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FARM LIFE IN IOWA
I SUPPOSE if any state in the Union was to be picked out as preeminently a paradise of the farmer, that state would be Iowa. Nearly every acre of it can be cultivated, and repays generously the labor bestowed, the climate is kindly yet bracing, and access to markets is phenominally easy. “You can’t find a place in the state,” one man said to me, “that’s beyond the hearin’ of the railroad whistles. All our county-seats have at least one railroad runnin’ through ‘em, and most of ‘em two or three. A man can work to advantage in Iowa anywhere. There’s no more cheap lands to be had, and all the farm country in the state could be sold at an average of seventy-five dollars an acre.”
My own observations bore out this man’s claims. One seldom sees land that is rocky and thin-soiled, or any boggy hollows but that can be readily reclaimed. Nature smiles on the husbandman, and it is a pleasure simply to look on the great fields that sweep away in gentle undulation to the horizon. There are no absolute levels, neither are there any abrupt hills; but the landscape rises and falls like the big smooth swells of the ocean after a storm. From the top of the swells you are especially impressed with the marvellous extent of beautiful fertility about you. Even the skies seem more vast than you have ever known them in the East. Most of the land is cultivated, yet there is much pasturage where numerous cattle, horses, sheep, and hogs graze, and there are frequent streaks and patches of trees. Sheltered homes are scattered broadcast over the face of the earth, and thrift and plenty seem to be universal.
On my first day in Iowa I left the railroad and went for a ramble out into the farming country. The weather was mild and sunny, and the air so still I could hear all the sounds for miles around — the whinny of horses, the barking of dogs, the clear call of the bobwhites, and the mellow sighing of the turtle-doves. The turf was sprinkled with dandelion gold, and the butterflies were flitting about enjoying the heat that shimmered over the fields. When I crossed a creek and stopped on the bridge to look down into the stream, I caught the gleam of silvery scales as the fish gambolled in the water; and now and then a fish would come up to the surface with a sudden flip that would start a circle of ripples.
Late in the afternoon I called at a farmhouse, and I made arrangements to stay as long as I lingered in the region. My hosts were Americans of the best type — intelligent and prosperous, yet living simply and working hard. It was a matter of pride to them that they owned a piano, for the neighbors had only organs.
But the thing in the house which gave them the most real satisfaction was a telephone. This connected them with nearly all the farm dwellers in the region and also with the town. The telephone line was a local enterprise, and the cost of maintenance was only two or three dollars a year. They used it constantly both for business and for pleasure. It saved time and money and it did away largely with the isolation which before had been characteristic of farm life; for homes were rarely close enough to each other so that families could fraternize freely, even if those who lived next each other were particularly friendly. The telephone was the more important to my hosts because they were not on the main highway, and their road was enlivened by few passers. They always looked out when any one did go by and made a guess at the person’s probable business, and if they did not happen to know the person would remark, “Well, who in creation is that?”
Besides annihilating distance so that the members of each family could visit with whom they pleased, it enabled them to listen when others visited. The rules did not countenance this, however, as the daughter of the house at my lodging-place said, “‘Tisn’t often any one finds fault about your listening, because they do it theirselves, too.”
So if she was not especially busy when the telephone bell rang up a neighbor, she took off the receiver and held it to her ear a longer or a shorter time, according as the conversation proved entertaining or otherwise.
The surroundings of the house did not show much thought for appearances, and the shaggy lawn and few shrubs and trees got little care. At the back of the house were the barns, corncribs, and other buildings, quite a collection in all and scattered over considerable ground. Near the barns were a miry hog enclosure, a cow yard, and a calf pasture. The cattle were allowed to run free the winter through; yet they have a shed closed in on the windward side for their protection and are fed regularly with hay and with corn on the cob. The hay is stacked outdoors, except what is needed for the horses; and from the stack a load is taken daily in cold weather to a rack in the pasture for the cattle. A windmill pump keeps the farmyard supplied with water. Every farm has to have its windmill, and you see the slender iron frameworks sticking up all over the country.
The farms vary a good deal in size. Some have only forty acres, others eighty; but one hundred and sixty is the usual size. Many of the farmers have, however, added to their original holdings and own three or four hundred acres, and there are occasional men whose possessions run up above a thousand. In fact, farms are fewer than twenty years ago, and you find frequent deserted houses. The empty dwellings and outbuildings are nearly always ruinous. They were probably not very substantial in the first place, and lack of care and leaky roofs and rough winds soon bring them to earth. But the protecting rows of trees that grew near may remain long afterward and mark the old home site that otherwise has been absorbed into some big pasture or cultivated field.
Quite a percentage of the farms are rented. The owners have acquired a competence, and on account of age or lack of health have moved to town. They receive a rental of from three to five dollars an acre; but out of the receipts they pay taxes and also attend to repairs on the buildings and fences. The returns are therefore not very great on the amount of capital the farm represents; but the owners prefer this land investment to putting the money into a savings bank, because they have greater confidence in its safety.
“Most of the people who have been here any length of time own their places,” I was told; “but there’s a few wouldn’t be content without a mortgage. A feller makin’ a fresh start to buy a place has hard pulling. It takes a good deal of money for stock and machinery, and with land so much higher than it used to be it ain’t easy payin’. Then, it seem like these here young folks now ain’t as economical as the people used to be. Soon as a young feller gets a little money nowadays he buys a smart buggy and a horse. He wants to show off and so he don’t get ahead.”
The farm country is divided with interminable miles of wire fencing into lots mostly of forty-acre size. The people work the land in fields of that extent as a rule, and each field is devoted to one staple. They have no fancy for hand labor, use machinery almost exclusively, and skip a good deal of detail that we in the older states fancy is essential. Thus, in haying, if the grass is thoroughly ripe it is mowed in the morning, and in the afternoon is raked up and stacked. If green, it is allowed to lie until the next day. But in neither case is the grass teddered or touched after mowing until it is raked up.
Very little hoeing is done; but the corn gets considerable cultivating with a two-horse machine, on which a man rides day after day back and forth on the long rows. If the hoe is employed at all it is where the wild morning glories have grown so thick as to threaten to choke the life out of the corn with their entwining stems. The morning glories are the worst weed pest with which the farmers have to contend.
A troublesome pest of another sort is the gopher. This little rodent is always burrowing in the grass fields and making its endless series of dirt heaps. It throws up about a peck of pulverized earth in each heap from its underground tunnel, but seldom shows itself. The roots of the clover and the morning glories are its favorite foods. It is also fond of potatoes, and when a man makes warfare on it he digs down and drops a poisoned potato in the creature’s burrows. The gopher’s mounds are a great nuisance in the grass fields; for they clog the mowing-machine knife and often bring the machine to a full stop.
Churning at the Back Door
The majority of the farmers own a self-binding harvester, which they use in cutting their oats. Forty acres will make about sixty wagon loads or ten stacks. These stacks are arranged in two settings, each group of five stacks forming a square with one side of it gone so that the threshing machine can be placed in the middle. Sometime in August or September the threshing machine comes with three or four men to attend it and a dozen or fifteen of the neighbors to handle the bundles of oats, the straw, and the grain. The work is done in a day; but it is a day of high pressure. There is strenuousness indoors as well as out, for dinner and supper have to be provided for all the hungry crowd, and the thresher crew has to be kept over night. It is the most tumultuous day of the year; but its spice of excitement lends it a certain attraction, and the work is not nearly so irksome to the men engaged as is the more solitary and sober task of corn-husking that comes later.
Most of the corn is husked in the field from the standing stalks into wagons, and the labor continues in the chilly late autumn, for a month or more. Often the last load is not in until about Thanksgiving time. The weather and the coarse, sharp-edged husks are irritating to the hands, and the workers are usually obliged to wear mittens.
The farm people get up during the busy season at about five. The field tasks are done by six o’clock in the afternoon, and supper is served; but afterward there are the milking and other odd jobs at the barn and sheds which keep the workers engaged until about bedtime. In the winter they take life easier, are not up much before seven, and indeed only care to be stirring early enough to get the children ready to go to school. There is wood to cut, oats to haul to market, and the stock to care for; but work does not crowd, and some men will frequently drive into town with no object whatever, and simply “hang around.”
Once in a while a “sale” lends spice to the farm life. “The sale may be the result of a man’s gettin’ in debt bad,” I was informed, “and he has to auction off his belongings pretty close to straighten up; but usually it’s where some one is moving away, or a family is broken up by a death. They have the sales usually in winter, because other times of the year lots of us would be too busy to go. There’s bound to be a crowd if the weather is good. The thing is advertised a week or two beforehand by posters, and people will come to it from a distance of eight or ten miles. I’ve seen more than five hundred men at a single sale. It’s an all-day affair, and at noon the folks that are selling out furnish every one with a free lunch of bologny, crackers, coffee, and cheese.”
A Notice on the Schoolhouse Door
There are seldom any drones in the farm families, and I observed that the housewives by no means confined themselves to indoor duties. One day I stepped into a yard where a sunbonneted woman was sitting on her back doorstep turning the crank of a barrel churn. At my approach operations were brought to a stop, and a young woman came to the door, and both she and the churner looked at me to see what I had to say for myself. I asked about the churn, and the woman explained it to me and told what good butter she made, and then said with a motion of her thumb toward the girl in the doorway, “Her and I do the milking. I don’t like to eat the butter when the men milk. They have enough work without that; and you know they are around the horses so much they can’t keep very clean, and they chew tobacco, and I can’t help thinkin’ they might be spittin’ and get their tobacco juice in the milk.”
A good many women in the vicinity milked, and they very often helped in the fields during the busy days of haying and harvest. Woman frequently drive the binders, put the oats in shocks, and some of them do considerable husking.
On one of my rambles I stopped at the local schoolhouse, a little white building prettily situated on a knoll with lofty oak and elm woods close behind it.
A grassy forest road led away into the grove and furnished a short cut for the children who lived on the other side of the hill. Many initials were carved on the casing of the schoolhouse door, and among the rest of the decorations were the following lines which some one had laboriously written with a pencil: —
When a tode climes up a tree
pinch his tail and think of me,
to which was appended in a different handwriting the
or some other fool.
The room inside was rather attractive. It had curtains at the windows and a variety of pictures pinned on the walls. The children were orderly, attentive, and bright. As is usual, the teacher was without special training and merely a graduate of some village high school. Her methods were old-fashioned and the pupils recited rather stumblingly and parrot-like; but they were getting along fairly well, nevertheless. The boys come to school barefoot, and in overalls. That was their idea of comfort, and looks didn’t count. They abandon shoes as early in the spring as they can induce their mothers to let them, and the shoes are seldom on the boys’ feet again until the autumn days become decidedly frosty. The girls were dressed quite spick and span, and judging by their attire you would never suspect they came from the same families as the boys.
Every winter there was an entertainment at the schoolhouse for the benefit of the school library. This was mostly prepared by the teacher and children, and was locally the chief social event of the season. But as a rule the people when they felt the need of relaxation had to resort to the town, where there was a chance to attend occasional lectures and concerts and now and then a travelling show.
The town itself was little more than a rustic village. I was there over Sunday. An unnatural quiet reigned from the earliest dawn, though the roosters crowed from coop to coop and the birds sang as usual. But by and by a church bell began jangling, and a few teams came jogging in from the country and hitched to the fence behind the Methodist meeting-house, and straggling church-goers emerged from the homes and went clacking along the board walks. I followed the rest. The service was of the usual sort, and I recall nothing special in its routine except that the minister had much to say of members who were in a “backslidden state” and played cards, danced, and went to the theatre, and that he also complained the attendance was not what it should be. “You farmers have got good comfortable buggies and carriages,” he said, “and yet a little shower will keep you at home. Years ago when the people had nothing to come in but their heavy farm wagons they were all here every Sunday.”
The farm folk were much more in evidence about the village on the day following. Their teams were coming and going in a desultory way from morn till night. Heavy wagons and covered buggies drawn by two horses were the rule. No one was in a hurry. The men had time to loiter in front of the stores, where they found convenient seats amid the displays of farm tools and new vehicles resplendent with gaudy paint. The women, too, were glad to meet and chat leisurely with friends. Often the whole family came to trade — father and mother and children of varying ages, from the toddler who stepped along with timid caution on the unfamiliar board walk, fearful that he might tumble off or get caught in the cracks, to the bashful youngsters a few years older, timid also from consciousness of being in the metropolis, but with eyes wide open to see all its wonders. Then there were the boys in their teens — raw-looking fellows with misfit clothes and rough hands and tanned faces. Last, but not least, there were the little girls and the blooming maidens.
At length Mrs. Farmer finishes her shopping and hunts up her man. “I’m ready to go right now,” he says, and they pack in their purchases under the seats and in between and all around until you wonder where the members of the family are going to bestow themselves. But they manage to squeeze in somehow, and off they go satisfied and happy, with the wagon springs sagging to the bumping point.
Renewing a Town Walk
That evening an automobile came whizzing into town and stopped in the village centre. There were three young men in it. They stepped into one of the stores, and every one on the street gathered around the machine, and told each other what they thought about it. The three young men presently appeared, lit their cigars, turned up their coat collars, and prepared to resume their journey; but the machine refused to budge. They investigated and tried this method and that to coax it into motion; yet there it stuck. The crowd grew and was quite fascinated with the performance.
“I ain’t never seen this auto out of whack before,” said a man next to me.
“Where does it come from?” I asked.
“It belongs to two of these fellers,” was the reply. “They live in the next town north and often pass through here; but they usually go just a-bilin’ and don’t stop.”
“They stopped that time they scat Sarah Colton’s horse,” remarked another man who was listening.
“Why, yes, they did. You see her horse was hitched on the street here, and when the auto turned the corner the horse seemed to think Satan himself was comin’, and it broke away and went off with heels a-flyin’. These fellers left their machine and give chase. The horse was too old to be much of a racer, and some one stopped it and the fellers brought it back and had the harness patched up, and settled with Sarah for the damages, and went on. Their father used to have a clothing store, and he made money. Now they’re spendin’ what the old man saved. They won’t get no more from him. The old man has made his windup, you know. He’s under the sod.”
But now the refractory machine had been induced to start and went whirling away in a cloud of dust, and the village resumed its normal quiet.
NOTE. — In Iowa beautiful farming country is almost universal, and if you would have a close acquaintance with it, stop off the train wherever you please and set out for a walk or drive. Any fair-sized town is very sure to have a good hotel, but accommodations among the farms is not always to be found. The better class of families are too prosperous and too busy to care to take in a traveller. So the safe and comfortable way is to get lodgings in some town and make short trips from there out into the region surrounding.