Any visit to the Capitol should include a trip to the top of the 362-foot central tower, to get a view out over the city itself and, sprawling into the distance, the plains that surround the city and define the region–the rich, flat land known as the Great Plains, which contributed so much to making the Midwest the splendid crop region that it is.
As noted in an earlier post (Midwest Classic, Nov. 24, 2014), train tracks and grain elevators mark towns in the Midwest, and the size and number of grain elevators are indicators of both the size of a town and the size of the region it serves. The grain elevators in Lincoln are large and numerous–and easily visible from the tower.
Leaving the museum, I headed across town to the Nebraska State Capitol. Designed in 1920 by New York Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, the present building is the third to be erected on this site. It was the first statehouse in the country to adopt a design that dramatically departed from the prototypical form of the nation’s Capitol and to use an office tower.
The building is suitably imposing, making it clear that it is a center of government. The decorations, inside and out, do a good job of capturing the eras, ideals, and aspects of Nebraska history, with a wealth of statues, bas-reliefs, murals, inscriptions, and decorative fixtures.
Agriculture is highlighted everywhere. The statue that caps the tower is titled The Sower. This brass light fixture is another example, with its spray of wheat and ear of corn.
Across the open plains and into Lincoln, Nebraska. Arrived in time for dinner with friend Jane, who suggested we dine at her favorite Greek restaurant. Lovely evening talking about corn and farming. (Jane’s dad was a farmer, and her mom still lives on the family farm.)
Next morning, I headed off for a day of exploring. Jane had contacted the Nebraska History Museum to arrange for a docent/guide for me, and the wonderful Jack Chaffin was waiting for me when I arrived.
Jack guided me through the excellent displays, which cover 10,000 years of Nebraska history. I won’t even try to share everything I learned, but here are a few highlights:
Of the many Native American groups that were here when Europeans arrived (Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Oto, Ioway, Sac, Winnebago, Cheyenne, and Arapaho), about half were moved to other states and about half adapted and are still living in Nebraska today.
Pawnee were one of the largest groups in the area, and the Skidi Pawnee was the largest Pawnee group. The Skidi brought Aztec astronomy with them when they moved north from Mexico. They grew four different colors of corn: red, blue, yellow, and white.
Ft. Atkinson, north of Omaha, had the first bowling alley in Nebraska.
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte, an Omaha, was the first Native American to become a doctor, graduating, in 1889, at the top of her class from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, one of the first medical schools to accept women.
Because Nebraska is 1500 miles from both East and West Coasts, it was popular during World War II for military plants. Forty percent of all ammo used during WW II was made here, as were bombers and depth charges.
During World War II, camps for German and Italian POWs were located here. Many of the POWs happily worked on local farms, in place of the farmers who had gone off to war.
That is just a fraction of what I learned, but I hope it is enough to make you want to visit and learn more.
This wonderful museum is being renovated in 2015, so you may have to wait to see it, but it is well worth a trip to Lincoln. Here’s their website, so you can check and make sure it’s open before you plan your trip: Nebraska History Museum http://www.nebraskahistory.org/sites/mnh/index.htm
Before I continue the story of my exploration of the Midwest, I thought I’d share a quote with you that I think sums up why I find farming to be not simply interesting to study but essential to understand. The quote is from Near A Thousand Tables:A History of Food by Filipe Fernández-Armesto. This book is a splendid choice, if you have any interest in food history and its impact on world history. The book is thoughtful, wide-ranging, iconoclastic, brilliant, elegant, and packed with fascinating, abundantly documented information.
Here’s what Fernández-Armesto has to say about farming:
“Whether invented or evolved, the farming of plants did more, in the long run, to alter the world than any previous human innovation. The impact of the hunters, fishers, and stockbreeders of the last chapter could not compare—not on the landscape, or on ecological structures or even on diet. … Plants are 90 percent of the world’s food. Plant farming still dominates the world’s economy…. We still depend on it absolutely. It is the basis of everything else.”
For all our technology and cleverness, we’d disappear without farms.
The Peterson Farm Brothers — or Bros as they appear on YouTube – are fifth generation Kansas farmers, raising cattle and feed crops. The oldest brother, Greg, got his degree in agricultural communication, so in addition to farming, he works at getting out the story of what farming is like today, who the farmers are, and why it’s important to understand farming. Some of this is accomplished through clever song parodies, such as “I’m Farming and I Grow It” and “Farmer Style,” which went viral a couple of years ago.
However, the Peterson Farm Bros, with assistance from other family members, also create videos that document what work is like on the farm. A couple of years ago, they created the series “Life of a Farmer.” The short videos take the viewer one month at a time through the farming year. So, since it is now January, I’m interrupting the tale of my travels to share their January video.
Information signs, displays, and interpreters are abundant, so I learned more even as I headed toward the rendezvous point for the tractor ride back to Walnut Hill.
In 1850, it took up to ninety hours of labor to grow 100 bushels of corn. Today, a farmer can grow and harvest 100 bushels in less than three hours. Pretty dramatic difference.
Iowa is the largest producer of corn and soybeans in the United States. Corn is and always has been the number one crop in Iowa—from the farms of the Ioway Indians up to the farms of today.
I could tell you so much more, but I want to leave something for the interpreters to share with you if you visit the Living History Farms. Wonderful place. So glad I came. Hope you have a chance to visit. (Check out the site for Living History Farms.)
By 1900, technology had developed to the point where horses could replace oxen in the field. The greater strength of the oxen was no longer needed, and the greater speed and agility of horses made plowing larger farms possible. Horses supplied most of the energy on farms, from plowing to pulling wagons to powering various pieces of equipment, such as those for grinding corn. As a result of this dependence on horses, oats were added to the list of crops that were grown, because horses like oats. Most people are surprised to learn that, even though tractors began to gain popularity in the 1920s–1930s, horses continued to be used on some farms until World War II.
Also visible at the bottom of the photo is a hint of the classic white picket fence that surrounds the house. These fences not only made the homes more attractive, they also kept out livestock that might eat the kitchen garden to the ground.
Hiking to the next farm took me past markers for 1854 and the first railroad line to Iowa, the American Civil War (1861–1865), and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The path then turned in at the 1900 farm.
For many of us, this is the image we had of farms when we were growing up—more settled, larger than the pioneer farm, with barns that seemed to inevitably be painted red.
Interpreter Erin related that farms were self-sustaining. Animals were fed from the crops grown on the farm. The farm family ate what they grew—and ate what was in season or what could be “put up” for the winter.
Even in 1900, crop rotation was done, but soil was also enriched with manure. Manure management was, in fact, a big concern, as it is today. You didn’t want to have so many animals that you ended up with more manure than you could use on your fields.
Trains made it easier to get crops to market, and made it possible to get factory-made items to farmers. Houses were nicer, often with white picket fences. Stoves were common by this time, many of them fueled by corncobs.
Once there was a crop—something that was a staple for humans and animals, as was true of corn—creating a kitchen garden would be the next important priority. Corn and game would sustain the family for the first year or two, but a garden would supply lettuce, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, radishes, and herbs.
Here, in the garden, Sarah, one of the interpreters, weeds one of the garden beds. When asked about the food, she shared that the family ate a lot of cornmeal and corn bread. Once potatoes were growing well in the garden, pork and potatoes became a common meal. Sarah noted that corn had a double benefit—once the kernels were removed, the cobs could be used for scrubbing pans.
Chickens were raised, but they were saved for eggs. Sarah explained that the Dominick chickens they raise (a heritage breed) can be house broken. They are good layers, but the advantage to allowing them indoors is that they were good at keeping the cabin free of bugs.
A practical, wood-burning kitchen stove had been invented in 1834, but they were not widespread in 1850. More importantly, even if one had access to the new invention, and the money to buy it, the large, iron stoves were tremendously heavy, and they were simply not the sort of thing one would try to take in a wagon across country. As a result, people on the frontier continued to cook the way people had cooked for centuries—in the large fireplaces that also heated their homes.
Hearth cooking was practical on one level—you were going to have a fire in that large fireplace, so might as well use it for cooking, too. However, it was also impractical, as wood was not as abundant on the prairies as it had been back east. Plus it was dangerous. The long skirts worn by women too easily snagged hot coals, and serious burns and even deaths were fairly common for the home cook. Still, with the passing of hearth cooking, many mourned the loss of the smoky flavor of meat slow roasted on a spit over a wood fire.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection