World War II Farming

Picture of ERNEST ANDREAS

During WWII the bigger (at that time) farm fields and pastures were surrounding our family compound. Small acreage farmers like us, still used hand swung Sickles, Scythes. ‘Reapers’ cut, hand tied, Sheaved and ‘Stooked’ the standing grain into little teepee shapes for drying. Corn Knives (Machetes) to cut the corn for hand ‘Shocking’ to dry were common, as were hand cranked or treadle operated Corn Shellers. Larger farms used squadrons of Horse drawn Mowing machines for mowing the crops. Hay Rakes pulled by horses or tractors, to ‘windrow’ the crops for drying.

Grandpa, wisely knowing that War was imminent and self providing was going to be critical, bought a 1920’s John Deere tractor that needed overhaul. I watched with fascination, as the only professional machinist involved, the Master Tradesman Babbit Bearing Specialist, poured and hand scraped the bearings. Grandpa did the rest of the overhaul, that lasted for more than 30 years. ‘Poppin’ Johnny’ eventually took the Scythe’s place, pulling horse drawn implements such as Disc Harrows. Spike Tooth Drag harrows. Cultivator. Slip Scrapers.

Side note: All of the equipment came in handy over the ensuing years. Grandpa, life long smoker, eventually lost his leg to diabetes. I took over the farm and maintenance work, as Grandma fielded the phone calls, set the hourly rates and times I could work (school hours came first:>).  Locals seasonally wanting plowing, landscaping. Mowing Hay and weeds was busy and lucrative. Allowed me to save enough for tractor fuel, repairs, new tires and have left over money to buy and maintain a 1941 Chevy at age 15.

Very few other houses were along the graveled rural route. Fuel was rationed, along with most other items deemed critical to the war effort. I rode on Mr Prince’s hay rack pulled by his prized draft horses. After they step on your feet one time, you learn to step lively. My being a young kid, he seemed to me, an elderly farmer back then. He used draft horses to pull his numerous farm implements, even after the war ended.

Field behind ours, was where his cows grazed and where the last old grave stones had been placed aside, left from the abandoned cemetery (previously, old Indian burial grounds). They were along the fence rows, and under the big Osage trees (sticky Hedge Apples, Osage Oranges) where farmer Prince had placed them, along with the countless Laurentide Glacial rocks (field stones) that kept endlessly surfacing in the cultivated fields and pastures. Our old Horse Drawn Owensburo Farm Wagon was pulled across the field each spring and laboriously piled with field stones to point of sagging under the weight.

 School kids had Gaulish styled wars during lunch recess, swinging from the long vines through the Osage trees, throwing sticky green balls, tearing apart a wood pile, while playing King of the Mountain (big kids always won), throwing pieces of wood at each other and getting generally bloody. Until the teachers came storming out to the battleground and made it all off limits :>)

The Army during WWII, had a bivouac with tents, big search lights and cannons on the land behind our barns. They caught me sneaking through the fence and laying in the grass watching them. Two soldiers on guard duty, armed with rifles, picked me up and carried me back to our chicken, Beef and Hog barns. Through the fence, they stuffed me. After that encounter, I only crept back on spy missions when darkness hid my presence :>)

All of the farmers back then, manually ‘Shocked’ their corn in teepees for drying. The Pheasants and Rabbits loved it. There were beautiful Pheasants everywhere. Dad was a Game Warden, so we frequently ate Pheasants that he was ‘checking’ ;>)

They slept inside the Corn and Wheat shocks, as would traveling plains Indians in their teepees. I absolutely loved the John T. McCutcheon story ‘Injun’ Summer’ published every fall in the Chicago Tribune. I read and re-read the story, taking in every minute detail of the images, until I became mentally tele-transported back to that time in history, 1907 :>)

Today’s Politically correct society demonized this wonderful story of a simpler time, 1907, rendering it’s demise.

During the harvest seasons, I wandered the fields, creeping into the corn shocks and napping. The smell of fresh cut corn and grain is wonderful. Winter, I followed the animal tracks in the snow, to see where they were camping. Of course as I got close to their chosen shock of Corn, they lifted off, heavily ‘Drumming’ their wings. I always jumped in surprise.

The big McCormick Deering tractor with iron cleats on its wheels, was abandoned down near the pond for many years (started on rationed gasoline and then switched to more available heating kerosene), was used during WWII, to power the big Threshing Machine that sat near farmer Prince’s barns for long many years.

It had been pulled to the fields by the old McCormick Deering tractor.  Lots of men, larger strong women included, worked the crops by manual labor. After the horse drawn mowing machines cut and raked the crops into windrows to dry, they used pitch forks to load the horse drawn hay racks.

The horses pulled the hay racks. The disabled, elderly and very young people that were still home, (not involved in the war) loaded the wheat or hay onto the hay racks. Usually big women and older men, a few young kids that were big for their age, also pitched hay. The racks pulled up at the threshing machine to be unloaded.

Thresher was powered by a long flat belt to the tractor. It was far back, to prevent sparks from igniting the chaff and dust. The most valuable item to the crews in the fields, were the big steel milk cans filled with cold drinking water, their steel cups or long handled ladles hanging from a wire hook. Some of the thirsty crew just drank from the big lids.

As the Wheat or Oats were separated from the stems by the thresher, it was loaded into grain wagons or trucks, for the trip to the local Grist Mill, to be cut, ground or rolled, depending on crop. Some farms had their own smaller versions. The hay (Wheat grass or alfalfa)  or straw (from Oats), Corn was stored in the Corn Crib, depending on what crop was being harvested, was loaded back onto the hay racks. They were then pulled to the barns, where the winter feeding Hay and Oat Straw bedding was hauled up from the hay racks into the top of the loft.

Big hay hooks were pulled up with a long rope through a pulley in the top peak of the barn. A long track inside the loft, let the load of hay be pulled by a rope through the open top doors, then to the back of the hay loft by two men stacking the hay (later years, bales), as the pull horses backed up to slack the rope.

The greener corn stalks were machine chopped into little pieces and elevated up into the silo by a long screw or chain elevator. The really dry Corn stalks were sometimes thrown into the corrals near the barn to control the mud. Automatic Corn harvesters were later to come. Corn was all hand tied and harvested during the early 1940’s. As WWII ended the early machines began appearing on the farms.

This Corn Picker was one model being used, before the improvement to modern style crop Gleaners began their self propelled, leave no waste, computerized harvesting in common use today. The word Gleaner was used during Biblical times, reference to the poor people that were allowed to follow the manual harvest crews, gathering the leftovers.

Oats for animal feed, were stored in either silos or granaries. Corn Silage was fed to the Cows all through the winter. Raw ‘Squeezins’ seeped out the bottom of the silo as the corn chop fermented. We slurped it up, as it tasted pretty sweet :>) Some locals did a bit of ‘Stillin’, producing ‘Lightnin’. Grandpa, who bottled his own Beer, kept a Mason jar… or few, in the cellar:>) The towed manure spreader with iron wheels, was not fun. It often flung cow ‘exhaust’ cleaned out of the Cow barns, all over the tow driver, as the manure was continually spread across the fields. Modern versions are not much different in function.

The older farm girls, those that could pull a clutch lever and steer, drove tractors as did all farm kids. Older men, bigger boys usually drove the horses that were sometimes harder to control. Once the horse teams learned the routine (they were fast learners), they followed the loaders as they walked in large circles around the fields. The harvest ‘crews’ went from farm to farm, repeating the process for each season, for each crop. Co-Op, Grange, local Farm Bureaus kept everything somewhat scheduled, from planting to harvesting.

As WWII was ending and manufacturing began to increase goods for peace time, the baling machines started to become common and rapidly improve along with new tractors. 2 strong young boys sat on either side of the baling machine, feeding the wire frames back and forth to separate and lace the bales. They wore eye goggles and when they took them off, the boys looked like Racoons, from the constant dirt and dust.

Older men or returning soldiers, rode the ‘racks’ and stacked the bales using hooks as they fed up from the baler. Kids drove the tractors. By that time the tractors were common and the horses were rarely used. Farmer Prince still mowed the hay and alfalfa fields with his big draft horses, as I walked behind hunting for Mice, Birds and Rabbits.

Later when I worked a haying crew, we had automatic Hay balers. Still loaded ‘racks’, elevated bales, stacked lofts in 100 degree heat. Our horses were only used for pleasure by that time :>)

The baling machines disturbed countless field mice and their nests. It was great adventure to run along behind the balers and mowers, catching or stomping mice :>) The old manual labor process left lots of grain and corn for the Pheasants and Rabbits. The hedgerows between the pastures, left them a hiding place to lay nests and for their burrows. I am sure that is all gone now and replaced by yards and houses of families with pavement infrastructure interconnecting the lifestyle.

Simpson’s old world farm was really interesting. I prowled it often. They even let me take insulating cork panels (hauled them on my bicycle over many trips) to line my Pigeon loft in our barn. It was the last ‘old world’ farm near our place. It had the Owl box lofts, built into the high rafters by Mr Simpson the grandfather (when he was a younger man), to encourage many Owls to control the mice and rats around the farm.

That is where I climbed the rafters to the top of the barn and tossed down the young Barn Owls that I initially thought, upon peering into their box, were Monkeys :>) Carried them home in a burlap ‘gunny’ sack.  Mom took them to Hawthorne Melody Zoo near Libertyville.

We went to see the five Barn Owls often,  just to see how they were doing. They really had it good in their nice big enclosure. Fascinating to school children that toured the zoo daily, the always curious Owls ate lots of fresh mice and lived much longer than they would have in the competitive wild :>)

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