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Farming - Be a Curator!

Early 20th Century Farming Practices

At the turn of the century horses were the most important animals on the farm. They provided the power that pulled most of the heavy farm machinery. Plows, corn pickers, hay rakes, wagons, buggies-they pulled them all. Usually horses worked in teams of two. Farmers often gave them names like King and Queen or Old Bob and Ladybug. The seasons controlled the farm work. There were certain jobs that had to be done in each season.

In the spring farmers prepared the soil for planting using a plow and harrow.

Beulah driving a four-horse team hitched to a harrow. c. 1920

The harrow had teeth protruding from the bottom that loosened the soil and broke up clods just before seeds were planted.

Horse drawn manure spreader on the Usher farm.

Manure was also spread on the fields in either the spring or fall. Spreading it on the fields helped to make the soil richer and produce better crops.

Horse drawn cultivator on the Usher farm c. 1910

In the summer fields were cultivated to keep the weeds from growing between the rows of plants. Summer was also the time to harvest hay that farmers used to feed the horses and other farm animals.

Advertisement for a check row planter

Later in the summer small grain crops like wheat, barley and oats were harvested with a binder. Binders cut the small grain crops and tied the stalks into bundles. The cradle on the side of the machine had the capacity to hold several bundles that were then dumped in one spot by the operator.

Pictured are Florence and a friend are on the horse. Mary and Henry are in the center. Beulah is on the binder. c. 1909


The binding machine cut the oat stalks and tied them into bundles. After four or five bundles were tied, the operator tripped a lever that deposited them all in one pile.

Beulah Shocking Oats c. 1920

Beulah gathered bundles of oats to form a shock. Oats and wheat were stored with the heads of grain at the top so that they would dry until the threshing could be done.

In the fall crops were harvested. Most Iowa farmers raised corn. Some used the horse drawn corn picker to harvest their corn. Others hand picked the corn by walking through the field with a horse-drawn wagon. The ears of corn were thrown into the wagon as it moved slowly through the field.

Horse Drawn Corn Picker c. 1916

The Usher family raised potatoes as well as corn and oats. A digging machine pulled by horses opened the potato hills.

Beulah harvesting potatoes with horse drawn digging machine c. 1920

Beulah and her family then walked through the field and gathered the potatoes in buckets.

When the buckets were full, they were dumped into the horse-drawn wagon.

Full Potato Wagon c. 1920 When doing their farm work, Florence and Beulah sometimes wore bloomers as pictured above. Bloomers were a knee length dress with a pair of pants underneath.

Red Star engine and thresher c. 1925

Threshing was also done in the late summer or fall when it was often hot and humid. A threshing machine separated the kernels of the barley or oat plant from the stalk. When Beulah was working on the farm the steam operated threshing machine was used. It was very expensive and took a lot of people to operate so families went together to form what was called threshing rings. The threshing ring would work on one farm until all the threshing work was done. Then they would move to the next farm.

Threshing day on the farm was very exciting. Farmers arrived in the early morning to fire up the steam engine and get it ready for action. The engine on the threshing machine heated water in a boiler that produced steam that powered the threshing machine.

In a threshing ring, every farmer had a job. One kept shoveling coal into the engine to keep up the steam. Others threw the shocks of grain into wagons. Horses pulled the wagons to the threshing machine where other farmers threw the bundles into the machine. The thresher separated the kernels of grain from the stalk. This was hot and dirty work. Straw chaff blew everywhere around the threshing machine.

A threshing crew c. 1925.

In the winter farmers caught up on a lot of jobs they didn't have time to finish during the busy months of planting and harvesting field crops. They repaired machinery, mended fences and farm buildings and took care of livestock. Before refrigeration, this was also a good time of year to butcher a hog and a cow. The farm family could eat the meat for up to six months. Meat was often canned and even sometimes smoked to preserve it.


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