For those who have seen only nice, soft, grassy sod being unrolled onto lawns, it may be hard to imagine what sod was like on the prairies and plains of the Midwest when the first settlers began trying to farm the region. It was not soft and definitely couldn’t be rolled up. It was almost a solid mass of tough roots and rhizomes extending four or more inches into the earth. The plants growing on the prairie were ideally suited to an environment where flood and drought alternated and brush fires were common. Deep, strong roots meant survival.
Sod was so tough that, before blacksmith John Deere created a plow that could cut through the sod, people often resorted to using axes to chop through the sod, to get to dirt where they could plant seeds. Farmers in the region became known as “sodbusters,” because they really did have to “bust” the sod if they wanted to plant anything.
However, sod could be useful. It was thick and heavy and nearly indestructible. In a region virtually defined by a lack of trees, this rough, thick, woody mat was often cut up and used as building material. In Nebraska, it became known as Nebraska marble. Soddies—houses built of sod—became a common sight on the early prairie. Walls inside and out would be “plastered” with clay, to keep dirt from crumbling into the house, and to protect the exterior from the weather.
I had read of sod houses, of course, when studying U.S. history, but at Pioneer Village, I had the chance to tour one. I thought that, for all its roughness, it was surprisingly handsome. Definitely “prairie style.”
It took eleven acres of prairie sod to make up the three-foot-thick walls of this soddie. I was surprised by how much cooler it was inside the soddie than it was outside. A sod house, with its thick, insulating walls, would have been ideal in this region of temperature extremes.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
From central Illinois, I headed northeast to Moline, headquarters of the John Deere Company. It’s impossible to talk about farming in the Midwest without talking about John Deere, man and company, so of course I had to visit.
In addition to John Deere corporate headquarters, Moline offers the John Deere Pavilion, where one can witness the history of the tools and machines that transformed farming in the Heartland and around the world. Many of those who are docents at the pavilion are former John Deere employees, so they know the equipment extremely well. It makes for a great day.
But John Deere creates more than just farm equipment these days, and it was the big earthmovers that were parked outside the pavilion. (It was, in fact, from the farm equipment industry that earthmoving equipment emerged.) Some of the non-farm equipment inside is worth noting, as well.
I definitely recommend visiting, if you want to see some remarkable machines: John Deere Pavilion.