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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Modern vs. Vintage Farming

article number 360
article date 07-15-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Your Indiana Farming Methods Change from Crude to Refined, 1850’s and 1860’s
by Logan Esarey, Professor, Indiana University

From the 1924 book, A History of Indiana From 1850 to 1920.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of the [people] drawings used to decorate this article are from the 1883 book, Riley Farm-Thymes, illustrated by Will Vawter. You will know by the “pre-Norman Rockwell” style.


AUTHORS NOTE: The plan of this chapter is to give a detailed picture of farm life in the fifties, and indicate the lines of development. The reader will be able to compare conditions then with those of the present and note the progress.

Among the many interests which claimed the attention of Governor Wright, agriculture was his favorite. Though not a farmer and without either practical or scientific knowledge of his subject, he delighted to attend and address farmers’ meetings. His purpose, it seems, at least it was the result of his work, was not immediately to increase technical knowledge among farmers but rather to dignify their work in their own minds.

The very fact that there was agitation on this subject is proof that some farmers had reached the stage where the occupation was not all drudgery. On the other hand, the great mass of farmers lived hard. Especially were the lives of the women and children unattractive.*

* State Board of Agriculture, II, 1852, p. 352: “The hardest toil, day by day, scarcely brought remunerative crops, because misdirected. Ragged looking farms, grown up with briars and weeds, surrounded by broken fences, greeted the traveler on every hand; a sorry lot of long-haired, long-horned, poor, shelterless cattle, a few small, poor, burr-covered sheep, a pair of shabby, long-tailed horses, rendered almost useless by hard work and poor food, a few lantern-jawed swine, too poor to squeal, help set off the picture; rendered still less attractive by the cheerless, comfortless home of the discontented owner, situated, usually, in the lowest, swampiest place on the farm—the hingeless door, the one small window filled up with old hat and old clothing—the smoky mud chimney, if not entirely down, propped up by a long pole or a few fence rails, to say nothing of the interior, present a sufficiently repulsive prospect, and a sufficient evidence, if, indeed, any other were needed, of the falsity and ruinous tendency of that capital and almost universal error, that ‘It is not necessary to educate farmers’ boys.’ This very last maxim tins done more to ruin our soil, and degrade the noblest, most independent, and health-giving occupation under the canopy of heaven, to a condition of mere menial drudgery than all other causes combined.”

Into this dull routine of labor Governor Wright wished to inject some purpose, some vision, not only to alleviate its dullness but ultimately to increase its effectiveness. He pleaded not only for shorter hours, but for more work, so that farmers might have leisure for reading, visiting or picnicing.*

* First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 5: “It is very remarkable that a pursuit in which more than four-fifths of our population is engaged should have remained so long without that spirit of emulation which the mettings of county and State fairs are so well calculated to bring about. The public mind seems now to have waked up to the realization of something practical; and each man asks for himself the best System, the best mode, the best manner of reaping the rewards of the labor bestowed on the soil.”

In his annual message, December 31, 1850, the governor asked for sonic positive legislation looking toward the diffusion of popular and scientific knowledge among the farmers.*

* House Journal, 1850, p. 28: “The cultivation and improvement of our soil is that upon which the other branches of business rely for support, and is the true source of all wealth. The system that adds to the stock of information in agriculture will promote the welfare of the State, and deserves to be encouraged by the legislative department. The establishment of a state board of agriculture, to consist, say, of nine members, for the express purpose of organizing a state agricultural society, would be calculated to bring into existence, in the several counties of the state, county societies that would be auxiliaries to the state association.”


The scheme as outlined by the governor was a system of local, county or district agricultural societies, preferably one for each county, aided slightly by the county treasurer, affiliated with a state agricultural society managed by a state board of agriculture.

Each local society was to carry on a continuous program of agricultural education by means of reading, discussion and lectures and an annual fair where all the products and craftwork of farmers were to be exhibited. Each exhibitor, who won a prize, was to give a detailed account of how he raised or produced the things exhibited.

The state society would hold two board meetings annually at which at least one delegate from each local society should be present. These were to be open meetings at which would gather leading farmers from over the state and hear not only discussions by Indiana farmers but addresses by notable men from abroad, such as Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley or Joseph R. Williams of Michigan.

Another duty of the state board was to gather agricultural statistics and information to be published in an annual report. This series of reports beginning in 1851 is a wonderful history of agriculture in the state.

The third duty of the state board, however, is best known and to thousands of farmers is the only one by which it is known, that is holding a state fair annually. This has been done more to popularize and spread agricultural knowledge than all other agencies combined. A bill embodying the governor’s ideas was in due time passed by the Assembly and became a law, February 14, 1851.

The state board consisted of sixteen members of which the governor was the first named. It was required to hold at least one meeting, early in January, each year. It had authority to hold one or more fairs each year and was compelled to make an anual report, embracing a brief resume of the work of each county society as well as of its own work.

In a previous chapter statistics have been given showing the material progress made in Indiana between 1850 and 1860. Almost all of that was due to improvement in methods of farming and transportation.

There had been agitation and organization looking toward better methods of farming in Indiana back about 1830 when agricultural societies had been formed in several counties, notably in Washington, Wayne and Marion, but during the intervening period from 1835 to 1850 there had been a great demand for labor on the state‘s internal improvement enterprises and farming interests had languished.

The movement of 1850, aside from the social improvement of the farming class, was directed toward better treatment of soil, a better grade of farm animals, better varieties and seeds for planting, better methods of cultivation and harvesting, better country roads, and better common schools in which the rudiments of farming at least should be taught.

State Capitol Building, Indianapolis, Indiana.


The pioneers had no regard for continued fertility of the soil. Indeed, it seemed too rich in many cases. After a field was cleared it was planted in corn at least four successive years to kill the sprouts and give the small stumps time to rot out. Not infrequently, especially in bottom land, twelve to twenty crops of corn were grown in succession before wheat was planted.

There was an alleged reason for not sowing wheat on new land. For some mysterious reason flour from wheat grown on fresh land made what was called ‘‘sour bread.’’ The wheat itself was called “sick wheat.” It was claimed that hogs would not eat it.

Another reason for not raising wheat on new land was that it usually fell down, either because some element in the straw was lacking or more probably because it grew too high, frequently growing six feet. A rain or wind strorm after the wheat was filled tangled it so that it could not be cradled.

Eight or ten corn crops in succession often left the upland so poor that it was put into pasture or perhaps set in orchard. Then came the struggle between briars, sassafras and weeds and the deepening and widening gullies. A field once overgrown was seldom reclaimed.

Thousands of acres in southern Indiana yet bear witness to the old style of farming. Here and there in the thickets one comes across an old chimney, a gnarled apple tree or other evidence that there once was plow land. An essay by Byrem Lawrence on care of hilly land shows beyond question that some persons even at that early date were not unaware of what was being done.

Dr. R. T. Brown, of Montgomery county, recommended three things to farmers of his county: First, perfect drainage, which was to be accomplished by a system of tiling; second, the addition of clay and sand to the prairie lands, which could be accomplished by subsoiling; third, the black land was in need of lime and he urged that at least ten bushels per acre be spread on He was opposed to using salt as a fertilizer.*

* Agricultural Reports, 1853, p. 249Horace Greeley, in an address at the State Fair at Lafayette, Oct. 13, 1853, said deep plowing or sub-soiling, draining, and irrigation were the three things universally necessary.

Rotation of crops was urged by almost all lecturers of that time. J. R. Goodwin, of Franklin county, after discussing all the rotations given in ‘Chaplet’s Manual’ concluded that corn, wheat and clover with perhaps, on thin lands, a fallow following the clover, was the best. It seems that clover then produced a rank crop the second year if pastured down the first. This second crop was to be turned under.*

*Agricultural Reports, 1854, p. 181. In 1850 Andrew Erskine of Vanderburgh county, found the following the best full rotation: Clover, wheat, pasture, wheat, corn, oats. The Clover crop was generally regarded as a pasture or manure crop.

Commercial fertilizer was little used then Besides the ordinary barnyard manures, the enterprising farmer depended on plowing green crops under, such as clover, buckwheat, rye or grass; salt, gypsum, plaster of paris, wood ashes, and lime were frequently recommended.


The ordinary live stock on an Indiana farm of 1850 was a small “ menagerie. “ One man’s cows are described as “rawboned, misshapen, wild-looking, longlegged beasts, which would hold his horse a long tug in a fair race.” His oxen were ‘‘long-legged, ill-broken and ravenous.” “Cows not larger than good Bakewell sheep are scattered over the country everywhere.”

Horses varied from a ‘‘half pony mongrel’’ to a ‘‘tame hippopotamus.’’ Droves of ‘‘elm peeler’’ hogs lived next door neighbors to herds of Leicesters. The same general description applied to all.

Families coming from New York brought stock common to that region; families from Carolina did the same. The draft horses of Pennsylvania, the race horses of Kentucky and Virginia and the unregistered “plugs” from everywhere found friends in each community.

No serious thought had been given to the improvement of live stock in the state previous to 1845 or 1850.”*

* Durham cattle were being exhibited at the fairs to the delight and wonder of the people. J. D. Williams (“Blue Jeans”) exhibited a four-year-old steer at the Knox county fair, 1855, weighing 2,700 pounds. St. Joseph county the same year reported a number of imported Durhams and Devons. A large number of poled Durhams had been recently brought into Wabash county, where “blooded” calves sold for twice as much as “scrubs.” At the state fair for the same year, fourteen pedigreed Durham bulls were exhibited. The Devons were regarded as superior for the dairy and the Durhams for beef. One of the earliest shorthorn bulls imported into Indiana was Earl of Seaham, brought by W. T. Dennis and Elihu Morrow, of Richmond in 1850. His picture forums the frontispiece to the ‘Second Annual Report’ of the state board, 1852.

The general demand for horses had led to the adoption of two general classes; the heavy drift horse, used by the wagoners in four and six horse teams, traveling twenty-five miles per day over the rough roads, drawing heavy loads; and the light, clean—limbed Kentucky—Virginia breeds used for horse-back riding, light harness and for light farm work.

At the state fair of 1855, one of the best before the war, the horses were classified as farm, draft, carriage and riding. The farm horses were described as “coarse and awkward” and the wish expressed that they would not be brought to the fairs. These were the choice of ordinary farm animals, referred to contemptuously as the “two dollar and a half” breed.

Two varieties of drafts attracted attention, the Canadian and English. Both were low, stocky, heavy, muscular, slow-moving and not desirable for Indiana. They were criticised by the judges for having too much bulk and not enough speed.

The carriage horses attracted the attention. These were representative of the erect, smart-stepping, matched teams so frequently shown in illustrations of that day. Every well-to-do farmer prided himself on a span of such drivers. Not only the custom but this breed of horses came down from the English country gentlemen by way of Virginia and Kentucky.


The attractive colors were the glassy gray and black. A gray from Ohio and a black Highlander named Chancellor from Hendricks county were favorites. The Highlanders were generally conceded the best harness horses but they were overshadowed by the Morgans.

The latter were the pioneer horses without question. Originated some fifty years before in Vermont from French Canadian and English blood, they cornbined strength, endurance, size and speed. Trim built, small head, deep chest, clean, wiry, sinewy, gentile, reliable, they were the standard of the day.

They held records of one hundred miles and better from sun to sun. Six of these would whisk a coach over the National road at a ten or fifteen mile gait for three or four hours without showing signs of distress.

The state board recommended that the Morgans and Messengers displace the ‘‘scrubs’’ on Indiana farms. There is a picture of Morgan hector on page 381 of the ‘Agricultual Reports,’ 1852.

Saddle horses were numerous and of high grade. These were the gentlemen’s pride. All the breeds were varieties of the Kentucky, Virginia, English racers. The secretary observed, however, that the saddle horse was being crowded out by the light harness horse.

All told, there was promise of great improvement in the breed of horses, a promise not fulfilled on account of the war, until many years later.

If horses were the pride of the farmers, hogs were their support. The census of 1860 gave the state 2½ million head, a number not equaled by any other state in the Union, an average of near ten for each family.

The exhibition of hogs was the most complete of any of the fair, both as to number of breeds and the excellence of the stock. The era of the “elm peeler” was coining to a close. There were Suffolks, Leicesters, Polands, Byefields, Graziers, Russian Berkshires, Bedfords and Chester Whites, with a number of crosses.


In general features the Polands were considered the best pure blood. A cross with Leicester or Suffolk would make them better feeders. An item in the report showed that mast was still an item with swine. The only serious objection to the Polands was their black color. A cross with Leicesters would make them white and also keep their ears up out of their eyes.

The Chester Whites were favorites on account of their huge size and white color. A general objection to the thoroughbreds was that when fat they could not walk as fast as a horse from Indianapolis to Cincinnati, as could the native four-year-olds.*

* The following remark of a fair patron contrasts the two:
“At the fair I purchased two pairs, their ears very broad and hanging down nearly to the point of their short noses; but more industrious, active, feed-hunting pigs I have never had. In one particular, however, I see a marked difference between them and what is called good common stock. Let a rain soften the ground and the long snouts of the latter are up to their eyes in it, rooting out the clover and upturning the blue grass sod.

“The Polands graze more sensibly, letting the roots remain for future yield. Another difference is this: They do not put up their bristles and dash off with a booh! booh! when the owner comes near, but run to meet him, as gentle as pet sheep. A third difference consists in their being always fat and round, whilst the improved common stock are flat-sided, and never fat until their growth Is attained.”

The Indiana farmers of 1850 raised considerable numbers of sheep, the numbers increasing from over 1 million in 1850 to more than 2 million in 1860. They used a large part of the wool for clothing but with the coming of railroads were selling not only wool but the sheep for mutton east.

The endless feud between dogs and sheep was a discouraging feature of sheep raising. There were almost as many dogs as sheep and in the affections of the family, the dogs had an advantage. It was a question of sentiment against gain and the fight is still on.

At the state fair of 1854 there were shown Saxons, French and Spanish Merinos, South Downs, Cotswold and Leicesters. The Saxons were being introduced in considerable numbers from western Pennsylvania. The Saxons and Merinos were small sheep and especially prized for mutton by those who still had a lingering taste for venison. It was said they earned their board keep by eating the weeds, briars and sprouts on the farm. Those who raised sheep for wool preferred the Cotswolds and Leicesters.



By 1850 it was pretty well ascertained what crops would prosper in Indiana. One hears no more of silk worms and mulberries, or of grape vineyards rivalling sunny France. The experiments with cotton were about all made while the culture of hemp, flax and hops was being abandoned.

On the other hand the United States patent office furnished the Indiana board of agriculture in 1856 with a supply of Sorghum cane seed, the first that had been seen in the west. This seed was distributed to all the members of the state board at the January meeting and crops of cane were raised in all parts of the state. Cane and sorghum were both exhibited at the state fair of 1857.

Of field crops the leader was and always has been corn. The crop of 1856, as shown by the report of the state auditor, was close to 40 million bushels worth over $11 million. Rush county led with 1.3 million bushels and Starke brought up the rear with 17,106 bushels. It is interesting to notethat Rush county in 1915 still led in the average yield per acre. Benton county which now leads the state, in 1856 produced almost 240,000 bushels.

The state fair of 1856 offered premiums for the best ten-acre fields of corn grouwn on clay, prairie, and alluvial soils. The first price for the farmer went to Swan Brookshire of Montgomery county who raisee an average of 146½ bushels per acre; the latter prize sas taken by John P. Dawson of Warren county whose corn averaged 153 bushels per acre. Michael Weider of Sullivan county took a first on five acres of corn grown on prairie which averaged 171 bushels, individual acres producing as much as 180.

The cultivation was simple. Mr. Weider’s field was a “deadening” set in blue grass and pastured until the stumps were all rotted out. It was planted on the first of June, with a small Barnhill drill, plowed with a single shovel three times and hoed.
The total cost of cultivation was $5.60 per acre. It was planted to the ordinary white corn grown in the neighborhood.

An incident of this year’s fair was the contest among boys for the best acre of corn. This prize was won by John Williams of Knox county, who received his schooling in an old cooper shop and broke his acre for corn with two yokes of oxen.

The implements used to cultivate corn were a breaking breaking plow, with wooden mouldboards, operated with two horses or two yokes of oxen, a single shovel usee both for marking ofl and later for cultivating the growing corn; a two horse “A,” spike-tooth harrow used for pulverizing the soil after breaking and by removing the front tooth, for cultivating the corn the first time; a cultivator operated usually with one horse and having two or three small shovels or “bull tongues”; and a supply of hoes.


Cultivators were not widely used. Nearly all corn was checker planted and covered with a hoe, though a number of small corn drills were on the market. It was thought impossible to keep weeds out of corn unless it was laid off both ways. Eleven of the prize takers of 1857 planted their corn by hand and six drilled. Only one of the winners had used manure on his land. The land had been plowed from eight to ten inches deep.

Little attention was being given to seed, most references being to the “ordinary yellow” or “white” corn. There was occasional mention of Dickerson’s white, Boyd’s, Baden, Brown, King Philip, Tuscarora and Darby varieties of corn but nothing was given by which to distinguish them.

Wheat ranked is the second agricultural staple of the state fifty years ago, as it does at present, though it is being closely pushed by oats now. The total yield for 1856 was 9.3 million bushels, worth almost $9 million. Rush county led with 339,000 bushels, a position it yielded in 1915 to Knox.

Among the prize winners at the state fair for 1857 were Elias Oghaw, of Wabash county, whose ten acres averaged 31½ bushels per acre: James A. Merryman who averaged 33 bushel: William Fulwiler, of Howard, sho produced 48 bushel on one acre: and George Woodfill, who raised 44 bushels on an acre.

John Williams of Knox county, also took the boy’s premium for the best single acre of wheat. He raised 33½ bushels of spring wheat.

Only one of the prize winners manured his wheat ground: all sowed broadcast: one broke in July, four in August, two in September and one in October, each breaking about nine inches deep.

Five of the winners sowed White Blue Stem Wheat; one sowed New York White; and on South American. It seems from the county reports thoughout the decade that varieties of White wheat and Blue Stem were most widely sown, though Mediterranean and Genesse were becoming common and highly praised.

Soule, Baltic, Etrurian, Canadian, varieties of Flint, Banner and May were names of wheat raised in different parts of the state. The bearded and smooth heads seemed to be equally favored.

Wheat, more than corn, depended for its cultivation on means of transportation. The conspicuous wheat counties were located on railroads or rivers. A difference of thirty cents per bushel, due to transportation, might be found in the price of wheat in adjacent counties.

Smut, Hessian fly, weevil and rust were troublesome in all parts of the state. Reapers were coming into use gradually though there was much opposition by harvest hands. Only a very small portion of the wheat and oats before the war was cut by machinery. It was the golden era of the cradlers.


A special demonstration of machines for cleaning wheat was given at the 1857 state fair. The judges divided the entire machine into power, thresher, and separator, giving first premium to separate individuals on each part. This was the beginning of the old horse power machine which threshed the wheat, oats, and rye of Indiana from 1850 to about 1880.

The earliest machines were small enough that two men could lift one. They gradually grew from two horse power up to twenty-four as the cylinder was widened, the separator lengthened, and strawstacker added.. Cylinder and concave, riddles and fan were the essential parts. The problem was to get the smut out of the wheat. If any were left in, the price of the wheat was greatly reduced.

J. D. Williams, of Knox county, took the first premium on a ten acre field of oats. His average was 83½ bushels. This seemed to be far above ordinary, since the second prize went to S. H. Anderson, of Marion county, who averaged 57 bushels.

The oats crop was not large, only 4.6 million. Lake county stood first with 190,000 bushels. One of the prize exhibitors said his oats were cut with a cradle, sunned for a few hours, tied up and in eight or ten days conveyed to the barn and tramped out, yielding 63 bushels per acre.

Little thoughtful attention was given to raising hay for the market except near the Ohio river. Much larger crops of grass were harvested in the northern part of the state but nearly all was prairie and swamp grass and was fed on the farm during the winter. The river counties, especially Dearborn and Switzerland, raised some hay for the southern market.

J. D. Williams took first premium on timothy and red top, the former yielding 5,000 pounds per acre, the latter 4,000 pounds. Mr. Williams also raised 11½ bushels of English blue grass seed on an acre, taking first prize.

In general, in most parts of the state, farmers showed more interest in improving their pastures than in improving their hay fields. Lewis J. Reyman, of Washington county, cut 6,333 pounds of timothy from one acre in 1855 and on another acre cut 8,600 pounds. The average yield of timothy seems to have been slightly above one ton.

Clover was common but considered only as pasturage.

Rye was grown in every county of the state but its total amount was only 182,000 bushels, about 2,000 bushels to each county. Allen county, with 11,000 bushels, was first.

The same may be said of barley. The crop of 1857 was 60,000 bushels, Dearborn county leading with 8,866 bushels. The reports from all Parts of the state indicated that farmers were abandoning these crops.


Hemp was grown in twenty-seven counties, a total of 413 tons; hops in thirty-nine counties, totaling 164,000 pounds. Both of these were negligible so far as general interest or value were concerned.

In 1857 there were raised in the state, 486,000 pounds of tobacco, over one-fourth of which came from Spencer county, 125,000 pounds. The report indicated that the production of this crop was increasing.

Irish potatoes were grown in large quantities in every county, the total crop of over 1 million bushels being fairly well distributed. Elkhart and Allen counties were far ahead in total amount, the former with 17,000 bushels and the latter with 72,000. The prize varieties were Pinkeyes, Mexicans, Mercers, Peach Blooms, Black, White and Red Mechanocs, Prairie Queens, Shaker Blues, Russets and Merinos.

The yield was from 200 to 450 bushels per acre, few of which could now be eaten. The Peach Blooms and Mechanocs especially tasted much like green persimmons.

The sweet potato was comparatively a newcomer in 1850 and there was considerable discussion as to its proper cultivation. A. H. and J. W. Vestal, of Wayne county, had raised a crop yielding 268 bushels per acre. The committee said they placed their specimens on exhibition by the cord.

At their booth these exhibitors handed out a pamphlet describing the potatoes, methods of cultivation and manner of cooking. Some of these potatoes had been kept two years and were fresh.

The evidence is ample that the Hoosiers of the fifties had good gardens. In the Randolph county fair of 1856 there were entered more than 100 different varieties of vegetables. In St. Joseph county 175 entries were made. A Warrick county squash weighed 197 pounds.

Z. S. Ragan, of Hendricks, exhibited 82 varieties of apples and 18 pears. I. D. G. Nelson, of Allen county, showed 49 varieties of apples.

The best collection of apples, six varieties, for all year use was shown by Allen Lloyd of Lafayette. The varieties were Fall Wine, Rambo, Bellflower, Ortley, Pryor’s Red and Wine Sap. Reuben Ragan, of Putnam county, exhibited the prize collection of 59 varieties of winter apples.

All told at the fair if 1857 there were 113 varieties of apples on exhibition. Other fruits in equally bewildering kinds and quantities were shown but not enough of this literature has been canvassed to furnish a comparison with the present.

In many respects the state was almost as well cultivated as at present. Of the population of 1.3 million, perhaps a million were on the farms. There are only about as many today. In 1860 there were in Indiana 8.1 million acres of improved land, 3.1 million acres of which had been improved in the decade then just finished.

Farm and Forest Land in Indiana (1860). The white area of each county represents the percentage of farmed land. The shaded area represents percentage of forest.

The cash value of the improved land had more than doubled during the decade, largely on account of improved buildings, while the farm implements had jumped in value from $6.7 million in 1850 to $10.4 million in 1860. The cash value of real estate and personal property in 1860 was $529 million, a gain of 160 per cent in the decade. These details have been given at considerable length to give one an idea of agricultural condition at the outbreak of the Civil war.

While that war is the greatest event in our history and the one which the state as a whole can regard with greatest pride, it was a calamity so far as social and political development was concerned. Not until the late eighties were the farmers again in such prosperous condition as in 1860.


Farming conditions were inseparably bound up with transportation. One of the great problems discussed in every agricultural society was roads. At the second meeting of the state board of agriculture, the chief topic for discussion was “What is the best system of roads for Indiana?”

This question was proposed by Governor Wright to whom Indiana farmers owe a greater debt than to any other man unless it be James D. Williams.

Indiana Governor’s Home, 1850’s. Note unimproved road.

The latest thing in country roads at that time was the plank road. This was made by covering a roadway about ten feet wide with two in oak boards laid on two longitudinal sleepers of mud sills.

This road gave good satisfaction when dry and level. Otherwise it was hard for horses to hold their feet. It was also troublesome when two loaded wagons met. On had to get off and it was difficult to get back, especially if the ground were soft.*

* Agricultural Reports, 1852, p. 275: J. R. Beste, The Wabash, I, 208. “But we soon left him and his wagon behind as we trotted lightly along this plank road. And very pleasant a plank road is to travel upon. It may be slippery in wet weather; but now it saved us from the dust which would have arisen from gravel; and the sawn boards or planks, about three inches thick, being nailed to sleepers at the two sides of the road, spanned it from side to side and rose and sank under us with the elasticity of the floor of a ballroom.

* (continued) ”On each side of the plank track, between it and the worm fences that bounded the road, were holes and stumps and ditches and natural water courses that no wheels could venture amongst.” He was traveling west on the National road out of Indianapolis.

Travelers over the north end of the Michigan road where it was planked complained that the continual use of the road produced a continuous mud puddle under the planks, so that when the weight of the team or wagon came on it, the thin mud spouted up several feet high between the planks, spattering everything.

Allen county had a full system of plank roads centering in Fort Wayne. All told in 1850 there were 700 miles of plank roads. The Assembly of 1850 chartered 69 companies to build turnpikes or plank roads about two-thirds being for the latter.

At the meeting of the state board of agriculture, January 17, 1852, above referred to, it was the opinion of the members generally from all parts of the state that plank roads would not prove satisfactory. It was given as the opinion of Henry W. Ellsworth, if a track two feet wide were made of planks laid lengthwise for the wheels to run on and the middle filled with gravel, the chief faults of the plank road would be obviated.

A few years of actual trial convinced the people that the plank road was a failure. Laid with green lumber, flat on the dirt, many of them were so far decayed in four years as to become dangerous. Their era lasted about five years, during which perhaps 900 miles were built at a cost of one and one half millions of dollars.


Governor Wright thought the best thing to do was to make dirt roads, well graded and well drained. The governor’s method of avoiding the use of culverts was ingenius. Culverts, as then constructed, had become a nuisance. They were usually about three feet above the level of the road and flanked at either side by a deep mud hole.

The governor advised removing all culverts and ballasting the crossing or low place with stone so that a pool of water would stand in the road. This, he observed, would be useful in washing the wagon wheels, the horses’ hoofs, and for droves of hogs and cattle either to bathe in or drink.

Everybody condemned the general plan then in practice of calling out the hands to make roads. The unprofitable system, however, is still in use except where the people on their own initiative have abandoned it. After the war, private turnpikes, graded and graveled, took the place of the old plank road.*

* An act of Dec. 23, 1858, permitted county boards to assume control of abandoned plank roads. They were extremely dangerous after the planks began to break under the horses’ feet.


The last phase of the movement started by the state board of agriculture in 1851 was that for agricultural education. It has been stated heretofore that the farmers of pioneer Indiana took little interest and no pride in their schools. The explanation has also been given that the school curriculum failed to touch them in any practical way. The agricultural literature of the fifties is full of this fact.

In his speech at the Wayne County Fair in 1851, Governor Wright referred to the higher education as follows:

“One of the greatest blessings that is to follow from these exhibitions of labor and skill, is that of an entire change in the character of the education of the youth. The time has been when the young men of the country were sent to the academy to take their places in the preparatory course, then to college, year after year spent in learning a little Latin or Greek, too frequently less common sense, until they became ready to graduate.

“With a rich colored diploma, he walks forth from the college, upon the very soil from which labor is to wring the bread that must support and keep him from starving, and yet in too many cases, wholly ignorant of the character of the soil, and of the very trees of the forest; so much so as not to be able to tell a maple from a beech tree.

“The farmer, of all men, should be included in the term learned profession. He is the great physician of nature. If, however, he is ignorant of the laws of nature, of the proper treatment to effect a cure when disease affects his patient, he is, of all men on earth, the greatest quack.

“There is this difference, however, between the quack farmer and a quack physician, the farmer’s patient has so good a constitution that it is difficult to kill him off. If his constitution were not good, in many cases in Indiana, the patient would long since have been dead and buried, and briers, thorns, and thistles taken his place.”

There was a general air of self-satisfaction among farmers that no expert or scientific knowlege could aid them in farming; the utmost that farmers children needed in the way of education was a superficial training in the three R ‘s. On this idea the old common, district school was founded.


Isaac Kinley, an enterprising school teacher of Henry count, in a letter to the state board of agriculture in 1852 estimated the loss of farmers in the United States annually, due to farming “in the moon,” at millions. It was the general opinion, he thought, that education rendered a man lazy and unfit for work. For that reason anything more than a modicum of education should not be given to any one unless a cripple or unfitted by temperament for hard, manly work.

Fond parents sometimes educated a favorite son so he would not have to work for a living. There was a general public sentiment that labor, especially farm labor, was degrading, that country people were boorish, ignorant, and green. In the slang of the day they were referred to as “hayseeds,” “rubins,” “hill billies,” “seedlings,” or with a smack of historical compassion were called “yeomen.”

Complacent lights of the “learned professions,” happily graduated from their former lowly estates, invited the proletarians to gaze on themselves and see what education and application had done. Mr. Kinley pointed out very plainly how unpractical the schools were from the state university down to the district school.

Nine-tenths of the people were farmers and there was not a single provision anywhere for teaching their craft.*

* State Board of Agriculture, 1552, p. 350. “As one of the farmers of Indiana, but not presuming to speak in their behalf, I ask for the education of the children of the laboring man. Not a mere smattering in the elements of the commonest branches, but a thorough, practical, scientific education, of the advantages of which the poorest even may avail themselves. Of and end so desirable shall it he said it is unattainable?

* (continued) I will not believe it. Low in the scale of intellegence as the census places our glorious State, I know that she has a better destiny awaiting her. Of the many practical advantages of general education, our people will not long remain ignorant. That ingenuity and energy which on more than one occasion have proven equal to any emergency will not be slow in devising and executing a plan for the education of the children of the laboring man, not only in general learning, but in practical science, the science, each, of his own avocation.”

Referring to a deep rooted prejudice among farmers themselves, Joseph R. Williams, in addressing the Elkhart County fair, October 25, 1851, said:

“Farmers of Indiana, when you scout the idea that by the agency of societies, books, fairs, schools and chemical analysis and investigations, you can be taught nothing in either the art or the science of agriculture, you are wrong—wrong practically, wrpmg theoretically, wrong morally, wrong politically, wrong economically, every way wrong.”

These are merely specimens of what could have been heard at every annual address delivered at state and county fairs. The leading farmers of the state were not only ashamed of the illiteracy of the farmers but aggrieved that no special consideration was being given to an occupation numbering nine-tenths of the citizens.


Section six of the act of February 11, 1851, provided that the state board should have power to hold state fairs at such times and places as it deemed expedient. All details were left to the discretion of the board. The scope of the fair might be such as to include all “articles of science and art.”

No attempt was made to hold a state fair during the year 1851. Provision however was made at the meeting on June 28, 1852, for a state fair the following autumn. W. T. Dennis, of Richmond, was appointed to prepare the fair grounds, which he was empowered to choose. The fair was set for October 17, following, and all the editors of the state sent complimentary tickets in return for publicity.

Mr. Dennis immediately prepared a schedule of rules and regulations to govern the exhibition and award of premiums. Exhibitors were compelled to present with their exhibits, detailed accounts of how the thing was made or raised. The best of these papers were intended for and later printed in the Reports. A public sale was to follow at the grounds on Saturday.

The fair was duly opened to the public, October 20, 1852, at Indianapolis. An examination of the items shows beyond question that Indiana had passed the pioneer age. Passing by the pedigreed stock there were:

- cultivators
- subsoilers
- root-cutters
- corn-shellers
- straw cutters
- wheat and corn drills
- reapers
- mowers
- threshers
- hay-pressers
- smut machines
- fan mills
- separators
- winnowers
- bran-dusters
- regrinders
- flour and meal mill
- churns
- cook and parlor stoves
- boring machines
- sausage grinders
- hand looms
- brick machines
- washing machines
- saw mills
- ice cream freezers
- rat traps
- scales of numerous kinds (one of which would weigh 800,000 pounds at one time)
- potato diggers
- garden sprinklers
- ax handles
- carriages of all kinds
- printing presses
- trucks
- fire proof safes
- Howe, Wilson and Singer sewing machines
- shower baths
- broom handles
- bacon
- tombstones
- spinning wheels
- hub machines
- railroad jacks
- sawmill dogs
- mineral teeth
- pearl work
- shell lace
- daguerreotypes
- medicines
- beltings
. . . and so on for pages the list of awards run.

There were more than 20,000 persons present and the board was highly pleased with the response of the people. Thousands came from 20 to 100 miles in horse and ox wagons, camping along the road, enjoying the autumn weather. Side shows and “menageries” enlivened the occasion so that most agreed that it excelled any camp meeting they had ever attended.


The second state fair, 1853, was held at Lafayette, October 10-14. It seems that the local agricultural society raised the money to prepare the grounds. A feature of this fair was an address by Horace Greeley, October 13, 1853, on “What the Sister Arts Teach as to Farming.”

The third state fair was held at Madison, after a delegation of Indianapolis men had agreed to raise the money necessary but had generously expressed their preference that the invitation of the Jefferson county society be accepted.

At the January meeting of 1854, there was an apple and vegetable show, a precursor of the modern apple show.

The third state fair, 1854, was held at Madison and the fourth was in 1855, at Indianapolis. There was some dissatisfaction among the exhibitors on holding the fair away from Indianapolis, and some dissatisfaction by board member on account of decreased receipts. As a result, the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh were held at Indianapolis. The eighth was held at New Albany under the auspices of the Floyd county society.

Military activity induced the board to omit the fair in 1861and from then till 1865 it was little more thatn an adjunct of the state sanitary commission.

In 1865 it was held at Fort Wayne and in 1867 at Terre Haute. All since have been held at Indianapolis.

The first was held at Military park, where the board felt considerably crowded. The fair of 1860 was held on the board’s own ground which soon became Camp Morton. Here they were lucid until 1892. By 1890 the city had grown around the old grounds and in 1891 they were sold for $275,000.

The Voss farm, 214 acres, lying two miles northeast of the old fair grounds, was purchased. On the new grounds a first-class, one mile race track was constructed. In the course of the succeeding years the new grounds have been provided with suitable buildings and facilities for exhibition purposes.

For many years the General Assembly gave scant recognition to the fair but since 1896 a more generous policy has been followed. In 1908 a magnificent colosseum was built for the board at a cost of over $100,000. This building alone has a seating capacity of 12,000 people.

As time went on, rail allowed more mobility.

The work of the state board of agriculture has been of vast importance. The state horticultural society, the creation of a national department of agriculture, the geological survey of Indiana, Purdue university, the county fair system, county and local agricultural societies, the scores of state and local live stock raisers’ and breeders’ associations, promotion of veterinary science are only the more important lines of its activity.

Among its leading members have been four governors, Joseph A. Wright, first president of the board; Gov. James D. Williams, of Knox county; Claude Matthews, of Vermilion, and James A. Mount, of Montgomery.

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