You have been asked to assist the curator at the History Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The curator is collecting information about early farming practices. Your job is to research information found in Beulah Usher's trunk and report your discoveries.
To begin, read the biographical information about Beulah Usher, a girl who grew up on a farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Here are a few questions to help you get a picture of life as a child living on a farm in the early 1900's.
Add two or three of your questions to this list, and uncover the answers in the biographical information.
Your next challenge as assistant curator is to compare three phases of Iowa agriculture:
First, make a chart like the one below. Divide your chart into three columns to show how work was done on the pioneer farm in 1850 and how it was done on the horse-powered farm of 1900 and how it is done today.
Farming Yesterday and Today
1850… Pioneer Farms
1900… Horse-powered Farms
TODAY… Modern Farms
In each column, describe how farmers plowed, planted, and harvested crops and the kind of equipment they used.
What do you think were the most important characteristics of each phase? Prepare to share your findings with the curator by writing three paragraphs, one for each phase.
Bial, Raymond. The Farms. (Building America series). Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 2002.
Examines the history of farming in the United States and discusses the role of farming in the development of the country. Includes photos and descriptions of different farm buildings and their uses.
Gunderson, Mary. Pioneer Farm Cooking. Blue Earth Books, 2000.
Discusses the everyday life, family roles, cooking methods, common foods and recipes of pioneers who settled in the Midwest during the late 1800s and early 1900s
Halley, Ned. Farm. DK, 2000.
Describes different aspects of farming through the ages including equipment, domestic animals, crops, and the future of farming
Ancona, George. The American Family Farm: A Photo Essay. Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Describes the American family farm in text and photos, focusing on the daily lives of three farm families in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Iowa
Bial, Raymond. Portrait of a Farm Family. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Looks at the daily lives of an Illinois farm family, showing how all family members contribute in running the farm. Explains the daily routine, including milking the cows and canning fruit and vegetables for the winter.
Describes the types of plows used by American farmers from the pre-1800s until the 1860's.
Describes crops, farm implements, and livestock on pioneer farms in Indiana in the early-to-mid-1800s
Describes activities on an 1850 pioneer farm in Iowa with photos from exhibits at Living History Farms in Des Moines, Iowa
Describes a horse-powered farm of 1900 in Iowa with photos from exhibits at Living History Farms in Des Moines, Iowa
John Deere Self-Polishing Cast Steel Plow
Describes John Deere's invention of improved plows beginning in 1837 and the impact of that equipment on Midwest agriculture
Farmers and the Land
Presents a timeline of the important developments in American agriculture from 1776-1990 including statistics on the number of farms and the total farm population
A History of American Agriculture
A History of American Agriculture. by decade, by category. 17th-18th Centuries · 1800 · 1820 · 1840 · 1860 · 1880 · 1900 · 1910 · 1920 · 1930 · 1940 · 1950 ...
Interactive Census Maps for 2002 Agriculture Census Highlights
Includes statistics on the number of farms and the total farm population
Farming Today And Tomorrow - A Day in the Life of a Farmer- Fun Farm Facts
Presents a list of 36 facts about today's farmers; including expenses, education and technology needed to run today's farms
Farming Today and Tomorrow - A Day in the Life of a Farmer - Interview a Farmer
Provides interview questions which may be asked of a farmer today
Life on the Farm
Two Midwest farm families and their children share real-life experiences about farm life in the United States today. Includes photos of today's farming practices
Beulah and Florence Usher were the only daughters of Henry and Mary Usher.
Mary and Henry P. Usher were married May 29, 1901 in Lisbon, Iowa.
Beulah was born in 1902 and her sister Florence in 1905. At the turn of the century it was common for children to be born in a home rather than a hospital. Beulah and Florence were no different. They were introduced to this world in their parents' small cottage just four miles from Cedar Rapids.
Florence and Beulah Usher c. 1907
Their great-grandfather Henry A. Usher was a real pioneer. He homesteaded in Iowa in 1838, before Iowa was even a state! At that time, farming required back breaking work. Pioneer farmers cleared the prairie land, cut down trees, built log homes and raise their own food. In 1855, Henry A. Usher built the home where the girls were born. It was located on a family homestead near Cedar Rapids.
Map with the Usher Farm
If walls could only talk that house would tell about a great adventure! In the 1860s the house was actually cut in two and moved across the Cedar River. In the dead of winter it was moved across the ice and placed on a piece of property four miles west of Cedar Rapids owned by the Usher family. That's where Beulah and Florence were born.
Stoney Point School c. 1910
As children, both girls attended the one-room Stoney Point School, one mile from their home. Their great-grandfather Henry A. Usher donated the land for the school. A rocky triangular-shaped corner of his farm became the site of the Stoney Point School.
Class picture of students at the Stoney Point School c. 1910
At this time many students stopped going to school after the eighth grade or even earlier. But education was important to Henry and Mary Usher and they wanted their daughters to get more than the one room rural school near their home could provide. So in the middle grades the girls attended Madison School in Cedar Rapids and later Grant High School.
Florence and Beulah with the sheep wagon c. 1906
When they attended Grant High School, Beulah drove the buggy four miles to town over dirt roads. When it rained the roads would turn to mud, sticky mud with lots of ruts. It was easy for even a horse-drawn wagon to get stuck. Some times in bad weather, Beulah had to hitch up a third horse to pull the wagon through.
Florence and Beulah going to school c. 1920
Today many high school students drive cars to school and park them along the streets or in lots provided by the school. But Beulah couldn't park her horses outside the school for the day. Horses needed to be cared for and fed. So Beulah left the horses and buggy at a livery stable while she and her sister were in school.
What is a livery stable? When it was common for people to travel by horse and wagon, a livery stable worked like a parking garage. During the day while Beulah's horses and wagon were "parked" in the livery stable, an attendant would see that the horses were fed, watered and generally cared for.
When they got home from school, Beulah and Florence each milked six cows. They left the gentlest cow until last because she would allow the girls to milk from both sides at the same time. Since Henry and Mary had no sons, the girls not only helped their parents with housework but also did farm chores. That was just fine with Beulah. She never liked to play with dolls anyway. Florence preferred doing work in the house, patching overalls, darning socks or baking pies. Beulah would rather work outside with the horses. She knew all about hitching them to a buggy or operating horse-drawn farm machinery.
Beulah took advantage of the fact that she was driving a wagon to Cedar Rapids for school every day. Because there was space in the wagon she hauled the cans of milk to town. Rawson's Ice Cream Company would then come to the livery stable and pick up the milk cans. As time went on, she hauled milk for other farmers in the vicinity as well.
In the winter a kind family near the livery heated a soapstone for Beulah and Florence. The stone was heated on a stove and then wrapped in a blanket or cloth. The stone would be placed on the floor of the wagon where the girls put their feet. It would help keep their feet warm on the long trip home.
In evenings after supper, Beulah and Florence would do their homework by lamplight. They used lamps because in the 1920s most farmers had no electricity in their homes. Electric lights were common in towns and cities but electricity had not yet reached the rural countryside.
Henry P. Usher, Beulah, Florence and their mother Mary c. 1920
Beulah graduated from Grant High School in 1922 and then enrolled in St. Luke's School of Nursing. Florence got a job as a milliner with Lyman Brothers in Cedar Rapids. Do you know what a milliner made? Hats. At this time women wore hats whenever they were out in public. Women's hats were often very large and beautiful with flowers, veils, lace, ribbons, feathers and all kinds of decorations. It took special skill to make a beautiful hat.
After high school Beulah and Florence lived in Cedar Rapids. Neither ever married. Beulah was a nursing supervisor at St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids for many years and retired in 1965. Florence worked in various retail businesses in Cedar Rapids. She also retired in the mid 1960s. Beulah was active in the Red Cross after her retirement and volunteered at the Veteran's Hospital in Iowa City.
Beulah as Red Cross Volunteer in Iowa City c. 1965
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.
The harrow had teeth protruding from the bottom that loosened the soil and broke up clods just before seeds were planted.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Usher family raised potatoes as well as corn and oats. A digging machine pulled by horses opened the potato hills.
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.
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.
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.