The Life of An American Family Farm: A History In 33 Pictures

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People who know me, would probably agree that I’m a city kind of guy. I’ve lived in cities all my adult life, New York and Tokyo among them. At the age of four years, I think I’d already become a city kid, happily living with my parents and baby sister in a cozy apartment in south Minneapolis. So, imagine my surprise when, one bleak November day, I found myself moving with my family to a dark and drafty  farm house, in what seemed the middle of nowhere. I later learned that I had landed in Sharon Township, Le Sueur County, about sixty miles south of Minneapolis.

Our neighbors likely wondered who were these city folk, who thought they might try to make a living out of a not-very-prosperous-looking farm. It was true, neither my mother nor my father had grown up anywhere near Sharon Township, but my mother’s mother’s family, the Joneses, could trace their history there back to the 1850’s, even before Minnesota became a state. It was my mother’s great-grandfather who emigrated from Wales to take up farming in Minnesota, and it was his son, D.W. Jones who in 1884 bought the farm where we were to live, and who in 1895 built the compact, plain and by now run-down house which became our home. By 1948, the farm had been rented out and rather neglected for a couple of decades after my great-grandparents retired from farming and moved to town. My father, who grew up on a marginal farm in central Minnesota, came to farming with a great set of practical skills, including carpentry, mechanics and plumbing. He would need all those skills and more, as he learned that farming was and is a tough way to make a living.

A great deal has changed in American agriculture in the more than sixty-five years since our family returned to the farm. In the 1940’s, 160 acres was considered a good sized farm and most farms were diversified, growing crops such as wheat, barley, oats, flax, alfalfa, corn, soybeans, and sometimes peas and sweet corn on contract for canning companies. Many farms also maintained a small dairy herd, raised hogs, and nearly all had at least a few chickens. And not incidentally, many farms still lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Like so much else in America, everything has gotten larger: the fields, the tractors, the equipment, the inputs of costly fertilizer and insecticides. In the 19th Century more half of all Americans lived and worked on farms, now between one and two percent of us do. And those few farmers produce more than ever.

My father did modestly well as a farmer, but he started to do better when he began building houses in nearby towns. He continued farming, however, until my brother John took over in the late 1970’s. John acquired an additional 105 acres, built himself a new house, and eventually decided in 1999 to give up farming and devote himself to what had been his hobby: restoring classic cars and dealing in old car parts and memorabilia. John tells me that while he liked being his own boss, the uncertainty of the weather, and volatility of commodity prices made farming stressful. And so, the farm land is once again being rented out, the farmstead  decaying. Likely, in the not distant future, the farmstead’s remaining buildings will be knocked down, the land plowed, and, as has happened countless times, another family farm’s history will be erased.

Farming has changed profoundly from something families did together employing human and animal labor, to become an industrial-scale business where management skills are primary. Yes, there is a bit of a trend to small, intensively-planted organic farms, but for most farmers “get big, or get out” is still the reality.

So, here in 33 pictures, mostly taken from slides my father made in the 1940’s-1970’s, are highlights from the 130-year history of one family farm.  Thanks to Steve, our family historian, and to my mother for their help with this project.

————- get-attachment.aspx Photos: Top, My great-grandparents, D.W. and Jane Jones. In 1884, they bought the farm where I was reared, and built the house eleven years later. Photo above: the farm house around the turn of the 20th Century. Note the huge wood pile. This was not only for heating the house, but was a source of income. The farm was in what had been known as the “Big Woods,” and a lot of trees still remained. So, D.W. and a hired hand chopped wood and took it to market in the nearby town of St. Peter where it was shipped out west where wood was scarce. 18Alind-R1-E015 The house was little changed when we moved to the farm in November 1948. 18Alind-R1-E020 My dad got his camera out to record this frost-in-the-trees display in the 1950’s.   18Alind-R1-E009 The original house on the farm was used as some sort of out building when this photo was taken in 1947 or 48. 18Alind-R1-E007 18Alind-R1-E005 After my great-grandparents retired from farming, the farm was rented and fell into a rather derelect condition. My father, with help from my maternal grandfather Elvin Peterson, spent months repairing and remodeling before we finally moved to the farm. The former granary, top, they tore down, the barn, they repaired. photo 2-2 Early days, a small tractor and two-bottom plow.  It would take a lot of passes back and forth to plow even a small field. photo 3-1 Our neighbors, the Eppmeyers, set up a saw mill on their farm. Given that our farm had a woods, it was possible to use home-grown lumber for some of the building projects. photo 1-2 Corn (still on the cob) was stored over the winter to dry.  Here, fencing is used for an improvised corn crib. 18alind-r1-e016 18Alind-R1-E024 Thanksgiving Day, 1950–Top photo–Mary D. Jones and Thomas Jones, siblings of my great-grandmother. Photo just above: Members of my mother’s mother’s family. My grandmother, Myrtle Jones Peterson (middle adult on the right side of the table), inherited the farm from her parents.  It was she who suggested my parents move to the farm. It was in this same dining room that she and my grandfather celebrated their wedding dinner some forty years earlier. 18Alind-R1-E027 I remember the Fifties as years of heavy snowfall. Here, my sister Jane with her dolly poses on a snow bank. The Ford truck in the background would now be a prized antique.  Back then, it was just an old truck and probably the first vehicle I ever drove.  I was about ten years old and I remember struggling with the gears. My job was to drive the truck through the field while my father tossed hay bales into the back.  73605239-SLD-003-0015 My brother John was born April 21, 1953, and this photo apparently was taken shortly thereafter. Note the plowed field in the background, and in the far upper left of the photo please take note of the trees, red barn and other buildings on a neighboring farm. photo photo 3-3 Before the coming of the combine, harvesting grain was a labor-intensive process. These photos from c. 1950 show probably the last time the old-fashioned threshing process happened on our farm. The top photo shows a binder, the machine which driven through a wheat (or other grain) field cut the grain and tied it into small sheaves. These sheaves were then gathered by hand and set up together in shocks (seen in the foreground of the bottom photo) so the grain could dry. Later, a threshing crew came with the large machine pictured above. The sheaves were gathered (here on a horse-drawn wagon) and fed into the thresher which separated the kernels from the chaff and straw, which was blown into a huge pile. The combine was so revolutionary because one machine accomplished all these steps. Threshing was a significant  annual event and a farm wife was expected to provide a hearty noon meal for the crew. In those days, rural people commonly referred to the big meal at noon meal as “dinner” and to the evening meal as “supper.”18Alind-R1-E018 Our farm was mostly a crop farm, but for a few years my father experimented with buying young feeder cattle  and fattening them up before sending them off to the slaughter house. Apparently, this wasn’t particularly profitable, because he soon gave up that part of the farm operation. get-attachment.aspx copy I’ve posted this photo before, but I couldn’t resist an encore.  Yes, that’s me on the orange J.I. Case tractor “cultivating” the soybeans.  You would drive through the field and the four-row “cultivator” would turn over the soil, digging up weeds growing between the rows. Later, we would “walk the beans,” which involved walking through the fields with a machete chopping down weeds or volunteer corn growing within the rows.  Volunteer corn was a problem because soy beans and corn were grown in alternate years in the same fields. All of this is history, because now commercially-grown soybeans are treated to be resistant to Round-Up or some other chemical herbicide, and the fields are simply strayed, killing all other plants. sc0000eb53 18Alind-R1-E019 18Alind-R1-E025 The farm includes a woods with an abundance of maple trees. My grandfather initiated the custom of cooking off maple syrup every spring, a tradition which my father (top) carried on, and which my brother Steve continues. Middle photo shows the old maple shack, long since burned down. The photo just above shows the tapped trees with buckets to catch the maple sap which is boiled down to make the syrup. 73605239-SLD-002-0006 Summer picnic with cousins visiting from Missouri. 18Alind-R1-E021 The farmstead as seen from the county road, then as now, gravel. Graveled county roads can be muddy when the ground thaws in spring, and dusty in summer.  The maple woods, just turning color, is seen in the middle right. photo 3 In more recent times, corn cribs have been made obsolete by gas-fired dryers which remove moisture from the already-shelled corn, allowing it to go to market immediately. 73605239-SLD-001-0049 Girls from my sister’s class celebrate her birthday. photo 5 My younger brothers, John and Steve, pose with the farm dog, Pepper. We always had a dog, and any number of cats on the farm. As was the custom, they did not live in the house with us, but lived strictly outside. Although they  could shelter in any of the out buildings, they must have been a hardy lot to survive those long and frigid winters. Cats were really a necessity, helping to keep down the population of small rodents which might otherwise have feasted on the stored grain. photo 1 In the early sixties, 40 acres, much of it wooded, were add to the farm. A bulldozer was brought in to clear trees, thus creating more usable crop land. When the bulldozer finished, we were left with the thankless job of hacking and pulling out roots by hand. 73605239-SLD-003-0024 My brother John, who is about six feet tall, peers out from a corn field. It’s not unusual for modern hybrid corn to be this tall, or even taller. John farmed the land from the late Seventies until 1999.73605239-SLD-001-0015 This self-propelled combine, seen in a soy bean field, can harvest beans or grain in one operation. Expensive, sophisticated machinery like this helped propel the impetuous to ever-larger farms. Where once a variety of crops grew, now it is pretty much only corn and soy 2-3Ever larger and more powerful tractors allow a single farmer to run farms of hundreds, even thousands of acres. Here, my brother John looking good on the big Case tractor.P1020341 A recent photo of a soy bean field after harvest.  What do you see in the middle distance? Pretty much nothing. Remember the farmstead I pointed out in the background of the photo of my mother and very young brother?  This photo shows nearly the same view.  That farmstead is completely gone, bulldozed to make way for more productive crop land. This bulldozing of former small family farms has happened thousands, and probably hundreds of thousands of times in farm country. P1020340 P1020344 These two photos which I took three or four years ago are a little hard for me to look at. This is the house my great-grandfather built in 1894 and where I lived from age four until I went away to college. No one has lived there in 35 years.  It was small, old and nearly impossible to heat. My brother Steve says he will have it bulldozed one of these days. And so, another farmstead disappears.

6 responses

  1. Wow! Thank you, Gary, for posting your family farm history with all of the wonderful old photos! Yes, we have lost a lot with the fading away of the all American family farm. Our country was so rich in soil and opportunity in those early years. It is very hard to see it mostly gone with the onset of factory farming, which is not good for land, the animals, the planet or the people.

    My parents went to school in Rochester, Minnesota, and married after WWII. First, my older brother was born, and then I was. We moved to Michigan not to follow the crops, but to follow my Dad’s vocation in business which he pursued very successfully until his retirement.

    It was such a smaller world back then. I was raised in a house in Royal Oak, Michigan, where my 92 year old aunt still lives, and there was a big vacant field behind our house which allowed us to play in nature without going far. That field was filled in after we moved to Chicago.

    So, my family, like yours, raised families and earned livings in the great Midwest. Not an easy life by any means. They say it builds character. And looking at the photo of your house in the winter snow, it is amazing that we survived it! Thanks again, for this great post! Best wishes to your Mother who I was fortunate to meet when you brought her to our Monday night macro dinner. Of course, you were the chef!

  2. Gary, what a beautifully told history with marvelous photos. I enjoyed it SO much, learned a lot, and plan to forward it to my ten, eleven, and twelve year-old grandsons.
    Thank you for sharing!
    Jo Postyn

  3. Wonderful Gary,
    Such a nice journey you took us on. I so enjoyed all the photos and text. Nice text, you know, when you give up the hot job of chefing, you can relax into authorship……well maybe….? Does you brother ever send you some of his Maple Syrup? I think he does, right? Thanks again Gary, good stuff…!

  4. Gary, loved your narrative on our growing up years! I agree it is hard to look at the pictures of our home in such neglect; we did have good memories in our cozy ( and well-decorated …for the times) home. Thanks for bringing back the memories. Your journalism education is showing. 🙂

  5. Jane Kos sent this comment via email:

    What a wonderful read! Thanks for letting us discover what life was
    like back on the farm where the corn was higher than an elephant’s eye.
    The content is so informative and your style so enjoyable. Looking
    forward to the next installment.

    Jane Kos

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