Monthly Archives: December 2014

Living History Farms: Ioway Food

In addition to the foods the Ioway grew, there were a lot of plants they gathered in the woods, such as mushrooms, nuts, and berries. In addition, the area had a lot of game, so deer, turkey, raccoon, elk, or turtle might turn up on the menu.

The Ioway had begun trading with French trappers and traders in 1676, which brought into their lives items made of metal and glass. Metal pots, like the one hanging over the fire, expanded their options for cooking. However, traditional wooden utensils were still used for eating and most food preparation.


The interpreter pointed out that meat and vegetables were often dried, in preparation for the winter. Corn in particular had to be dried, to make it possible to grind. There were drying racks, or stages, for the various different things to be dried, but the corn stage was considerably higher than the others. The interpreter noted that it had to be, to keep it away from the animals, because “the critters really love corn.”



Leave a comment

Filed under Corn, Food, History, Midwest, Travel

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. (Not too bad for a blog that is only a month and a half old!)

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 330 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Living History Farms: Ioway Farming

Approaching through the woods, one comes first upon the Ioway Indian camp.


Like many Native Americans across North America, the Ioway Indians raised corn (maize), beans, and squash. Also like other Native American groups, it was the women who raised the crops. Men did the hunting and fought battles.

An enthusiastic interpreter related that corn was first planted in this area around ad 900-1000. She described the way corn, beans, and squash were grown together and pointed out the mounds nearby. By planting the seeds in mounds, it kept plants far enough apart, to keep the tall corn stalks from shading other plants nearby—the same reason corn is planted in rows today—to let sun reach the leaves. In this case, however, sun was needed for the squash and beans, as well, and not just the corn plants.


The first shoots of both corn and squash plants were pushing their way through the soil at the top of each of the mounds.


The Ioway grew flour corn, a corn variety with soft starch, which makes it easy to grind. The corn they grew was blue, and it was most commonly ground, mixed with water, formed into cakes, wrapped in cornhusks, and put in the fire. (Sounds a lot like tamales.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Living History Farms: Walnut Hill Print Shop

I consider the origins of words to be an important part of history—but also fascinating and fun in their own right. So before we head off to the farms, I thought I’d offer this little bit of nomenclature and how it arose.

A hundred years ago, if you wanted to print something, you had to set type. (There are still places this is done, but there were no other options back then.) Each letter had to be set by hand. Printing was done on a press that looked like this.


The typesetter would place type in a frame that would keep all the letters in place. Type was made of lead, which is why even with computers, people speak of “leading”—that extra bit of lead one would add to create more space between lines on the page. The typesetter would keep all the letters close at hand, in cases like these.


The type for capitals, or upper case letters was needed less often than the type for lower case letters—and that contributed to how we got these terms for the different types of letters. The letters one needed more often were kept in the lower of the two cases, and the capital letters were in the farther, slightly harder to reach upper case.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Language, Midwest

Living History Farms: Walnut Hill

I would, over the course of my research, interview farmers in Iowa, but my first destination was an outdoor museum, the Living History Farms in Urbandale, IA, near Des Moines.


I love history, and this turned out to be a particularly good place to indulge that passion. The interpreters/re-eneactors were all amazingly knowledgeable and the set-up was brilliant. One first enters the “town” of Walnut Hill. From there, it’s a short tractor ride to the beginning of the trail that leads to the various farms. Each farm (defined by era: 1700, 1850, 1900) is sufficiently far from the others that you can’t see any time period other than the one you’re in. Between farm eras, the trail leads through hills and forest, where a handrail acts as a timeline, with dates posted along with what is occurring in U.S. history between the dates of the three farms. This offers context to events in the region.

I’ll have posts for each region, starting with Walnut Hill. Here, buildings, placards, and docents introduce the visitor to life in a small, Iowa town in 1876. There are houses, barns, a pharmacy, general store, bank, school, law office, millinery shop, church, cemetery, blacksmith (vital on the frontier, for making tools, shoeing horses, and repairing plows), cabinetmaker, a print shop (always a priority, since staying informed was considered so vital to the success of the young U.S.), doctor’s office, veterinary clinic, and broom maker—all the necessities. It’s a wonderful step back in time, and a delightful way to “experience” history.  The townsfolk stress the connection between town and farms—one could not survive without the other. If you’re interested in visiting, you can learn more at

Here are a couple of photos I took in Walnut Hill. They only hint at all that is offered, but I think they capture a bit of the flavor.

Farm houses and barns at edge of Walnut Hill

Farm houses and barns at edge of Walnut Hill

Lots of free parking along Walnut Hill's main street.

Lots of free parking along Walnut Hill’s main street.

Leave a comment

Filed under Farming, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Across Iowa

From Moline, I continued my journey westward, into Iowa. While all states in the Midwest are major corn producers, Iowa is number one. With no sprawling mega-metropolis, like Chicago and all the connected cities and suburbs (almost unbroken, from Gary, IN, to Milwaukee, WI), and no geographic interruptions, like the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, Iowa is pretty much farms from border to border. Sure, there are cities, but there’s nothing like the uninterrupted urban sweep on the shores of Lake Michigan. On the whole, it’s largely rural—so lots of corn. (Lots of pigs, too—they’re also number one for those.) So, writing a book on corn, I of course had to go to Iowa.

Arriving in late afternoon left little time for work, so I settled into my hotel room and then called an acquaintance in town who knew I’d be visiting. Jean had sent me some info about the area and said she might have some contacts for me. She showed up with a few more brochures plus the name of a place for dinner—an Ecuadorian restaurant named Mi Patria. I’ve been to Ecuador, so I looked forward to checking this place out. As it turned out, it was excellent. We ordered the Mi Patria platter, which included roasted chicken, grilled marinated steak, pulled pork (possibly the best item on the plate), fried plantains, an interesting dish of pozole (hominy) and fava beans, rice with a fried egg, and stewed beans. Lots of excellent food for a reasonable price, and plenty of leftovers for Jean to take home.

Back at the hotel, I went through information for onward travels. However, I needed to make it early night. I was feeling a bit unwell and hoped a good night’s sleep would fix that.

And tomorrow, the Living History Farms.

Leave a comment

Filed under Corn, Farming, Food, Travel

Today’s Combine

After the tractor, the next big advance was the self-propelled combine—a harvesting machine that you drove, rather than dragging it behind a tractor. The modern combine looks more like a space station than a piece of farm equipment. The combine on display at the Pavilion is fitted with a wheat head—a front end that harvests wheat. In 1954, John Deere introduced the first corn head—though combines then looked more like golf carts, and the corn head only harvested two rows at a time. Things have definitely changed since 1954.


And just so you know what a corn head looks like, here’s a photo I took from the cabin of an International Harvester combine during harvest time in Ohio. You’ll note that it’s quite a bit different from the wheat head, and is clearly designed for row crops.  (I think this photo also shows why being in the middle of a cornfield is sometimes compared to being at sea.)


Traveling around the Midwest, one learns that color matters. There are a number of manufacturers of harvesting equipment, but the two “species” one encounters most commonly in the Heartland are made by John Deere or Case/International Harvester. Green with yellow means John Deere farm equipment. (There are other green combines in the world, but one quickly learns the precise shade of green that means John Deere for farmers.) Red usually means International Harvester (and the combine in the second photo is IH red). It can also mean Massey Ferguson, but I never saw one of their combines on a corn farm. People are as divided and as loyal as any car owner you’ve ever met. Yellow is pretty much reserved for earth-moving equipment, even when it’s made by John Deere. (Hence, a book on the history of the earth-moving equipment industry is titled Yellow Steel.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Getting Traction

The term “tractor” was first recorded in 1896—just four years after an Iowa blacksmith named John Froelich created what would become the prototypical farming tractor. It evolved from an earlier piece of equipment called a traction engine (1859). The meaning of both tractor and traction is anchored in the Latin trahere, which means “to pull, to draw”—which, while not the limit of what tractors do, is certainly their prime purpose.

Tractors revolutionized farming—though size and cost initially kept them from being rapidly adopted. However, as more and more companies made tractors, prices came down, and horses (which had replaced oxen by 1900) slowly began to be replaced themselves. The early 1900s saw a lot of experimentation and development. This 1930s John Deere tractor is a good example of those developments.


Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Farming, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

The Plow that Opened the West

When I was in Egypt several years ago, I saw tomb paintings of oxen pulling wooden plows. The thing that made that remarkable is that, 4,000 years later, in the 1850s in the United States, plowing was still done by oxen pulling wooden plows. While the blacksmith named John Deere did not replace the oxen or the wooden plows, he created a self-cleaning steel plowshare that could cut through the impossibly tough sod of the prairies. (For those of you who may not be familiar with plows, the plowshare is the part at the front that cuts into the soil.)

Here is a reproduction of that 1837 John Deere plow, displayed at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline.


Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Farming, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Ancient—and Not That Long Ago

It’s interesting to note that the hoe was so ideally suited to farming that worldwide and throughout history, it has been created and used by those who were trying to grow stuff. In museums and at living history venues, I’ve seen early Native American hoes made with large seashells or deer antlers attached to the end of long poles. Throughout Asia, I’ve seen hoes, both in current use and in museums, that are nearly identical to those used today in modern gardens. So some things don’t change, or change very little, despite other advances—they don’t need to change, because they were right from the start.

Still, and especially in light of the dramatic evolution of farming technology of the last 100 years, it is remarkable how little in farming changed from about 8000BC to the early 1800s. The tools pictured below, on display at the John Deere Pavilion, were what farmers had to work with in the early 1800s.


Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Farming, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize