Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The View To and From 1868

A good friend recently sent me a wonderful present, the 1868 Report from the Department of Agriculture. This is no piece of fluff, but a hardbound book, 671 pages in length.

I've been having a delightful time vicariously exploring our country and its agriculture 140 years ago.

For a little background and local scene-setting....

In 1868, the Chisholm Trail was 3 years old. Cattle drives from north Texas to the new railhead at Abilene, Kansas, had started the previous year. (These drives would only continue for another 5-6 years before fences across the trail curtailed its use.)

Bison were still commonly seen in this area.

Wichita did not yet exist. In 1865 William Greiffenstein, "Dutch Bill", had established a trading post on Cowskin Creek near the present site of Wichita. The entire area had been surveyed in 1867 and, by 1868, it was beginning to open to settlement. 1868 was the year, in fact, that Wichita became the actual gleam in its forefathers' eyes. A small group of men started the Wichita Land and Town Company that year to promote the establishment of a new city. The only buildings that existed there, though, seemed to have been built that year. They were a house constructed of cottonwood logs by D. S. Munger and a hotel known as the Buckhorn, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Vigus. The first church was not built until the following year and the first jail wasn't built until 1871.

Back to the 1868 Agricultural Report....

Lots of land was still available for homesteading and settlement. In Kansas specifically, only 20% of the land had so far been purchased or "entered under homestead laws"; approximately 80% was still available. In the country as a whole, 18 times the combined areas of Great Brtain and Ireland remained to be sold or homesteaded. To homestead, you were supposed to be a U.S. citizen or have "declared [your] intentions to become such." And, of course, you had to be male, over the age of 21 or "the head of a family", and planning to use the land for actual settlement and cultivation yourself.

Kansas was glowingly described. The Neosho River Valley was "considered the garden spot of Kansas." The climate of the southern portion of the state is described as "temperate and healthful, and especially favorable to stock-raising." Also, "[t]he climate is peculiarly adapted to the cultivation of the grape. Excellent wine from the Kansas grape has been manufactured."

With typical "grass is greener" greed, this notation was made, "In the year 1867 nearly 2,900,000 acres were surveyed in the Cherokee neutral and Osage reservations, situated near the southern boundary of Kansas. As Indian reserves, these lands had been kept out of the market, and are reported as among the most desirable in the State. They are now open for homestead entry."

Not surprisingly, agricultural commodity reports were given. Indian corn was the primary crop produced in Kansas in 1868, selling for $.99/bushel. Wheat was second, selling for $1.35/bushel. That year, averaged across the country, corn yielded 25.9 bushels/acre and wheat yielded 12.1 bushels/acre. Specific yields for Kansas aren't given.

However, on average in Kansas that year, corn produced $17.82/acre, wheat produced $21.06/acre, and rye $21.42/acre. The most lucrative crop per acre was tobacco at $143/acre, followed by potatoes at $79.90/acre.

A big problem across the country, as noted in this report, were losses and depredations by dogs. In Atchison County, Kansas, one correspondent noted that some farmers had disposed of their sheep because of "the destruction of dogs and prairie wolves. Dogs are quite numerous and the greatest nuisance, and I think our legislature should tax them heavily." In Ohio alone, it was reported that over the prior decade an average of 35,715 sheep had been killed and 23,374 injured by dogs each year.

Grape culture and wine production were reported on quite extensively in this volume. Only 1 county in Kansas, Leavenworth, actually reported any such activity, though. An average of 450 gallons of wine per year had been produced there over the preceeding 5 years.

Not surprisingly for a country being newly settled, hedge building was an important topic. The cost of putting in a hedge was compared to the comparable cost of building wooden fences, with hedges reported to be significantly cheaper. The total cost of hedging a quarter-section farm for 20 years, including maintenance, was placed at $1596, while board fencing during the same period of time was estimated at $4000. (Remember that at this time, through the Homestead Act, that same quarter-section farm would only have cost $200 plus $18 in commissions and fees.)

While the honeylocust (the species, Gleditschia [sic] triacanthos, complete with thorns) was mentioned as a desireable hedge tree, and it was mentioned that buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata) and other species had been tried, the osage orange (Maclura pomifera, then identified as Maclura aurantiaca) was the tree being touted as most ideal for use throughout much of the country. This could be obtained either through the purchase of seeds or through the purchase of "quicks", which we would undoubtedly call whips or seedlings today. Quicks were the recommended method of establishing a good hedge.

It was recommended to trim the newly planted hedge trees each year for several years to thicken the growth. "Pleaching" the hedges when they reached 2" in diameter at 3' above the ground was also highly recommended. (As far as I can determine, pleaching a hedge means to braid or interlace the shoots.) If a double row hedge was pleached by crossing the saplings alternately, a herring-bone hedge was produced, apparently a particularly strong type of hedge.

I must admit that I rarely see double hedges of osage orange, let alone hedges that appear to have been pleached at any time during their life, so I doubt that these recommendations were widely followed, at least around here.

County roads were a big concern. Throughout the country, it was common to require all able-bodied men between certain ages (for example, between 16 and 60) to provide several days free labor each year to build and maintain these roads. The number of days' labor that were required varied from one to fifteen days, depending on the state. A man reporting from Massachusetts highlighted one of the common, major flaws of this system, however, "The system is good where the people are all interestd in good roads, but there are many who are never ready to work or pay; and, if they pretend to work, it is more of a holiday affair than a matter of public benefit." A new system was proposed in this report that consisted of levying a tax in money, rather than in labor, for the purpose of constructing and repairing all roads in a county under the management of a permanently employed, "competent county road engineer".

Human nature doesn't change, does it? There are always those who want others to carry their load for them while they goof off or otherwise refuse to participate in projects for the good of the community overall.

Of course, 1868 was well before the days of chemical agriculture. I noticed several reports that showed how farmers, then, dealt with soil fertility and pest problems. Not all of their methods were benign.

One report noted how much better wheat did if it was planted after red clover, better even than after the application of manure or other forms of fertilizer. Clover grown for seed, rather than cut for hay or grazed by sheep, produced the absolute best crops of wheat the following year.

It was recommended that potato bugs be managed by first planting varieties that they particularly liked, attracting all newly emerging potato bugs in the spring and keeping them occupied, then later planting other, less tasty (to the bugs) varieties which can develop "unmolested".

Another farmer noted his experience with potato bugs too. He reported that the bugs appeared in patches in his field. He handpicked the bugs, larvae, and eggs for several weeks until a friend recommended a mixture of "Paris green" and dry ashes for potato bug control. When he tried it, he said this worked extremely well. [Note: looking up "Paris green" on the web, it appears to be a TOXIC double salt of copper arsenate and copper acetate. This WOULD NOT be a recommended organic pest control method!] Ultimately this farmer recommended specific methods of planting to increase the ease of finding (and thus picking off and destroying) the potato bugs; he felt that this way one could "sav[e] the cost of the pigment". He also recommended not planting on ground where potatoes grew the year before, where the potato bug population would already be well established.

Side notes....

In New Jersey, land was renting at $100/acre for market gardening, which seems fairly expensive to me.

"Camus", also identified as the bulb of Scilla Fraseri [sic], eastern quamash, or wild hyacinth, was noted to be an important food item for the Native Americans. It was reported to have a sweet, gummy taste and to be very nutritious, and therefore it was being recommended as a potential "new" culinary vegetable for cultivation. (Note: I have no knowledge as to the actual edibility of this plant. PLEASE don't try it! For all I know it's very poisonous.)

There were many variegated varieties of trees being recommended for planting, including a variegated osage orange, a variegated sycamore, and a variegated red maple. There was even a variegated ginkgo noted!

Many trees were discussed as suitable for street trees. I was rather pleasantly surprised at how many were somewhat unusual natives, like yellow wood (Cladrastis kentukea, known then as Cladrastis tinctoria), wild cherry (Prunus serotina), osage orange!, and even the Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus canadensis, now known as G. dioicus). Of course boxelder (Acer negundo), known then as ash-leaved maple (Negundo aceroides) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum, known then as Acer dasycarpum) were also recommended street trees! The boxelder was actually described as "one of the finest formed ornamental trees where it has space to develop its natural outline."

Last, but not least, it was interesting to note the climatological data recorded. In Kansas, the recorded lows for 1868 occurred on December 11, measuring from -6 in Baxter Springs to -20 in "Olatha". The recorded highs for the year occurred between July 20-22, with Holton reaching 111, Leavenworth 108, and Atchison 107. (Remember, fully 80% of the state hadn't yet been settled by Europeans during 1868; presumably the Native Americans would not have been measuring and/or recording temperature readings using European measurements at this time.)

So what impressions am I left with overall?

* The weather was quite variable in Kansas that year. Comparatively, we generally don't have anything much to complain about, especially considering that we have heating and air conditioning in our homes!

* Kansas was truly a baby 140 years ago. So maybe when the policies of its people and politicians don't seem very wise to me, there's a reason - even now, as far as states and countries go, Kansas is still barely adolescent in its development!

* Going back to "the good old days" isn't all it's cracked up to be. Can you imagine the uproar if all able-bodied people were actually required to pitch in days of free labor to help our country run, instead of just allowing themselves to be taxed? The jury system is one of the only vestiges of the old system of running things left, and I know how most people go out of their way to avoid serving their time in that venue.

* Crop rotation and hand-picking insect pests have been important agricultural techniques for a long time.

* Wine was basically just another agricultural product. And the farmers and settlers in Kansas were being encouraged to experiment with growing the grapes and producing this popular product.

* Marketing is nothing new. From "finest formed ornamental trees" to "mild", "temperate" and "healthful" Kansas weather, promoters push the limits of credibility. Then, as now, the buyer had better beware.

Comparing aspects of life-then with life-now can certainly be fascinating. Overall, I guess, the truism that comes to mind is, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

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