Life on the Farm

By Herman D. Wildermuth

Much of the following account does not come from personal experience or knowledge, but “bits and pieces” of remembered conversations with my parents, brother, or sisters. The Wildermuth family of father, mother, William (Bill) age three, Elizabeth (Betty) age one, mother’s mother and step-father, Mr. and Mrs. Gottleib Bast had come from Lichtental, Bessarabia, Russia (father’s home town) in 1894. They lived in a sod house built near the northwest corner of the family homestead quarter (160 acres) which is about four miles southwest of Linton, North Dakota. It was situated on a site from which it would be possible to see any approaching prairie fire – the scourge of early settlers. Enclosure (1) shows the farmyard as finally seen from the south in about 1916 or 1917.

The John J. Wolf family (also from Lichtental, Bessarabia) came over at the same time as our parents and homesteaded the quarter-section directly north of our land. The Wolf family stayed only until 1901 or 1902, then moved to Virginia. In 1905, our parents bought the land and our grandparents moved into the sod house on that land. After a few years in Virginia, Mr. Wolf passed away but mother continued correspondence with Mrs. Wolf until she passed away, then with the Wolf’s daughter. However, we have no further information about her.

The Christian Fischer family (mother’s sister, Elizabeth) came from Russia in 1903. They stayed with our parents and grandparents until spring then homesteaded near Elgin, North Dakota. In 1905, mother’s brother and family, the Johannes Zachers, also came and stayed with the grandparents in the former Wolf home. Some of the children possibly stayed with our family, wherever there was sleeping room. Frieda, now Mrs. Dave Krause, was born in the former Wolf farm home.

The Zachers stayed until 1907 when they also went to Elgin, homesteading about 16 miles south of Elgin. The two oldest Zacher sons, John and Christ, stayed in Linton having obtained work in local business establishments. John stayed in Linton about four or five years after his parents left. I was told that he worked at a grain-buying business and also at the Linton Bazaar, owned by our parent’s friends, the Backhaus family. A friend found a newspaper item in the Emmons County Record that Christ and our brother Bill went to Montana in 1913 to homestead some land there.

I still remember the ruins of the old Wolf sod-house which Malvina, Katie and I visited in our wanderings around the farm pasture. Our wanderings were not entirely haphazard, these were in search of the delicious, tasty cactus berries found on the land. These cactus plants were a small mound of green berries with spiny thorns on the top of each berry. However, in the spring, one or several berries would flower where the spine had been and this ripened into a sweet berry in the fall. The dried flower made a convenient stem to pull the berry from among the remaining green berries left in the cactus plant. Unfortunately, almost all of these plants became victims of the drought of the 1930’s. In my searching the local prairie land after World War II, I found only one surviving plant on what had been our farm, although there could have been more. If any remained, these, very likely, could have also dried out in the latest five years of 1988-1992!

The first fields on the homestead had to be plowed by a hand-held, one-share, sod-breaking plow pulled by a three or four horse team. The ground was possibly disked, then seeded to flax, while an additional plot (called Bashtaan) was planted to potatoes and a variety of necessary vegetables.

I do not know who helped with the field work in the first years. It is likely that father, mother and grandparents all had to “dig-in”. I have no knowledge of the amount of land cultivated in the first years, or the number of horses, cows, hogs, chickens, or sheep had been accumulated.

I know that our parents raised some sheep in the first years (before my entry on the scene). In later years, mother used some of the saved wool in making patchwork comforters. Grandmother had a spinning wheel which was also used in the earlier years to make yarn from the wool which was then used to knit necessary articles of clothing.

Again, I have no knowledge of when different items of farm machinery were bought. I only know that we had practically all needed articles by the time I was old enough to remember. My memory does not cover much of the spring work (plowing and seeding) as I was in school when this work was done. I am more familiar with the harvesting as I was involved with it in later years. I’m sure that in the first years, harvesting was done by the use of a scythe (Encl. 2).

The first harvesting machine had been invented and demonstrated in 1831 by Cyrus McCormick (Encl. 2). Later came the binder which automatically tied the grain stalks into bundles and dropped them off to the side (Encl. 3). However, a binder could not tie the short stalks of grain which were the norm in dry years, so the header was the practical solution (Encl. 4). This ingenious machine was pushed from the rear by four or six horses with the header operator on the platform above the steering wheel behind the horses. The grain stalks were cut by a sickle-bar cutting-device still in use on today’s harvesting machines. The stalks were dropped on a moving canvas sheet which brought them to the side where they were picked up and elevated to the “header-box” by two canvas sheets operating within an elevator (Encl. 5).

When the header box was filled, it was brought to a cleared area and pitched on the ground to start a stack which had to be set by an experienced “setter”. If this is not clear, maybe someday, you will be able to visit an old time harvesting and threshing fiesta in my old home area in Emmons County, North Dakota. The bottom picture of enclosure five shows a stack in the making, lower-left, and a stack already finished off, upper right. These pictures were copied from a book, “Wheat Farming” showing the equipment on some large grain farms in Washington State. These are not too clear but were the best I have been able to locate at this date.

I don’t know who helped with the harvesting on our farm during the early years. I suppose that Bill, Betty, Johnny and Bertha all helped. Bill left in 1913 to homestead in Montana, but was back after a year because of illness, which was diagnosed as diabetes. He died in 1915, at the age of 24 as there were no cures – no insulin available at that time. I know that father ran (operated) the header in later years, Johnny and Bertha pitched box while Betty set the stacks. I’m not sure who drove the horses pulling the header box (called “drove the header box”) but I think we had only one box in the early years and Bertha had that job. In those years, mother stayed home, did the cooking and supervising Malvina and Katie in doing all the home-place chores: milking, feeding the calves and hogs as well as helping in the kitchen. Otherwise, mother had to keep me busy, one job might have been to gather eggs from the hen-house, also, I was allowed to go to the field with the harvesting. I have a faint memory of watching the mechanisms of the header from the header box – this was before I was allowed to “drive” the header box.

The grain was threshed later in the fall when a threshing machine owner went through the neighborhood with his machine and crew. It is important to know that the earlier threshing machines were run by horse-power mechanism (Encl. 6) before it was displaced by the steam-powered and later the gasoline-powered tractor (Encl. 7 & 8). The horse power machines were used before my time, but father bought one which he used to run his feed grinder, later the grinder was also powered by a small gasoline engine.

Our family lived in the sod house until sometime after Katie was born (I was the first to be born in the new house). The new house was built of home-made sun-dried clay-and-straw blocks, with walls 18 to 20 inches thick. This provided space in the window area which was used for flower plants in the parlor.

A cellar beneath the house (with outside entrance) provided storage for winter supplies: potatoes, vegetables, dill pickles, a barrel of pickled watermelons, a big crock of sauerkraut, canned vegetables and fruit; as well as home-made jelly (currant, gooseberry, buffalo berry, juneberry and the best of all, chokecherry). Another item found in the cellar before prohibition, was wine and beer. Wine was home-made, but no more that I can remember and beer only one summer. I had a taste of that whenever Dad had his daily afternoon break.

The house was improved with wood siding and rock foundation covered with concrete. The inside walls were plastered and wall-papered. The thick walls provided good insulation against the heat of summer and the cold of winter much better than the cheaper, modern-status-symbol, frame houses which became the vogue in later years. After moving to town, mother missed her adobe house and often complained about the house in town: cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. Although we had a furnace with hot air piped to each room upstairs, there was no such a luxury as air-conditioning for summer.

I wish to also tell you a little about making hay for feeding the cattle and the horses during the winter. Originally, the grass grew high on the prairie in many areas. For feeding our stock, we depended entirely on prairie grass; no clover, alfalfa, or millet. The grass was usually cut in late summer, before grain harvest began, using a mowing machine with a sickle, similar to the ones on grain harvesting machines, but only about four or five feet in length. The cut grass dropped behind the sickle and was then raked into rows (called windrows) with a dump-rack wagon and hauled home and stacked near the barn. Later it could be transferred to the hay-mow (second story of a barn) from which it was dropped to the feeding rack below as needed by the livestock.

However, we had a hay-stacker which was used to make stacks out in the field where the hay was left until needed during the cold of winter. Instead of hauling hay home from the piles in the field, a special rake (called a bull-rake) was used to gather the hay from the windrows, brought to the stacker which threw the hay on a pile to one side. (By the way, this work was all done by the use of horses) Here the stack-setter, Betty or Bertha, would start the stack. Another load, another, and another was brought in until the stack was considered high enough, then finished off by rounding off the top so it could shed rain. Then another stack would be started and finished in an area closer to another supply of hay until all the haying was finished for the year.

Johnny was drafted into the Army in July 1918. It was decided that we would move to town after harvesting and threshing as the winter and, following, spring work would be too difficult for Dad, Betty and Bertha to handle (I was ten years old at the time). Labor was scarce and expensive so that year father helped out a neighbor who had no header. The neighbor pitched one box and Bertha pitched the other, Betty set stack, Dad drove the header and I drove the horses pulling the header box. We had to move the header several miles to cut the neighbor’s grain, then back home to cut the rest of our crop which was excellent that year.

During the war, available steel was very poor and one gear on the header wore out twice. One time Dad had to go to town from the field (with horses) to get another one (luckily these were available). While he was gone Betty, Bertha and I awaited his return in the field and Betty took a snap-shop of Bertha and I posed on the header. This picture together with one of mother holding two newly picked watermelons are shown as enclosure 9. These pictures also appeared in a Picture Book published by former residents of Dad’s home-town, Lichtental, now living in Germany since 1940.

After Johnny came home from the Army in June 1919, he worked in town for several months, then he worked for Mr. Herb Ketchum on the MacNider Ranch which was situated on the Missouri River some 16 miles west of Linton. In the fall of 1921, Johnny married Emilie Weishaar and they rented the MacNider Ranch for several years. I worked for them during school vacation in the summer.

Here, I learned to handle horses, mow hay, rake it, and bring it to the stacker with the bull rake. I also learned to ride a horse – a riding pony belonging to Mr. MacNider (a neighbor in town). Although 20 years old, the pony had been out to pasture for several years and was still full of vim, vigor, and vinegar! On Sundays, I would go to the neighboring Schlangen Ranch to visit Jim Schlangen, who had his own pony. We would roam around the country visiting friends he knew although there were none our age. I also used the pony for useful work such as getting the milk cows in from the pasture in the evening at milking time.

The MacNider Ranch was largely a cattle-raising operation which required a large amount of hay for winter feeding. The hay field was meadow-land near the river. It encompassed about 100 acres, almost entirely in white clover. It grew to a height of about 30 inches and was cut only once a year. I remember that Johnny, Emilie and I put up about 29 stacks of hay in about a month’s time. There was also a prarie-hay field close to the ranch house which provided several stacks of hay. One day while working in this field, I was startled by a very unnerving noise in some tall grass which I thought may be a rattlesnake. These were known to abound in the Missouri River region. I called Johnny to investigate. It turned out to be a harmless (to humans) bull-snake. These are actually a deadly enemy of rattlesnakes but it sure made a warning noise which sounded dangerous to me.

In 1923, Johnny’s wife, Emilie, died of pneumonia at her mother’s home in Linton a few days after daughter Emily was born (no antibiotics in those days). Betty came home from California to take care of Emily at our parents home and sister Katie helped Johnny on the ranch – I was going to school at the time. In the fall, with Katie still helping, Johnny moved to the family farm near Linton and I helped with the fall plowing before school started. I do not have a definite date when Johnny and his second wife, Lydia Bauer, were married but my memory tells me that they bought a 1923 Model-T Ford, so their marriage must have been in late 1923 or early 1924.

I worked for them at various times during the fall years and it was during this time that I learned to drive their car. Learning to drive a no-gear-shift Ford was easier than learning to drive any other car at that time.

Johnny and Lydia made beer and wine during those years. Their tasty beer was aged the entire summer and did not shoot out of the bottle when opened, like the “green” beer made by “fast-buck” bootleggers during prohibition years. They also made two varieties of excellent wine; one from Muscat, the other from Concord grapes – Muscatel and Port wine. An interesting sidelight, when I worked at the Backhaus farm in later years, they made a good wine from their Rhubarb plants. While working in the field, wetting a dry, dusty throat with a swig of tasty beer at lunch time and a small glass of superb wine before supper made farm work much more acceptable!

I learned to run (operate) a header in the 1920’s when I worked on the farm with Johnny and Dad. Later, I did this work at the Herman Backhaus farm about 15 miles west of Linton. He was a large grain farmer with over 1,000 acres in wheat, oats and barley. Harvesting took about a month, six days a week, from early morning until dark; getting up at about 4:30-5:00am and often not getting to bed until 11:00pm. Running a header was easier than pitching box or setting stack, so running the header was my job. However, when one of the pitchers wasn’t feeling too well, he would get to run the header and I pitched box – this happened only once or twice in those years.

So, there you have my Saga of LIFE ON THE FARM!


And so, to the other side of the coin – or, better said, to the other side of the table. Lydia’s (Lee’s) parents, Johann and Luisa Haller, came to Eureka, South Dakota in May 1911 from Sofiental, Odessa Province, Russia. This was a bit late to get any Homestead Land in the Dakotas. First, they worked for friends then rented farms wherever available in the Dakotas. Lee was born on a farm several miles east of Eureka, South Dakota and grew up on various farms in North Dakota.

Being caught up in the euphoria of a good crop and high “war-time” grain prices, in 1918, Mr. Haller bought a farm about four miles west of Ashley, North Dakota when Lee was about five years old. Except for a few months doing domestic work in a private home in Bismarck, she spent the years on the farm until we were married. On this farm, she had the experience of learning all about the hard work associated with diversified-production farming: housekeeping, cooking, field work, and many, many chores necessary on a farm in the Dakotas – chores, I never had to contend with or wrote about in the first four pages of this short report.

No doubt, some of her first chores were washing dishes and clothes, feeding the chickens and whatever a child of 5-10 years can do. One of her first required field duties was picking up rocks to clear the fields for better cultivation of the land. She remembers driving the horses of the header-box at harvest-time when she could barely see over the front of the box to properly guide the horses.

Later, this progressed to more difficult work, plowing with a five-horse, two-share plow (see Encl. 10). Then came walking behind a horse-drawn harrow (also shown on Encl. 10). She thinks this was the most fatiguing chore, requiring mile after mile of crossing and returning over the field – especially filthy with a breeze blowing the dust directly into her face. Harrowing was done to conserve moisture in the soil and break up the soil to make it easier for grain to spout and grow. She did have a bit of sport in competing with a neighboring young man to see who could get back to the common field boundary line first.

At harvest time came the more difficult work of pitching box, loading from the header, then pitching the box contents onto a stack being set by her mother. Brother Johnny pitched the other box while her father drove the header horses. Some years they also had a hired man who pitched box and relieved Lee for necessary home chores.

Naturally, not all life on the farm was drudgery, there were compensations for all the hard work. Lee remembers herding their cattle on some rented pasture land. She did this on horseback which made it more agreeable. Except for attending church, Sundays were free and she often went (again on horseback) to see neighboring cousins. The neighbors had several girls and these visits were always a pleasant respite from the weekdays’ endless chores.

Also, Hoskins Lake was within walking distance where her Dad taught her the joys of fishing. One day while with him at the lake, she was standing on a rock, looking out over the water. The sight of the shimmering water made her lose her balance and she fell into the deep water at her feet. When her Dad looked around, she was not in sight, but when she came up, he was able to grab her and pull her out over the water, sputtering and gasping for breath. Her Dad held her upside-down to drain any water from her lungs. However, he had her examined by the doctor who pronounced her fit!

Brother Oscar was born when she was not quite 12 years old. This added to her necessary chores and responsibility. Taking care of him during his growing-up years was, very likely, as difficult as harrowing fields had been. (Just joking, Oscar!)

It was interesting to note that neither of the three children were enthusiastic about remaining on the farm and, in spite of no formal education beyond eighth grade, each became successful in their chosen field – Johnny and wife Adeline became successful retail business owners and Oscar became an expert in several technical fields: (automotive, automatic washer and dryer machines, but most important, his expertise in radio and television repair.) As for Lee, I can attest to the fact that she made a most successful homemaker and wife as most of you already know!

Encl. 1.
Encl. 2A - From sickle to scythe. A man was able to step up his harvest pace a bit once the scythe came into use. The attached cradle caught the cut grain. After several strokes, the cradle would be sufficiently full of wheat to be dumped. This was done by merely bringing the implement back and up to let the wheat slide from the cradle to a neat pile on the ground. Following along in the cutting paths were men who bound the bunches of grain into sheaves. They tied the sheaves or bundles with stalks of wheat. Using a scythe and cradle a man could cut about two acres a day.
Encl. 2B - Historic event. The first public trial of the revolutionary reaper took place in July 1831. The historic field was near Steel’s Tavern, close to Walnut Grove. Doubtful neighbors were watching as the machine cut its first swath. While young McCormick walked behind his machine, a negro servant named Jo Anderson raked the platform clear of the cut grain.
Encl.3 - The binder bundles. This was a typical binding scene on farms west of the Cascades. Many binders were equipped with a carrier so they could hold bundles and drop them five or six at a time. The machine pictured didn’t have this advantage though and dropped each bundle as it was tied. It was a smaller binder and was pulled by three horses instead of four.
Encl.4 -
Champion: Header Facts
The Champion Headers bristle with valuable features that have made them first choice of progressive farmers in every grain-growing country in the world where headers are used.

The driving mechanism gives light draft; lasts for years without “getting out of fix” and produces smooth, steady action.

All parts of the cutting apparatus are well supplied with oiling facilities. The cutting bar, gears, clips, knife-head and connectors are made of the best materials to be had for the purpose.

The pitman has practically a horizontal thrust preventing pounding of the knife head.

The main wheel is fitted with special side-hill lugs, in addition to the regular lugs.

There isn’t room here to tell you all the good points of these machines. Call on the Champion dealer and see for yourself.

B. F. Avery & Sons
Louisville, Ky.

Encl.5A - Group shot. Three headers and six header-boxes represent a fairly large unit. It was big enough that the wheat was probably being fed from the wagons directly into a threshing machine rather than being stacked first and then separated. The shape of the header-wagons or boxes was unique but functional. With one side lower, the header-box driver could move his wagon in under the header spout as the two conveyances moved through the field. The headed wheat cascaded from the spout into the wagon where it was leveled by a man equipped with a pitchfork.
Encl.5B - Group shot. Three headers and six header-boxes represent a fairly large unit. It was big enough that the wheat was probably being fed from the wagons directly into a threshing machine rather than being stacked first and then separated. The shape of the header-wagons or boxes was unique but functional. With one side lower, the header-box driver could move his wagon in under the header spout as the two conveyances moved through the field. The headed wheat cascaded from the spout into the wagon where it was leveled by a man equipped with a pitchfork.
Encl.6A - Wood engraving of sweep power. Horses were the sole source of power on the farm prior to steam and gas engines. One of the ingenious devices developed to transfer power from the horse to the threshing machine, baler, grist mill or whatever, was called a sweep power. A booklet of wood engravings published by the J.I. Case Co. in 1942 featured several representations of sweep powers. This unique art from a past age depicts 12 horses as they walked around in a seemingly endless circle. The man atop the sweep rotated along with the horses. Going out of the picture to the left was a tumbling rod. This rod was attached to the machine being powered. Each time the horses made a circle they had to step over the rod.
Encl.6B - A Case built Woodbury 4-wheel power fitted with 5 sweeps for 10 horses. (Also available with 6 sweeps for 12 horses.) This machine had reversible gears to add to its length of service, and a hand break for quick stopping.
Encl.7A - Straw-burner. Steam engines were commonly fed wood in the west. Coal did the job in the midwest and east. The friendly giant, however, performed on a steady diet of straw. Obviously, therefore, it was called a straw-burner. The straw was pitched into a funnel-like opening in the firebox all the time. It wasn’t hard work but according to steam enthusiast Jeff Richardson, it didn’t leave much time to wipe your nose. This harvest scene took place near Lacrosse, Washington.
Encl.7B - Horses and stream. The George E. Wood threshing outfit takes a short breather from the hard work of the day during a harvest of about 1900. The frilly-topped engine was a Minneapolis.
Encl.8A - Popularity of Case. The Case Co. sold more steam engines than any other manufacturer. This was an 11 x 11 inch cylinder, simple 25 HP traction engine taken from a page of the 1906 catalog. An engine that could move itself about was called a traction engine.
Encl.8B - Case tries gas. The first Case gas tractor was built in 1892.
Encl.9A - Mother in her vegetable and flower garden proudly displaying her watermelons.
Encl.9B - Herman and Bertha on a wheat-header in 1918.

Encl.10 -

Our wonder value steel walking plows

Our wonder value steel sulky plows

Our wonder value steel gang plows

Kenwood “U” bar steel lever harrows
Kenwood boss harrows

Note: Do not pay too much attention to the prices shown for these items. The pictures are from a 1908 Sears Roebuck Catalog.



Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller