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article number 235
article date 05-16-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Your Family’s Job of Farming in the Early Days … Sidney Illinois’ Story
by Virginia McElroy

From the book, History of Sidney 1827 to 1976.

The first settlers were self-sufficient families, raising or hunting for the food that was needed. The wife and daughters prepared food and made the clothing for the family. The only staples they needed to buy were salt, tea, coffee, and sugar, and honey and molasses were often used instead of sugar.

These men farmed by partly clearing their land of timber and girdling the other trees (cutting the bark all the way around the tree so that it would die) then fencing the small plot before they planted their crops between the stumps and dead trees. Later these trees were cut for wood or the better trees were sent to the sawmill to be sawed into lumber to build frame houses. When a man ventured out on the prairie he bought five to ten acres of timber land to build his house and barns and to provide fuel to cook his meals and heat his home.

After the prairie was occupied only the high ground could be cultivated. Dredge ditches and tile drainage did not come into use until 1885 and was not completed until 1930. At that time it was said that Illinois had enough dredge ditches to reach Mongolia and enough tile to circle the globe six times, if laid end to end.

The early farmers were also stock raisers. Cattle could grow and fatten on the prairie grass. Stock was allowed to roam the timber and prairie until 1874 when the Stock Law made each person responsible for his own stock and for the damage they might do to planted crops. Farmers fenced their crops and even the people in town had to fence their homes against the stock. Hogs thrived on the grass and in the timber. Every year the farmers would drive their hogs and cattle to market. Later, stock buyers came through the country and bought and drove the animals east. It was said the west never had such cattle drives as there were from Illinois to Pennsylvania.


There were several kind of fences used in the township. The first fences were made of sod. Rail fences were used on the early farms, but when man moved out on the prairie, rails weren’t practical. Thorn hedges were then tried, but the osage-orange tree from Arkansas proved to make the best fence. These trees had to be kept trimmed but soon the township had miles and miles of osage-orange hedges. At the present time there remain small sections of fence in various parts of the township, including one along the Sidney-Philo road. Eventually the invention of barbed wire by Joseph Glidden of DeKaib, Illinois solved the problem of fencing the prairie.

While the farmers continued to whittle away at the prairie with their iron plows not much progress could be made. The sticky soil would ball up on the plow and the farmer would have to stop often and clean the plow. It is said one farmer solved the problem by having his son walk along beside the plow with a heavy wooden paddle to scrape the soil from the plow while his father plowed. Also, the thick sod (being anywhere from six inches to twelve inches thick) took from four to six yoke of oxen to pull the plow.

Around 1834 a man named John Lane made a plow from a circular saw blade that cut the sod and the soil did not stick to the plow. Five years later John Deere made a steel plow bolted to a wooden frame. He made ten more plows that year and in 1840 he made forty more plows. They were so successful that by 1846 he moved to Moline and made plows by the thousands in ten different models.

With the coming of the steel plow, farming on the prairie became more productive. Before this time the sod was turned a furrow at a time with a walking plow. Since it took two years for the sod to decay and become mellow soil, the farmer followed the furrow with an ax in his hand. He would slash the soil, drop in the corn and cover it by stepping on the slash while he made another one for the next hill of corn. Corn planted this way without any cultivation made twenty bushels an acre or more.

The sulky was the first riding plow that could be pulled by horses. Then came the gang-plow that could cut more ground and was pulled by six horses or mules. But the riding plows came to the township slowly and in 1902 some farmers were still using the walking plow. One farmer said he remembered his father’s hired man plowing sixty acres that fall with a walking plow. But as more and more land came into cultivation by drainage of the swamps, walking plows were abandoned and riding plows came into use.

Ellis Trowbridge plowing south of Sidney, Illinois.

Another problem that faced the farmers was the swampland, for there was hardly a forty acre plot without a swamp or pond on it. Champaign County had 78,000 acres of land unfit for cultivation. It is said Benjamin Gifford of Champaign County probably did more than anyone else to bring about the drainage of the county. He tried to build a wedge shaped plow to dig a drainage ditch but could not provide the power to pull it. He attempted to build a ferris type wheel with buckets instead of seats to dig out the water and dirt. When this failed he decided only the farmers cooperation could lick the problem. This idea caught on and the men put pressure on the legislature until a law was enacted that created drainage districts in 1880.

At first, farmers used shovels and horse drawn slip-scrapers to dig shallow ditches to drain the water. Then a tool called a mole tiller was invented. This was a machine with a long knife blade attached to the front and a steel ball about ten to twelve inches in diameter attached to a chain fastened to the back. The knife was long enough to cut through the top soil to the clay beneath and the ball attached to the chain was pulled through the clay, making a ditch that allowed the water to flow through.

Several yoke of oxen were used to pull this tiller through the clay. A farmer said he and his father were laying tile through their farm when they hit one of these mole made drainage ditches. The water flowed through so freely that they carefully attached their tile and went on with their work.

Tiling was started as soon as the drainage ditches were dug and little by little each farmer tiled his ponds and swamps until the entire township was tiled.

Tom Gasser in a field of grain shocks on a Block Farm around 1900.

On the farm, as well as in town, frame houses replaced the early log cabins. Beginning in 1850 and by 1880 new cottages for the hired men and large farm homes for the owner replaced the early homes. Large homes were the style, for after the hardships of early pioneer life the people wanted to show the wealth they had attained.

August Buddemeier built one of the larger houses in the township. It was a two story 16’ by 32’ with an ell of 16’ to 16’. These houses had plenty of room but were without central heat, water (except a cistern pump often in the kitchen) and indoor toilets; the outdoor privy was common in the township until the 1930’s. With the building of the railroads, the farmer was able to bring furniture from the east, as well as organs, pianos, carpets and any other conveniences the rest of the country enjoyed.

As more lands were cleared and occupied and new tools developed, people needed more help than their families could provide. The hired man became a necessity. First, there was a single man who lived with the family and was treated as such, earning a small sum per year. As the farms became larger and the single men married, houses were built on the farm for them. These men had their homes, usually two hogs for meat, and a garden patch furnished. The cash money paid to the early hired men was $5 to $7 a month, often paid only during the working season, usually for nine months.

A man was expected to be in the field by daylight and to stay there until dark. Chores, such as caring for the stock and milking, were done before daylight and after dark. Rainy day jobs were mending harness, shelling corn, grinding feed, trimming hedge and the many other things necessary to keep the farm going. At first, the farmer worked along with the hired man. Later, with the coming of the improved steel plow and the larger crop sales, many of the farmers acted as overseers for their hired help.

Farmers and their horse teams. William Swaney, Grover Kirby, Addison Kirby, Hazel Kirby, Shirley Pointer.

By 1890 the hired men’s wages were from $18 to $25 per month. With horses and a gang-plow it kept one man busy to farm eighty acres of ground, so some of the larger farmers had more than one hired man or hired local town boys to help out in a rush.

Always in the fall it was necessary to have two to four extra hands to husk the corn. These usually were young men not only from town but from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, who would come by train for from six weeks to two months to husk the corn. Each man was equipped with a team and wagon, fitted out with a high wooden frame fastened to the opposite side of the wagon, which was called the bump-board.

Paid two to two and half cents per bushel they would be in the field by daylight and would often be in with their first load by nine or ten o’clock in the morning. To attain one hundred or more bushels of corn a day was their aim. These men developed their skills and often would race each other across the fields. The bang, bang of the corn against the bump-board could be heard early in the morning in all of Sidney township at harvest time.

Even though they often finished their second load by two o’clock, they were too tired to do anything except attend to their team.

When rainy days came these men spent their time loafing, until the weather cleared. As special hired help they were excused from regular chores. So this meant extra work for the wife of the family.

Corn husking time.

Corn husking lasted to the middle of December and sometimes longer. After the corn was harvested the farm settled back to normal. The hired man, if he was kept the year around, cared for the stock, repaired harness and tools, prepared grain for seed and tidied the farm grounds. If the hired man was only hired for nine months, these jobs fell to the farmer.

Around the last of January or the first of February the farmers began to get ready to sell their corn. At first it was sold in the ear, but when the corn sheller was invented a man, usually a farmer who owned the corn sheller, would hire men to scoop corn from the crib to the sheller feeders and corn-shelling would begin. The job was done when the ground was frozen so that they could haul loads without getting stuck in the mud.

It was a busy time. One man was kept busy keeping the cobs in check and two or more men took care of the shelled corn. (Often the farmers exchanged work at this season of the year.) The shelled corn had to be hauled, weighed and dumped at the elevator. While the shelling was going on, one man filled the cob house to assure the farmer’s wife with fuel to last until next year.

Around the first of March the hired man again became necessary. Plowing began as soon as the frost was out of the soil, with oat sowing done the middle or last of March. Clover was sown with the oats. The rotation of crops, sowing of clover, liming the soil and sometimes adding phosphorus were the only methods of fertilization used until the nineteen forties or fifties. Corn land was to be prepared and ready to plant by May first to the tenth. When the “oak leaves were as large as squirrel ears” it was time to plant corn.

At first corn was dropped by hand; then came the hand drill. The row was laid off by a small plow with a wedge shaped share and the drill, pulled by a single horse, followed that row, dropped the corn and covered it. A man walked to do both of these jobs.

Soon came the riding corn planter. The corn planters made their own furrows, dropped the corn and covered it in one operation. Of course, the first riding planter was a one-row planter, but soon the two-row planter came into use. This planter checked the corn, that is, corn was dropped the same distance in the row as the rows were apart. It was a beautiful sight to see a forty or eighty acre field of corn when it was six to twelve inches high. Every direction you looked you could see the same even rows.


The corn had to be plowed with a one-row cultivator at first, then with a two-row corn cultivator, and it had to be gone over three times. The first time it was plowed as it was planted. The second time it was crossed or plowed crossways of the rows and then “laid by” by plowing the way it was planted again. Farmers felt corn would not do well if the soil was not stirred between the rows during the growing season. The aim of all farmers was to have corn “knee high by the Fourth of July”.

There was no hybrid seed corn at this time. Seed corn was selected in the early spring from the farmer’s own crib or in the fall before the corn was husked. Either way, the largest, best developed corn was chosen and tested to see if it would grow. To test the corn the heart of the grain was punctured with the thumb nail. If there was a slight pop the ear was a good growing ear. The corn was then “nubbed” on each end. This meant removing the corn from the tip and butt of the ear. The center, uniform grains were shelled by hand for seed corn. This was a rainy day job for early March.

By the time the corn was “laid by” wheat and oats harvest time was at hand. Before the invention of the reaper, this was a hand job. Each farmer had a large cradle. This tool had a handle attached to a scythe to which bars were attached to catch the cut stems of the grain. It was an art to swing the cradle with a smooth motion and to remove the grain and lay it in a neat row on the ground.

A man followed the mower and gathered this grain into bundles, tying them with some of the grain stems. After tying, these bundles or sheaves were stacked by standing six or eight of them in a shock and topping them with one or two sheaves apart to help shed water.

Later it was threshed by hand or by tramping on the threshing floor. When the reaper came into use, one man cut the grain, tied it and dumped it into rows. Men followed the reaper and shocked the grain as described before.

Early horse-drawn binder for cutting small grain.

After the grain was cut, the, farmer put up his hay. At first, this too was cut by hand. Soon the mower and hay rake took care of mowing the hay and raking it into ridges. The farmer and his men came with a rack wagon and pitched the hay and packed it on the rack. Usually two men pitched the hay to one man on the rack. This man placed the hay so that the load was well balanced to hold the most hay. For many years the hay was placed in stacks around the farm yard. There was an art to building a good, round stack of hay that would keep its shape and shed the rain.

Later a hay baler was invented and big barns were built. The farmers with the machine followed the raked ridges and baled the hay. Usually a few men bought a machine and did “custom work” for the other farmers (that is, baled the hay for pay). The farmer who owned the hay only had to load the bales on the rack and haul it to the barn.

Most barns were equipped with a hay fork and track that would spear the bales and deposit them in the hayloft with the aid of a man and horse to pull the hay and fork into the barn. A man in the loft placed the hay where it was needed to fill the loft to the greatest capacity. If hay was placed in the barn too green (that is, not left long enough to dry out or cure) the hay would heat and cause it to catch fire. A man had to be a good judge on the condition of his hay before it was baled.

After the hay was in the barn it was time to thresh the oats and wheat. The farmers organized themselves into “threshing rings”. This meant a group of farmers living in an area agreed to help each other thresh their grain. The threshing machine was owned by a man, usually a farmer, who took the job of harvesting a group of men’s grain. The middle of July saw this machine pull into a farmer’s barniot. Early that same morning the neighbors arrived with rack wagons and at least two men to a wagon, one to pitch the sheaves on to the rack and the other to place them evenly on the rack.

By the time the machine arrived, two or more racks were loaded and ready. As soon as the machine was set (that is, was placed in the farm yard so that the straw would land in a convenient place in the barnyard for winter feed and protection for the stock) the men began to pitch the sheaves from each side into the feeder of the thresher. A wagon was placed to catch the grain and a long, hot day had begun.

Hay making time.

The housewife was not idle. She, often with the help of her neighbors or hired help, began the preparation for the “threshing dinner”. The day before, meat had been chosen to be delivered that morning and the baking had been done. But preparing dinner for 25 to 40 men was no small job. Each family tried to prepare a dinner as good or better than the one before. The first wife in the threshing ring was the lucky one as she had no one to “live up to”. The men threshed until dark and an evening meal had to be prepared as well as the noon meal.

Large farms often took two or three days to thresh their grain. It was a lot of hot, dirty work, but there was friendly talk, good fellowship and a feeling of accomplishment. At the end of the season the owner of the threshing machine often had an ice cream supper for the members of the threshing ring.

In the 1930s the day of the big dinners was over. At first each man took his own dinner or the farmer’s wife fixed a hot dinner for the farmer and his helper and took it to the place where the work was being done. Later it became the custom to send the men to a restaurant for their noon meal and they quit threshing in the evening soon enough to go home for the evening meal.

J. W. Epperson Farm – Threshing Ring Celebration.

The thresher came into use in Sidney Township in 1870 or ‘80. Several farmers owned machines and did custom work, but J. W. Mumm and his son Luther, could be said to be “kings of the steam engine” as far as threshing and shelling corn were concerned. J. W. Mumm had to pull his first threshing machine by horses as it had no steering gear to guide it, but as soon as a machine with steering gear was perfected he bought one. He had his third machine by 1890 and the family was not without a thresher and a sheller until the combine and picker took their places.

Luther Mumm started to run the machinery when he was eighteen years old. Every year he had his threshing ring. He did such a good job he was sought by the entire township. One year he had two threshing rings and that year he had 180 people at the end of the season ice cream party. There was a write-up in a Chicago paper about the event.

Then in the winter, these men went all over the township shelling corn. They hired a regular crew to scoop the corn from the crib to the sheller. Time was important and the work had to be done while the ground was frozen because the farmyards and roads would not support the loads otherwise.

In the mid-thirties the corn picker came into use. The price of hand huskers had gone up to 5 or 6 cents a bushel and a picker could be paid for in two years. This machine picked and shucked the corn and delivered it to a wagon in one operation. At first, there was a lot of “custom work” but soon each farmer had his own corn-picker. The corn was hauled in and put into a crib, but now a corn crop could be harvested in a week or ten days instead of six weeks to two months. The day of the corn husker was gone.

Around the early and mid twenties and early thirties, the tractor was used to plow the fields, but some farmers still felt corn plowing must be done by horses or mules. The first tractors were equipped with lugs (that is, iron pieces, the width of the rim and sharpened on the edge, were fastened at eight to twelve inches apart all around the wheel). The farmers thought this was necessary to keep the weight of the tractor from packing the ground. These lugs soon disappeared since they damaged the roads they traveled on. After the war, rubber tires were improved so much that they were practical to use on farm machinery.


There was another great change that took place in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. The farmers began to retire and move to town and to rent their farms to a tenant. This tenant furnished the tools, shared the expense for seed, threshed the grain, shucked the corn and delivered all the crop to the elevator for a share of the crop. Usually the shares were half of the crop raised. The owner paid the taxes and his share of the expenses.

There were several reasons for this change of policy. First, many of the farmers became old and not able to farm. If he had no son to take over the farm or if the son chose another career, this was the answer to his problem. Then, many farmers died leaving wives and daughters who were unable to farm and finally, many younger men went into other occupations.

The first retired farmer in Sidney was mentioned in 1878. By the nineteen twenties, most of the farmers had retired to town and the farms were run by the tenant farmers. At first, he carried on the same policy as the owner, using the hired man and sharing the threshing and other work with his neighbors. The land was so productive after drainage was completed that a good living could be made for both families.

Soon tenant farmers were retiring and moving into town also. These men sometimes became carpenters and painters or took up some other kind of work part time, but many of them were well off enough to buy a modest home and live in comfort. Sidney Illinois became a town of retired farmers and people whose businesses served the farmer.

Steam trashing machine of 1890.

After World War II there was a tendency for larger and larger farms. Tractors became bigger and plows with three or four plows and cultivators were used. Farmers were convinced rubber tires would not pack the ground and injure the crops. Two row planters and cultivators gave way to four row. Commercial fertilizer came into use. Corn was planted a few inches apart by being drilled, and the day of the small farmer was at an end.

Combines took the place of the threshing machine, as the corn picker took the place of the man with the team and wagon. A corn picking head was developed for the combine and the machine picked, shucked, and shelled the corn and delivered it to the wagons. This did away with the corn crib built to hold ear corn and bins to hold shelled corn were built with an elevator in each to move the corn to keep it from molding. Corn dryers were soon used to keep the moisture content to a safe level.

About the time the combine was developed soybeans were introduced into central Illinois and soon became one of the major crops in Sidney Township.

Even in 1975 all farmers have not done away with their corn pickers and corn shellers. The Thurman brothers have a modern crib with an indoor dump, and when the elevators are filled and unable to take grain, they gather their corn and put it into the crib. By this operation these young men are able to harvest their grain and store it without worrying about the full elevator, or paying for drying their corn before the elevator would store it.

Farming in 1976 has become big business. Where forty years earlier a man could make a good living for himself on eighty acres, now the tenant farmer needed 600 to 800 acres to stay in business. An owner can operate successfully on less acreage. The day of the hired man is mostly over. The farmer needs to be a mechanic, a business manager and a scientist as well as a farmer.

Herbicides came into use to keep the weeds down. At first these were injurious to wild life and sometimes to humans, but experimentation soon overcame these obstacles and the farmer regularly used these aids for clean, productive fields.

All this change made the tenant much richer than the land owner was seventy-five years ago. Even twenty-five years ago a man who had accumulated a few thousand dollars could buy used machinery and start farming. Today a farmer can have from S75,000 to $100,000 or even $200,000 tied up in farm equipment. It is almost impossible for a young man to start farming on his own, but with his father’s help it can be done.

Corn Sheller towable by horse team. Left to right: Frank Morgan, Paul Washer, Amel Washer, Luther Mumm, Adam Leanweaver, (unknown), J. W. Mumm.

Farming has changed in other ways also. Electricity was brought to the farms by the nineteen forties, when the R.E.A. program affected our area. The farm homes became modernized. Water was put into the homes, toilets installed, hard wood floors put in, central heating installed and kitchens modernized. The country home became as convenient as the city home if not more so. Even sanitary hauling is furnished to the farmer.

The trend now is for the city man to move to the country. Some farms in the community have been sold to people in the city, who have divided them into small farms built houses on them and moved to the country. Any vacant country house has many buyers if it is for sale.

The farmer has, as a whole, become a grain farmer. Stock has disappeared from the farms along with the fences needed to contain them. Farmers buy their milk and butter the same as the city man. Most farms have even done away with chickens.

The young farmer sees the need to specialize. Some have built modern hog houses equipped with everything the animal needs to grow from birth to market. With a specialized diet the animal lives in his house and never touches the ground. These farmers need to sell two to three hundred hogs a year to start. Later their operations need to be enlarged to care for more animals. Other farmers raise hybrid seed corn or a specialized crop. The future will see more and more farmers developing specialized areas.

Several young men in the township are starting to farm this year or started last year. As a fitting ending for this section of Sidney bicentennial history, they have been interviewed and a summary of their future plans is given.

John Mumm was a star farmer in the F.F.A. program in high school. He has had several years of practical training under his father, who is one of the successful farmers of the township. Next year John and his wife will take over his grandfather’s and great uncle’s farm in Philo Township (the grandfather is retiring and moving to town). John will still work with his father. They plan a strictly grain farm, raising corn, soybeans and wheat.

Tom Tingley has rented the farm where his uncle, who is retiring, lives. Tom and his wife will move to the farm. He and his dad plan a grain farming operation. Tom graduated from Parkland College in Farm Mechanics. This training will prove very useful in his farm operations. Tom was raised on the farm and by helping his dad and granddad he has several years of practical farm experience.

Jeff Justus is planning on farming with his father next year also. They have rented more land and plan a grain farm operation. Mr. Justus is a successful farmer and the only one in Sidney Township to have his own airplane and landing strip. Jeff lives at home.

Roger Negangard farmed with his father this year. His grandfather retired and Roger took his place. They have a grain farm program, but also have sheep. When the hog market levels off they plan to again develop a hog program. Roger lives at home. His family lives on the farm his fathers grandfather bought a few years after he came to Illinois in 1866.

Steve Herriott and his father plan a grain and hog operation next year. They have built a modern six-section hog finishing house, which will have self-feeders and waterers. The pigs will be placed in these pens at weaning time and will not leave the floor until they are ready for market at about 240 pounds. The floors are sloped for easy cleaning. A pit will be dug at the edge of the pens to catch the drainage and will be ditched to the farm land. They will have their own farrowing houses where two or three sows will be kept until weaning time. Steve plans mostly a spring and summer operation, marketing between 240 and 300 head of hogs each year.

Later he will increase his production. To start this project they have had to invest between $13,000 and $15,000, not counting the animals, and more will be needed as the plan is developed. Their Hampshire hogs have taken blue ribbons at the fairs for several years. This project, with their farming, will keep them busy next year. Steve graduated from Parkland College in Farm Management. He lives at home with his family.

Thomas Butzow is one of the Sidney Township young men who will be joining his father in 1976 as a full partner in the operation of the family farm. Tom received a B.S. degree in agriculture from Illinois State University in May, 1975. His grade achievement there placed him on the Dean’s List. In becoming a professional farmer he is carrying on an interest that began in childhood, since he began doing farm chores very early and was a 4-H member for several years. Tom is interested in pursuing seed research and production, which his father, Marshall, began several years ago. They are specializing in improving soybeans and wheat seed.

The next ten years will see many more changes in farm management. Many of the farmers are going to be retiring and young men will be needed to take their places. If farm prices maintain an adequate income with the modern equipment and modernized homes, more and more young men will stay on the farm.

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