learning about old cows
May 2, 2007 1:28 PM   Subscribe

I need to know about old-timey cows!!!

Who can I ask? My grandfather ran a dairy farm from the 1920's to 1940's. I want to write a story about it, based on his love letters to my grandma. I only have a smattering of details. Leaving me with the questions:

How many cows could a single farmer with no hired hands handle in 1926? Would he have a milking machine back then? If so, would it have cost him all he had to buy it?

What is the routine of a dairy farmer? Feed, milk, muck out? In what order?

And if you don't know any of this (imagine that....) who could I ask? Who in the world knows this kind of stuff now?
posted by esereth to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Find a local, small scale dairy farm and see if you can interview and observe. While the specifics of which machine will be different, you should be able to get a good sense of how things are run. Also, going to the farm so you can get first hand experience of the smell and viscosity of the poo, the sounds of the cows, etc will help your story as well.

Your local library may also have some historical documents or articles in their archives which may be of use.
posted by onhazier at 1:38 PM on May 2, 2007


I had a US professor in university who specialized in agricultural history, and the fact that such a specialization exists indicates to me that there's probably plenty of original source material floating around about this stuff. So... contact an ag university, or any university with an ag department. Talk to a reference librarian at the university library (as long as you catch them when they're not insanely busy, they tend to enjoy helping people track down obscure information like this).
Another idea is to locate your county extension agent. They tend to have access to a wealth of (totally free) knowledge about everything from beekeeping to when to plant your tomatoes to how to build a smokehouse, and I am sure many of them have an interest in the local agricultural history, or would be able to put you in contact with someone who does. I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and my dad was good friends with the extension agent. They both collected antique farming equipment.
posted by Wroksie at 1:50 PM on May 2, 2007


US History professor, d'oh.
posted by Wroksie at 1:51 PM on May 2, 2007


My father. Comes from Illinois dairy farming roots. I'll email him and see if he has the time or inclination to give some information.
posted by ontic at 1:56 PM on May 2, 2007


One of my best friends grew up on a dairy farm in lower Austria. When I went there in 1989, they were doing the things the same as they had for generations. Now the farm is entirely computerized. It's pretty impressive, really. I even got to be the guest of honor for the artificial insemination of their favorite cow... wheee! Good times.

Anyhow, I'm with the advice of finding small dairies and asking if you can observe. But pick one that's been in business a long time & see if you can find out about how they used to operate, talk to people who have been working the farms a long time if you can. Their experiences will be different because technology has really changed their daily operations in a lot of ways.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:56 PM on May 2, 2007


Find the town historical society of the place where his farm was. They (or the local library) will almost certainly have old newspapers with ads for agricultural machinery, they may have old pictures and old property records -- maybe even of him or his farm, and they may have someone (or be able to contact someone) who knows the answers to your questions. Google town name + "historical society".
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:18 PM on May 2, 2007


Maybe ask a Dairy Museum
posted by lannanh at 3:45 PM on May 2, 2007



Here’s something for you. Those rural EMC’s like to go on and on about how they brought lights to the farm, so maybe your Grandad’s local EMC has some before and after history on tap. Its worth a look. As you can see from the link, he probably didn’t have electricity as a young man. I spent 20+ years on a farm taking care of a herd of beef cattle and, for about seven of those years, I had some nice dairy goats.

Cleanliness is vital to any dairy operation so the milking room should be nearly antiseptic before the animals come in. The reason they come in is to get the grain that you give them for their milk. Good grain has the added benefit of keeping them busy eating their favorite food while you’re milking them.

For what its worth, my best guess is that anything more than a dozen or so milk cows would be a real handful for one man and his wife and kids. Also farms back then weren’t specialized like they are now. Your grandfather would likely have had some hogs on hand to grow on spoiled milk, and he would have grown grain, hay and forage grass on land fertilized by the hog and cow manure. Of course everyone had chickens and a nice garden.

The old farmer (RIP) whose cows I used to care for had left that farm and moved to town to make more money. Just before he retired he told me that, back in the old days on the farm, they didn’t have anything but they didn’t work near as hard to get it.
posted by Huplescat at 5:00 PM on May 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


My information is just from growing up and seeing a modernized dairy farm that started in the 30's or 40's. A couple of things to consider.

As far as the dairy operation goes, a couple of points.

Cattle would be on pasture in the summer and during that time, the farmer would be growing grain and harvesting hay to feed during the winter. As well as growing a garden, cutting wood and anything else that needed to be done for survival.

Considering an automated single operator dairy farm is doing well to keep up with 30 cows I would think that 20 or 25 would be close to a max to milk by hand, it could have been in the teens.

Automated machines would have been in their infancy, until the 60's it was faster to do it by hand.

All milk would have been transported by cans that would have to be carried to the road in some sort of cart.

If you can ask a farmer in his 80's who would still remember and have the firm handshake to tell you most of the things you need to know.
posted by vidarling at 8:41 PM on May 2, 2007


No specific answers here, but you can often find a wealth of information about stuff like this if you add "oral history" to your Google (or other search engine) queries.

For example, "oral history" 1920s dairy farm.
posted by staggernation at 8:50 PM on May 2, 2007


My father emailed me back. It's long, but comprehensive. Please excuse any grammar errors, I'm sure he typed quickly. For the record, he was born in 1936. Enjoy!

I grew up on a farm in Southern ILL and taught Ag in the same area. Even though Wisconsin was always considered the major dairy state, Clintin Co. IL eventually became one of, if not, the biggest diary Counties in IL.

First I would offer your website friend some sources from which he could do research, hopefully for the time he is interested in - i.e. 1920's to 1940's.

I too have a dream to one day write a history of my parents life (mainly for family descendants) and I even though I lived on the farm with them, I would not even consider trying to write that history withour doing 2 to 5 years research. So, in his case I would advise him firstly to make a point to plan on doubling that time - at a minimum. A good book necessitates a lot of good research.

In the 1920's and 30's there were no farms that specialized in dairy only. If there were, they would have been very few, perhaps in Vermont, up state N.Y. and maybe a few around bigger cities in Wisconsin. However, I highly doubt that there were any, anywhere. I've certainly never heard of any.

In those decades most dairy farms were run by single family units and also included hay and grain farming, hog raising, chickens (perhaps even some ducks and geese, a sizable vegetable garden and fruit orchard, as well as caring for horses, which were the major source of power - draft animals that pulled the machinery). There was also the obvious work involved in caring for and rearing dairy calves for the future replacement of dairy cows. An average farm like this would have perhaps 30 to 40 cows producing milk at a time, and maybe an additional 12 to 15 that were called "dry" cows. These were cows that were temporarily out of production, and were fed and nurtured to bring a new calf onto the farm and put back into the production herd.

So in researching "dairy farming", you wouldn't get a lot of info from those years. The type farming that produced dairy products were better know as "general farming".

These General Farms were, to say the least, extremely human labor intensive. My sister-in-law Betty reminded me of an old saying: "Nine hours of no work on a general (dairy) farm was a vacation". Dairy farming, even today, is a 24/7 work schedule.

To do a good job on this book you will have to make yourself acquainted with the technology of the farm tools and machinery of that period. And actually much of the 20's was different from the 30's and the 40's had advances in machinery unknown the the 30's. I'll go into some of that in the next e-mail.

Many of these farms never even had electricity until the mid to late 30's. And even those that did often had an onsight "windjammer" that produced very small voltage from which the juice was run into the buildings often on bare wires and only for dim low wattage light bulbs. If the wind didn't blow, there was no electric power for them either. So lanterns were the lighting of choice.

Humans and horses did all the work. Horses of course did the "heavy lifting"; manpower did the day in day out - day after day drudge work.

To give yourself an idea of what the workload and machinery was like in those years I want to recommend that you try to get a hold of some of the typical old monthly farm magazines of that erea: Prairie Farmer Magazine, Hoard's Dairyman,The Farm Journal, Successful Farmer, Country Gentleman and even a small one put out by the John Deere Company, called The Furrow. I am pretty sure that Hoard's Dairyman, The Farm Journal and the Furrow are still being published to this day. Some of the other may still be also, but I'm not sure. The best one through the 20's, 30's and 40's was The Prairie Farmer.

These periodicals dealt with the everyday work-a-day world of the Farmers of their time. They carried articles on ag research, ag helps and hints on every possible subject, and carried ads and articles of every possible type of invention or farm equipment that was of interest to Farmers. They carried question and answer sections as well as cartoons and the latest research form universities. [ontic's note: I've found they also contain considerable material directed specifically at farmer's wives.]

And that brings up another resource system. Abraham Lincoln established a Land Grant University in each state of his day. And originally these were Ag School, which were directed to gather the knowledge and methods that the succesful farmers were using in their area and make that knowledge and those methods available to all the other farmer of the area. These State Land Grant Universities eventually set up their own research as well as tested the accumulated info and made it available through publications and an annual State Fair. I would think these periodicals would have priceless data on the farmer's life during the 1920's to the 1940's.

I would highly suggest that you contact the Land Grant U. of State of Wisconsin's. All these Land Grant U's. have Agricultural Extension Office who still do this disseminating of knowledge to Farmers. I am sure that somewhere they have very good imperical data on what Dairy Farming would have been like during those decades.

I will cite two more sources for research - books this time. The first one is Morrison's FEEDS AND FEEDING. It goes in and out of print, but should be available at any State Ag University Library in the reference area. It was in its 22nd edition in 1959 and has always been know as the Farmers' Bible on feeds and feeding of farm animals. It contains anything and everything you ever wanted to know about growing crops for feed and the needs of all various farm animals. I also have on my shelf a book called THE HOME AND FARM MANUAL (classical edition) by Jonathan Periam. It was originally printed in 1884 and in 1984 was reprinted and published by Greenwich House Inc. a division of Arlington House Inc in 1984. Library of Congress # TX153.P43 1984 640 84-6155. Although 35-40 years prior to the 1920 it will give you some great and enjoyable reading about how things were on the farm before the modern world of the 20th century.

For tonight I am going to sign off. I will write a second lengthy e-mail with a rough draft of what a typical day, week and year was like on a General/Dairy Farm in the 1920's and 1930's It will only be highlights, but it will worth it I think.
posted by ontic at 10:50 AM on May 3, 2007 [38 favorites]


More. Same caveats apply:

Let's start with some basic mind-sets.

Parents of these farm families took it for granted that the families had to have a sizable number of children: boys to grow up and help with the farm labor and girls to grow up and help with the many household chores - which in those days often included: caring for the garden, the poultry, gathering eggs, tending small calves, young pigs, light yard work, sowing garments, household cleaning, cooking, quilting, preparing meals, canning of fruits, vegetables and sometimes meats, helping with rearing younger siblings, laundry, washing and drying dishes, and in many cases making sure that the wood and/or coal was brought into the house for all the heating and cooking stoves. Most of these tasks were done on a daily basis - except for gardening, yard work, canning and harvesting of small fruits, vegetables and the slaughter and butchering of poultry - which could be either seasonal or weekly depending on the task and the menu needs of the family.

The young boys had to help with their end of the daily chores which included feeding of livestock, mucking manure, washing milking utensils, servicing farm machines, making sure each set of livestock's watering troughs were full. Caring for all the different catagories of livestock included: Throwing the hay down from the hayloft with forks - or loading it onto wagons from hay stacks outside. Distributing this hay to each manger of each set of livestock in various sheds and stalls. Horses, calves, yearling heifers and "dry cows" (those not being milked, because they are waiting to give birth to a new calf), and even the breeding bull were all often kept in separate pens and stalls. Most farms had no waterlines as we do today. Water had to be first pumped from a well, either by hand or a windmill and then either carried or piped by temporary piping mechanism to the various watering troughs and/or fountains (as in the case of chickens and other poultry livestock). Besides the hay each of these sets of livestock also had to be fed a unique protein suppliment of ground feed containing grains and other high protein, fats and carbohydrates. These supplements were of different proportions for nearly every set of (and sometimes individual) animal(s). The care taker had to know which animal(s) got what portions. These supplements were often stored in granaries that were more or less rodent proof, because of the higher expense of these feeds. These granaries were not necessarily located conveniently to the livestock sheds - thus entailing some carrying of it by buckets to the respective livestock locations.

Mucking manure, was both a seasonal and daily job. Each day the milking parlor had to be cleaned of manure. This was a task that was more work in during winter months than summer because on nasty winter days the milk-cows stayed in these stalls the entire day and night, thus producing a lot more manure for the mucker to muck. In addition each stall for each animal had to have bedding placed on the floor for the animal to lay on and to help absorb the wet manure. On many farms the cattle were temporarily allowed to exit the barn for water while the mucker cleaned out the manure and refurbished bedding straw. The cows were than permitted to reenter the barn if the winter weather was horrid. The bedding straw was obtained from a straw stack piled strategically near the barns. These straw stacks were blown there by the thrashing machine called a "separator" which the farm had contracted to thresh his grains of oats and/wheat in June and July. In the 1920's most of these "Separators" were pulled from farm to farm and powered by steam enigines. During the mid to late 20's and early 1930's the operators (of whom my father was one) were switching over to gasoline powered large tractors to empower these machines. But Threshing Day on each farm was a major event and the Threshing period of time as a unique and fabulous season all it's own. Hopefully I'll be able to get a bit into that later.

For now back to mucking --- which we called "manuring out" or simply "manuring" as in "manuring the barn" or "manuring the chicken house" or "manuring the calf pens or horse barn".

In the dairy barn or milking parlor this manure was first all scraped into a manure trough (which ran behind the stalls of the cows the entire length of the barn/parlor), then shoveled into either a wheeled barrow and then wheeled outside to a manure pile. Or the manure was shoveled into a "manure carrier", which was a large trough like bucket suspended from a cable that ran from inside the barn to a post far outside the barn. The manure carrier had to be pushed down that cable, out the door and then tripped (in order to empty it) above the manure pile. It was then brought back inside for another load. The "manure carrier" was considered a wonderful labor saving and much more convenient device. It may or may not have been an innovation on each dairy farm.

Heifer, calf, horse and bull stables were only mucked seasonally, as were hog, chicken, sheep and/or goat sheds. All of the manure from these facilities as well as the manure from the manure piles were loaded by 'hand manure farks' onto a manure spreader and spread on the fields whenever the weather permitted and the ground wasn't too wet and the field wasn't growing crops. Although hay fields and pastures were likely to recieve a coating of manure as long as the hay was due for harvest in a week or so. The manure spreader was also a 20th century invention. Prior to it manure was loaded onto wagons and then farked off in the fields by hand. The manure spreader had a conveyor apparatus that ran off of a chain geared to a large rear "power" wheel, which could be engaged or disengaged by a lever from the seat of the spreader at the front of the spreader. This conveyor slowly carried the manure to the rear of the spreader where it met a series of beaters that were geared to whip and spead the manure in a designated pattern onto the field. This was indeed a heralded convenience and labor saver. The concept is still used on all manure spreading devices of today that are run off of drive shafts from farm tractors. These drive shafts - in my day, the 40's 50's and 60's etc were called "The power takeoff".

Harvesting crops, hay and straw.

During the 20's to late 40's all farm crops were ever so slightly harvested differently.

All hay crops were cut in the field with a hay mower with a sickle bar empowered by a "bull wheel" a.k.a. power wheel engaged and disengaged by a lever operated by the rider from the seat of the mower. The crops had to lay preferably 3 days in the field to be 'cured' or dried by the sun. The dried stalks were then raked together by a dump-rake onto piles and/or into rows. Rather than discribe that aparatus, try to find and old farm equipment book and take a look at the picture - it is pretty much self explanatory from a picture. This gathered hay was then farked with a "hay fark" onto flatbed wagons called "hay-framed" wagons. One person stood on the ground farking the hay onto the wagon while a second person's job was to stack the hay on the wagon in a manner in which the largest amount could be transported to the front of the barn with the hay loft. At the front of the barn there was a very large "hay door" at the very gable of the roof which flopped down when opened. A "hay track" ran from the front of the barn to rear on which a large four pronged "hay fork" (which looked like a four legged spider with four three foot long curved legs). This fork was operated by a set of pullies and a very very long rope that ran from the top of a wagon load of hay in the front of the barn, up to the track, then along the track, the full length of the barn gable to rear of the barn, where a pulley ran it down the back of the barn from the gable to ground where another pulley turn the direction outward away from the barn, where a it was fasten to a hitch which a single or team of horses could pull the rope - thusly raising a rather large hayfork load of hay up from the wagon where the hayfork snapped into a hay-track-carrier mechanism which carried the hay along the track to whereever the person stacking the hay inside the barn wanted it to be dropped. This process required a minimum of four peope to operate: one to "stick the fork" into the hay on the wagon, who also operated the trip rope which caused the hayfork to drop its hay inside the barn's hay loft, another to work inside the barn on the hayloft to distribute the hay evenly on the loft, a third to drive the horse(s) pulling the rope on the oposite side of the barn, and the fourth to stand somewhere on the side of the barn who could signal the person driving the horses when to begin to pull the rope and hay up to the loft and when to signal him to stop pulling so it could be triped from the fork.

The only other way that hay was harvested in those days was to stack the hay outside in haystacks. This was all done with wagons to bring the hay to the spot where the farmer desired the hay to be stacked. This of course was often inconveniently at some distance from where the hay would have to be carried to and then fed to the animals in the less worker friendly winter weather.

Often, like removing straw from a straw stack, the hay and/or stray was packed so tight that one had to use what was called a "straw knife" to cut sections of the hay or straw into sections before one could easily remove it from the stack of hay or straw.

It is important to know that the name straw was used in those day for wheat and oat plant stems used for bedding purposes and hay was used for the stems and leaves of any plant used for animal feed - these plants had a higher food nutrient value. Oats plant stems and leaves, was a bit of an exception to this general rule, because some animals did quite well on oats straw as a food roughage.

I am going to have to take another break at this point, because I have a friend of mine who works for John Deere coming by for lunch. I will do some more later on the daily routine envolved in the process of milking cows itself and any other stuff I can think might be pertinent, e.g. operating, maintaining and repairing some of the machines used on a dairy farm.
posted by ontic at 11:03 AM on May 3, 2007 [33 favorites]


MeTa
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:15 PM on May 3, 2007


A nice book about old farming in general is Clabbered Dirt and Sweet Grass by Gary Paulsen. It isn't about cows, per se, but is kind of along the lines of your project. It's a quick read, and pretty good.
posted by OmieWise at 12:49 PM on May 3, 2007


Great stuff, ontic's Dad!

Prior to it manure was loaded onto wagons and then farked off in the fields by hand.

Even today, endless amounts of manure are Farked off every day.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2007


Thank you, Mr. Ontic Sr. I'm exhausted just reading that; thank you so much for sharing it with us.
posted by jokeefe at 2:29 PM on May 3, 2007


Interesting stuff. Reminds me a lot of the stories my grandfather used to tell about being a farmer. I appreciate you taking the time to share.
posted by aerotive at 4:33 PM on May 3, 2007


Third and final part:

I had to take a break, because I coincidentally received an phone invitation to meet with my John Deere friend for lunch (passing through town). He, of course is my Mr. John Deere man! He assured me that some of the farm periodicals are still actively being published. e.g. Prairie Farmer, Successful Farmer, Farm Journal, Hoard's Dairyman and John Deere's own Furrow. He hadn't heard of Successful Farming. He also mentioned a milking machine manufacturer by the name of Duval (wasn't sure of the spelling). I know only of DeLaval, and Surge as manufacturers of milking machines. But I think all of those may very well be moot points for the years 1920's to the 1940's, because I don't think any milking machines were invented yet or at least used in the U.S.A.

So let's go here with a Chapter 3:

The daily routine of a Dairyman's day:

Dairy cows in those days had to be milked twice each day. Dairymen tried to do that as close to 12 hrs apart as possible, therefore, about 5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. This meant farmers had to arise at nearly 4:00 a.m. to be in the cow barn by 5 and milking. If the cows were outside over night, as spring, summer and fall would permit, this meant you opened the barn door and each cow instinctively would seek the same stall it chose each day in the barn. They came in tempted by the supplemental feed you would serve them and because their utters were swollen with milk and they wanted the pressure relieved from their utters. So as soon as they were locked into the stenchen they were served their supplement of high protein ground feed - called, in our area - "short feed". This food was often prepared at the nearest feed mill to which the dairy farmer took his own corn and oats to be ground and mixed with other supplemental protein products and vitamin additives. The book called "Feeds and Feeding" will give you very detailed additives and supplements included in this feed for cows at their various stages of milk productions: "dry-cows" those pregnant and/or not presently producing milk, "fresh-cows" nursing calves and in the milking herd, "fresh-cows" not nursing calves, but in the milk producing herd and "fresh-cows" pregnant and also in the milking herd.

On the milk end of the cow, the dairyman procured a milk pail and a "milking stool" sat down on the stool next to the utter of the cow, washed the utter with a warm cloth and water and then began to milk two of the 4 quarters at a time. A recently freshened cow always produced more milk than one that had been producing a number of months. Cows, if I remember correctly, were attempted to be bred again after being fresh for about a 3 month period. The female cow than was expected to have a new calf about every year (give or take a few weeks to a month or so).

After the milk was all extracted, the warm milk was slowly poured through a strainer into a milk can. These were heavily built metal containers with a removable tight fitting lid on top. One always had to check before straining more milk into the milk can just how full it was in order not to run it over. During the 20's and 30's there were no mechanical milk coolers. Each of these milk cans held about 8 gallons, (there were larger ones that held 10 gallons, but they were a beast to handle). Raw milk was (is) about 7%-8% butter fat which would float to the top of pail, can, bottle or glass. It also had a very short shelf life if not cooled to at least 40-45 degrees F. as soon as possible. So the milk cans were set into vats or barrels of cool fresh well water which nature wisely stored in the earth at about 42 degrees F. These vats were most often made from cutting 55 gallon drums in half and using both halves for cooling tanks. After the can of milk set for about an hour one could go out and skim off the cream on the top and use it to make butter. The old fashion art of churning butter can be obtained from several different sources, and there were many ways of doing it... so you're on your own there... We as a family grew up drinking the whole raw milk, and we were sternly order to stir the can of milk thoroughly before drawing out the bottles of milk we were directed to fetch from the milk house and bring into the kitchen.

After each milking the strainer, milk pails and the milk house floor all had to be thoroughly washed with soap and water and rinsed with chlorinated water. The pails and strainers had to be hung to dry on chlorinated drying racks in the milk house daily after each milking. The milk cans were given the same washing and rinsing process the same day they returned to the farm from the milk processing plant.

Milk was picked up daily by the "milk carrier". In the twenties he may have use a wagon and horses, but by the 30's most of them used trucks with insulated covered boxes. This carrier in most cases was paid by the milk processing company, I believe, and the dairyman was paid by both the hundred weight and the percent of butterfat that his milk contained. I believe each farmer received his milk check on a monthly basis. This often necessitated that the farmer be given credit at the places where he did business: the grocer, the feed mill, the farm implement dealer, the fuel supplier etc etc.

Most male calves were castrated and raised as steers for home meat supplies and shipped to slaughter houses for sales as beef. Home grown, steers, hogs, chickens, geese and ducks were all slaughtered or butchered at the farm homestead. This was scheduled in the winter when it was colder and there was less chance of contamination from flies etc. Some meats were canned, some smoked (especially sausages and hams) and some cooked and stored in cool cellars or, as in the case of bacon, fried and stored in large 5 and 10 gallon crockery jars with hot well salted pork grease poured over them. All of this was weighted down in the crockery jar with a circler board with a clean heavy rock on top until the grease solidified. (From which we get the saying "salting down the bacon".) The smoked meats were all smoked with different types of wood that had been harvested and well soaked - moistened - such as hickory and fruit tree woods.

"Butchering days" were winter community celebrations. Several other families were invited over to help in exchange for helping them on their butchering days. The best of meats were served and all types were sampled by the crowd. Even the innards of the animals were used. The intestines were cleaned, turned inside-out, scraped clean, boiled and used for sausage casings, the stomach underwent the same cleansing process and was stuffed with cooked and diced internal organs such as the heart, kidneys and liver etc and other parts such as the tail, feet and portions of the head and thusly called head-cheese. Liver sausage was made by grinding portions of the hog and mixing it with precooked liver and stuffed into large entrails. Blood sausage was nearly the same as liver sausage, but was flavored the the fresh blood extracted and collected from the hog immediately after it was slaughtered. Meat-sausage could only be made when both hogs and cattle were slaughtered on the same day, because the word mett, comes from the German word "mit" meaning "with" - thus a sausage made with pork and beef.

While I am on community days allow me to cover "Threshing Day".

This was the Summer Festival for the individual farm and his farm family. In the 20's and 30's all grains were first cut by a binder, which was pulled through the field by horses (later by a tractor) which cut the grain stock about 4 inches above the ground and mechanically bundled it and tied the bundle with twine string and subsequently dumped several bundles into rows throughout the field. Each farmer had to closely examine his grain to see if it was just past the milk stage of the kernel of grain, but still soft to the pressure of a thumb nail. If so it was ready for cutting. These bundles of wheat, oats or barley were gathered by hand and firmly stacked into shocks (anywhere from 8 to 16 bundles to a shock) all with the grain heads upward and then those bundles were capped with a final bundle that was placed horizontal on top of the other as a cap. This method was used to allow the shock to shed rain and still allow the grain to protected while it completed its ripening process. These shocks could survive and protect the grain and straw until the Thesher arrived on the farm, perhaps as long as a month or more later to thresh the grain from the stalks and build the strawstack with the Thresher's large straw blower.

On threshing day, all the neighbors arrived as soon as the dew lifted with horses, frame wagons and pitch forks. Each wagon would proceed to the field of shocks and methodically load the bundles onto the wagons - one or two pitching the bundles onto the wagon while a second or third man neatly and securely loaded the bundles on the wagon, in a manner that would assure their staying until the horses got the wagon to the threshing machine - called "The Separator". The bundle pitchers would stay in the field loading each wagon as it arrived and the wagon stacker would bring the load of bundles to the separator. The children of the families had the task of carrying water jugs of fresh water out to the bundle pitchers and wagon stackers. The women of all the neighbors also came over to the prepare the noon dinner, afternoon lunch and the evening supper. Fresh pies were cooling on every available windowsill, board fence top or anywhere else they could be placed. Freshly prepared meats, potatoes and vegetables were being selected from last winters butcherings and this year's garden harvest. Home made ice cream may well have also appeared for an extra topping on the homemade pies.

Huge tubs of cool water with large bars of soap were setting throughout the yard for the chaffy men to wash off the dust and chaff from their faces and arms. Water and oats had to be made available for the horses to have a meal also. In the evening there was more than likely be some games of horseshoes, baseball catch and some friendly emptying of a keg or two of beer. To say the least more stories, gossip and rumors were exchanged than any T.V. show could have ever dreamed of.

Was this part of a dairy farm? You bet your last milk check it was! This was harvesting all the bedding straw and grains for all the supplemental additives for the short feed. And it all had to be done between the morning milking period and the evening milking period.

I would strongly recommend you try to seek out one of those "Old Thrashermen's Days" events that will no doubt be held somewhere in your community or nearby any summer near you. It won't quite be the same as they were in the 20s and 30's, but it will give you a sampling. Be pre-warned - it will probably be on a very warm day.

Some of the machines a dairyman had on his farm were:

A plows: which could be a sulky, on which he could ride, a walking plow - just the opposite. a one horse plow, used in smaller areas or his garden area -, a gang plow which may have had two are more "bottoms". The term used for how many mold-boards and attached plow shears it had.

A disk: which was use to cut through the larger chucks of dirt turned over by the plow and even out the soil into a more acceptable seed bed.

A harrow: used to smooth out the disked field into a finer seed bed.

Cultivators: used to remove weeds in between corn rows.

A wheat drill: use to place wheat and barley seeds below the ground.

An oats seeder: which sprinkled the oats seed on the ground, which was then harrowed over to very lightly cover the seeds.

A corn planter: most were two row corn planters, but their were both one row and four row planter manufactured.

Grain binders: Referred to in the above text for cutting wheat, oats and barley and binding it into bundles.

Hay Mower: For cutting hay, grain stubbles, large patches of weeds etc. etc.

Wagons: Frame wagons and box (or grain) wagons each had their particular service to render, which is referred to in these chapters. Top wagons which had a covering, were use for transporting people. To say the least these guys were damn cold in the winter. Lap-robes were invented, because of them.

Hay rakes: mostly dump rakes, but later there were side-delivery rakes which cleverly raked the hay and/or straw into windrows.

Hay loaders: I'm not sure they were around before the 40's. They were attached to the rear of a wagon and mechanically loaded the hay from a window onto the wagon where a person on the wagon arranged the hay so it would survive being taken to the barn or hay stack.

Corn binders: I am also not sure these were available until the 40's, perhaps they were available in the 30's. They cut and bundled corn stalks so they could be then placed in corn shocks in the fields. The farmer would then go out to load them onto wagons throughout the winter, bring them into the farmstead to husk out the ears and feed the stalks to the cattle for ruffage.

If corn binders were not around, then the farmers cut all the corn stalks by hand with a corn knife, then bundled and tied them by hand and shock the bundles.

The typical manner of harvesting the ears of corn was to harness up the best team of horses, hitch them to a box-wagon with extra side boards on one side, then take them to the head of a field of corn (after the first frost) secure the reins to the wagon and while the horse pulled the wagon down the rows of corn one, two or three corn huskers would walk along side the wagon husking out the ears of corn from the standing stalks and in the rapid fashion pitch them into the box wagon until it was full of ears of corn. Corn huskers who could perform this feat without stopping the horses were the real pros and earned all bragging rights of the farm community.

Each of these tools had to have unique maintenance services, greasing of wheels, blades, shears, and all rubbing parts. Sometimes bolts, screws and nails would come loose and have to be resecured. Knives and sickle blades had to be sharpened. Some times parts had to be take to town to be welded, or broken parts removed and new parts bought and installed. The same was true of buildings and their maintenance and repairs. Privies had to be cleaned and expired animals had to gotten to the rendering plant where they were disposed of.

On the human side, sick family members had to be cared for, children gotten to school, Christmas, holidays and birthdays celebrated, neighbors and relatives visited and entertained when they came over to visit. And every Sunday was a day of rest and church attendance.

As my bother once said when I worked for him in the 1950's: "On a dairy farm we don't go to and come home from work, we wake up amidst it and go to bed amongst it."

I hope all of this is helpful and those who have taken the time and patience to read it. I had some moments of enjoyment and admiration for the wonderful souls who built the history and foundation of our 21st century. Bye now.
posted by ontic at 4:44 PM on May 3, 2007 [19 favorites]


Thanks, ontic's dad, that was fantastic.

esereth: How many cows could a single farmer with no hired hands handle in 1926?
I have never been a farmer but I have spent my summers near traditional small farms in my childhood. I would say that when milking without a machine, you need around 10 minutes for each cow. Do the math, but I don't think a single farmer could handle more than 10 cows, 15 at most.
posted by bru at 7:57 PM on May 3, 2007


Wow. Just. Wow.

Thank you all so much. Ontic, I wish I could shake your dad's hand. Tell him he's a absolute doll, thank him so much for me and make sure he knows he is famous. Also staggernation and huplescat, brilliant, helpful.

What a great tool this....computer stuff...has turned out to be. This fad might catch on.
posted by esereth at 8:16 PM on May 3, 2007


Those are great tutorials by Ontic's dad.

I would suggest visiting your local historical society, university archives, or similar (you may have to visit several to hit paydirt) to ask if they have any oral histories, memoirs, or similar of farming life in the era you are interested in. (Or, if you are researching an area far from where you now live, phone or visit the same sorts of places near that area.) My experience has been that there are amazing things buried in local archives, but it can take some digging (and the assistance of a helpful archivist) to find them.
posted by Forktine at 2:49 AM on May 4, 2007


Wow. Website friends and their fathers are great!
posted by pica at 4:49 AM on May 4, 2007


ontic, please tell your dad that was absolutely fantastic!
His writing is very down to earth, you can almost "hear" his voice telling the story. Wonderful reading for anyone interested in that time period, and I for one enjoyed it a lot!
posted by gemmy at 4:19 PM on May 4, 2007


Fascinating read! Thanks, ontic's Dad!
posted by kamikazegopher at 6:05 PM on May 4, 2007


A fascinating read.
posted by Optamystic at 2:00 AM on May 5, 2007


Or..um...what kamikazegopher said.
posted by Optamystic at 2:01 AM on May 5, 2007


I'm sure writing all that down took a lot of time for ontic's dad, and I really appreciated the way he took everything back to square one and explained it. I've heard stories like this from my relatives, but they were all crop farmers with just a couple of cows, and I really had no idea about the dairy side of things. Thanks, that was really enjoyable!
posted by JParker at 6:30 AM on May 5, 2007


You could also read "Farmer Boy" by the well-known Laura Ingalls, which is the story of her husband's childhood on a New York state farm. Very much like ontic's dad tells it, with the addition of how the chores vary with the seasons.
posted by GuyZero at 6:42 AM on May 7, 2007


Farmer Boy is a wonderful book, indeed.

For contemporary draft farming, tapping into the community around the Small Farmers Journal is enjoyable. It's well written, well produced, and down to earth. Every midwestern library should subscribe (and yes, my hometown's library does).

I don't come by this completely honestly, but my father was raised on a small farm (in TX), and during his adulthood we raised cattle and Welsh ponies as a hobby (if 2 dozen livestock is a hobby). So the mucking section of ontic's father's piece was familiar - and the rest of it was wonderful.
posted by esinclai at 7:37 PM on June 4, 2007


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