Thursday, August 25, 2011

Early Farming (and other) Tools From Days Gone By

Every-so-often I receive an e-mail asking if I have any information on early farming tools. I have some but not as much as I'd like to have. I'd like to present here a *very* basic overview of some of the information I have on the subject. Most of the photos were taken at The Henry Ford Museum.
I suppose this could be a sort of beginner's guide.
I am continuously adding to this posting so make sure you check back every-so-often.

Let's start with the plow, which to me, is most important since without it very little would grow. The plow breaks up and turns over the soil to make it smoother for planting. It is one of the oldest of farming tools.
There are numerous types of plows but the most popular seemed to be the various mold-board plows. The mold-board is the part that lifts and turns the dirt. The earlier mold-boards were made of wood, but by the mid-to-late 19th century cast iron or steel became the chosen style.
The one pictured here is from 1775 and is of wood.

A plow from the 1880's in action

Henry Ford once commented that children knew more about wars than about harrows, even though harrows did more to build this country than wars. It was after plowing that the farmer would use the harrow to further spread and even out the dirt for planting.
This particular horse-drawn harrow was known as the spike-tooth harrow and was built in the late 19th century.

The spiked-tooth harrow in action

This next old-time farming tool is the horse-drawn corn planter. It was a two man job to work this piece of equipment, one man to drive the horses and the other to work the seed dropping lever. This is from 1875.

This one-horse grain drill, from around 1870, distributed seeds quickly and evenly and then covered them over. A vast improvement over spreading the seeds by hand.

Now here is a very important time-saving device: the cotton gin. The "modern" version of the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney back in 1793, which mechanized the cleaning of cotton. Cotton had formerly required considerable labor to clean and separate the fibers from the seeds; the cotton gin revolutionized the process. Mr. Whitney introduced a set of teeth in his cotton gin to comb out the cotton and separate the seeds.
His invention changed society in more ways than one might imagine -
According to the Eli Whitney Museum site:
Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.
The invention of the cotton gin is frequently cited as one of the ultimate causes of the American Civil War.
The cotton gin pictured here is not Eli Whitney's but, rather, one from 1820 and was significantly improved over Whitney's.

Well, here's a handy tool that no farmer of 1840 should've been without: an all-in-one cotton gin, carding, and spinning machine. The ginning mechanism removed the seeds from the cotton while the carding and spinning mechanisms spun the cotton fibers into thread and wound them onto bobbins.

A flail is an agricultural tool used for threshing to separate grains from their husks.
It is usually made from two or more large sticks attached by a short chain or strip of leather; one stick is held and swung, causing the other to strike a pile of grain, loosening the husks. The precise dimensions and shape of flails were determined by generations of farmers to suit the particular grain they were harvesting.

Flail from the mid-1800’s.
With a flail, one man could thresh 7 bushels of wheat, 8 of rye, 15 of barley, 18 of oats, or 20 of buckwheat in a day.
The flail remained the principal method of threshing until the mid-19th century, when mechanical threshers became widespread.

 From the year of 1840 we have a small threshing machine. As with the flail, threshing was the process by which grains, like wheat and oats, were removed from the rest of the plant...without the manual-labored flail.

Threshing machines mechanically knocked the grain off the straw instead of the hand-held flail, which was a device that took much more time and effort.

By the late 19th century there were steam powered threshing machines, at a much greater cost of course. Since most farmers could not afford to purchase a thresher, a group of farmers would pool together and the thresher's owner would visit each farm and thresh...for a price.~This photo of the Moss Family Threshing Bee was taken in the late 19th century right in my hometown of Eastpointe, Michigan. The farmhouse is still in owned by the descendants~

A 1904 Westinghouse Threshing Machine
Here is a first-hand account of what it was like on the farm during threshing during the later part of the 19th century:
"Later in the week when the threshing crew arrived, it was bedlam. The enormous ungainly machine clanked up the lane, pulled into the field by a team of six mules. The steam engine was fired up with a clatter you could hear all of the way up at the big house and seemed to shake the shingles on its roof. Men were feeding the sheaves into its hungry maw, while more men were filling bags with the stream of kernels it disgorged, tying them, loading the wagons and driving them, heavy, to the granary, where still another crew was waiting to unload and stack the bulging sacks.
Harriet recruited women to help her in the kitchen. An enormous breakfast and an equally large noontime dinner had to be produced. I rolled up my sleeves to do my share. The kitchen and summer kitchen throbbed with heat from the cook stoves. Dishes clattered. Hurrying bodies bumped into one another as we carried platters to and fro. By evening every muscle was screaming ‘no-no-more,’ aware the ordeal would have to begin again at dawn the following day.
And then it was over. The threshing crew moved on to the next farm, the extra hands paid off. There was quiet and satisfaction of knowing we had made a good crop."
The farm wagon was of utmost importance in transporting the harvest to market. This high-sided wagon was used mainly for shucked corn.

One of the most well-known early farm and household tools that is rarely used in the U.S. today is the scythe. Considered in our modern times as an accessory for horror movies or Hallowe'en costumes (the Grim Reaper or the 4th of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse comes to mind), this all important tool was used for cutting (or reaping) grain, stalks, grass and other crops.

And here is the scythe "at work"

The grass sickle below was typically used for harvesting cereal crops or cutting grass for hay. The inside of the curve is the cutting edge, and is serrated. The farm-hand swings the blade against the base of the crop, cutting through the stems with a sawing action.
Grass sickle from about 1850

The following is another grass-cutting implement, the Grass Hook. However, instead of dragging it across the grass in sharp strokes as the scythe, the grass hook is swung back and forth.

The grass hook
As you can see, the grass hook does its job well.

The corn-sheller certainly saved an enormous amount of time and labor. The spiked disk was turned by a hand crank while an ear of corn was pressed against the spikes. Shelled kernels dropped into a container, and, the empty cob was tossed aside. Next, the picker wheel was enclosed in a housing which channeled the ear through the machine, greatly speeding up the process. Cobs and kernels fell to the bottom together in these early machines, requiring extra work to separate the two after shelling. This problem was remedied in the 1840's by a design which expelled the cob out the side of the machine while the kernels dropped out the bottom. The one showed here is from around 1860.

For ions the farmer had to reap his readied harvest physically by way of back-breaking labor. Hand reaping is done by various means, including plucking the ears of grains directly by hand or cutting the grain stalks with a sickle, scythe, or cradle.
Cyrus McCormick of Virginia was responsible for liberating farmers from this demanding and exhausting chore with his invention of the mechanical reaper in 1831. It cut the standing grain and swept it into a platform from which it was raked off into piles by a man walking alongside. It could harvest more grain than five men using the earlier tools.
McCormick moved to Chicago, built a reaper factory, and founded what eventually became the International Harvest Company.
The mechanical reaper shown here, from 1850, is nearly identical to the one he had displayed at the London Crystal Palace in 1851.

Nest we have a self-raking reaper. Self-raking reapers were a step between reapers and binders, cutting the grain and preparing it for hand binding and tying. A rotating reel on this reaper drew the uncut grain into the cutting mechanism then deposited the cut grain onto the platform. A rake regularly swept the platform depositing the cut grain on the ground.
This horse-powered self-raking reaper was built around 1876 by the D.S. Morgan and Company
Here is a 1876 Johnston self-raking reaper mower in action

I find old farming implements and tools fascinating. I like to think, as Henry Ford did, that tools such as what's shown here should be taught in school history lessons right along side the teaching of war and politics. It's unfortunate that these implements of necessity, and those who used them, are just a passing footnote in American history.

Now, here are a few other tools used "in the old days" that few in today's society know what they are.
For instance, have you ever heard of a Hallow Shave? Also referred to as an in-shave, it is used to hollow out the inside of a barrel stave. This is from the late 19th century.
Hallow shave / In-shave
Wagon Wheel Wrench
Next up we have the Wagon Wheel Wrench. These were used on a horse-drawn wagons, carriages, stagecoaches, and carts - pretty much anything with a wheel. A wheelwright would use this tool to make or repair the wheels.

More old-time tools to come...


Saturday, August 20, 2011

It Takes A Village

I'd like to talk to you about a dream I have. Well, it's more of a fantasy, but I certainly wish it could come true.
I want to go back in time.

Riding the train to the past...
Wait - - - - you already knew that, right?
However, we know time-travel - the kind of time-travel where one can physically move through time and space and live amongst those from, say, a hundred and fifty years ago - is impossible.
Or is it...?
Well, we all know about reenacting/living history, right? And we also know how this is one "hobby"where we can be pretty darn close to traveling through time...almost to the point where one may feel like they were "there."


But not quite...
...and yet...
Well, a while back I posted a collection of tintypes and daguerreotypes that many readers had said if I hadn't written that all photos were of reenactors from the 21st century that they'd have thought the pictures were originals from the mid-19th century.
Wouldn't you say that's a form of time-travel?
Or is that stretching it...?
Either way, it's still not enough - - - - - 
Please understand, when it comes to traveling through time I follow along the lines of what Jack Finney wrote in his book, Time and Again:
"'Einstein said that our ideas about time are largely mistaken. He meant that we're mistaken in our conception of what the past, present, and future really are. We think the past is gone, the future hasn't happened, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see. It's only natural. He said we're like people in a boat without oars drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can't see the past, back in the bends and curves behind us. But, it's there.
 You know the year, the day, and the month for literally millions of reasons: because the blanket you woke up under this morning may have been at least partly synthetic; because there is probably a box in your home with a switch; click that switch, and the faces of living human beings will appear on a glass screen in the face of that box and speak nonsense to you. Because red and green lights signaled when you might cross a street; because teenage children you saw were dressed as they were, because the front page of the local newspaper looked precisely as it did this morning and as it never will again or ever has before.

You can see yesterday; most of it is left. Most of the 2oth century is still here as well. (And) there are fragments of still earlier days. Single buildings. Sometimes several together. Those places are fragments still remaining, of days which once lay out there as real as the day lying out there now, still surviving fragments of a clear April morning of 1871, a gray winter afternoon of 1840, a rainy dawn of 1793.

 Picture one of those upper apartments standing empty for two months in the summer of 1894. Picture our arranging to sublet that very apartment for those identical months for the coming summer. If Albert Einstein is right - as he is - then hard as it may be to comprehend, the summer of 1894 still exists. That silent empty house exists back in that summer precisely as it exists in the summer that is coming. Unaltered and unchanged, identical in each, and existing in each. I believe it may be possible, you understand, for a man to walk out of that unchanged apartment and into that other summer.
But, the uncountable millions of invisible threads that exist in here would bind him to this current summer, no matter how unaltered the home around him. ...It occurred to me that just possibly there is a way to dissolve those threads...'"

Whew! That's something to think on, isn't it?
I read Time and Again for the first time only a few years ago. The coincidence, however, is that I had felt the same way as what Mr. Finney wrote, that any era can exist if one's presence and surroundings are as they should be.

Now, here is my own take on the highlighted paragraph above:

Picture living in a community of period homes, for instance, in a place such as Crossroads Village. Each of those structures stand as they once did in the autumn of 1861. The terrain - roads, trees, walkways - is just as it was 150 years ago.
Picture our arranging to sublet that very village for those identical months for the coming fall to living historians. So instead of 'costumed' presenters giving details about each structure, there would be people - you, me, our families, and others - living there inside the homes, night and day, 24/7, as if it actually were 1861, dressed in the clothing of the period. No outside modern visitors allowed, and no technology past our chosen time period. The citizens of this village have their roles - the same roles as they would have had if they actually lived in 1861; besides farming, many of the men, and even some women, would also work at the various occupations available in any small village of that period in time (gristmill, cooper, farrier, tavern owner, wagon maker, school teacher, banker, shoe maker, store keep, lumber mill, etc.).

If Albert Einstein is right - as he is - then hard as it may be to comprehend, the autumn of 1861 still exists.
(By the way, I chose Crossroads Village of Flint because it is the most authentic-looking open-air museum we have in Michigan).

I believe this is the way - the only way, mind you - that a sort of time-travel can take place. Now I am sure that some of you may have the movie thriller, "The Village" in mind. 
Or the Amish.
Or maybe even the book "Running Out of Time."
No, no, and no!
Don't think about any of that
odernisms - medicines and the like - would absolutely be accepted.

You see, there would be rules agreed upon by those willing to live here. For instance, rule number one would be that a panel of three would vote to accept or deny those who would like to live in such a place. And even then, if accepted, they would be on a probationary period for a certain length of time.
Why such a rule? Because there are always those with an ulterior motive - someone who would try to rattle the cages, so to speak  ("What do you mean I have to wear fashions from the 1860's all the time? I have a right to wear what I want!" Yeah, you know what I mean...).
Again, those who were accepted could leave anytime - no one would force them to stay. But if they chose to stay, then they would have to follow the rules. Plain and simple. Folks living permanently inside this time-travel village would also certainly be able to come and go as necessary, maybe to visit relatives for holidays or special occasions, or even just to 'get away' for a while, though automobiles would be nowhere within visible sight of the vicinity, however; one would have to walk quite a ways to get to a motor vehicle.

There would also be an area - blocked off from the villager's senses - where one could go for emergency phone calls, updates on current events, and other opportunities to stay somewhat in touch with the outside world if one chooses to do so. 
You see, I've thought of this synopsis over and over. In fact, a few of us in the living history community have even discussed what it would take to put a community such as this together. It was interesting to note why we would want to do something so outrageous as drop out of modern society, most agreeing that we just don't feel as if we totally fit in to the 21st century mode of thinking and living. And we won't even get into the politics, morals, and values of the 21st century.
But discussion was as far as it got.

Believe it or not, this thought - this fantasy I/we have - truly ticks some people off. The very same 'live-and-let-live' folks have become very indignant when I've spoken of my dream of a village-in-time. "You must like what I like and do what I feel is right because I'm right and you are not. You must learn to live in today's society and accept what we want for you. We know best!" is their mantra.
"I would agree only if the government approved."
"What -- you want slavery brought back?" 
"You want women to be chained to the kitchen?" are more such ridiculous comments I've heard.
Silly people...

Ahhh...but we're a psychologist's dream, aren't we? I can just imagine...especially in today's conformist society where tradition is non-acceptable while non-tradition and outrageous has become the norm, what the doctor would think...

For the time being, however, there is reenacting/living history.
At least I still have that! 

Also, can you imagine if a place such as Crossroads put their presenters through such a rigorous training session that it would make the past come to life for the visitors?

By the way, there is a saying from (I was told) an Amish minister that has become one of my most favorite of quotes:

"If you admire our faith, strengthen yours. If you admire our sense of commitment, deepen yours. If you admire our community spirit, build your own. If you admire the simple life, cut back. If you admire deep character and enduring values, live them yourself.

For those of us who have the same traditional dream, this is a start.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Posting That Needs to be Read

This is a link to a blog post by my friend. I believe it to be one of the best political commentary's I've read in a very long time - one that historians can surely identify with. The woman that wrote it is a very respected - and well-researched - follower of events, past and present.
Please read it for yourself:
Shazam! It's 1770


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reenacting in Port Sanilac

A few months ago I wrote a posting about how important the smaller events are. Well, this week's blog is sorta a continuation of that post as well as an 'after action report' of a reenactment that I recently participated in.
I hear, quite often actually, reenactors state, "I'm tired of doing the same old events. I need to do something to bring back the excitement. I wish there were new events that have something different to offer."
I bet you've heard it, too.
For the last three years I've responded with, "I understand. Why don't you join us at a new event up in Port Sanilac?"

President Lincoln and Michigan Governor Blair inspect the troops

Port Sanilac is in the 'thumb' of Michigan's mitt - right on the banks of Lake Huron, and is only about an hour and a half drive from Detroit.
"Well," comes the invariable reply, "That's too far to drive. Plus, I need to cut my lawn. And we have to get shopping done. And..."
You get the picture.
This year has been particularly tough on the reenacting season for us here in Michigan. Due to severe weather in July, one of our major events at Historic Fort Wayne was canceled from storm damage. And due to reasons I'd rather not go into at this time, the Crossroads Village event was canceled as well.
Because of two wonderful events out of the loop for the 150th year of the Civil War, one would think that a reenactor would jump on an opportunity to time travel!
Ha! Getting folks, especially military, to come to a new event is worse than pulling teeth!
Well, too bad for them. The Port Sanilac "Civil War Days" is better than most of the other events out there. In fact, this year I heard more than one participant state that it was their very favorite! Last year, which was the 2nd year for this event, was a sort of catalyst to really get the ball rolling to bring the past to life here.
This year was even better!

A Quaker abolitionist discusses her plain dress in the period fashion show

You see, we pretty much have the run of this Port Sanilac event; we can come up with any scenario we want without some committee dictating to us what we're doing. A good example of this were the battles that were chosen; not only were the military leaders of the Federals and Confederates discussing the battle scenario the morning of the first day, but the civilian lead (me!) was included as well. Since the land we were on is a mini-open air museum and has twelve historic 19th century buildings upon it, the opportunities for scenarios were limitless. And we certainly took advantage of the surroundings: it was decided that we would incorporate a sort of 1st Manassas/1st Bull Run type of a scenario, where the citizens of the town were going to enjoy watching the battle by having a picnic where the fighting would take place - much like attending a hanging.

A lovely day for a battle - could be better than a hangin'!

Then, once the firing of musketry and cannons got too close we would skeedaddle out of there (I had heard that the 150th Manassas this past July had no use for civilians for their reenactment. We thought we'd, in a small way, right their wrong).

Some of the young ladies become frightened at the harshness of battle

Also, just like at the Charlton Park event a few weeks ago, we incorporated the schoolhouse and children into the scenario as well.

The visitors loved it!
Being that this was "our" event and we could plan almost anything we wanted, we also put together a 'shotgun wedding.' ~ (Read about it HERE) ~
Okay, I'll be honest, although I know that shotgun weddings did actually take place, I'm not quite sure how frequently this sort of thing happened. So we did it off the cuff, just threw it together and hoped for the best.

~ Not the happiest of couples ~

Well, since this was totally unscripted, it came off as authentic and as natural as, I suppose, an actual one would have. The bride truly looked forlorn, and the groom was in disbelief that this was actually happening.
As for the father of the soiled young lady, well, he played the role perfectly!

Southeastern lower Michigan, by the way, has the very best of the President Lincoln impersonators, Mr. Fred Priebe, and he was on hand for a Lincoln-Douglas debate as well as a recitation of the Gettysburg Address (it's okay that this was supposed to be 1861 - the crowd loved his speech anyhow!).

To top it all off, the tall ships - replicas of the Nina and the Pinta (Columbus' ships, for the very few who may be ignorant of early American history) - were in Port Sanilac's harbor awaiting the public to come aboard and tour them, which a number of us did.This was not a planned extra, by the way. So it was pretty exciting to have the opportunity to see these replicas after our event had ended.

So, as you can see, we had the world of the past wide open to bring it back to life in such a way that most of the larger events - local or national - cannot (or will not) do.

A great opportunity for living history, such as showing a teenage cabin girl doing her chores

It's the newer events such as Port Sanilac, with its fresh ideas and different settings, that will keep living history and reenacting alive.
Won't you join us next time?