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.
Once the crop was in the ground and safely on its way to maturity, a house could be built. Because both materials and workers were limited (workers often consisting of members of a single family), houses were small initially. However, that made it easier to not only get the house completed before winter came, it also made it easier to heat. Everyone lived in one, large room—which meant everyone was near the hearth, plus body heat could contribute to heating the house.
Generally speaking, people would live in the cabin for five to ten years, and then would build a nicer house, once the farm was established.
Hiking through the woods and uphill to the 1850 farm, I passed the signs for the Declaration of Independence, the first opening of Iowa Territory for settlement (1836), and Iowa statehood (1847). In 1850, immigrants were flooding into the United States, most with the idea of moving west and buying land. The price of land in Iowa in 1850 was $1.25 an acre, so ownership was within reach for people who could never have even dreamed of owning land back in the old country.
The 1850 farm is designed to reflect what a farm would look like after four years of settlement, so a fairly well-established farm. By this point in settlement, there is a barn—important for storing equipment, hay, and grain. The hay would feed the animals, but the grain would feed both the animals and the family, with some reserved to plant the coming spring.
Here, again, wonderfully informed interpreters carried out common tasks of the day, while always taking time to talk to interested visitors about what life was like for pioneers on the prairie frontier. The first thing one did when one arrived on the prairie was get crops planted. The family could sleep in or under their wagon until at least a few acres of land were planted. It was possible to survive without a house, but not without food, so that was the priority.
And what was the most common thing to plant? Corn. Many planted wheat, as well—because in the old country, wheat (or, more specifically, white bread made with wheat) meant wealth. However, corn was a more reliable crop that offered a lot more food for each seed planted and, often more importantly, could easily be harvested by women and children (vital, when that was the entire available workforce). Here, outside the barn, corn is hung to dry, to later be ground into meal or saved for seed.
In addition to the food-drying stages, gardens, and, cooking areas, Ioway villages also had work areas, hide-scraping racks, pottery pits, and gardens, as well as housing for families. In this photo, you can see a traditional Ioway winter house in the background, with a hide-scraping rack on the left.
Housing for the Ioway varied by season and purpose. A buffalo hide chibóthraje, or teepee, was easy to take along during hunting expeditions. In the summer, a bark hut called náhachi was comfortably cool.
The winter house, called a chákirutha, was covered with four layers of cattail leaves, so it was really well insulated. The interior temperature would be about 50 degrees all winter long, so the Ioway winter home would actually be warmer than the early homes of most pioneers. Here are two interior views of the winter house—which seems quite comfortable. In the top photo, you can see baskets, a drum, and the stone fire pit that would be used to heat the hut during the winter.
The metal utensils shown below would have been added to Ioway tools when trading with the French began.