Let’s travel back in time today. Way back. To a year few of us, perhaps a sure bet that none of us, can remember.
I’m talking about 1917, when Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States, Frank Lowden was Illinois governor, Charlie Gehlbach was Logan County judge and E. Alva Hayes was chairman of what was then the Logan County Board of Supervisors, now known simply as the Logan County Board.
But this excursion to a time long gone isn’t confined to public servants in the White House or on down to the Logan County Courthouse. We can zoom in for a much closer look at common citizens those who worked the land to make a living and feed families. For examples, 1917 was a year when J.H. Shyre maintained hives of Italian bees on his rural Latham farmstead. When Obid Gaffney raised Black Orpington chickens at Lake Fork. The year that A. Deuterman of rural Atlanta was the lone breeder of French draft horses in Logan County.
There’s more to explore. It was a time when Louis Luckhart of Buffalo Hart owned a Studebaker car and B.H. Baker of Chestnut owned a 10-20 Titan tractor to help him farm.
I’ve gleaned all the above information from a hardback book that’s been in my possession for years. I’ve had it for so long, I can’t remember how I came to own it. I actually had forgotten about it until recent weeks when my wife launched a major de-cluttering campaign of our meager possessions. I’m talking about all matter of items that simply have grown into overflowing boxes, bookshelves and file cabinet drawers laden over the years with … well, yes, I’ll utter the word: Clutter.
I confess to being much more of a hoarder than Suzi is. She’s roped me into service on her de-cluttering campaign these past few weeks, often interrupting my book reading or television watching by bringing filled boxes, stacks of papers, old magazines, etc., etc., and plopping them in my lap while I’m trying to recover from a busy day with some R&R in my recliner.
I proudly confess I’ve been a real trooper in her campaign by tossing many, many things I’ve kept for years and now wonder why in the heck I bothered to save them. I’ve started piles of scrapbook-type of items that I’ll give away to folks who will cherish them much more than I. And, yeah, being the hoarder at heart, there are many items I simply can’t let go. The proverbial File 13 has been filled and emptied several times over the past few weeks.
Among all the clutter Suzi has dumped in front of me was that little hardback book I mentioned above. It has the title, “Prairie Farmer’s RELIABLE DIRECTORY of FARMERS and BREEDERS (of) LOGAN COUNTY.
The cover also offers this information: Published by PRAIRIE FARMER – Chicago/ Illinois Oldest and Best Farm Paper.
Remember, it was the oldest farm paper in the state in 1917. Well, it’s 2022 and Prairie Farmer is still ticking – publishing and distributing its farm magazine to thousands of mail boxes on the sides of blacktops and gravel roads that crisscross rural Illinois.
When I was a kid growing up beside one of those gravel roads, Prairie Farmer meant little to me in the way of agriculture. I knew it best by its ownership of the WLS National Barn Dance, which was beamed on Saturday nights via AM radio waves to homes, both rural and urban, throughout the Midwest.
These days, with the National Barn Dance long gone from the airwaves, Prairie Farmer is perhaps best known at the producer of the Farm Progress Show, an immense expo of anything and everything related to agriculture. The show once rotated its sites each year from privately owned farms in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Now, the show rotates between permanent sites, one in nearby Decatur on odd-numbered years and the other, near Boone, Iowa, on even numbered years. The show’s popularity has grown to the point that Prairie Farms magazine’s website is found at farmprogress.com.
Although that little hardback book notes on its cover it was published by Prairie Farmer in Chicago, it definitely is all about Logan County, including the advertising. I am in the dark about the sources for the many lists this book contains, but I assume Prairie Farmer published separate directories for every county in the state. It seems like a massive undertaking, even for just Logan County. I would assume a lot of the figures may have come from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s own census, which is conducted every five years. Since the census was launched in 1840, the numbers for the 1917 publication would have been available.
But this book goes beyond what the USDA normally publicizes. For example, it includes a listing by name of every producer of agricultural commodities in the county. With each listing is the farmer’s name and the names of his wife and children, the size and location (by township section) of the farm and the landowner’s name. Finally, it includes the year the farmer started calling Logan County home.
One listing shows all the good people in Logan County who owned automobiles and includes the make of the vehicle. Only a handful of folks owned more than one automobile. Another lists the county’s tractor owners, complete with the make of the machine they owned.
Then, there are extensive lists of livestock and poultry breeders in the county. Some breeds, for whatever the reasons, were more popular than others. In the dairy cattle category, more than 35 farmers tended to herds of Jersey cows, but Brown Swiss and Guernsey breeds could only be found on one farmstead each.
Although the list of tractor owners is fairly lengthy, farming with horses was still a common way to till the soil, get crops to market and all the heavy work in between tillage and harvest chores. Thus, it’s not surprising to see several farmers were breeders of draught horses, the large animals that provided the muscle for most farm implements.
What did surprise me was the mention of Mount Pulaski being the county’s hub of the draught horse business. It was a reputation that extended far beyond the county line and was primarily due to a certain breed of work horses I didn’t know existed. According to Wikipedia, “the Shire is a British breed of draught horse. It is usually black, bay, or grey. It is a tall breed, and Shires have at various times held world records both for the largest horse and for the tallest horse.
“The Shire has a great capacity for weight-pulling; it was used for farm work, to tow barges at a time when the canal system was the principal means of goods transport, and as a cart-horse for road transport. One traditional use was for pulling brewer’s drays for delivery of beer, and some are still used in this way; others are used for forestry, for riding and for commercial promotion.”
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were large numbers of Shires, and many were exported to the United States. With the progressive mechanization of agriculture and of transport, the need for draught horses decreased rapidly. By the 1960s, numbers had fallen from a million or more to a few thousand. Numbers began to increase again from the 1970s, but the breed is still considered “at risk” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Shire horses held a special place in the realm of Logan County livestock production in 1917, according to the Prairie Farmer directory. “It is through its Shire horse-breeding industry that Logan County is most noted in a livestock way,” according to the directory. “Centering around Mt. Pulaski, the Shire business has attained a magnitude as great as any section of Illinois.”
Shire horses evidently were the star attractions at the annual Mount Pulaski Horse Show, held in October of each year. The sheer size of the horse-show grounds, according to Prairie Farmer, “rivals that of the State Fair and the International” livestock show.
Turning to the crops grown in Logan County in 1917, the common rotation was corn one year and oats the next. Coming in a close second was the rotation of corn and clover. Soybeans didn’t get a mention.
Some numbers literally scream about the evolution of farming that has taken place since 1917. That year, 2,320 parcels of land qualified as farms. Today, there are 683 farms in the county, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture conducted by the USDA.
The average size of the 1917 Logan County farm was just over 160 acres. Ten farms were under three acres in size while two encompassed at least 1,000 acres.
The 2017 census turned up 130 Logan County farms in the 1,000-acre size while only 62 individual farming operations were carried out on less than 10 acres.
There are enough numbers in the Prairie Farm publication and the 2017 USDA farm census to fill a book or two with comments and opinions. Suffice it to say, the world of farming has drastically changed in 100 years, here in Logan County and throughout the world.
Dan Tackett is a retired managing editor of The Courier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.