You are here:Farm Stories from Manchester, Michigan / Chapter IV - Basic Farm Work Each Year

Chapter IV - Basic Farm Work Each Year

By dhowell - Posted on 30 June 2013

Our farm work year started in the spring when land could be tilled for planting and the growing season began in this part of the country. Chores were done before and after field work, thus extending the working day as long as it took to get the work done. Vacations and regular work hours weren't part of the farmer's life in those days. Animals, the weather, and the unfolding growing season provided unrelenting demands on the farmer who wanted to be successful. The cycle of our day-to-day farm work as the year went by was typical of most diversified farmers at the time.

Spreading manure

When there was enough pasture for the sheep in the spring, they went out on pasture so the winter's accumulation of manure in the sheep barn was the first major job to be done. The manure spreader was driven in the basement and the packed, heavy manure was dug out by hand and pitched into it. Manure was spread on a field being readied for corn—usually an old hay field where the seeding had run out. This first heavy work with manure forks often raised blisters as the steady pulling and lifting took its toll on soft, winter hands. We didn't spend money on gloves and let hardening of our hands develop as it would. It might take a week to empty the basement which often had a 3 or 4 foot packed layer of manure on it.


The first crop to be planted was oats. Sometimes a field had been plowed the fall before, so only dragging and final fitting were necessary before planting. Otherwise, the field(s) for oats was plowed and fitted as soon as possible. Oats grows best in cooler weather and benefits from extra spring rain. This was especially true on our sandy, lighter soil.

Drilling grain

As soon as the oats were planted, fields for corn were plowed, fitted and planted. Plowing old hay field sod was hard, slow work with 12 or 16 inch single bottom plows pulled by horses. Ground was then dragged once or twice before planting which was done two rows at a time with planter. Fitting a field could be dirty work as one walked behind a drag all day when it was dusty.

Using a hay loader

By the time the oats and corn had been planted, the first hay field was ready to be mowed. Mowers cut five foot swaths as the horses walked along. After some curing in the swath, the side delivery rake was used to produce windrows of hay which were left until the hay was ready for the mow. If it rained on them, they had to be turned to stir them enough to dry again. A hay loader picked up a windrow and delivered it to the hay wagon where a man loaded it as it came to him.

Loading hay into the barn (our west barn was like this)

Full loads went to the barn and the hay mow for storage. Bulk hay loads were off-loaded one third at a time with harpoon forks or slings attached by a rope and pulled by horses. A man had to be in the hot hay mow to trip the forks/slings and mow the hay. It's no wonder we often said, "You have to make hay while the sun shines." The heat and dust of haying were unpleasant, but had to be endured until the two or three fields of hay were done.

Cultivating corn

First cutting haying was followed closely by the first cultivating of corn. Small sprouts of corn were vulnerable as the cultivator moved by them. Special shields were attached to help prevent dirt from covering the small sprouts. Should some be covered, one had to stop and uncover them. Again, all this work was done at the pace of walking horses.

Second cultivating of corn followed haying and second hay cutting followed that when there was any. Weather had much to do with this work so it had no fixed schedule.

Wheat was usually ripe by the Fourth of July. (see Cutting Grain With a Binder) Oats was ready to cut soon after the wheat was finished.


When threshing began in our neighborhood, our work schedules had to be adjusted to let us help those who exchanged work with us. We hauled our grain shocks to the buildings and built stacks there for threshing. Wheat and rye were stacked separately near the west barn and oats stacked outside the east barn so the straw could be blown into a mow for sheep feed. The sheep ate more oats so that granary was closer and only part of the oats had to be hauled to the main granary. Some neighbors chose to haul grain shocks directly to the threshing machine on threshing day. We felt it took less help to work from stacks; we also could thresh on days after rain when field shocks were still too wet.

I take time here to describe threshing day on our farm which might begin by 8:00 because our stacks were not affected by morning dew. Fourteen or fifteen neighbors came to help, to be repaid with our help when they threshed. Two men came with the rig, one to tend the engine and oversee operations and one to tend the blower and help build the straw stack. It took one man to bag the grain and four or five to load and unload the grain wagon. Four or five more men pitched bundles to feed the separator and one man stacked the straw. (Dad always did this dirty work because he wouldn't ask anyone else to do it.)

In the house Mom and a neighbor/relative helper were busy preparing noon and evening meals for the crew. Large quantities of special foods were prepared, pies/cakes baked, and the dining room table extended and set to seat that many. I was drafted into setting up washing facilities out by the windmill.

The wash bench was carried out and held two washtubs partially filled with water. Water was pumped in them early so the sun would warm it by noon. Soap and wash basins were set out. Towels were hung on the windmill along with a mirror and combs, so men could finish cleaning up for each meal.

The threshing season provided one of a young man's first experiences at working in a crew with strangers. One learned how to take orders and observed how others responded during this period of two or three weeks. In addition to our neighborhood, we helped Grandpa and Uncle Lowell as we also did with silo filling and wood buzzing.

The slack time between threshing and corn harvest was used for special tasks such as painting the barns or fence building or repair. It was also a good time to clean out the several drainage tile lines in the marshy parts of the lower fields. The Parr Reunion was held the fourth Saturday/Sunday in August which took us to Toledo or Charlotte for a weekend, the only time we called on neighbors to milk and do chores. The potato patch needed hoeing and de-bugging at times. Weeding and hoeing in the garden came along with harvesting as beans and tomatoes ripened. We could slip away to the swimming hole in the nearby river. Sometimes Grandpa Mattern would come out and take us fishing, often in the River Raisin that ran through Grandpa Parr's farm. The resulting fish fry was a special treat.

Corn binder at work

School started in time to keep us boys out of the heavy work of corn harvest. Just before or soon after the first heavy frost it was time to fill silo. The green corn was cut just before the silo fillers hauled it to the silo. It took four or five hours to fill the wood silo and more to fill the larger cement one that replaced it. Two or three teams were needed to keep the filler going as one bundle at a time was fed into it to be chopped and blown up a pipe to spill into the silo. Handling corn was heavy work starting with the binder which had to be pulled on its steel wheels along relatively fresh worked ground. The bundles were heavy and unbalanced to load and unload and had to be picked up by hand rather than a pitchfork. Large corn stalks were welcome, but more difficult to handle.

Corn shocks

After the silo was full, the rest of the crop was cut later and cured in shocks. Cutting corn was faster with the binder, but much heavier work, lifting and shocking bundles of tall cornstalks laden with full ears. (Corn could be shocked one stalk at a time, cut with a corn knife, though we normally used the binder.) In either event after drying a spell, about half the shocks were taken down so each ear could be husked and crated for the haul to the corn crib. In the field the stalks were rebundled with the recycled twine and reshocked. Shocks of these stalks as well as those with ears were taken down during the winter as needed and fed to the sheep in the field. Others were hauled to barns and stacked for feed. All of the leaves in the shocks stayed green and valuable as feed.

While school kept us from field work with corn, we did get to unload wagon loads of crated corn into the crib. We also had to pick up dug potatoes in the potato patch and carry them from the wagon to the basement potato bin. Squash, pumpkins and cabbage came to the house on wagons for us to carry downstairs. Such was Saturday and after school work for us in autumn.

Wheat/rye was planted in the fall. Sometimes it could be planted in a harvested corn field to avoid plowing. Most of the time a separate field(s) was prepared for planting after the fall rains came and planting could take place while it was still warm enough for germination. The end of the growing season on the land had come, and the barns, granaries, and basement were full of a winter's supply of food.

All of our work was done with these implements and four horses. Some of the heavier work was done with three or four horses, but most of it was done with a team, either heavy or light, depending on the work to be done. Mowing, raking, cultivating, and some wagon pulling were best done by a smaller, faster team. We did not have fancy horses or equipment for them but we did take good care of them to be sure we could get our work done on time. Hoofs were kept trimmed but we didn't put horseshoes on our teams. We kept some ointments around the barn to treat sores that might develop under the harness collars. Also at times we put powder under the collars to keep sores from breaking open. A brush or currycomb might be used occasionally. Every day a horse was expected to work it was fed a few quarts of oats at noon and again at night. Horses got fed hay three times daily and were kept in straw bedding to keep them clean in their stalls. Since they were needed almost every day they were not turned out to pasture regularly as were cows and sheep. Periodically they were turned out to pasture where they could frolic and roll to clean their hides.

Buzz saw

As winter approached our thoughts turned to fuel for cooking and heating. Dad might cut wood alone during the day when we were in school. But on good winter Saturdays all of us went to the woods. On better days we might get two wagon/sleigh loads of buzz wood cut and hauled to be piled around the apricot tree near the granary. By spring the pile of buzz wood would be big enough to give us 100 face cords of fire wood, our year's supply. In March it took a five-man crew 5 or 6 hours to bring the pieces of split wood (the size of fence posts) and the longer poles to the buzz saw to be cut into 16inch sections. The buzz saw was moved a couple times to shorten the distance to the shrinking pile. Later, the resulting mound of firewood was worked over to split some chunks into smaller pieces for the cook stove. The wood was burned from the pile; we didn't spend time or effort building cords of wood. By the time the last of the old woodpile was gone, the fresh wood was seasoned enough to burn.

Pile of firewood (apricot tree)

Late winter was the time to turn bucks in with the ewes so lambs would come in spring. Sheep were sheared then or soon after the lambs came. We butchered a couple lambs during the winter. Hogs and our beef were butchered while it remained cold enough to refrigerate the meat outside until it could be processed. (see Butchering Hogs)

These major efforts kept farmers busy during what is now called a workday. Chores and animal care went on regardless of all else in this agrarian world. It is easy to see why farms were rented beginning March 1st.

A Small Diversified Farm

The previous material relates to how I remember life in our small farm, but almost all farms then were the same type. Together, those living that way made up the agrarian society powering America as it moved onward to grow into an industrial nation, concentrated in urban areas.

Each small farm was a self-contained economic unit, almost independent, which had a little of everything it needed, with enough left over to provide for what it didn't have, pay the taxes and the mortgage/land contract on the farm itself. It became a matter of the survival of the fittest, where the unsuccessful fell by the wayside to become day laborers, renters, or share croppers on someone else's land.

We produced most of what we ate and traded grain for flour and wool for yard goods to make clothes. Extra eggs were traded for groceries we didn't produce, e.g. spices, sugar, etc. Extra milk, cream and butter were sold to produce cash for day-to-day needs. Some of these I remember hearing about were: the church collection envelope (tied to the price of a pound of butter/quart of cream), the phone bill (.75 cents/month), the light bill (a dollar or two a month), medicines for us and the animals, gasoline for engines and the car, salt for livestock, some hard coal for the brooder stove, and soft coal for the tank heater when we couldn't scavenge enough that fell off passing trains. We had to buy fresh meat to feed crews for threshing, silo filling, and wood buzzing, otherwise we lived on our own fresh, canned or smoked meat supplemented by wild game in season. The annual sale of wool and lambs produced enough cash to meet property taxes and the land contract. In lean years there might not be enough to repay any principal on that. Dad often said if it hadn't been for our 100 ewes, we would have joined those who lost their farms during the Depression. (for a different kind of farm, see Orchards and Truck Farms)