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Agriculture in Illinois 1850-1900

Dayna Mergenthaler


The development of agriculture in Illinois is a microcosm of the development of agriculture in the United States. Illinois is a bridge between the older, traditional farming practices of the East Coast and the newer, more experimental practices of the Midwest and West. For example, when the state was first settled in the early nineteenth century, agriculture was largely confined to the wooded, stream, and river areas, as was the case in the East. As time went on, the plains were plowed and swamp areas were drained. This technological improvement and expansion of arable lands made farming possible in other areas of the state.

The mechanization that made agriculture the large-scale commercial endeavor that exists in the United States today also began in Illinois. Some of Illinois' contributions to the evolution of agricultural technology include the invention of barbed wire, threshers, and tractors. The modern plow evolved through the work of Illinoisians John Lane, who invented the polished moldboard plow, and John Deere, who invented the steel plow. Lane enabled the cultivation of the prairie sod, and Deere made the job faster and more efficient.

Modern scientific farming, including crop specialization in different land types also developed in Illinois. Illinois led in the large-scale commercial industrialization of agricultural business. McCormick and Deere began large-scale production of reapers and plows, creating a new class of agricultural workers. Meanwhile, a group of astute businessmen turned Chicago into the meatpacking capital of the country. Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift created highly efficient plants that processed enormous amounts of livestock. These innovations that began in Illinois were a sign that farmers and businessmen were beginning to perceive agriculture as a commercial and scientific endeavor rather than as a source of subsistence.


1. List at least three of the main crops in Illinois.

2. Identify one nineteenth-century technical innovation developed in Illinois and explain how it improved farming.

3. Diagram some areas of crop differentiation and explain why the areas are suited to specific agriculture.

Illinois Learning Standards

16.A. Analyze and report historical events to determine cause-and-effect relationships.

16.E. Analyze how technological and scientific developments have affected human productivity, human comfort, and the environment.

13.C. Understand the relationships among science, technology, and society in historical and contemporary contexts.


I. Introduction: Begin by asking students questions such as, "Why is agriculture important to you, the nation, and the world?" "How did innovation change farming in Illinois and the United States?" "Did these innovations change the face and scope of agriculture in the United States?"

II. Explain why we study the history of agriculture and agricultural technology

A. The study of the history of agricultural technology is important because agriculture has always been one of the most important endeavors of this state and of this nation.

B. The study of the history of agricultural technology helps students to understand and explore people and their interaction with their environment and how innovation occurs and affects the development of society.

C. The relationship between humans


and the land is the most obvious part of agriculture. Innovation enables agriculture as an endeavor to adapt to changing land conditions and an expanding population. The character of the nation, moreover, is affected greatly by agriculture because it is historically our most important industry.

D. The U.S. was founded as a predominately agricultural nation, and agriculture is still one of the country's main economic endeavors. The large expanse of available land and the productivity of the earth, particularly in Illinois, led to the economic wealth of the nation and to the idea of Manifest Destiny. Exploration of the relationship between the American farmer and the land and how that has affected American ideas and myths about our "national character" leads students to better comprehension of the interrelated nature of history, geography, and society.

III. Overview of Agriculture in America

A. American agriculture is the largest business in the world

B. Employs people in farming and livestock care

1. Employs people in auxiliary positions:
Equipment production, development, sales, service. Chemical and feed development, production, sales. Product/commodity trading, sales. Banking/finance.

2. Produces a huge portion of the world's food supply.

IV. History

A. National

1. Thomas Jefferson's ideal: the American as an independent citizen farmer.

2. Percentage of Americans involved in agriculture.

3. Highlights of agriculture (see chronology below) Nineteenth-Century Agricultural Chronology.
1790 - 90% of United States labor force in agriculture.
1793 - Invention of Cotton Gin
1796 - President Washington proposes a federal board of agriculture
1834 - McCormick Reaper patented
1837 - Threshing machine patented John Deere and Leonard Andrus manufacture steel plows
1862 - President Lincoln creates United States Department of Agriculture
1862 - Homestead Act, Morrill Land Grant College Act creates universities for agriculture education
1862-75 - American farmers begin to rely on horsepower rather than handpower
1874 - First state department of agriculture in Georgia
1875 - First agriculture experiment stations in Connecticut and California
1887 - Hatch Act creates federal agricultural experimentation and relationship between USDA and land grant colleges
1889 - Commissioner of USDA becomes cabinet post
1890 - Second Morrill Act increases Land Grant Act and begins black land grant colleges

B. Illinois

1. Pre-1850: Farming confined to southern third of state and to woodland and river areas.

2. 1850-1870: Farming branches out; prairie lands begin to be used for other purposes than grazing.

3. 1870-1900: Mechanization and horsepower change the ease and scope of farming.

4. Agriculture becomes an industrial and commercial endeavor in the nineteenth century.

5. Specialization due to land types (Map Guide).

V. Primary Source Documentó John A. Brookens, Memories of an Illinois Farmer. ([Taylorville, Ill.]: n.p., 1989.)

A. Have students read the document about how soybeans were introduced in east-central Illinois in the twentieth century (Handout 1).

B. Ask the students questions about the document using primary source document handout (Handout 2).

VI. Lecture: The Idealization of Agriculture and its Early Development in Illinois

A. Lecture: Thomas Jefferson saw the American farmer as a symbol of what he dreamed America could be "Those who labor in the earth are


the chosen people of God,...whose breast He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."

B. He believed that the development of America as an agricultural nation would lead to a new class of people, independent of the upper or lower classes.

C. For most of American history, 80-90% of the population was directly involved in farming.

D. The agricultural chronology worksheet traces the development of agricultural innovation and government policies.

E. Explain that agriculture in Illinois began like eastern agriculture, limited to forested land, which was believed to be the most fertile, and land along rivers and streams where irrigation was possible. Prairie was thought to be infertile and was only used for grazing. People began to realize that the swampy tall-grass prairie of Illinois was incredibly fertile and needed to be drained to be cultivated. The developments in plows and horsepower made it possible to cut through the complex root systems of wild grass.

F. Agriculture in Illinois, 1850-1900

1. After 1850 the use of land expanded, and land use became specialized (see map of farm land sections). Northern section I was used for oats, wheat, and hay, which were suited to the cooler climate and soil type.

2. Area III was utilized for corn and livestock. Corn grows better in the richer, moister soil of the region, and the Illinois River made shipping livestock to Chicago easier than in other areas.

3. Area IV was similarly used but to a lesser extent.

4. Area VIII was used less for crops due to the lower quality of the soil and more for livestock.

5. By 1870 the land became more specialized, as the rich land in Area IV became utilized more effectively. The growing size of Chicago and its development into the meatpacking capital of the world made livestock production a larger industry in the state. The less productive land in the north due to its proximity of Chicago became dedicated to livestock production.

6. By 1900 farmers began experimenting with more types of farming, and the South became utilized for fruits and other foodstuffs, the East for corn and soybeans, the West and Southwest for wheat, and the North for livestock and vegetable crops.

7. The innovations that were developed in Illinois include the invention of barbed wire, which made it possible for farmers to let their herds graze without constant tending and herding. The thresher and plow made farming more efficient, allowing farmers to cultivate much larger pieces of land more quickly.

VII. Summary. Close by reiterating that:

A. Agriculture is a very important part of our national and state identity.

B. America produces a large portion of the world's agricultural output, and Illinois produces a large portion of America's agricultural output.

C. Being a farmer or raising livestock are not the only roles in agriculture, as many auxiliary and support services are needed to sustain the industry.

D. Many innovations and innovators in the area of agricultural technology and industry came from Illinois.

E. Illinois farming and land-use techniques represented developing awareness of agriculture as a scientific and technological endeavor in the nation as a whole.

F. Illinois, specifically central Illinois, has some of the richest and most productive land in the world, and Illinois farmers have learned how to use and maximize production on this fertile soil.

G. Having an awareness of the importance of agriculture in the state and in the nation will help students to understand the basis of the national character. Explain that understanding the development of agriculture will foster appreciation for the fields that are taken for granted today.


I. Map Information

Each map has specific identifying information that helps the user to understand and use it more effectively. Here are some of those keys to map identification:

A. Title of map
B. Date on map
C. Author of map
D. Symbols in legend
E. Type of map
F. Scale of map
G. Purpose of map

II. Using the Map Historically

Now that we have a basic idea about the map and its geographic purpose, what history can we learn from it?

A. Location: What place is the map showing us, and where is it in relation to the rest of the world?

B. Region

C. Place: What is this place like? What do you know about it?

D. Land Use: What changes has man made to this place?

E. Population Migration: Can you tell if people move around within this place? How can you tell?

III. Map Analysis

Think about what you now know about the map and the place it shows. How does this information relate to what we have been studying?

A. Does this map reinforce anything else we have studied? Does it conflict with anything?

B. Does this map help you to understand the subject better? How does it make things clearer? If it does not, why do you think it does not?

C. Does this map tell you anything special about the people who live in the place it shows?

D. Does this map tell you anything special about the land?

E. Does the map tell you anything interesting about the time it depicts?

Source: Peter Nelson, History of Agriculture in Illinois with Special Reference to Types of Farming. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1931), p.9.


Soy Beans

The first time I ever heard of soy beans, my dad was farming some ground that belonged to my Uncle Jim Dappert. He never farmed for himself, but someplace he read about soy beans and thought they might be a useful crop to raise around here. He found some seed someplace and sent them out to Dad to plant. No one knew a thing about how to plant and care for them, but when Dad started to plant a field of corn, he planted the soy beans first with the corn planter.

I imagine he drilled them about the same as he would corn, likely 4 inches deep. Maybe we got a big rain right afterwards or maybe the seed was no good. At least, I don't believe a single plant ever came up, so that experiment fizzled out.

A few years later, a man by the name of Hurlbrink who farmed over around Assumption began experimenting with soy beans. He even developed a new variety which he called the Hurlbrink soy bean. He recommended that farmers plant them in the hill with corn, that they were legumes and would help furnish nitrogen for the corn, and then the plant would be there for the stock to eat while pasturing stalks after the corn was shucked.

Many farmers got "bean attachments" for their planters. This was a box that held about a half gallon of beans and was attached to each planter box and fixed so that each time a hill of corn was dropped, a bean was also dropped. The idea gradually fizzled out. I think they decided that a bean plant in the hill was about the same as a weed which took the moisture and nourishment away from the corn.

We did gradually start sowing soy beans for hay. We would mow them green and put them up for hay. The first time I ever threshed soy beans, I mowed the raked and shocked them, and later loaded the shocks and hauled them to a threshing machine. I got 50 cents a bushel for the beans.

Mr. Hurlbrink invented some sort of machine to harvest the beans. I never saw one, but I did see a picture of it. I think the idea was to strip the beans off the plant. The farmers started cutting the beans with a binder and shocking them, then threshing them. This proved so successful that Mr. Hurlbrink's idea was forgotten. I think he did a lot to get soy beans established as a profitable crop to raise in Illinois. Some of the early varieties of soybeans were Manchu, Illinois, A.K., and a black bean that was a little "viney" and was used for hay.

Soy bean stalks and leaves are covered with a tine fuzz and threshing them was a dirty job. You would get covered with this fuzz and it would make you itch. That is just another plus in farming that folks farming now will never have the pleasure of experiencing. The combines put a stop to that, but the first combines were pulled by open tractors, no closed-in, dust-free or air-conditioned cabs. The dust would come up in the driver's face, and the dust and fuzz was about as bad as threshing. The younger generation will never know what a lot they are being cheated out of.



I. Source Data
Type of Source:

II. Purpose of source

Who was the author? What did he or she do?

Who was the author addressing in this source?

Why was the author writing this source?

Did the author have any personal point of view that might be important to remember when you read this source? What are the main ideas from the source?

What history can we find in this source? (Not just facts and themes, but ideas and values.)

III. Analysis of this source as a historical document

How long after the historical event was this written? How might the time between the event and the writing of the source affect what is in the source? How does the information in this source compare to other information you already know?

Should you use other sources to balance the use of this, or does it stand alone? Can you determine the value of this document? What questions would you ask the author if you could? Do you have any questions about this document that you can answer with further research? Do you recommend this source to others studying this subject?


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