“No one leaves his home for an uncertain life in remote lands except in the hope of being able to better himself.” Peoples and Empires By Anthony Pagden
Contents © 2016 Harold Pfohl
The North German families were caught up in the vision of the New World’s promises of land, prosperity, freedom, and status. Wonderful, fertile land was to be had for a pittance and the hard labor of clearing and converting it to farmland. Moreover, the land and climate were very much like the homeland they had left, and most of their neighbors were of the same ethnic background all of which was encouraging and comforting.
The Niemanns and Lüders pioneered their land in Cedarburg Township, Ozaukee Co., Brüss bought a small holding near Kirchayn by Jackson, Washington Co., and the Fromms settled in the Township of Barton, northwest of West Bend in Washington Co. They achieved success and prosperity and their numbers multiplied. But tragedy and untimely death were also attendant.
EARLY YEARS: PART 1. THE COST OF AMBITION – SACRIFICE, EXHAUSTING LABOR, HARSH EXISTENCE
Guts, ambition, and ignorance!
The families had crossed the ocean on a long voyage in awful conditions, and in the case of the Fromm family, including a child’s death. They then crossed half the continent in rattling, primeval, soot blown, cramped filthy railroads – which was exciting state of the art transportation. They arrived at their destination, seeking sites they deemed desirable to make their new home – and they had to start from scratch. No shelter, no food, no water. Build a hut, sow and plant a garden, hunt game (abundant), dig a well. Fortunately neighbors would pitch in with mutual help in getting started, and fortunately most of the German emigrants of this period were moderately well off.
Men and women together did whatever had to be done. The only distinction was that of strength. It was a full partnership with women participating in every aspect of the outdoor pioneering and farming activity that they possibly could.
“The country kitchen, as the heart of the farmhouse and its only heated area, served equally as dining room, living room and washroom. It was primitive and usually crowded beyond the point of intimacy.
Cooking, the kitchen’s major activity, was done in an open hearth fireplace. …the early stove… Kept burning the year-round, it made one demand – dry wood – and delivered one temperature – very hot.…
Laundry was the most physically punishing labor of the farm wife’s routine. She tackled it once a week, normally in the yard, first lugging huge kettles of hot water from the kitchen or else building a fire outdoors for the same purpose. She had no machinery or “miracle” detergents – only muscle power, a hollowed out log that doubled as a sink and scrubbing board, and chunks of homemade soap.
The mountain of farm filthy wash had to be reduced piece by piece, which meant hours of beating rinsing and ringing before it fluttered triumphantly from the line.
The young country wife required stamina and fortitude equal to – perhaps even greater than – her husband’s, and she soon acquired the calloused hands, stooped back in careworn features that marked her station.” (“The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!” By Otto L. Bettman).
You have to wonder if Marie Niemann said to Joachim when beginning to cope with the raw land that was now their new home, “sind wir verrückt?” (Are we out of our minds?)
Much of the land that was pioneered in SE Wisconsin may well have been cleared by lumberjacks. Some of the logging provided lumber for the pioneers, and some of it was speculating in real estate by adding value to the land via the clearing of it, then selling the acreage to immigrants. The Irish engaged in speculative entrepreneurship as exemplified in one of the tracts of land that the immigrant Johann Lüders bought as he expanded his holdings not long after his original settlement. The pioneers would have undertaken some of the logging as well.
After lumberjacks logged the land the stumps remained for a few years until the roots rotted. The strength of the tree root system made it exceedingly difficult to remove the stumps at once.
The image below shows an early settler planting potatoes between stumps.
The farm year began in April when the land was dry enough to start plowing. Because plowing was so difficult on newly cleared land still thick with stumps, crops were often planted on ground that was merely harrowed or in holes dug among the stumps.
After a few years of planting in this manner, stumps and roots were sufficiently rotted and weakened to be “grubbed out” and piled up. Those areas viewed as profitable for agriculture were cleared of stumps and early agriculture began
Tripods like the one shown below were used extensively to pull out the large stumps and prepare the land for cropping.
Piles of stumps were eventually burned.
Eventually whole fields were cleared and plows turned over thick ribbons of loamy soil. With a horse – or oxen-drawn plow, a farmer could till about an acre a day.
A recent invention was a major improvement in turning over the soil. “The steel plow helped to make the hard work of pioneer farming successful. In 1837, John Deere invented a plow with a shiny steel blade. Pulled by oxen or horses, it ripped through the dense sod uncovering the thick black soil. The steel plow was superior to the cast iron plows that were made for New England’s sandy soil.” (campsilos.org)
Each spring the newly plowed fields had to be picked clean of stones deposited by the ancient glaciers and heaved up annually by the frost. Stones reappeared without fail every year. The stones were piled at intervals in the field, then hauled away on a stone boat—a heavy sled used on rough ground rather than on snow. Stone picking is an annual spring rite in SE Wisconsin and sizable stone fences bordered most fields – not designed for fencing but rather as a place to pile the endless stones removed from the soil.
Often, either in the spring or the fall, manure was spread on the fields for fertilizer and tilled into the ground. The manure was shoveled out of the barn onto a wagon and then shoveled again onto the land. The equipment later devised to do this chore didn’t exist.
The fields were then harrowed (tilled). A large, horse-drawn rake (often called a “drag”; see below) with heavy iron or wooden teeth, the harrow was dragged over the plowed land to break up and smooth the loosened earth. Harrowing also turned up roots, which had to be picked from the fields.
Planting followed harrowing. Many pioneer farmers “broadcast” their grain seed (as opposed to sowing it in discrete rows). Clover and oats were sown first, since they could survive late frosts. Wheat was planted next, followed by potatoes and corn in mid to late May.
Harvesting began in July with haying. Hay was cut with a scythe (below).
Picture #1: courtesy of Mark Katzman – photgravure.com
The process required skill, balance and a sense of timing. Work began at daybreak. The reaper moved slowly through the hay, rhythmically swinging the scythe. The hay was allowed to dry for a day or two, then raked into shocks (small piles) to dry further if the weather was good. (The image below is of a corn shock, but hay shocks, while much shorter, were not much different.)
It was then pitched onto a wagon and taken to the barnyard. To keep it outdoors, which was necessary if the family did not have a barn, it was stacked carefully around a pole and covered it with straw to shed rain.
Oats and wheat were harvested next with a grain cradle. The cradle was similar to the scythe except that it had several long fingers of wood projecting from the handle, parallel to the blade. These caught the grain as it was cut, allowing it to be laid gently on the ground so that the seeds did not burst from the heads. The cradler proceeded much as the hay reaper had, laying down neat swaths of grain and being careful to avoid leaving “candles,” as tall stubbles were called. Behind the cradler came a workman raking and binding the freshly cut grain into sheaves about a foot in diameter. With one person cradling and one binding, two people could harvest about two acres per day. The sheaves were placed in shocks and allowed to stand two or three weeks for further drying.
Threshing followed harvesting. Upon drying, the grain was threshed, wherein the grain was separated from the straw. Grain was spread in a shallow layer on hard, dry ground, then beaten with a flail to separate the seeds from the heads. The flail consisted of two short, thick poles connected by a leather thong strung through a hole in one end of each pole. A helper swept up the threshed grain, including much of the chaff that had settled, and bagged it for storage until winnowing. Threshing was dusty, hard work and dangerous if one were not skilled in controlling the flail. An average worker could thresh 7 bushels of wheat or 18 bushels of oats daily.
The threshed grain was cleaned with a winnowing fan, a rimmed half-disk made of tightly woven splint. A peck of grain was placed on the splint surface, the rimmed edge of the fan was placed against one’s torso and the fan was swept up and down, tossing the grain in the air. The grain fell back on the fan while most of the lighter chaff and dust floated to the ground. This, too, was dusty work and not highly effective in obtaining quality seed or clean grain for milling. The winnowed grain was bagged or spread in shallow trays for storage, and the chaff was swept up and saved for poultry food.
Unlike other grains, corn could be harvested over a long period, as ears ripened at different stages before the stalks were cut in September. One man could cut about 1/2 acre per day. The farmer bound an armful of stalks and placed the bundles in shocks. The shocks stood in the field through the fall until the corn was husked late in the season. On farms with inadequate shelter for hay and fodder, corn was often husked in the field. The stalks and the shocks were brought in as needed for fodder during the winter.
Potatoes were ready for harvesting in September. They were dug with a hand hoe or potato hook and left on the ground briefly to dry. When they were gathered later, the dried earth crumbled off leaving the skins clean and the potatoes ready for storage.
In winter many farmers turned to working in the woods. Many hired out their horse “teams” to logging operators, while others worked to clear more of their own land and sometimes to supplement the family income. Logging started in early December and continued until the maple sap began running in late winter. Cordwood for the next year’s fuel supply was cut, and any surplus beyond household needs was sold for one dollar a cord-delivered. Timber for fencing was cut, split and allowed to season for at least a year. Sawlogs for lumber were cut, hauled and piled for use on the farm or sold to the nearest mill.
Late winter brought syrup making—the busiest activity of the year. Syrup making usually started in March, when warm days and freezing nights made the sap rise. The season was brief, but while it lasted the work went on around the clock. Before the sap started running, the family cleaned the various implements, swept out the sugarhouse and stacked a dozen cords of wood nearby. A spout was tapped into each maple tree. The sap flowed through it into a trough or bucket hanging below. The sap was then emptied into barrels, which were taken to the sugarhouse and emptied into a big iron kettle.
The kettle was suspended over a fire hot enough to maintain the sap at a boil. A chunk of fat in the kettle kept the sap from boiling over and imparted an oily texture to the finished product. After several hours of boiling down to a thick syrup, the amber liquid was tested to see whether it had reached the sugar stage. If it had, the fire was extinguished and the syrup stirred until it became granular.
With the end of the syrup-making season, the farm year was completed and the cycle was ready to begin anew.
(much of the above is adapted from MSU Prof. Randall Schaetzl’s “Agriculture: Early Beginnings” see: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/agriculture_in_mi.html
Next: Early Years Part 2 – Niemann Family– Marriage, Death, Civil War, Land in Northern Wisconsin and Finally to Missouri but with Joachim and Marie Separating
Footnote: One can imagine these people with their exhausting daily regimen for survival being agape at our fitness centers, personal trainers, and the obesity epidemic. Getting sufficient exercise wasn’t a problem for them. “Great six pack abs, Joachim. Keep chopping.” Joachim’s too exhausted to respond.