In a society that chooses to live with microwaves and frozen food, it is hard to imagine how people in the farms survive with no electricity or running water to start with. People today are so accustomed to one-stop-shops wherein everything that you’ll ever need in a household can be provided for, in cans and plastics that is. In the early 1900’s, if you want to eat carrots you have to grow them. That’s how things go in a homestead. The idea of maintaining your own farm may sound too tedious for our generation but for those who have experienced the bountiful harvest after each planting season, having a farm is worth all their hard labor.
The Homestead Act paved way to distribution of undeveloped state land to applicants including freed slaves. This was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. The law requires only three steps and that is for them apply for the grant, improve the land through farming or other agricultural use, and file for a deed of title. The Act took effect in 1862 and ended in 1896 when the government said that it is more useful for the land to remain as public property. Even so, 1.6 million homestead where granted by the end of 1896. Homesteading then has become popular and attracted more and more people to the fields.
Elinore Rupert and the Homestead Act
The Homestead Act was the fulfillment of a long time dream to own a land by most of the people back then. Among them is Elinore Rupert who worked various menial jobs just to get a chance to have her own farm. Perhaps one of the most documented joys of tending to a Homestead is best captured into words by her letter to her long-time-friend and ex-boss Mrs. Coney. All of her 26 detailed letters to Mrs. Coney has showed how it was to live in a farm during the early 1900’s.
Her adventure in acquiring her dream farm is no easy feat because of challenges like lack of electricity, unavailability of doctors, and etc. However, as we journey with her in her letters we will come to see that making a living in the early 1900’s is easier than in the 1930’s wherein the second industrial revolution took place. The second industrial revolution paved way to widespread availability of electricity, engines and cars. During the 1930’s 53% of farms in the US has cars and 13% has electricity. This then resulted to higher production costs for farmers since the added inputs such as electricity and tractors are expensive. Given their high cost, a private farm can seldom afford to buy such machines and this paved way to commercial farms, poultry houses, piggery and other farms that specializes on one crop.
Filling A Claim
For Miss Rupert, filing a claim in 1909 was a breeze since she cited no delays in her claim except for the long journey that lasted for days with not even a house in sight within 3 miles of road and sage. She even boasted that she is now a “bloated land owner” because of vast land she has acquired together with Mr. Stewart. Given that she acquired no degree in any education level and has worked menial jobs ever since their parents died, acquiring such vast land with no money involve never happens in our generation. She describes her land so well and has already pictured her house and where to build it. By that time she was only an employee of Mr. Stewart yet her dreams of acquiring a land and a house near the pines seemed too close for her status.
Tilling the Land
The land in Wyoming that Ms. Rupert has chosen was buried in 15 feet of snow when she arrived so she waited for summer to really see the contours of her land. Once she did, she filed her claim and started tilling her land as well as her employers. In her third letter she says that “I have worked very hard, but it has been work that I really enjoy”. She ran the mower even if she was a woman and was well proud that she can do so even if it is considered mans’ job. Mrs. Rupert cooked their meals, milked 7 cows per day and cut hay but she still has time to make jelly and jam using berries.
Furthermore, the letter states that they have begun haying on July 5 until September 8 which lasted for almost a month. As compared to haying in the 1930’s wherein machines ran faster and does the haying in lesser time, perhaps 1 month of labor seems too tedious. However, given that there was lesser inputs and cost in haying since she did most of the job, she and Mr. Stewart has saved ample amount of money. In this light, most private/family farms can’t afford faster machineries as compared to corporations and plantations. Co-owned farms such as corporations and plantations grew in popularity during 1930’s therefore making it harder for the small farms to compete in terms of productivity and quantity of products. In the 1900’s on the other hand there were only a few corporations and plantations who can afford massive employment or machines giving the family/private-owned farms equal chances. They are of equal footing in terms of production.
A bountiful Harvest
Like any other farms, perhaps the most awaited day would be the day for harvesting. Ms. Rupert has colorful accounts of various harvest seasons and the crops that she has planted. The garden that she often refers to has to hectares of land for all of the different kind of crops that she has mentioned to fit in. in one letter she has mentioned that she planted all the vegetables and flowers all by her self and found no difficulty in doing so. Even her daughter has planted potatoes which she said only requires labor during planting and will be visited only during the harvest period.
This means that the land that they were tilling back then where rich with nutrients enough to support various crops. She even said that “I irrigated and I cultivated it myself” which adds emphasis on the ease of planting crops back then.
Perhaps it is worth noting that the annual average consumption of commercial fertilizers in the 1900’s was only 3 million tons and that doubled in the 1910’s. This continued to increase in the following years and doubled again in the late 1940’s. Through time the fertility of the soil used in farming decreases therefore there is a need to apply more and more fertilizers. This is shown in the increasing demands for fertilizers. In the 1900’s most of the land given through homesteading are undeveloped lands which are not previously used for agricultural purposes. The fertility of the land is high and the farmers need not put much fertilizer for their plant to have good harvest. In return, there is less input and less cost in growing crops. It was easier for farmers to grow crops back then as compared to 1920’s or 1930’s in terms of agricultural inputs.
Diversity of Crops
Homestead farming is sufficient form of farming wherein most of the crops grown are for the consumption of the family and all the added extra are being sold to the market. Ms. Rupert showed in her letter the different crops that she grows such as: “one large bin of potatoes (more than two tons), half a ton of carrots, a large bin of beets, one of turnips, one of onions, one of parsnips, and on the other side of the cellar we have more than one hundred heads of cabbage.” there where also different kinds of berries that she used for making jellies and Jam.
Planting diverse crops enables the farmer to save since they don’t need to buy most of the vegetables and food that they would need. Furthermore, growing cash crops or one type of crop in a single farm which has been a common practice lately increases the incidence of pest infestations. This is due to the availability of food that the insects feed on the whole year. In homestead farming, there is crop rotation wherein different crops are planted at different season and this limits the population of insects that feeds on a certain type of crop. Because the crop id not available whole year round, the insects will flee to other places where the crop is available. Furthermore, the diversity in crops also provides year round supply for the entire family in all their basic foods such as wheat, potatoes, carrots and etc.
Hunting in 1900’s
In her letters she has stated that in her free time she goes out to the woods and fish for trout with nothing but a hook, salt, lard, and bread on hand. Fishing for her was easy since she catches only grasshoppers for bait and the fish are abundant. Rabbits and squirrels are often on her menu even as shown in the passage:
“The logs had left a big bed of coals, but some ends were still burning and had burned in such a manner that the heat would go both under and over my rabbit. So I put plenty of bacon grease over him and hung him up to roast”
She was also able to sleep in the outdoors without having to worry of robbers or thieves. All she was worried about was the wolf that cried at night. For a woman, her homestead was able to supply her with all the food she need through hunting.
The rich wildlife during the 1900’s provides enough for everyone. Nobody will starve as long as they know how to hunt and make use of what is around them. Just like Ms. Rupert, they can all go out in the comforts of the woods and rest assured that along the way food will come to them such wild berries, rabbits, and squirrels.
Difficulties in a homestead
Living in 1900’s is not as complicated as today. There were no computers, television sets, cars, and other technological advancements. Their life was simple and so was their pleasure. Their amusement is not going to theaters and enjoying a movie but planting, taking a walk in the woods and other simple pleasures. However the simplicity has some difficulties.
Lack of Transportation. On her journey to see the homestead that she is to petition for she has stated in her letter that the journey took days and was indeed toilsome. Most of the time they have to camp out on the road since it is difficult to continue at night. There were no concrete road and there was no train within their vicinity to make transportation faster. In her letter she said that she is 60 miles from the railroad and even so, the train ride was 2 days. During her journey they ride on mules and horses carrying their cart.
In the 1930’s however there is widespread availability of cars that run on fuel however they are expensive and may be an additional burden for the farmers in maintaining repairing it.
Lack of doctors. The homesteads are located at the outskirts of the forests and mountains and there is little access to health care. In one instance wherein Mr. Stewart was ill and she could not find a doctor, she nursed him till he was well. “. Out here where we can get no physician we have to dope ourselves, so that I had to be housekeeper, nurse, doctor, and general overseer” said Ms. Rupert. Because of the unavailability of medicine and doctors most them resort to alternative medicines are equipped with the right knowledge in curing the simple illness such as colds and fever. Ms. Stewart herself suffered from eye-strain and was unable to write for a while. She even apologized for the delay in her replies.
Lack of Manpower. Ms. Rupert stated that there is lack of manpower in the farms since they were not able to find workers to do the haying. This is a common scenario in farms back then since almost all of the neighbors also has farms to attend to. Plus the fact that there is an influx of workers to the factories and not in the farms.
Labor of Love
Keeping and maintaining her homestead was a labor of love for Ms. Rupert since it was a long time dream for her. It takes great effort and will to till land especially if you’re not accustomed to it. However, the last letter of Ms. Rupert, then called Mrs. Stewart was entitled “success” for even a woman who did not grew up in the farm but behind laundries was able to grow crops.
During the 1900’s as long as there is will to do then it will e possible was shown by Mrs. Rupert’s’ success. If a person can do farm work and is willing to do so, then employment, food, and shelter will not be a problem. There was vast lands waiting to be tilled and all it needs is an owner. The land is fertile and crops grow with minimum care.
As compared to 1900’s, there was lesser land available for homestead in 1930’s and even so, the prime lands have already been taken by people like Mrs. Stewart. Even if there was willingness to till land, the land available are limited.
In summary, with all the agricultural output, technological advancement, land-owning opportunity, soil-fertility and cheap cost of inputs, it can be deduced that is easier to make a living in the 1900’s than in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Stewart, Elinore P. (1998) Letters of a Woman Homesteader