Driving about 50 miles east from Arapahoe, through an alternating landscape of fields and small towns, we came to the small town of Minden, Nebraska. Like all other small towns in this region, it is marked by grain elevators and railroad tracks. However Minden is also home to Pioneer Village, an indoor-outdoor museum that has been named “Best Pioneer History Collection” for several years running.
If you couldn’t tell from my lengthy description of the Living History Farms in Iowa, I love places like this. That said, I love anywhere that allows me to interact with life, past or present, from a working farm to a historic home to a Revolutionary War reenactment. So I was delighted with this place.
Pioneer Village represents the vision and life work of Harold Warp. It claims to be the largest private collection of Americana—and I have no reason to doubt that. The complex is home to 50,000 artifacts that cover the full spectrum of the region’s settlement and development, all lovingly restored and carefully grouped by function and era. There is also a splendid art gallery. All this is housed in more than two dozen buildings, many of which are, themselves, historic artifacts. It offered a splendid opportunity to see things I’d only read about or seen in photographs – and the next few posts will show more details.
Don’t know if you’re planning a trip across Nebraska, but if you are, I’d recommend this as a way to get “up close and personal” with a lot of the history of the Great Plains. http://www.pioneervillage.org/
Back in January, I introduced the “Life of a Farmer” series, which was created by the Peterson Farm Brothers. This series takes viewers through a year on the Peterson farm, one month at a time, reminding us all that there is more to farming than just planting and harvesting. Eldest brother Greg Peterson is the narrator. I was sufficiently impressed with Greg’s passion for communicating the reality of farming to the non-farming world that I got in touch, and he became one of the many people whose experience and knowledge populate my book, Midwest Maize.
There’s an old poem that begins, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.” And so on—the point of the poem being that little things can make a big difference.
A bit of twisted barbed wire on Cathy’s farm reminded me that one of the little things that made a big difference on the prairies and Great Plains, when they were first being settled, was barbed wire. Fencing was fairly easy in the east, as trees were abundant, but out on the treeless plains, it often cost more to build fences than to buy the land. Plain wire fences had been attempted, but cattle easily broke through simply by leaning on them.
As with most inventions, lots of people were working on a solution, but one person came up with the idea that gained traction. In 1873, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, IL, designed a simple, sharp, wire barb that was locked into a double-stranded wire. Glidden applied for a patent, which was issued in 1874. The acceptance was swift and international, and the impact was huge. On the Great Plains, it ended the era of the open range. Barbed wire also soon found other applications, besides farming, and by the end of the 1800s, it was widely used by the military worldwide.
Amazing what a difference a little twist of wire can make.
From the high bluffs that overlook the Republican River, we had a view of a broad stretch of land that was not merely picturesque but that also summed up both history and present reality for the Great Plains, and indeed for much of the rural Midwest: farms, grain elevators, trains, and water for transportation and irrigation.
The sky was hazy with heat and dust. The wind was hot, insistent, and more than a little haunting. The sound of it coming across the prairie evoked for me tales of pioneers, early settlers, and drovers moving across the land.
One of the things most non-farmers don’t think about is how dangerous huge amounts of corn can be. Most realize that farming is hard work, but it can also be dangerous work. Bins and silos filled with grain are among the elements that contribute to making farming one of the most dangerous jobs in the world—second only to coal mining. Corn flows like water, sucks you down like quicksand, and is so heavy that, if you sink in as deep as your chest, you’ll probably suffocate, because the weight is too great for you to keep breathing. So far, there is no alternative to getting into the bin when there is a problem, so farmers have to be careful—and brave. For non-farmers, it’s important to remember that growing a lot of corn is not without its dangers.
There are a lot of videos on YouTube about safety programs, rescues, deaths, and dangers associated with grain bins. Here’s one on safety that also illustrates how things go wrong.
In recent decades, advances in agriculture have led to steadily increasing yields. Demand for corn continues to increase, but since field corn is all harvested at about the same time, it needs to be kept somewhere until it’s needed, whether for the animals that eat it or the processors that turn it into whatever is needed, from biofuels to cornmeal. Or, if prices are too low, kept until prices rise to a level where the farmer makes enough money to pay his bills.
Here are two possible solutions: really big grain bins or airtight polyethylene tubes or bags. I saw both as I toured the area around Arapahoe. There was a third that I didn’t see, because it only appears as it is filled: a giant bin that “inflates” as corn is pumped in. It is one of the largest corn storage units in the world. Jane pointed out the spot where it would “grow” as corn continued to come in. Considering how large the metal bins were, it’s almost hard to imagine how big the new structure will be when filled.
The storage tubes are essentially “emergency” storage, when the crops overwhelm the ability to move them all to other storage facilities or processors. They are not just used for corn, and they are not just used in the United States. They give farmers worldwide the ability to store more in a good year, so it’s there when the inevitable bad year occurs. In a world where demand is growing but land is often vanishing, being able to store grain, soybeans, and other crops on the same land that grew them can make a huge difference in making certain nothing goes to waste.
And here’s a tube not yet filled, just to show that it really is corn—classic yellow Corn Belt dent corn.
Rivers are easily identified in dryer areas by trees and scrub that grow along their banks, especially here on the Great Plains. The Great Plains are pretty much defined by not having trees, because the almost constant wind and regular brush fires kept trees from growing even before this land was converted to farms. But the trees would grow near rivers, where adequate water made holding on easier.
While corn had become the favorite grain of the early colonists, newcomers spreading across the prairie in the mid 1800s wanted wheat. Wheat was what rich people ate. Wheat needed good soil to grow well. In Europe, the poor lived on marginal lands, where rye, oats, and millet would survive, but not wheat. So wheat became part of the mix on the Great Plains. It never came close to competing with corn, as far as acreage and importance, but still it has a significant presence. The gold of the ripening wheat is beautiful, especially in the wind, which makes it ripple like the sea.
There are many joys out here. Of course, the people are wonderful, but I’ve already mentioned them. While wandering about the farm or driving through the countryside, I have seen deer and wild turkeys. The barn swallows are constantly swooping around the house—beautiful little birds, dark blue and peach, with long, distinctive, forked tails.
Going outside at night is remarkable. The silence reminded me how unusual it is to ever have silence even in the suburbs of a big city—not silence like this. Even the wind has quieted down. It is a deep, peaceful quiet. And with no lights nearby, the stars are unbelievable. This was not the first time I was able to see the stunning fields of stars that are so often made invisible by “light pollution” in heavily populated areas. My travels in the Australian outback had offered me views as astonishing—and yet it had been a while. I was delighted beyond measure with the great, sparkling universe made so visible by the darkness and so unobstructed by the flat land with no buildings besides the farmhouse. Just wonderful.
I didn’t realize it until I returned home and went through my photographs, but despite being made of aluminum, rather than wood, Cathy’s barn looked remarkably like the 1900s barn at the Living History Farms in Iowa. (See the January 14 post.)
A paper placemat from a restaurant visited a little later in my trip made it clear why. There are a substantial number of different barn styles, and about sixteen of the most common were pictured on that placemat. The style of a barn reflects one or more of several possible influences, such as where it was built (terrain and weather often dictating what is practical), the background or ethnicity of the family that built it, when it was built, what it would house, and materials available.
Both the barn in Iowa and here in Arapahoe were Western Prairie Barns (top row, center, in the photo above of the mentioned—and saved— placemat). This was a particularly common style on the western and southwestern prairies. Farmers and ranchers had plenty of space for storing hay and grain for livestock, and the barns were big enough to house the livestock, too, if that became necessary. This style of barn was traditionally constructed of wood and was built throughout the 1800s, as agriculture moved westward. It was interesting to see the old style reproduced in a newer material.
The town was founded in 1871 by a group of men known as “The Arapahoe Town Company”—and with great foresight, among the first things they staked out was the park that is still at the town’s center.
Among those to arrive in 1871 was Dominicus Hasty, who raised corn, of course, but also became a surveyor and pioneer of irrigation in the region. He was also the great-grandfather of my friend Jane, and Cathy’s grandfather. Cathy’s roots are deep here – which is probably why she ended up as president of the Arapahoe Historical Society.
A lot of the farms in this area practice what is known as dryland farming. That means not using irrigation, despite being in a fairly arid region, relying on a combination of rain and drought-resistant crops. Unfortunately, during a drought, this can hurt farmers. However, when the droughts get bad, even irrigation may not help, as the water one is allowed to pump out of the ground is limited.
Cathy’s property has both dryland and irrigated fields. There hasn’t been rain for a long time, and the unwatered fields look sad. The corn has come up, but it is already mid-June, and it’s clear that it’s not going to be “knee high by the fourth of July.”
Daytime temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees, and the hot, dry wind steals what little moisture is left. People watch the weather report with the intensity of listening for a serious medical diagnosis. Will it rain? Will it rain in time? The weather report is followed by a special feature on how long this can go on before it’s too late for crops to recover. Corn plants with crisp, curled leaves can still come back, but not if they go too far.
The irrigated fields look better, but will the drought mean water is rationed?
I’m reminded of an old saying: “Humankind, despite its artistic pretensions, sophistication and accomplishments, owes its existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains!” But when there is no rain…
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