Homestead Slow to Embrace Machinery and Chemical Fertilizers in Mid-Century Kansas

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Harold Skeet brings in the last load of corn he grew, on rented land, in the 1960s.
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"The Old Home Place" tells the story of one Kansas farm through the centuries.

Small-scale modern homesteaders can learn many lessons and skills from homesteaders of the past. In The Old Home Place, author Joy Lominska looks into the history of the farm she and her family currently live on and operate as organic vegetable market farmers. Through interviews and letter-writing, Lominska pieces together a history of the farm’s evolution through time. This excerpt comes from Chapter 9, “The Old Wipprecht Place,” which discusses farming as a whole in the mid-1900s, including the farm’s development under the ownership of the Wipprecht family.

You can purchase this book online: The Old Home Place 

The 1940s brought some major changes to the area, if not always to the Wipprecht farm. During the war, Harold Skeet asked the county to provide a rock crusher to make gravel for the dirt roads. The county complied, and local farmers dismantled many of the original stone fences to crush for the roads. Harold asked Henry Wipprecht if he would come to work on the road in front of the Skeet farm (the former Ousdahl farm), hauling and crushing rock in exchange for a modest pay. Henry agreed, and most days walked the mile or so west to Harold’s farm, worked several hours lifting rocks, then walked home. One day when Harold’s wife, Julia, called Henry in to the house to get his pay, Henry said that he appreciated the money, it was helpful, but what really kept him coming back each day was his desire to see how far Harold would go in rocking the road past his house. Together they rocked all the way to Wellman Road, about a mile. It must have been back-breaking work, and many of the local stone walls disappeared during this time. Other farmers followed suit, and soon many of the roads were graveled and more passable after a rain.

In 1948, electricity began spreading into the neighborhood. Harold Skeet canvassed from house to house, trying to persuade neighbors to sign up for electric service. Henry Wipprecht declined to sign up, saying they were fine as they had always been and did not need a monthly bill to worry about. Those who got electricity in 1949 remember the excitement of radios and the convenience of refrigerators. The Wipprechts finally got electricity in 1954.

As farms changed from horses to tractors, fences changed. Fewer small pastures were needed when the farm did not have work horses, so old fences were pulled out to make larger fields. Without the horse manure, the farms did not produce enough fertilizer. By the 1950s, brome grass was being planted for pasture and hay. Although its taste was appealing to livestock, it required more fertilizer than other grasses, just when farms had less. Chemical fertilizers increased in use to maintain brome fields. With technical advances, work on many farms began to change.

Farming came to be characterized by less drudgery. Machines and chemicals replaced muscle that farmers and their families historically supplied. The farmer was no longer the stooped and weathered fellow wearing dirty overalls but a respected businessperson handling resources frequently valued in the millions of dollars.

For farmers like the Wipprechts, there was less change. Millions of dollars did not pass through the hands of small farmers in Sarcoxie Township, and they continued to wear overalls for a long time.

Like the Wipprechts, most farmers in the area were still heating with wood. There was probably less use of coal than in earlier years, in part because there was more wood available. Once the prairies were no longer burned every few years, the trees from the ravines spread to higher ground, and any land that was not plowed or mowed could turn into a woods in a couple of decades. Hedge rows, planted as fences fifty to seventy-five years earlier, were sometimes cut down and replaced with barbed wire, although remaining hedge trees often provided the posts to hold the wire. The stone walls that had been removed for the roads were either not replaced or were replaced by barbed wire on hedge posts. A good hedge post can last for forty or fifty years, so the old posts we found when we moved here were likely set in the ground in the 1920s or 1930s. An old hedge post feels more like iron than wood and will clank and throw sparks if anyone is foolhardy enough to try to pound a fencing staple into it.

Osage orange, the tree from the hedges, makes terrific firewood. It creates a lot of heat, although it can also create a lot of sparks. Many local hedges provided heat for the farm family. The Wipprecht house provides testimony to the use of hedge as firewood and its propensity to pop and spark. The Wipprechts had covered the old pine floor, scrubbed over the years by so many women, with a beautiful oak floor. In the dining room, right in front of where the dining room stove was, the floor is still scarred where burning embers popped out of an open stove and charred the new floor. The burn spots are deep enough that sanding and refinishing have not removed them. They serve as reminders to the current occupants to be careful with fire, particularly when hedge is being burned.

Firewood had another use besides heating the house and cooking food. The woodpile was usually near the outhouse. If someone did not want to acknowledge that their destination was the outhouse, they could always say they were going out for some wood.

Pocket money was often scarce. Young boys earned money by trapping mink, muskrats, raccoons, and even skunks, and selling their pelts in Lawrence. Mink were hard to get, but a good pelt could bring $25 or more, a lot of money in the 1940s. The best trapping was near the creeks, and the boys in the hills spent more time hunting rabbits and squirrels than looking for muskrats and mink.

Due to decades of hunting, deer were still scarce, and the sighting of a buck in the Mud Creek valley was a major event. The low population of deer, combined with hunting and trapping of smaller warm-blooded animals and the large numbers of farm poultry, probably contributed to the absence of ticks. Ticks were occasionally encountered but were not nuisances. Chiggers were nuisances then as now.

In addition to trapping and hunting of small animals, boys and men for several decades had enjoyed hunting wolves. Red wolves once lived in the area, and the hunts may have actually begun as wolf hunts. However, over time the wolf population declined and the ever-present coyote became more numerous, as well as possibly interbreeding with remaining wolves to create a hybrid. The wolves and wolf hybrids would have been difficult to distinguish from coyotes from a distance. These hunts were still called wolf hunts, even when the target was largely coyotes. A group of young men and boys would agree on a day and a rendezvous point, then ride their horses in a large circle that gradually narrowed towards that point. When the circle closed, any wild animal in the center would be shot. There might be coyotes, or foxes, or perhaps just rabbits in the circle. The hunt could be dangerous when there were several people shooting into the center of a tight circle, and a careless shot could travel across to the opposite side. Coyotes were reviled as chicken predators, even though they commonly ate mice and rabbits, and for many years there was a bounty for their ears. When the Oskaloosa paper published the county expenses for the year, included were payments for coyote “scalps.” In 1916, a man turned in sixty-one scalps.

Snakes were the object of dislike and some fear. The two poisonous snakes in the area, rattlesnakes and copperheads, could inflict serious injury, particularly to small children. Many adults kept a hoe at hand to chop snakes outdoors. Tommy Dougan, a toddler whose family lived on Wellman Road near Valley Grove School, was playing Follow the Leader one evening with his older brothers and sister. It was dark, and he inadvertently stepped on a snake that his siblings had avoided. Tommy was bitten three times on the ankle. His parents rushed him to the doctor, who determined from the spacing of the fang marks that the snake was a rattler. Tommy was treated with antivenin and survived the experience, although he suffered health effects for the rest of his life that were attributed to the snake venom.

Black snakes inspire more stories and less fear. They are notorious for swallowing eggs in the chicken house, although they will also eat baby chicks and occasionally constrict and kill a grown chicken. A black snake in the nest of one of the Dougans’ hens with chicks ate or crushed every chick.

The population of the neighborhood continued to change. There was no one named Hunsinger, since some had died and others had moved to town or south of Lawrence, although a granddaughter named Lucille Blackburn lived at the old Hunsinger place. The Canarys left. The Rices were gone.

Down the hill going toward Lawrence, a new family moved into the old house that once belonged to John N. Johnson. Louise and Lyle Weeks and their children ran a dairy farm in the quiet little valley that was just southwest of Knowledge Hill School. Their daughter, Elizabeth, attended school there.

Elizabeth and the other children arrived at school on foot or by truck, horse, car, or jeep. Those who walked sometimes had to dodge feral pigs running in the woods, abandoned by young men who left to fight in the war. They also picked pawpaws and persimmons on the walk in the fall. Those who rode a horse tied it in the pony shed north of the school. Students walked up three concrete steps to the door, after scraping any mud off their shoes on the mud scraper. Just inside the door was a cloak room for leaving coats, boots, and lunch pails. It also contained a five-gallon bucket with an enamel dipper for drinking water and a wash basin for washing hands. The lunch pails in the cloak room revealed the economic status of the children. The poorest children brought their lunches in lard pails, while others had store-bought lunch boxes. Some lard pails did not contain much food.

Across from the cloak room was a storage room for the mop, broom, shovel, dust rags, dust compound for cleaning the floors, and extra newspaper and catalogs for use in the outhouses. After classes, the students helped mop and dust the classroom.

In the classroom, rows of desks were bolted to the floor, facing east toward the teacher’s desk and a piano. A canvas curtain suspended from the ceiling could be released by ropes to make a stage curtain. There was a sand table, used for modeling projects in geography or history. A glass-fronted bookcase held a small library. A furnace provided heat.

Outside were swings and a teeter-totter. To the east were the two outhouses, one for boys on the north and one for the girls on the south. Each outhouse contained a two- or three-hole seat that could be shared by classmates. A can of lime was used to keep down odor and flies.

Discipline in the one-room schools was a bit different from now. It was not unusual for older boys to disrupt class. The teacher at Knowledge Hill in the 1948-‘49 school year followed two teachers who had been chased off by an eighteen-year-old boy who had not yet finished the eighth grade. The new teacher, Jane Rumold, was small and was determined not to be driven off also. She got permission from the county to have two other boys hold the miscreant so that she could paddle him, two swats, when he was disruptive. His behavior improved.

The Weeks family lived quietly, working and raising their children. One day in 1944 they had one of the more dramatic adventures in the neighborhood. Lyle was milking the cows in the evening and the children were in bed when a laundry truck pulled up by the house. Several uniformed men got out and announced to Louise that they were looking for escaped convicts from the prison in Leavenworth. When they were informed that no convicts had been seen at the farm, the men declared that they needed permission to search the house. As they searched, it became clear they were not searching for people. They took Lyle’s Sunday shirt and pants and got gas for their vehicle from the supply kept for the tractor. They helped themselves to eggs, bread, and milk for supper, after tying up Louise, and Lyle when he came in. One of the group nervously flicked a knife. After dark, they took the Weeks’ car because they were unable to start the laundry truck. One man who had taken three or four dollars he had found in the house returned them to Louise before leaving. They drove off to the south, towards the Simon farm, and then turned west. The next morning, Lyle and Louise drove the tractor to the Simon house to call the authorities. They learned that there were indeed five convicts from Leavenworth who had escaped in a laundry truck after tying up their supervisor. The stolen truck had run out of gas on the hill near the farm. After leaving the Weeks’ farm, they had driven to the crossroads at Midland, robbed a family, and ruined the Weeks’ car.

Modern youth often wonder how people entertained themselves before television. The school was still the center of activity in the 1940s, with the usual suppers and programs. Once people had cars, there was actually more visiting because it was so much easier to travel a significant distance (as long as the roads were not muddy).

A big change during the Wipprecht years was the paving of Wellman Road. Rock had proven to be a more acceptable surface than sand, but the rocks sank into the clay in a relatively short time, necessitating a new layer of rock. In the early 1950s, Wellman Road was paved. The contractors may have wondered why, on one stretch of road two miles west of the Wipprecht place, the survey stakes for the paving kept disappearing. A little boy living along Wellman Road removed the stakes and used them to shore up the porch of his grandmother’s house.

That same little boy remembered his neighbors on Wellman Road buying a herd of hundreds of goats and turning them loose on the hill to the east of their house to eat the brush that was threatening to overtake the farm. Chemicals would soon be used to attempt to control the encroachment of brush on the farms.

For decades, hogs had provided farmers with not just food but ready income. The saying “corn into hogs” illustrated farm dependency on the two products. By the 1950s, “corn into hogs” had shifted to “grass into cattle or into milk.” Farmers had always had a few cows to provide the family with milk, butter, and cheese, but now the commercial dairies really expanded. A circle of a three-mile radius with its center at the Wipprecht place contained at least six dairy farms during the late 1940s and 1950s. With improved roads, milk trucks could haul the cans in to town for processing, and eventually tank trucks replaced the cans. The milk check was reliable income, and many farmers felt the dairy provided a good living, in spite of the long hours and hard work. Some even ran a small dairy and worked a job in town as well.

The Department of Agriculture produced record books for farm families to plan their yearly expenses and calculate their income. A nearby farm family recorded their plans for the year of 1944, including improving their dairy herd by buying a purebred bull and better chicks for their flock. Their poultry flock consisted of 100 hens, predicted to lay 1,260 dozen eggs during the year. To feed the family of five, they intended to butcher one calf, seventy-five chickens, and two hogs. They anticipated canning 200 quarts of tomatoes, 200 quarts of other vegetables, and 200 quarts of fruit. Six hundred canning jars full of food! What a monumental amount of work. Their crops included oats, corn, sorghum, and millet, plus eighteen acres of brome grass. In many ways, farm life did not seem that different from seventy-five years earlier, although this family also had electric and phone bills to pay, and gas to buy for a car. They needed more regular income to pay monthly bills.

A less-popular “improvement” began to occur during the 1950s with the push to consolidate the rural schools. The Jefferson County school superintendent had begun lobbying for consolidation as early as the 1920s, but with little result. The roads were too poor and the one-room schools were too important as community centers for consolidation to be implemented at that time. With improved transportation, sending children to a central school by bus became possible, if not yet popular. The first of the nearby schools to close was O’Neil, whose last school year was 1952-53, followed by Sunnyside, just west of Wellman Road, in about 1955. Next was Valley Grove, north on Wellman Road. It closed at the end of the 1959-60 school year. Last was Knowledge Hill, perhaps in part because it had a newer, more modern building. The last classes at Knowledge Hill were held the year of 1962-63, leaving a total of three rural one-room schools left in the county. Rural children were bused to the town schools in McLouth, Oskaloosa, or even Perry.

Some of the former rural schools were abandoned to time, others used for sheds. A few were converted to homes. The fate of the four local schools mirrored what happened across the county. Valley Grove, surrounded by a dairy farm, languished without funds for maintenance and began the slow process of decay. O’Neil had some maintenance for use as an outbuilding on the adjacent farm, thus suffering less from the passage of time. Sunnyside in 1956 became the township polling place, extending its role as a community center and bringing substantial preservation efforts. Knowledge Hill became a private residence in the 1960s, has undergone major renovation, and is a unique, modern-looking home now, successfully fending off the ravages of time. All four still stand, a visual reminder of the communities’ past.

It takes several years for a farm’s name to change in the minds of neighbors. After the Bruchmillers left, no one lived at the farm long enough to attach a new name to it. The Wipprechts stayed for twenty years, and the farm began to be called the old Wipprecht place. In 1964, Henry and Laura were in their seventies, and it was time to move to town. Maybe Maynard persuaded them to move closer to him in Kansas City, so he could help them when needed. Laura agreed to move to town with one condition: the new house had to have a wood-burning stove for her to use for baking. The daughter of Alva Mooney, the man who had always helped Henry take his eggs to town, came with her husband to help the Wipprechts pack. Laura was very particular about how her kerosene lamps were handled. She carefully wrapped them in newspaper, so they would not break on the journey.

Once again the farm was empty, a bit run-down, and needing some maintenance. For the next fifteen years, no matter who lived there, it was still called the old Wipprecht place.

Excerpted from The Old Home Place by Joy Lominska with permission. Buy this book online: The Old Home Place.