by Ken Root
As we move into the fall season in the upper Midwest, Idyllic weather that floats over us for a few days or a few weeks each year. September’s chilly dawn comes later each day but it is stacked with colors from hazy gray at the horizon to magenta at mid sky and blue at the apex. Church spires rise out of the mist with crops changing from green to golden as the bright yellow sun offers great promise for a cloud free day as temperatures rise and winds blow softly across the land. All this had to make the first generation of our ancestors realize they were in a special place on earth. However, any who spent a full year at this latitude knew that this lull is brief and winter would be long and cold. They had to be prepared for six months of deprivation before any crop could again emerge from the ground. How they remained on this land and reinforced their position in the harshness of nature is truly amazing.
I spent a few hours last weekend at an annual celebration of antique crafts and first generation farming at the Plagman Barn near Guttenburg, Iowa. The historical site is a mere remnant and recreation of early farm life dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Volunteers donate time during the year and especially this weekend to re-enact the mechanical processes which innovative settlers employed to gain an edge against nature as they prepared for the winter freeze.
I don’t think our ancestors were much different in thinking than we are today. To come here was a big step so those who made it self-selected for ambition and adventure. They may have come from Europe as part of a community, a family or alone as young men or women. When they arrived, the landscape had to be overpowering: Big trees, sticky soil and no roads. Frontier life came down to food, clothing and shelter. Their tools were rudimentary, but functional in the hands of a skilled person. It is said they had an axe, a rifle and a plow loaded in a wagon that was pulled by a multipurpose horse or a yoke of oxen. Maybe a settler had a cow, chickens and pigs if they had the means to bring them in or buy from someone who was more established.
The challenge of the era was power. Once people ventured away from rivers, they had nothing to turn a wheel except animal and human power. However, innovators bet their future on technology and some succeeded. The Plugmann farm’s first mechanical power came from steam. They were small and rudimentary engines that would turn a pulley which turned a belt which spun a saw blade or turned a grinder. Today is looks like a Rube Goldberg invention but the output of an individual was greatly increased and specialization began. To make these machines and keep them operating required a blacksmith who had to be a mechanical genius with a strong back. Every tool in a workshop had to be handmade before molding and casting of metal standardized in the next generation. Fitting parts, with the pioneer’s skills and tools, rivals fine craftsmanship today.
There had to be social reinforcement and group labor to keep the community going. A man or woman, who could work all day at a hard job, surely was revered and valued in their society. For each individual, determination to succeed may have been underlined by fear of failure or social disgrace. There had to be leaders and followers to accomplish the task of tilling the soil and processing the harvest.
A sorghum press caught my eye as a very rudimentary set of steel gears was being spun by a pulley from an antique tractor. Upon closer examination, the long stalks of sweet sorghum were being fed between flat rollers to crush out the juice which dripped into a bucket below. Hours of work, in hazardous conditions, resulted in enough to boil down to form a thick syrup that became their only sweetener unless they could find a swarm of bees and rob them of their honey.
In this little demonstration community was a school that had been relocated to simulate early education. It had twenty four desks ranging in size to suit children from first to eighth grade. The room had one teacher, a blackboard and a stove. This is still considered to be one of the most efficient educational systems ever devised. What is showed me was that people were progressive and knew that education would boost their children toward a better life. Some instincts are inherent in a successful society and education of the next generation ranks high on the list.
I made the rounds to see each enterprise demonstrated and each craft explained. Samples of sorghum, bread, jerky, butter and apple butter were offered and I took a bit of each. There is a certain sweet and satisfying taste in handmade food. Not just ingredients but knowledge that someone had the imagination and determination to set things in motion to produce a satisfying and nutritious end product to sustain themselves, their family and their community. Pioneers learned how to preserve in metal, crockery and glass vessels and many timed their livestock harvesting so cold weather or smoking and drying allowed long term storage and use.
We have nothing on these people. Putting ourselves in their place would result in a massive decline in our population as most of us would just give up rather than strain our backs from sunup to sundown to gain a small step toward survival. However, the work they did to establish our way of life does not have to be done again. The foundation is laid. We only recreate it to salute their innovations and entertain ourselves. Our challenge lies in dealing with more people and less resources in a world bristling with armament and fragile governments. Let’s just say we couldn’t live our ancestor’s lives and they wouldn’t want to live ours.