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Farms have changed, but many operations remain recognizable

The fundamentals of farming remain largely the same as they were in the early 19th century, albeit with much better equipment.
The fundamentals of farming remain largely the same as they were in the early 19th century, albeit with much better equipment.

For quite a while last spring, whether farmers would get a crop in seemed pretty much touch and go around these parts.

But, eventually, the weather cooperated long enough to allow enough planting to take place – and then re-planting after acres and acres were drowned by the seemingly unending rain – so that at least some grain will be heading to market this year. Not that the grain market is much to rely on these days, of course, but we probably ought to keep as optimistic as we can, I suppose.

With late November, farmers are wrapping up another farm year cycle, just as farmers up and down the Fox River Valley have done for, literally, thousands of years. Native People farmed the valley after the climate warmed after the last Ice Age. They were replaced by American pioneer farmers from the east who began arriving in the late 1820s, who then put their own stamp on the farm landscape.

The seasons then had much more of an impact on everyone’s life, from city to country people, than they do today, mostly because of the heavy reliance on agriculture. In those days, a majority of Americans were involved, one way or another, in agriculture. In 1870, the jobs of more than half of Americans was related to agriculture. These days, the number is around 2 %.

Nineteenth-century farmers watched the seasons turn with critical eyes. The annual cycle affected virtually everything they did, from work on the farm itself to socializing.

John Savage, a farmer in Salem Township, Henry County, Iowa, kept a diary for several years, which, fortunately, has been preserved by the Iowa State Historical Society. In his diary for 1861, he recorded his family’s activities as the seasons turned.

While Henry County is a ways from Kendall County, the monthly work the Savage family did closely mirrored the same kind of work farm families were doing along the banks of the Fox River. Much of that work, however, had been more common in Kendall County a decade or more before 1861, meaning it was closer to what was happening in Kendall County in the 1840s and 1850s.

What was the Savages' farm year like? It started in January when hogs were butchered for family use. The hams and bacon were smoked in the farm smokehouse, and lard was rendered out of the carcass for use in cooking and in preserving. In addition, fence rails and firewood were cut in the farm's timbered sections that month, and corn that had been bundled into shocks the previous fall was hauled in from the field, husked by hand and fed to the livestock.

In February, the family continued cutting fence rails and firewood in the woodlot and hauling in corn shocks to feed livestock.

In March, Savage and his son used grub hoes to clear hazel brush from 10 acres they planned to plow for crops later that spring. Rail-splitting continued and lambs were born.

When April rolled around, the Savages applied a solution of lye and lime to the apple tree trunks in their orchard to discourage pests. Oats were sowed this month, and the lambs were neutered. Meanwhile, cattle and pigs were released from their pens to graze in the woods and on the prairie.

May was the month to plant potatoes, sorghum and corn, while work on clearing the 10 acres continued and the stacked brush was burned. The rails cut during the winter were hauled to surround unfenced, improved land plus the 10 acres of former hazel brush the Savages cleared that winter. At the very end of the month, they washed their flock of sheep in the creek in preparation for shearing.

Sheep shearing was done in early June and the 10 acres cleared over the winter was plowed. The Savage men worked off their township road tax (road taxes could be paid in cash or labor; most farmers chose labor) and they cultivated their corn for the first time, using their corn plow.

In July, the corn got its final cultivation; from now on it would be high enough to shade out the weeds. Hay was cut and stacked. Later in the month, small grains, such as wheat and oats, were cut, bundled and stacked to dry.

The small-grain harvest was completed in early August; threshing, however, wouldn't take place for another month until the grain had completely dried. Manure that accumulated over the winter was cleaned out of the barn and cattle yard and hauled to the acreage planned for winter wheat planting.

Then came busy September. The fall wheat crop was planted, and the pigs, which had been feeding in the vicinity, were rounded up and penned where they could be fattened. This particular year (1861), the Savages built a new stable and repaired the fence around the barnyard. Sorghum was cut and pressed to produce something similar to molasses, and threshing began as the neighborhood threshing cooperative swung into action. In addition, the corn harvest began as part of the crop was cut and put into shocks.

In October, threshing small grains was finished and the corn harvest shifted into high gear. Apples were harvested and stored for the winter, as was the potato crop.

November saw corn husking completed. The hogs, now nicely fattened on corn, were herded to market. The remaining fence rails cut the previous winter were used to build more fence.

By December, most of the year's work was completed. Additional rails were split in the timber and hauled to the barnyard where they were stacked around the pile of fodder to protect it from the cattle, which, with the onset of cold weather, were now spending most of their time at the farmstead where food was plentiful. And with January, the cycle began anew.

The Savage family's year, with surprisingly few variations, was the same one most farmers experienced during the next 100 years. While most farms have now turned into either grain or livestock factories, modern farm families would probably find the Savage family's activities quite recognizable. Which is what makes history from even such a long-ago time such a fascinating thing to study.

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