OF EARLY FARMERS
No store or mill was within fifty, or perhaps a hundred
miles, for many early Iowa pioneer families. They could not
have to eat what we have today. Indeed, they thought they
were well off if they had enough of the very plainest foods
for their large families.
THE FIRST CROP
The first thing that an Iowa pioneer family did after
choosing a site for the new home was to mark off a "claim."
Until a settler could buy the land from the Government and
get a deed for it, his and was called a "claim." The settlers
measured their land by "stepping it off." They marked it with
stakes or, if it was timbered land, by blazing trees along the
lines of the claim.
As soon as the land was marked off, the first crop was
planted. Sometimes the settlers came too late in the spring
to plant corn and wheat. A "truck patch," as it was called,
of potatoes, turnips, and a few other vegetables, was planted.
Corn was the first regular crop. The roots of the
cornstalk, it was believed, loosened the soil better than the
roots of any other plant. Thus the land was put in shape for
other plants. Only a few acres could be cleared on timbered
land for planting the first season. Each year, however, the
farmer tried to clear a few more acres and have them ready for
planting for the next season.
The first year was usually the hardest. The crop was
small. The flour or meal that the pioneer had brought with
him often gave out before the first winter was over. There
was one thing they could do to get food. Wild game was
plentiful. As long as their ammunition lasted they could get
plenty of meat although there might be very little bread.
NOT MUCH MACHINERY
The pioneers brought but little farm machinery. A plow, a
shovel or a spade, and a hoe were about all they brought.
They did not have room for more in the covered wagon. Often
they used their axes to chop holes in the ground in which to
plant their first crop of corn.
Many of the plows that they brought from the East were too
light and too weak for use in Iowa. It took a big strong plow
and from four to six yoke of oxen to turn over the tough
prairie sod for the first time.
HARVESTING THE CORN
What a task it was to harvest the crop! Only the simplest
tools were used. The idea of a corn-picking machine would
have seemed ridiculous then. The corn, stalk and all, was
stored in the barn. Later a "husking bee" was held. The
neighbors came to help. Games were played and, if a "fiddler"
could be found, a dance was held.
Major Byers in his poem on "Iowa Pioneers" says,
corn, where many a bright eye shone---
The kiss to him
who found the lucky ear."
THRESHING THE GRAIN
Binders and threshing machines were unknown. The grain was
cut with a "cradle." The cradle was like a scythe with
several long wooden fingers attached to it. These fingers
held the grain together in a bunch after it was cut. The
grain was then tied into bundles by hand.
To thresh the grain, a small plot of ground was cleared and
the earth pounded down hard. The sheaves or bundles of grain
were laid in a circle upon this plot of ground. The sheaves
were unbound. Then horses or oxen were driven around and
around on this circle of bundles until the grain was well
trodden out. Another layer of bundles was then put on the
first one and the horses or oxen were driven around again.
After the grain had been trodden out of several layers of
bundles the straw was raked off and the grain heaped up.
After the grain was partly threshed in this way it had to
be separated from the chaff. Windy days were best for this.
The grain was poured slowly from one pan or box to another so
that the wind could blow away the chaff. This was done a
number of times. When there was no wind a sheet was waved to
make a breeze.
Some of the grain had to be ground into flour. Only small
and simple mills were to be found, and they were often far
away. Sometimes the pioneers ground the grain into meal
themselves. They would grate it over a rough iron surface, or
they might pound it into meal in a stump that had been
hollowed out by burning a hole in it.
The early farmers put up much wild hay. Their stock needed
it for the long, hard winters. The hay was cut with a scythe
and raked over by hand to dry. When it was ready to store
away it was piled in a stack beside the barn.
The pioneers depended, for much of their food, upon the
things that nature gave them. Bees were common in the woods
of Iowa. One man tells us that when he was a boy his father
and neighbors gathered honey from twenty trees and stored it
in a barrel. The honey was used in place of sugar.
Hunting in early days was not just a sport. It furnished
most of the meat for winter. While the buffalo had moved
farther west, ahead of the settler, deer, bear, and smaller
game were still plentiful.
The pioneer's life was hard but most of the people were
healthy and happy