to be completely gleaned afterward.
He did purchase a shocker. This ungainly three-horse ma- chine cut stalks and elevated them onto a revolving platform on which an entire shock was assembled. After the shock was tied, an arrangement of levers and pulleys lifted and swung it clear of the platform and deposited it on the ground. He used the shocker for only a few years before returning to the old hand-cutting method, probably because it too necessitated extensive gleaning.
After the laborious cutting, when all the shocks stood across the field in orderly rows, work had still to be done. The ears had to be detached from the stalks, unwrapped, and taken to their destination. The tool now used was a husking peg, a leather device fitted over the hand with a curved steel hook at the center of the palm. The shock was untied and laid on its side. The worker seized each ear, divested it of husks with the husking peg, and tossed it onto a heap. When he had accumulated a large armload of empty stalks, he tied them with a hemp string into a bundle. The bundles were set into large “fodder shocks,” and the piled ears were dumped into a wagon and hauled to the crib, where they were unloaded with a big scoop shovel.
A corn shredder could save days of hand husking. This machine, powered by a steam threshing engine, detached the ears, removed the husks, chopped up the stalks, and blew them into a hayloft. Sheep and cattle ate the torn leaves; the inedible bits of stalks made good bedding.
We had other help for husking. About December 1 a freight car loaded with perhaps thirty hungry steers would arrive at the railway station. Father had ordered them from a Chicago livestock commission firm, usually specifying that he wanted two-year-olds of a certain weight, preferably from Montana. These we had to drive out through the town streets and over the five miles to the farm. For the next months their rations were mainly corn and fodder from the shocks. Day after day all winter long we hauled fodder from the fields to the barn by bobsled or mudboat. The steers crowded to the feast, sought out the ears, swallowed the grain, and polished the leaves from the stalks.
By April the steers were sleek and fat. A local livestock buyer made offers for them, or Father shipped them directly to market in Pittsburgh. Whatever they returned in cash represented a substantial part of the corn-crop profits. Some years prices were disappointing, and little profit resulted, but Father thought that good farming should include feeding livestock. With a barn full of cattle or lambs, he could hire a full-time man and have a little free time, and if nothing else, he would have a valuable supply of manure.
Some of the corn that had been shoveled into the crib remained there until next year’s crop came along. All year it furnished energy for the horses. It turned pigs into salable pork. It fed the chickens. It fattened lambs. For chickens and lambs it had to be shelled—another hard process. The shelling-machine operator turned a large, heavy flywheel with one hand while inserting the ears one by one with the other. The machine crunched off the kernels, poured them into a basket, and ejected the cobs, which we used in the kitchen stove.
Such, from plow to proceeds, was the story of our corn labors. One by one, they added up to twenty or more steps, all of them hard physical work amid all the other work of the farm.
The farm we worked has seen many changes in the eight decades since 1910, but it is still operating. It is now owned by a Mr. and Mrs. William D. Griffith. Here is the schedule for next year’s corn crop: In the fall a tractor will plow the fields, turning furrows five at a time. Potash and phosphorus will be plowed down. Come spring an eighteen-foot field cultivator will work the ground. Some two hundred pounds of anhydrous ammonia will be knifed into each acre, and the field will be again worked over with the wide cultivator. A six-row planter will place the seeds in rows only thirty inches apart, thus greatly increasing the population of stalks and ears. The ground will be sprayed with a chemical herbicide to control grasses and broadleaf weeds. A six-row cultivator will give the field a once-over. At harvest a two-row picker will cut and husk the crop. The yields in recent years have varied from 115 to 150 bushels an acre; in 1910 we produced 65 or 70 at best. They are still influenced by weather.
Within this century engine power has almost completely replaced muscle power. The soil is now scientifically fertilized after analysis of its needs. Hybrid seeds have enormously increased the corn plant’s yield. The costs are higher, the work is less tiring, and the output is far greater. And the folks have more time to go fishing.