Spring planting … in the 19th century

Plowing 19th century style

Plowing 19th century style

At The Landing, our goal is to show the public the activities and life of the 1800s. One event that happens every spring is plowing and planting. We have two fields that must be plowed, dragged and planted each spring, and there are also several house gardens that must be prepared for planting.

The 19th century showed the largest jump from “primitive” to “modern” in the history of farming. By the end of the century, farmers had gone from using horse- or oxen-drawn walking plows to steam tractors. At The Landing, we use a sulky riding two-bottom plow, pulled by two horses. Our plow is a real mid-1860s model and allows us to plow more land, faster, than with the walking plow.

We have access to draft horses, mostly Percherons, for plowing. We do have one Belgian, Jerry, who is my favorite. My husband does some of the plowing, but the main plowman is Milford, who works for the owner of the horses. Milford also owns the antique plow that we use.

Since the fields are relatively small, the plowman takes his time so that the guests who visit later in the day can experience the sight of a working team and plow. We plan the plowing for the Memorial Day weekend, when one day is set aside for plowing and the next for dragging. “Dragging” means literally dragging the field with a square frame of metal with large teeth. This enables the field to be made smoother than by just plowing. By the time the plowman finishes at the end of the day, the field is smooth as silk. The third day is dedicated to planting; we encourage guests to assist in this chore, and they readily lend a hand.

Planting also had a large jump in equipment in the 1800s. In the first part of the century, planting was still done by hand. Even wheat and other small grains were sown by hand, a skill that took practice to show an even field of grain when it started growing. Corn was planted by drilling holes and placing three or four seeds in each hole, then covering them up. This last part – the actual planting – was a child’s task, following an adult who drilled the hole. By the mid 1860s, mechanical drills and corn planters came about, but they were not very commonly used until the late 1880s.

We plant by hand, as our fields are meant to represent the 1860s. My task has been to plant the flax for my spinning, and I might brag a bit here to say that my flax crop is pretty even each year. We grow wheat, flax and oats for small seed crops. We also grow corn (Bloody Butcher is our favorite), sorghum, broom corn and mangle beets. Sorghum is used for sorghum molasses and also for animal feed. Broom corn, of course, is used to make brooms, and the seed can be used for chicken feed. Mangle beets can be cut up and used for animal feed. Many 19th-century farmers used these for dairy cows in particular.

When the plants start coming up, it is time for weeding, a chore no one wants to tackle. The “easiest” way to weed a field is with a hand push cultivator, but that only works for the corn and the rows in the house gardens. The small grains have too many grasses coming up in and around the plants. So, it is on-your-knees-and-gently-pull-them-out! This is also a chore that the public is invited to assist with. It is amazing how many children will spend an hour weeding our fields when they won’t even look at a garden at their own homes.

Fall is the time for harvest, if the raccoons haven’t eaten all the corn and the crows eaten all the wheat. Harvesting is done by hand, as well. Horse drawn reapers came into being about the 1880s; horse powered threshers came about in the 1860s, with steam-driven threshing beginning around the 1870s.

What work to feed your family! Until the 1860s, farms were mostly “subsistence” farms. The family grew only what they needed to feed themselves and their animals, and very little was sold or traded. When the more “modern” equipment started being used after the Civil War, the farms moved to have larger fields. Farmers began growing crops to sell and trade, which began the move to our modern day farms, where now one large farm can grow food for thousands.

We at The Landing work hard, but not nearly as hard as the farm families back in the 1800s. If our crop fails, we can shrug our shoulders, say, “Oh, well, better luck next year,” and explain the crop failures to the public. But the families back then had to survive, and a crop failure could mean bankruptcy or hunger, or both. Our fields are also much smaller, because we don’t need the crops to feed our animals or ourselves – they are basically for demonstration, although it is a wonderful feeling if we do end up with enough to be able to add to our purchased animal feed. Hopefully though, our work shows our guests the hard work our ancestors needed to accomplish to survive, and also reminds them how comfortably most of us in America now live in our modern society.

Editor’s Note: Until a few years ago, cpthegreat was a full-time history interpreter at Historic Murphy’s Landing (now called The Landing) in Shakopee, Minnesota. This article was first published in May 2005.

About cpthegreat

Connie (aka Spinning Grandma) lives on Ash Lane Farm in southwest Minnesota. She is an expert on spinning, weaving and knitting and a former history interpreter.