Are Big Farms or Small Farms Better? The Case of the Bonanza Farms

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, September 17, 1913:  

September 16 – 17 – 18 – 19:  Nothing much of importance happened during these days. I have to help Pa some and get put at rolling for one thing. Of course I had my mishaps even to going off of the roller. That work is all done by this time.

Wheat.Bonanza.Harvester
The Book of Wheat (1908) by Peter Tracy Dondlinger

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

This was the second of four days where Grandma wrote a single diary entry. Yesterday I described how Grandma rolled the fields in preparation for planting winter wheat. Since Grandma didn’t write anything specific for this date, I’m going to share something I learned when I was doing research for this series of posts that surprised me.

Did you know that there were some huge, highly-mechanized, wheat farms in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

There were 91 large “Bonanza Farms” ranging in size from 3,000 to more than 30,000 acres in North Dakota and Minnesota.

In 1864 the US government gave a group of investors millions of acres of land to finance the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad from Minnesota to the west coast. During the Panic of 1873, the investors got into financial difficulty and needed to raise funds to complete building the railroad so they let stockholders buy large tracts of land in the Red River Valley at low rates.

wheat.large.harvester

The farms had professional managers and migrant labor did much of the work. (During the winter months many of the farm laborers worked in logging camps in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.)

By the early 1900s wheat prices were low, labor costs were rising, and the Bonanza Farms weren’t very profitable.

There also was a lot of concern that the Bonanza Farms weren’t good stewards of the land. For example, the opening paragraph in a bulletin published by the US Government in 1908 said:

Experience has shown that when excessively large companies farm great tracts of land the tendency is to exploit the land for the greatest immediate profit at the expense of the permanent value of the soil. Proper soil-cultural methods are not observed: rotations for the preservation of soil fertility are neglected; the main crop, wheat, is grown continuously, and the seed is allowed to degenerate through careless methods. Undoubtedly there are exceptions to this rule. It is not the writer’s wish to intimate that rational dry farming is impossible when carried on by large companies, but the general rule has been as stated here. It is evident that the homesteader, having in mind the value of his home and the welfare of his posterity, is more likely to perpetuate and increase the value of his land.

Dry-land Grains (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, Circular No. 12, 1908)

These concerns led, in part, to changes in tax codes that discriminated against Bonanza Farms which made them even less profitable.

At the same time more people wanted to farm in the upper Midwest and the land was becoming more valuable, so many of the Bonanza Farms were divided into smaller plots and sold to family farmers.

Here’s links to several sites that have additional information about Bonanza Farms:

Bonanza Farming (Encyclopedia of the Great Plains)

The Bonanza Farms of North Dakota (Teaching with Historic Places, National Park Service)

The Bagg Bonanza Farm

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Rolling the Fields

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, September 16, 1913:  

September 16 – 17 – 18 – 19:  Nothing much of importance happened during these days. I have to help Pa some and get put at rolling for one thing. Of course I had my mishaps even to going off of the roller. That work is all done by this time.

Horse-drawn roller.  (Photo source: Wikemedia Commons, German Federal Archives)
Horse-drawn roller. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Whew, I bet that Grandma was exhausted. It’s rare that she didn’t write a diary entry every day—but I can understand why she was too tired to write anything a hundred years ago today.

Grandma was using a roller in a plowed field to level the ground and break up clumps of soil in preparation for planting wheat seeds. In Pennsylvania wheat is planted in the fall and harvested the following summer.

Horses were hitched to the roller, and Grandma would have needed to tighten one rein or the other to make the horses go in a straight line. Unlike the roller in the picture, the diary entry makes it sound like the roller that she used may have had a seat. The mishap sounds embarrassing (and perhaps painful).

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Hauling Milk Over to the Spring for Storage

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, May 20, 1913:  Ruthie and me a nice little wooden wagon in which to haul milk over to the spring, and this would save us from breaking our backs for that can of milk is almost a dead weight.

milk can (photo source: Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site)
Milk Can (Photo Source: Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma’s family had several milk cows. The milk from the cows was put into large cans. The cans filled with milk were then stored for a day or two until it was sold to a dairy or made into butter.

Spring houses were used in the days before electric refrigeration to keep the milk cold. A small building was built over a spring, and the milk cans were placed in the cool water that flowed through the building.

an example of a spring house (This spring house is not on the Muffly farm.) (Source: Wikipedia)
An Example of a Spring House (This spring house is not on the Muffly farm.) (Source: Wikipedia)

I’d have demanded a cart, too. Milk cans filled with milk were heavy. I don’t know where the spring house was located, but it probably was some distance away from the barn.

Did Grandma’s mother take the suggestion seriously—or did the request go in one ear and out the other?

Flowering Shrubs a Hundred Years Ago

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, May 9, 1913:  The weather has quite suddenly changed and it is very cold.  That’s all I have to write about.

Forsythia
Forsythia

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Brrr—cold weather in May is no fun. But even cold days are almost tolerable when I see all of the beautiful flowers and flowering shrubs erupting into bloom. .

Today, I’m going to share pictures of flowering scrubs that were in the April 1913 issue of Ladies Home Journal.  Some of the plants are still popular today—others I don’t recognize or seldom see anymore.

Weigela Rosea
Weigela Rosea
Tatarian Honeysuckle
Tatarian Honeysuckle

 

White Lilac
White Lilac
Kerria Japonica
Kerria Japonica

 

Threshing

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, November 18, 1912:  I’m half way out of something that I worried about before school started, and that was that I was afraid I’d have to miss school when Pa had his threshing done. They started today and well I went to school today, too. So glad I don’t have to miss, that would be too bad for me.

Picture of an antique threshing machine demonstration (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

In the days before combines, threshing machines separated wheat (and other small grains)  from the straw.  Huge steam-operated threshing machines went from farm to farm. It took lots of labor to operate them —and the men who came to help expected a big meal.

I’m amazed that Grandma had worried about the possibility of missing school for months. (I think that I might have looked forward to missing school when the threshers came, rather than dreading the possibility). In any case, I’m glad Grandma didn’t have to stay home and help with the cooking, serving, and cleaning up if she didn’t want to.

The wheat would have been cut in late July and put into sheaves to dry for a while before it was threshed. I’m surprised how late in the year it was threshed. The previous year, it was done on September 13.

Here’s a YouTube video that shows a demonstration of how wheat was threshed years ago.

What is the Difference Between Butternuts and Black Walnuts?

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, September 28, 1912:  Mater went to a sale today. I got busy this afternoon and went for to gather some butternuts. Was rewarded by getting almost a bushel, any way it was dreadful heavy to carry, but I got them home at last.

butternut
Butternut (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I never heard of butternuts until I read this diary. What are they?  What does a butternut tree look like? Are there still any butternut trees around?

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources:

Butternut: Also known as White Walnut, this relative of Black Walnut is slower growing and much less frequently encountered than its well-known cousin. Butternut prefers moist bottomlands and ravines like Black Walnut, but its lightweight wood is beige-pink in color and is not nearly as sought-out for making veneer and furniture. Its kernel within the fruit gives it the common name of Butternut, as it is sweet and very oily.

Butternut trees have oval nuts; black walnuts have round nuts.

I now realize that maybe I can’t tell the difference between butternut and black walnut trees—and that I’ll need to look more carefully the next time I see a walnut tree to figure out which type it is.

An aside—

Last week-end my husband and I gathered black walnuts. We hulled them and set them out to dry. I can hardly wait until they are dry enough to crack and use. I absolutely love their wonderful complex, sharp, rich, nutty taste in cakes and cookies.

Here are the links to the posts I wrote last year about black walnuts:

Hulling Black Walnuts

How to Crack Black Walnuts

Old-time Black Walnut Cake Recipe 

Driving Horses

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, August 2, 1912:  Had to does some work today, but I guess anyone would get tired of playing all the time. Was out helping in the field this afternoon.

Horse-drawn roller. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, German Federal Archives)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I think that I know what Grandma was doing in the fields She was probably leading horses that were pulling a roller over a recently plowed field. It probably was a field from which oats had been harvested in July.

The field would have been plowed, and a roller was smoothing the soil, so that wheat could be planted in September. Back then farmers typically followed a four-year crop rotation: corn, oats, wheat, hay.

How do I know what Grandma was doing?

Farm work varies by season—corn is planted in the spring, wheat and oats are harvested in July, and so on.

Amazingly exactly one-year prior to this diary entry on August 2, 1911 Grandma wrote about driving horse through the dust of a plowed field. That post is repeated below:

Grandma wrote:

Wednesday, August 2, 1911: Took lessons in driving, but even though I would like to learn to drive, I did not like that kind of lesson for the horses were old and slow, and I had to drive them in the field behind choking clouds of dust.

My Comments

I read this entry to my father and asked him what Grandma was doing. He says that she probably was using a roller on a plowed field. The roller would level the plowed earth in preparation for planting winter wheat seeds.

The horses would have been hitched to the roller and Grandma would have needed to tighten one rein or the other to make the horses go in a straight line.

I can almost picture the clouds of dust stirred up by the roller swirling around Grandma as she drove the horses.