- Dale C. Maley
Glimpse into 1917 farm life
Prairie Farmer magazine traces its roots back to 1841 when entrepreneur John S. Wright founded The Union Agriculturist and Western Prairie Farmer, now known as Prairie Farmer magazine.
Mr. Wright founded this magazine in Chicago as pioneers made their way across the prairie and settled new ground to begin searching out the crops that would ultimately make Illinois farmland some of the most prolific in the entire world.
In the 1840s, pioneers broke ground on the prairie, and the soil was different from what they knew back east. The weather was different, and the crops responded differently. Wright saw a need to share news and information with those new prairie farmers and to let them share information.
Pioneer farmers came to the Fairbury area in mass in the 1850s. Many of these farmers bought land grants from the veterans of the War of 1812. These land grants were used to purchase Fairbury area farmland. Farmers in the Fairbury area needed the information in the Prairie Farmer magazine.
In 1917, Prairie Farmer published a book titled Prairie Farmer's Reliable Directory of Farmers and Breeders in LivingstonCounty. This book gives a glimpse into Fairbury farming life in that era.
The 1917 book utilized statistics from the 1910 U.S. Census. In 1910, Livingston County had a total population of 40,465. Of this total population, 3,969 were farmers. This data meant that 9.8% of the population were farmers.
In the early 1900s, a new invention came onto the scene. This new invention was the automobile. Every farmer that owned a car in Livingston County was listed in the 1917 book. Six hundred seventy-two farmers owned an automobile. This data meant that 17% of the total farmers were early adopters of automobiles. The book recounted that 132 Fairbury area farmers had cars.
Although farmers started to adopt the new technology of automobiles reasonably rapidly, they were much slower in replacing their horses with tractors. In 1917, only 140 Livingston County farmers had purchased tractors. The tractor owners represented 3.5% of the total farmers. In Fairbury, only nine farmers had purchased tractors. Farm horses continued to be used on Fairbury area farms until the 1940s.
The book also listed all the businesses in each town of Livingston County. Fairbury had 96 companies in 1917. Some recognizable business names were Keck's Insurance, the Blade, Walton Bros., and Mapel Brothers harness shop.
All Livingston County farmers that raised livestock were also listed in this book. The breeds of beef cattle raised in that era included Aberdeen Angus, Polled Durham, Hereford, Red Polled, and Shorthorn. Dairy cattle breeds included Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, and Jersey. Hog breeds included Berkshire, Chester White, Duroc Jersey, Hampshire, Mulefoot, Poland China, and Tamworth.
Horse breeds in 1917 included Belgian, French Draft, German Coach, Hambletonian, Morgan, Percheron, Shire, and Standard.
Poultry breeds included Ancona, Light Brahma, Hamburg, Langshan, Brown Leghorn, White Leghorn, Black Minorca, Blue Orpington, Buff Orpington, Black Orpington, White Orpington, Barred Plymouth Rock, Buff Plymouth Rock, Partridge Plymouth Rock, White Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Silver Laced Wyandotte, and White Wyandotte.
Most early farms in the Fairbury area were between 80 and 160 acres. Because farming was so labor-intensive before 1900, the average farmer with several children helping him could not farm much more than 160 acres. Using 1910 U.S. Census data, the 1917 book found the average Livingston County farm was 162.9 acres.
Livingston County had 646,551 acres of farmland. The 1917 book estimated this farmland was worth $104,585,544. On a per-acre basis, the land was valued at $162 per acre. This value would equal $3,283 per acre in today's dollars.
Farmers in the early 1900s usually raised some livestock in addition to their grain farm. In 1917, Livingston County farmers had 29,449 cattle, 34,202 horses, 1,257 mules, 39,387 swine, 7,387 sheep, 47 goats, and 403,624 poultry.
The average farm had seven cattle, nine horses, ten hogs, two sheep, and 102 chickens on a per-farm basis. Agricultural products from livestock raised on Livingston County farms included milk, cream, cheese, chickens, eggs, wool, honey, and wax.
Area farmers also produced apples, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, quinces, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, and nuts.
Early farmers also had to tend to their sick animals. Four pages in the 1917 book were dedicated to explaining various methods farmers could use to treat their ill livestock.
These early Fairbury farmers could not anticipate the profound changes that would take place in agriculture in the next 100 years. By the 1940s, horses were replaced entirely by internal combustion engine-powered agricultural tractors. This mechanization of agriculture eliminated the need for large farm families to tend to the farm. Country schools were phased-out in the late 1940s because there were not enough farm children to justify their existence.
The livestock gradually left the Fairbury area farms. Huge factory farms took over the production of chickens and hogs. For example, chicken factories often have over one million chickens in each location. Hybrid seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides dramatically increased the output per acre from grain farms. It will be interesting to see how agriculture evolves over the next 100 years.
(This is the first of many weekly history columns planned for Fairbury News readers courtesy of local historian Dale C. Maley and sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury. No matter what the collector seeks, it's worth a trip to Antiques & Uniques!)