Tag Archives: Living History Farms

Barns Old and New

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.

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Living History Farms: Iowa Insights

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.)

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Living History Farms: 1900 Horse Power

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.



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Living History Farms: On to 1900

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.

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Living History Farms: 1850 Kitchen Garden

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.


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Living History Farms: 1850 Cooking

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.

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Living History Farms: 1850 Living Quarters

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.

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