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Homesteading, Part Seven:

After that busy first summer of setting up a homestead and breaking those first few acres of land, the new farmers would let nature take its course over the winter.

Freezing and thawing would help break down rough clumps of soil.

Then, as historian Pat Myers explains, when spring came, the land would be disked and harrowed.

Harrows were things that are kind of like large rakes. Some of them had spiked teeth, and they would be dragged across land which had been disked, and those are sets of sharp wheels, almost, that would be dragged across the freshly broken land, and that helped break-up the clumps, break-up the large furrows, starting to get a smoother, more even surface that you could seed.

With seeding came yet another set of problems. It took a lot of work for early homesteaders to get even the smallest amount of quality seed.

You wanted to plant as clean seed as possible, so most farmers put their seed through a fanning mill to remove the weed seeds. And a fanning mill is a series of shaking screens that sorted seeds by size, and hopefully, at the end, you could have nice clean bags of seed.

Farmers also treated their seeds to prevent smut, which is a fungus that destroys grain kernels. They could use a grain pickler that washed the seed in a formaldehyde-water mixture, or they could mix copper or mercury dust into the seed.

Seeding those first few acres in those early years usually meant walking the land and casting seed to the wind.

Sometimes, the first seeding would have been done by hand using a broadcast seeder. And that was a canvas bag filled with seed that was worn slung over the shoulder. The settler turned a crank, and a fan-like device sent seeds flying out of the bag onto the ground.

Now this wasn’t a very good method, of course, because the seed was just lying there, on top, and it could be eaten by birds or mice or blown away, so the seed drill was a machine that was really critical to a setter’s success.

And that was a machine that was pulled by horses, carried a hopper of seed, and opened up a small furrow, then dropped the seed right into it and covered it up. And that, of course, was a much better system.

In the first years, homesteaders could not earn enough from their land. There simply weren’t enough acres broken.

So during the winter, men would take jobs in the coal mines or lumber camps, leaving their families at home to mind the farm.

Then they’d return in the spring for another season of planting and breaking more ground.

On the Heritage Trail,

I’m Cheryl Croucher.

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