“We raised horses, hogs and sheep. We raised some wheat which we trampled out with the horses on the ground floor. We raised buckwheat and frailed (sic)(probably meant flailed) it out in a rail pen. Sometimes it was not much of a crop. Sometimes it took three of us boys to go to the mill. On horseback, one would take buckwheat, one would take wheat and one corn. There were not many wagons and fewer roads. (From a letter in the Dunbar collection, Thorntown Library.)

Stock Photo

From the outset, farming was for family consumption. What could be raised was consumed fresh or to be stored and consumed during the off season.

Tillable land was often broken into smaller patches surrounded by water and depending on the time of the year the water may be knee deep or it may be barely over your boot soles. This certainly would give one enough soil for pasture, a house and garden plot, and a few areas to plant crops for winter storage.

However, farming was not all stock, grains, seeds and gardens.  The farmer was the major consideration.  Some just preferred to dig in the dirt (I know it is really soil) while others wanted to grow great livestock—cows, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens and the occasional goat, donkey and goose.

Others wanted to specialize in raising the best horse, the most productive cow, pigs that grew fast, sheep with the finest wool or chickens that laid eggs with the largest yolks.

Since any one of these products would have to fill a need, we should look at some perceptions of need.

Photo: Joe Bierce

Horses needed to be able to pull a load over a distance and with some degree of timeliness, snake a log out of the surrounding swamp, pull a plow or harrow.  These chores could be done with a medium breed.

BUT, joining adjacent fields by draining the swamp enabled planting more acres required a heftier horse, capable of pulling a heavier load.  The Percheron or the Clydesdale became the breed of choice.  Originally these were bred as war horses but have long since shed their armor for a harness and a place between the traces.  One could depend on them to pull a load and for a long time.  And that gave rise to the horse breeder. He planted a few row crop grains for horse feed, and some fields of hay for winter feed. These allowed time to concentrate on becoming a “breeder of fine horses” who then sold them to his neighbors in exchange for flour, vegetables and other foods that can be preserved for winter sustenance.

With all these great animal specimens residing on the farm. Some means must be made to contain and protect them and that required a fence. Fences were made of wood rails and since there were forests-a-plenty, wood was not a problem. Splitting them into usable rails was an issue. A good hand could split a log into 8 pieces in 60 seconds.

The most popular for the period were the split rail and the pole fence. Timber was for the cutting. Straight saplings 3 to 4 inches in diameter and about 20 feet long will work fine for poles. A straight log 18 feet long and a one-foot diameter will produce a group of rails. The fence is constructed by stacking the ends of split rails on top of each other with about 6 inches sticking out. Then going to the other end of the section and repeating the process. By controlling the length as stated one will get a section of the fence approximately a rod long. (the distance between the zigs and zags) Repeat the process as many times as needed to enclose your pen or pasture or field. It was as important to keep animals out of the grain as it was to keep them penned up for ease of access.

And of course, a granary for the storage of grain must be built.  And a barn to shelter the animals and to store necessary harness and tools. Those call for another trip to the woods. (Before you go think about a tune up at the fitness center) Life on the frontier was not meant for the weak. Cutting and splitting trees, building fences, barns and houses is not work for the faint of heart. The raw materials are at hand in a very raw state.

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