PERRY COUNTY — Purdue Extension held a special meeting, inviting historian and author Fred Whitmore to speak on local Indiana farm history.
Whitmore spoke on Purdue University farm education and what impact it had on the area.
Whitmore ran photos dating back to the late 1800s and up to the mid 20th century.
“We’re going back to no roads and no electricity; we had outhouses … have you ever used an outhouse?” he asked of the people gathered who had signed up for the presentation.
Majority of photos were in black and white, showing mothers, fathers, children, workhands, farm animals, farm equipment, plowed fields and rows of corn.
“You know you’re in Indiana when the pig makes the family portrait,” he joked.
Whitmore also pointed out the different kinds of clothes people were wearing, noting they were usually made at home.
Narrowing down how farm life used to be, he started with the roads. Farmers had their share of trouble with roads around the early 20th century and before, he said. Roads were made of dirt and would easily turn to mud, he said, showing a photo dating from 1923.
Winter created a different way of life, Whitmore explained, for rural residents and from what we know today. People didn’t travel in the winter. They isolated in their homes and made their own stuff. They had churns for meat, grinding it up, among other things.
Children did the work on the farm, as well, though they still went to school. School buses were different, Whitmore said, showing old timey buses from the 1920s and 1930s, made of wood and loading from the rear.
Children received regular school studies but Purdue agents would provide additional education about farming. Information about corn was taught extensively to schoolchildren, with hands-on experience taught by agents.
Many families had to read by lamplight until the early 1940s, when electricity came to Perry County. Whitmore said the government would loan money for families to receive electricity but only if there were enough households on the line. During World War II, getting electricity to the counties was difficult, Whitmore recounted, as materials were scarce.
Whitmore could remember how his grandmother lived when she didn’t have electricity. She used washboards to wash clothes and large tubs filled with water heated on a stove to bathe, he said.
Purdue educators are what they’re called today but they were originally called agents, he said. They did more than teach schoolchildren but also helped farmers determine their soil pH balance. The region has shown a history of acidic soil, Whitmore explained. When tested, farmers would be told if they had “sweet or sour soil.” With sour soil, it was too acidic to grow crops reliably. Farmers would often need to apply lime to the ground to raise soil pH and reduce acidity.
“When we talk about manual labor, this is what we mean,” Whitmore said, showing photos of long lime train cars and workers with shovels. The trains would dump the lime on the side of the tracks for farmers to pick up.
“There were no roads,” Whitmore reminded everyone, suggesting the challenge of getting the lime to the farm. He said farmers would need about one to two tons to cover one acre. Train lines ran by farms to ease the travel by road but the lime had to be picked up and hauled over fields.
Purdue agents provided other kinds of education. Horses pulled plows before tractors were used and Purdue educators were out teaching farm families how to team and tie up horses “for more horse power,” Whitmore said, citing it as a common practice among the Amish as can be seen today.
Corn storage was an issue for farmers, especially in the winter. Corn was shucked straight from the field and stored in open wire silos. When winter came, they’d lose around 30% of their ears, Whitemore said. To combat this problem, Purdue agents would help farmers go through their ears, selecting good ears from the bad. They would feed the bad ones to the hogs and hang the good ones to dry.
“It’s simple once you have the data,” Whitmore said.
Education to help sort egg laying chickens would help farmers only focus on egg layers. Crop rotation and how to rotate and successfully pasture animals were among other things Prudue educated farmers about.
After World War II, the government gave Purdue University and Extension its extra dynamite. The plan was for Purdue agents to use it to help landowners blow out stumps, Whitmore said.
The local population, who needed new agriculture sciences, usually didn’t go to Purdue or any higher education to learn new techniques, he said. Purdue started their extension program with agents to travel to towns to provide farmers with new discoveries. For about 40 years, Purdue brought their agents by train to communities with educational instruction. Purdue would park the train cars in the communities. The farmers would come to the train cars to learn new practices to take and use on their farms.
In Perry County, Tobinsport had a farmers’ institute in 1888. One of the buildings is still standing today.
Whitmore’s has several books with the goal to preserve Midwestern agriculture history, particularly that of Purdue University and the State of Indiana. His books are published by Purdue University Press and can be found at www.press.purdue.edu.