As I sat in an Indianan barn-turned-B&B with my maternal grandparents, my aunt, and cousin, I had the perfect setting to ask about our agrarian ancestry, a history with roots deep in the black prairie soil. Our first ancestors came to Iowa after the Homestead Act of 1862, when Iowa was wild country, granting land to settlers willing to work hard on the 160 acres¹. In this post, I will recall some of the anecdotes recalled to me by my maternal grandparents and how this opportunity through the Homestead Act gave a lifestyle and identity to my family for generations.
My Grandpa Woodley, who is in his mid-80s today, has always lived in North Central Iowa, in the Hansel area. My grandfather’s great grandfather John came to Iowa from Wisconsin under the Homestead act to Dumont, near Hansel. My Great-great-great-grandfather John and his brothers felled the first tree and built a log house with no windows. John turned up the prairie sod, dug ditches to drain the marshes, and cultivated the earth for crops. This land, having been recently appropriated from the native people with their villages just miles away, was wild country. The native women would come trade with the farm wives.
John’s wife’s name was Emily and together they had a son named Albert. Albert was born in December in that same house with no windows. Albert lived on that land and he raised livestock. During the world war, he was called to work on ropes but later came back to the farm where he enjoyed again milking his Red Poll cows by hand. Albert then lived and farmed through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Luckily, his land stayed put. Many farms were sold to banks but his wasn’t. On the farm, they had all of their needs provided for.
Albert was my grandpa Warren’s father. Warren was born and raised on that same family land and helped on the farm. As he got older, he was gifted calves from Albert to raise on his own. He recalls the milking process well. They would use whole milk to feed the calves as well as drink that same milk at home. There was a Milking House where the milk would be processed in a separater, skim from cream. Warren said you had to clean the separater every day. The skim was mixed with feed to make slop for the pigs. When walking up on the pigs with their slot, Warren remembers you had to be sneaky or the pigs would run up and nudge you and there would be a mess made. The cream would eventually sold in town but first was taken to the cooling tank which was cooled with water from a wildmill-powered pump. This well went down 120 feet. How did they drill 120 feet down in the early 20th century? Horses would be hooked up to the drink and walk all day in circles to crank the drill down.
My Grandpa Woodley’s dad was the first generation to get a tractor. It held a 8 feet wide disc that plowed the prairie. Grandpa recalls that it was a big job to properly keep horses for a plow and they were glad when the tractor arrived. Another technology they used was a cultivator to weed the soil after the corn had been planted and two or three more times after that. They were plowing out “morning glories” which we also call bindweed. A mechanical planter was also used. Wires were strung every 40 inches across a field of corn. The machine ran cross ways of the wires and was tripped by the wire which drilled four corn seeds into the mound. You’d be judged on the straightness of your rows so you had to make sure to plant them well! Manure would be spread on the fields for fertilizer
Warren, my grandpa, lived on his family’s 80 acres until adulthood, along with his brother Morris, and both of their wives and families, and their elderly parents. My grandpa Warren is married to my grandma Patty and together they raised 5 children on that farm. However, the farm was granted to Morris, the oldest son in Albert’s will and Warren, Patty, and their brood of children moved to town. My mom was born to Warren and Patty two children later and never got to live the farm life and neither did I.
My Mom’s mom, Patty, also was born and raised in North Central Iowa to a farming family. Her parents Paul and Eileen were living with Eileen’s parents on their farm in the 1930s when Patty was born. They lived on this farm for many years as Patty grew up. They lived near Shell Rock Iowa near bluffs. My great grandma Eileen told the men they could not plow up the mounds near the bluffs because she knew the mounds were indian burial sites. My grandma Patty would play and explore these mounds as a child and knows that they are still intact after all these years, in part thanks to Eileen’s tenacity.
¹Historical Cycles – 1860. Agriculture in the Classroom, 2014, http://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/1860.htm. Accessed 11 September, 2016.