In my book Destination Heartland I have several “food notes,” one of them about Bierocks and Runzas. I knew they were introduced by Russian-Germans—and I knew they were good. But this episode of Tasting History with Max Miller, Max goes into the background of how those Russian Germans ended up in Kansas and Nebraska. He also teaches you how to make Bierocks. Good fun.
Tag Archives: Nebraska
Why pre-order a book? Right now, prices on everything are going up, but if you order the book now, the price is guaranteed. It’s available on all the usual sites (including Amazon and the publisher’s, U of IL Press).
This is a fun book filled with surprising tales and delightful destinations. I take you along as I explore a much-overlooked region, the American Midwest. Everyone from Wyatt Earp to Henry Ford is there. Don’t just read about history, but learn where you can explore more about Native Americans, the Pony Express, shipwrecks, the Underground Railroad, early pioneers, the Civil War, railroads, and a lot of stuff that will make you wonder why it got left out of your textbooks!!!
Don’t be scared by the price of the cloth-bound library version. That is for libraries. The general population version is paperback and only costs $19.95 — and the e-book is cheaper still. But you owe it to yourself to pursue this adventure. The Midwest and its past really are remarkable—and the present is pretty cool, too.
Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.
Having traveled around much of the Midwest, interviewing farmers for my food history books and articles, I have come to admire and love them. I also love the values they represent. In my book Midwest Maize, I included a story about one Nebraska farmer who shared with me how she benefited from the openness and generosity of other farmers. She also related that it was common for people in the area helped each other out, and suggested one reason why. It is part of the ethos, of course, but looking after each other is, in remote areas, a way to survive.
Relying on each other makes one kinder and more grateful. I’m sure there is also an element of farming itself, doing something that is “real” and that so clearly benefits others, contributes to the strength and character of the people who farm. So when this video popped up, while I was touched, I was not really surprised at the kindness and solidarity expressed.
I departed Nebraska on a lovely, cool morning. It always surprises me how much the temperature can vary in one day—55˚ in the morning and 95˚ but early afternoon.
After crossing the Iowa border, I pulled in to a Rest Area, as Jane had recommended. Her advice was good—they had an amazing array of documents, magazines, maps, and brochures about the state. What a splendid research for return visits.
The highway stretched across a gently undulating, green region of handsome farms. There is something about the sight of that gray, concrete ribbon stretched seemingly endlessly toward the horizon that always charms me.
After three hours, I pulled into a McDonald’s. I realize this stop possesses no snob appeal, but you really can’t beat a McDonald’s on a long road trip: right on the highway, bathrooms are always clean, and the coffee is good. I sometimes think people who rail against McDonald’s are simply folks who are bitter that they didn’t think of the idea first. One of my favorite “factoids” is that McDonald’s has created more millionaires than any other economic entity in history, most of them minorities. And they’re easy and reliable.
Continuing on, I passed a sign indicating that a few miles to my left was Winterset, birthplace of Marion Robert Morrison, better known as iconic movie hero John Wayne. I had too far to go and too many other stops already planned to make this detour, but I noted it for a possible future visit.
In Des Moines, my main goal was the Iowa State Historical Museum, but the state capitol was nearby, so I stopped to photograph the handsome, domed building.
Did so much and learned so much while here in Arapahoe. Met so many wonderful people, all welcoming and happy to talk about life in the area.
Driving around, saw the long trains that opened up the region and still make it viable. As Cathy noted, they are vital to life out here, both carrying grain away and bringing goods into the area.
Passing through the Swedish community of Holdrege triggered a discussion of the people who settled the area. Largest group was German, but there were also significant numbers of Czech, Irish, English, Swedish, Hispanic, and African American settlers, with a good number of Asians and even some Pacific Islanders in the mix. There are also around 15,000 Native Americans in Nebraska.
Knowing that I’d be heading back across Iowa, Cathy explained that farms in Iowa are prettier than those in Nebraska, because in Nebraska, your taxes go up every time you improve the farm. Paint the barn, pay more taxes. That said, Nebraska is one of only a handful of states that are actually not broke, so at least they appear to spend the taxes wisely.
Then, after a lovely roast Sunday dinner, it was time to head east again, back to Lincoln. We drove across seemingly endless farmland—flat, fertile, and thirsty for rain.
Reached Lincoln by about 5pm. Even before heading for Jane’s house, we stopped at the city’s lovely Sunken Gardens. Always nice to see how other towns create beauty and interest.
Jane’s son, Dan, joined us for dinner at their favorite Italian spot. Then back to Jane’s, to prepare for my departure tomorrow.
Once the corn was husked, getting the dried corn off the cob was the next task. It was not an easy one, and generally involved shovels or bayonets or other sturdy tools for attacking the tenacious kernels. Farmers often left corn on the cob until it was needed, because trying to do large amounts at once was so daunting.
Then, in the 1820s, shellers were created that made the task less difficult. These devices were modified over the years, but the fact that they soon appeared on almost every farm shows how vital they were. One person could operate the sheller, but ideally, two people would work together, one feeding the cobs into the chute, and another turning the crank. Corn kernels would drop out from the bottom and cobs would be spit out of the front. The bonus here was that the cobs were in good shape, which meant they could be used for anything from a corncob pipe to corncob jelly. They were also popular as kindling for stoves, when those became available.
Here, amidst numerous other “labor saving devices” on display at the Pioneer Village, are two corn shellers—the blue device with the yellow crank wheel and the green one with the red crank wheel.
Picking the corn was one major task that occupied farmers in the past, but that wasn’t all that was involved in preparing the corn for use. Farmers and their families had to husk it. (Or shuck it —husking and shucking were both terms that referred to pulling that tenacious wrapper off the ear of corn.) Husking may not sound terrible, but it’s important to remember that we’re talking about thousands of ears of corn. When farming communities began to grow, husking could be turned into a party, with all the neighbors gathering to husk each others’ corn, but it was still a lot of work.
One bit of technology designed to aid in this task, which early settlers picked up from Native Americans, was the husking (or shucking) peg. This was a piece of leather and a wooden peg that could be used to protect the hand, especially the thumb, from the sharp edges of the dried cornhusks. As time went by and harvests got larger, people devised more and better pegs and then hooks and then gloves for husking corn. These advances made it possible to husk greater amounts of corn. In one of the barns at Pioneer Village, where a splendid in intriguing variety of farming equipment was on display, I came across this collection of husking devices, from pegs (upper right) through a wide range of hooks and gloves. (Clicking on the image will give you a better view of the devices.)
The alternate name for the Great Plains is the Great American Desert. As a result, farming on the Great Plains, while always possible to some extent (though not always successful), didn’t really become as big as it is today until irrigation was introduced. While even today, irrigation is not universally used, it is more widespread than it was in the first half of the 20th century.
Of the types of irrigation practiced today, while I saw a few places with drip lines, center-pivot irrigation systems—or just “pivot” for short—were what I saw most commonly.
The pivot was invented in 1947-48, and at Pioneer Village, they had an early example of this revolutionary system. (Revolutionary because it not only watered automatically, but also because it actually made far more efficient use of water resources than earlier methods.)
In case you wondered why, when you fly over farming areas, you see a lot of green circles on the ground, this is why—the pivot turns on a central point, watering a circular area. They do make pivots now with an arm that can extend outward at the corners, but these systems are expensive, so they are not the sort of thing you replace simply because there is some new tweak that looks good.
There is a lot more about the invention of the pivot and its impact in my book, Midwest Maize, but I couldn’t resist at least showing the early version of this system.
And because you probably won’t see the actual pivot very often, but rather the outstretched arm that carries the water, here’s what that outstretched arm looks like.
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.
Outside the indoor museum, one enters the “village” itself—twelve historic buildings around a broad, tree-shaded lawn. Ranged around the “town” are other relics from the past, including some early forms of now-important farm equipment.
Each building—barns, houses, church, stores, schoolhouse, Pony Express station, print shop, doctor’s office—is home to its own collection. The toy store is filled with antique toys. The barns are crammed with tools and inventions no longer at home on farms. The shelves and counters of the general store are crowded with the goods from bygone eras. The schoolhouse has all its original furnishings. The collections are fascinating, but the buildings themselves are wonderful, as well. They are all original buildings that have been rescued, moved here, and restored.