Monthly Archives: April 2015

Happy Farmers

Farmer Derek Klingenberg, whose “What Does the Farmer Say” parody video I posted near the beginning of this blog, posted this video one year ago today. He contacted farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, South America, and Australia, asking for videos or selfies, to help put faces on farming — asking them to  “Dance around if you love this farming thing you do.” It’s a good reminder that we don’t just do farming in the Midwest — it’s universal — and most of it is done by families. The response Klingenberg got is included in this video parody of the song “Happy.” It’s a charming, fun, and heart-warming reminder that farm families are united by their love of the land — and that we need them all if we want to keep on eating.

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Henry Ford on History

A lot of people have heard the quote from Henry Ford about history being bunk. Sadly, this quote is taken out of context. In context, it is something with which I agree wholeheartedly. His complaint was not about history, but rather about what was taught. History then, as now, rarely focused on things that made life possible, that connected with people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. While teaching about big events and turning points was (and is) necessary, he questioned ignoring the fact that everyday life consisted of something other than weapons and politics. But instead of explaining Ford, I’ll give you his words, and I think that will make clear his meaning. (And for those not familiar with farming implements, a harrow is a device used in agriculture to break up soil and pull up weeds before a field is planted.)

“History as it is taught in the schools deals largely with…wars, major political controversies, territorial extensions and the like. When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows. Yet our country depended more on harrows than on guns or great speeches. I thought a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet.”

To make up for this lack in textbooks, Ford created Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum covers all the technological developments in U.S. history, including cars, trains, mines, housing, communications, and just about everything else that touches life. Greenfield Village is an astonishing collection of farms, historic buildings (saw mills, tin smiths, glass works — all with demonstrations of work as it was done in the 1800s), historic homes (Wright Brothers’, Noah Webster’s, Harry Firestone’s, Robert Frost’s, and far more), collections, trains, and Model Ts that recreates the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. It is an absolutely remarkable place and captures the essence of history that Ford thought was important to keep alive. I highly recommend visiting (but give yourself two days, one for the museum, which covers 12 acres, and one for the village, which covers 85 acres).

Here’s their website, to help you learn more — and maybe plan a trip. http://www.thehenryford.org/village/index.aspx

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April on the Farm

Before continuing with my wandering in pursuit of corn information, here is the next installment of Life of a Farmer, by the Peterson Farm Brothers: April on the Farm.

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Herbert Hoover Museum – Part 2

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, president Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration. Again, Hoover refused to take a salary—he wanted to be a volunteer among volunteers. He didn’t want to ration food, so instead, he encouraged people to raise food in their neighborhoods. He introduced Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday, to reduce the amount of food consumed locally, so more could be sent to our soldiers and those of our Allies. His motto, “Food will win the war,” got everyone on board with the plans. Cookbooks were created, and corn became a key part of making those Wheatless Wednesdays as tasty as they were. Within a year of starting the program, Hoover had doubled the amount of food being shipped to Europe—but without rationing and without any heavy bureaucracy.

When the war ended, Hoover was placed in charge of the American Relief Administration. He organized shipments of food to the starving millions in Central Europe. He was Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. It was during Coolidge’s presidency that Hoover spearheaded efforts that led to the construction of the Hoover Dam and the St. Lawrence Seaway. He became one of the most admired men Washington. Then, in 1927, his fame reached new heights because of his extraordinary service assisting the victims of the Mississippi River Flood. So when Coolidge declined to run again for office, Hoover was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate (though he considered himself a Progressive, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt). He won by a landslide.

Columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that he thought Hoover, given the chance, could “purify capitalism of its …commercialism, its waste, and its squalor.” Continue reading

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Herbert Hoover Museum – Part 1

Continuing across the miles of Iowa highway, I passed a sign for a town called What Cheer. That made me smile. Town names can be so evocative of hopes and expectations, as well as of local histories. Pulled off at the exit for West Branch and headed for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

IA-HHoover-Museum-B

I entered the museum knowing little about Hoover beyond his having lost an election to FDR. I left the museum a fan. What a remarkable life, and what a remarkable man.

Hoover, the son of a blacksmith, was born here in West Branch, in a tiny, two-room cabin, in 1874. His father died in 1880 and his mother in 1884, leaving him an orphan at age 10. (In later years, when asked about the past, Hoover would comment, “As gentle are the memories of those days, I am not recommending a return to the good old days. Sickness was greater and death came sooner.”)

Bert (as Hoover was known in his childhood) was put on a train, alone, and sent to an uncle in Oregon. A local teacher, recognizing the young Hoover’s remarkable intelligence, too an interest in him, introducing him to great literature. By age 17, Bert became the youngest freshman at Stanford University, where he trained as a geologist.

In 1897, he headed to Australia, as a geologist and mining engineer. Australia, in fact, offered the one other fact I knew about Hoover: I was told during my first trip Down Under that Hoover saved the koala. When he returned to the U.S., he got the importation of koala fur outlawed, and that saved these iconic marsupials from being wiped out. (I told one of the docents this, and she was delighted to learn that someone somewhere in the world was still talking about Hoover.) Continue reading

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Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 3

One of the things I discovered at the museum that fascinated me was a description of surveying and how the surveying chain was used. I’d seen the surveying chain Cathy’s grandfather had used, back in the late 1800s. I had seen surveying chains in exhibits in many museums and books. After all, George Washington had been a surveyor. I knew from history that, while people had been doing various types of surveying for millennia, surveying was evolving rapidly in the mid-1700s. But this was the first time I’d seen that chain defined and explained.

As they do today, surveyors in the mid-1800s used compasses and levels, but the chain was a key part of their equipment. Each chain was made up straight links, with each link being 7.92 inches in length. Twenty-five links equaled a rod. One hundred links equaled one full chain (though surveyors often carried half-chains, to cut down on weight). One full chain was 66 feet, or four rods.

Eighty chains equal one mile (5,280 feet or 320 rods). Reading that, everything else I knew about the settling of the territories fell into place. One mile was a key measurement. The Land Ordinance of 1785 divided the new territories using a grid. One square mile was a section, and 36 sections equaled one township. A township was six miles on each side. Land was sold by the section (one square mile is 640 acres), or, for those who couldn’t manage a farm that large, one-half or one-quarter section. Flying over the Midwest even today, one can still discern the mathematical precision of the initial surveys that divided the territories up into townships and sections—the grid is still there.

The thing that amazes me is not that they came up with this plan, but that people actually walked around with these chains and marked out the entire center section of the United States. It is daunting now simply to drive across the vast plains, but to tackle them on foot, to measure the land one chain at a time, and to document it so well that we still recognize those townships is really stunning. We may have cooler tools today, but we do not have more astonishing accomplishments.

Photos and more info on surveying and map-making in 1800s can be found on this website: http://www.oshermaps.org/exhibitions/american-treasures/iv-nineteenth-century-surveying

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Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 2

Here are a few of the items that captured my interest in the Iowa history and agriculture sections of the museum.

The pioneer farmer on the Iowa prairie faced the task of the first plowing of the virgin ground—called “breaking prairie.”

Iowa was obtained as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was originally labeled as part of Northwest Territory, and then it was a section of the sprawling Michigan Territory. Then, in 1836, borders were redrawn, and it was considered part of the Wisconsin Territory. Then, in 1838, by act of Congress, it became the Iowa Territory. A territory needed a population of at least 60,000 to apply for statehood. In 1846, Iowa became the 29th state.

I was tickled by a quote from the diary of an early (1840s) Iowan woman named Kitturah Belknap. “Now my name is out as a good cook so am alright as good cooking makes good friends.”

Corn was essentially grown for the purpose of raising livestock—in Iowa, especially hogs.

Barrel making for Iowa’s grain shipments was a major industry in the area’s early days.

In a display on milling (which didn’t appear until towns began to grow, as you needed a fairly good customer base to justify going to the trouble of bringing in mill stones), I saw a book titled The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide, by Oliver Evans, published in Philadelphia in 1821. The thing that struck me about that was the idea of someone buying a book to learn milling. Milling struck me as the sort of thing one would learn as an apprentice—but perhaps not in the territories.

Grain dust is highly flammable (so yet another danger of storing grain). There was a model in the museum of a grain elevator that once stood in Council Bluffs, IA, that held 2.1 million bushels of grain. On April 20, 1982, a spark ignited the dust during a loading operation. The whole building was soon engulfed in flames, and moments later, it exploded, hurling concrete and burning wood up to a mile away. And this was not a flimsy building. It isn’t evident from the model, but the walls were six inches thick, concrete reinforced with steel rods. But the central building vanished. Five people were killed and another 22 were hospitalized.

Model of Council Bluffs Grain Elevator

Model of Council Bluffs Grain Elevator

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