Farming Yesterday and Today
December 1908
from The Reveille, Rolfe, Iowa


Yesterday the farm was dreary enough looking for the most pessimistic crank the twentieth century has produced. That the farm was the real basis of wealth production then is beyond all question of doubt, and it is a marvel today that the grand structure began in so crude a manner. Let us picture a scene of say forty years ago, and I know there are many who read this can remember just how it was across the almost level prairie, stretching farther than the naked eye can reach, the rays of the setting sun make enormous shadows of trivial things, and not one sheltered spot is visible for many miles. The winter snows have been driven from the land, and nature's carpet is assuming the brilliant emerald hues so pleasing to the eyes. From some distant spot there are a couple of conveyances creeping towards the sunsets glow, one is hauled by two heavy draft horses and the other probably has a yoke of oxen hitched to it. As the rays of the sun assume a more horizontal position to the line of travel, the travelers decide to stop for the night. The animals are turned out to crop the fresh young grass that is so luxurious and abundant, and the whole family comes down from the wagons to do their several parts in fixing for the night. The camp fire is a small one in consequence of the scarcity of fuel, but the blood of these pioneers is of the thick and heart retaining kind and they are too busy to think anything about a possible coolness in the air.

The morning dawns clear, and the air is laden with a thousand odors that are peculiar to the springtime. The animals have thoroughly enjoyed their new pasture, and the family are out to witness perhaps the most glorious sunrise they ever beheld. The whole world seems aglow with the refulgant blaze, and the hearts of the beholders are touched with the mysterious something that is only felt in vast solicitudes. Like an inspiration the thought comes to them that here would make an ideal spot for the home they are traveling to locate, and the impression becomes conviction when the richness of the soil is discovered. It is only a matter of exactness of location to them now, and the spot for the future dwelling is readily selected. Down an almost inperciptible slope there is a small stream, and on either side stretches unnumbered acres of virgin soil, ready for the preparation for crops of golden grain. 

The old tent and wagon covers are taken to the chosen spot, and are then put into semi-permanent condition and the fanning implements are gotten ready for work. In a few days the black soil is turned up to the action of air and sun, and soon the seed has been scattered from the hand's of the sowers. At another point the ground has been put in proper shape to receive the seed corn that was carried so far for this purpose. While all this is being pushed forward laboriously, the female portion of the family have planted the garden stuff, till the whole looks as if quite a colony had suddenly settled there. The tools are heavy and cumbersome and the laborers work from early dawn to deepened twilight in order to accomplish the desired task. After the crops are planted and the preliminary cultivation given, it is decided to build a house where the canvas shelter stands, and the male members start for the nearest timber. After several days of hard work they have cut a large number of trees, and gotten them trimmed so it is convenient to load them. The hauling is begun in earnest, and the distance being too great for hauling two loads a day, the one load is brought as early in the morning as possible, the balance of the afternoon being devoted to placing the days haul on the structure they are looking forward to as their home. 

The charm that word "home" contains for those first settlers is unknown anywhere, and the tasks these pioneers accomplished puzzle countless thousands. The rude building gets completed before the really cold weather sets in and the crops are gathered as only first crops are ever harvested, with hearts overflowing with gratitude to the giver of all good gifts. The small grain is cut with the scythe, possibly a cradle is used and just as likely not. The entire family goes to the harvest just as they did when the corn had to be hoed and weeded, and then the threshing is often done by the old fashioned flail, some being fortunate enough to be near a horse power thresher. Next in order comes the marketing of a part of the grain, and the real work of this undertaking is not half told when one say that it often took three days to haul a load, and then get little more than half what the grain was really worth, much of the pay being compulsorily in trade. The social side of life in those days had its sweetest flavors in the fact that every neighbor was really a neighbor, and every one knew that the hearty handshake was an expression of gratitude for each others presence in the solitude. The strenuous life was never better exemplified than during the pioneer struggles of pioneer Iowa, and it is largely due to the underworking principles of the first settlers that the stalwart character of our state become heriditory.

Some one has said that those early settlers were contented with what they had, but it seems to me that the statement is not exactly true, else why is there so much evidence of their having striven for something better. They were fortunate who had a fairly comfortable home for themselves, and the rudest kind of straw sheds for their cattle and horses.


The farmer in our crowded sections has made enough money to warrant him in looking for more land, most of them trying to gather enough to give each of the boys a farm of his own, while a few get tired of struggling along on high priced farms, and make up their minds that a few hundred miles farther west he may get a farm of his own. There is no guess work about the selection of the state to which the land seeker will direct his attention. The topography and climatic conditions are all published long ago, varieties of crops and average yields are known facts to every one, and the railroad and market facilities are merely matters that a glance will readily put at his command. No very elaborate preparations are needed for a trip that may lie from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand miles in extent, because he knows he can find hotels and other accommodations on every hand. He goes to the railroad station and buys a ticket for the nearest railroad point to the district selected, and the train takes him with ease and comfort to his destination. He finds luxury or comfort according to his desire or means while en route, and lands at the end of his journey in less time than it took the pioneer to get his camp outfit together. He goes to a hotel and engages a room and makes himself presentable quite leisurely, then call up the land agent whose advertisement has been the means of bringing this particular district to notice. The agent dashes up in a fine auto, and they are off to look at some particular desirable farm. No need to dig into the soil for evidence of productiveness, green fields are all around being living witnesses as to quality. Should it happen to be a quarter or eighty that has no improvements, it is only a matter of hauling the necessary material a very few miles, and then engage the services of the right mechanic to build. When the house is already for occupancy the family arrives by rail, and later comes the stock and implements by the same route.

The work of getting the seed into the soil is neither long nor laborious, because we have the grain drill and the corn planter, both of which can do ten times more work in their line than a man of the past could. The cultivation of the different crops is simplified and intensified by highly improved machinery. Instead of walking all day behind a plow or cultivator, a man can sit in partial comfort, and a boy call do the work that took a strong male to accomplish in those days of toil, while the horses are not compelled to put forth anywhere near as much effort. The harvesting of all crops is more easily executed, each variety having a machine peculiarly adopted to it. The cutting of and caring for hay is actual pleasure compared with forty years ago, and the threshing of small grain has became a matter of hours instead of days.

The creamery and cheese factory have come in to lighten the burden of the farmer's wife, and it would be a curiosity to see the rows of milk pans of the past, while the hand separator had increased the cream production more than would be readily believed.

The stock on the farm is not a matter of haphazard these days, it has become a science that can be figured down to certainty. Highbred horses, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry are all everyday occurrence today, and special breeds are really only matters of taste or difference of treatment. Accommodations for all kinds of stock are becoming more and more important every day, and a large farm presents the appearance of a fair sized village of about forty years ago. The lumber wagon has ceased to be the general family conveyance, and easy riding buggies and carriages, and very often a comodious automobile, are the accepted styles of travel. It is not the rule to see a man in the field until the stars are visible, the day's work being more easily done in less time.

The daily mail delivery has eliminated distances as far as the farm is concerned, and it is now a case of a daily newspaper as an everyday necessity, when the weekly paper was considered a much desired or prized luxury in the days of yesterday. The telephone has removed the space between town and farm, and all kinds of business has began to assume the rapidity of the city.

Instead of a few months each year at school for the boy or girl on the farm, we have all grades of colleges with all kinds of special courses, until every prominent faculty of a boy or girl can easily obtain the needed development.

The contrast between yesterday and today, as far as the farm is concerned, reads like an improbable piece of fiction, while the actual fact suggests some sposmodic revolution in its rapidity of consummation, as the farm was the real foundation of wealth production yesterday, we find it has retained that status today in every country, and now shows evidence of being the main support of monetary health of the world.

In these clays of trusts and combinations, it seems to me that the day is not far distant when the farmer will be his own commission man, and the world's markets will be governed by the men who produce the material for those markets. When that day dawns a new era will be begun for all the world, and the man that brings the bread, butter and meat to the millions will be recognized at his true value. How this is to be accomplished is not in my province to declare, but I think it will be inaugurated through the medium of cooperation.

Editor's note: This editorial was probably written by Joseph Lighter. In 1890, he and his wife, Emma Wilhelm Lighter, came to Rolfe where he became a partner then sole owner of the Reveille. The couple had seven children. All the sons went into newspaper careers. One of the daughters, Cora, had a dry goods store in Rolfe. Another, DeElda, married John Gunderson and had a son, Deane Gunderson, who is my father. Joseph died in 1916 at 62. Emma died in 1941 at 85. It would be interesting to see what Joseph would write if he came back today and saw the changes in agriculture. I'm afraid he would be overwhelmed by both the progress and loss that has occurred in the last century.