Heritage Village, East Grand Forks, Minnesota

The Way Things Were


Lamps and Lanterns – In the 1800's lanterns were boxes with a candle inside.  Whale oil was used in the 1820's, and by the 1830's glass globes appeared.  The glass globe, lifted with a lever, helped protect the home from fire.  In 1849 the Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner patented a liquid fuel from coal and called it kerosene. A kerosene lamp shed a yellow light into the room as powerful as 4-15 candles. Victor Samuel Johnson introduced the Aladdin lamp in 1909. The Aladdin burner produced a blue flame for maximum heat output and emitted 60 candlepower. It shed a soft white light that was brighter to work by.


Farmsteads – The first farmsteads were located near streams. Farm buildings included the home, barn, corncrib, granary, woodshed, milk house, buggy shed, and work-shed.


Silos –Fermented feed, or silage, was essential for livestock such as cattle and sheep and stored in silos. Neighbors worked together to haul the feed to the silo where machines cut it into small pieces and blew it up a metal pipe through a window at the top of the silo.  The first wooden silo was built in 1891 by F.H. King.  Later models were poured concrete, brick, tile, or metal


Weather Vanes – Weather vanes told farmers the speed and direction of the wind on a daily basis.  Many weather vanes were decorative, usually depicting farm animals, and including the four cardinal directions.  Lightning rods were sometimes a part of the weather vane.


Outhouses –Also called the privy or backhouse was part of every small village and farm until running water became common. Most outhouses had two holes, a small air vent, and were supplied with an all-purpose Sears catalog.  The worst visits to this little building were, of course, in the winter and at night.  The most common “trick” on Halloween was to topple the outhouse, sometimes with an unfortunate resident.


Woodpiles –A nice woodpile was high, neatly stacked, end to end, with the split sides showing to form a roof.  Trees common to the Midwest were oak, pine, aspen, birch, cedar, maple, hickory, walnut, cherry, and poplar.  Oak, hickory, walnut cherry and maple provided the longest lasting heat.


Kitchen Stoves- The kitchen wood or coal burning stove provided warmth, cooked food and held a reservoir of hot water. Most stoves had a “warming oven”. Stoves required daily removal of ashes. Cast-iron stoves had a stovepipe to the chimney, which had to be cleared of soot once a year. 


Draft Horses – Before tractors there were draft horses; they plowed, hauled hay, and tackled many difficult jobs.  Belgians, Clydesdales, and Percherons were used on farms and became beloved members of the farm family.


Walking Plows – Early plows were wooden and cast iron contrivances that dug a trough in the soil.  In the Midwest, dirt stuck to the plow bottoms until John Deere, a Vermont blacksmith, polished a steel plow that worked even in the sticky, clay-laden soil.  By 1847 John Deere manufactured 1,000 plows a year.  After the walking plow came the riding plow, called a sulky, with a 14-16 inch bottom, three wheels, and a seat for the plowman.  The gang plow had two plow bottoms and required 3-4 horses to pull it. 


Windmills –Windmills ground flour, sawed wood and pumped water.  In 1854 Daniel Halladay patented a windmill that pumped water.  The Wheeler’s Eclipse of 1867 could withstand much higher winds.  The first all-metal windmills were developed by the Matt Foos Company in 1872.  Thomas Perry and Laverne Noyes collaborated on the Aermotor windmill, the first truly scientific windmill.  It was constructed of metal and cast iron and had to be greased twice a year.  By 1908 Sears sold steel and wooden windmills.


Gasoline Engines –As an alternative to steam engines, internal combustion engines were sold in the 1800's with 3 - 65 horsepower.  Fuller and Johnson offered the “Farm Pump Engine” in 1911 which used 400-1,000 gallons of gas per hour.  This pumped water, powered wood saws, operated washing machines, and ran milking machines.  There were some hybrid gas-electric engines offered by Fairbanks Morse, Delco, Fuller and Johnson, Kohler, and Genco Light.  Electricity engines replaced the gasoline engine for many tasks.


Tractors – Beginning with steam powered engines, tractors appeared in the Midwest in the 1800's.  Beastly black, smoke spewing giants on iron wheels were developed by the J. I. Case Company.  By 1924 John Deere made the two-cylinder Model D tractor.  Henry Ford offered an “Automotive Plow,” a tractor made from auto parts.  Case, Ferguson, Allis-Chalmers, Massey-Harris and other companies soon made tractors as commonplace on farms as horses had been a century before.


Threshing Machines – As early as the 1700's threshing machines were being used in England and Scotland; the first American threshing machine, water powered, was patented in 1791.  In the 1820's the Pope Threshing Machine was hauled by wagon from farm to farm.  The 1837 the Pitts and Pope threshing machine was powered by horses walking on a treadmill that was dug into a pit so that the horses walked on an incline.  Early Case threshing machines, usually wooden, became popular until the grain combine appeared in the 1930's. 


Barbed Wire Fences –“Don’t fence me in” hardly covered the disputes in the West over fencing land.  However, separating farms on property lines, and enclosing livestock became the norm, and the tedious job of pounding posts and stringing wire was complicated by making sure the fences were absolutely straight.  Joseph Glidden perfected the twisted wire strands and barbs into a marketable product.  A patent was granted for barbed-wire on Nov. 24, 1874.


Dairy Cows –Almost every farm had a dairy cow, named and milked by the children.  The production of different types of cows was a common conversation topic.  Black and white Holstein cows came with the Dutch to New York in 1630.  Fawn-colored Jersey cows were smaller, but outnumbered the Holsteins, arriving from the Jersey Isles in 1850.  In 1783 Shorthorns from Durham County, England, followed pioneer wagons West.  Other dairy cows were the Brown Swiss from Switzerland, the Guernsey from England, and the Ayrshire from Scotland. 


Keeping in Touch

Depots and Trains –The train depot was vital to the community.  The train brought people, livestock and freight.  Train depots were heated, had hot plumbing and other amenities.


Rural Mail Carriers –Rural mail delivery linked farms with the city and brought news to lonely settlers.  Tom Watson drafted legislation for mail delivery in 1893 and it became law in 1896.  Farmers began to subscribe to magazines and newspapers, as well as ordering from mail order catalogs.  Monday through Saturday the mail was sorted and travelled by automobile through “rain, sleet, hail, and snow” to its destination. 


Telephones –The independent telephone industry began to develop throughout rural America early in the 1890's. By 1912, the number of rural telephone systems had grown to more than 3,200. The Communications Act of 1934 made the concept of universal telephone service the law of the land. The goal of universal service was to ensure that all Americans, regardless of where they live, receive quality telephone service at reasonable rates. The early telephones were 'party lines' or shared lines.


Box Cameras – After Sir Humphrey Davey experimented with photo images, photographers improved cameras for centuries.  In the 1860's professional photographers with plate film cameras traveled the country making a pictorial record for history.  In 1860 George Eastman invented a film with light-sensitive emulsion.  He then rolled it unto a spool, and the portable box camera became a reality.  He started the Eastman Kodak Company with its first camera on market in 1888 which could take 100 pictures.  Soon everyone could afford a camera, and a pocket Kodak was invented, followed by the “Brownie.”  The Brownie was 6 inches deep, 7 inches high, and 3½ inch wide, with a handle.


Radios – In 1895 Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor, sent the first radio signals, and by 1920 Westinghouse had a 100-watt radio commercially available.  The first station was in Pittsburgh, KDKA, and by 1922 radio stations numbered 537.  Soon the average household had a radio, and people could listen to the President announce the beginning of World War II on December 8, 1941.  There were broadcasts aimed at farmers, weather, markets, and university researchers.  WHA at the University of Wisconsin had special programs on music, art, and nature for the area schools.  Radio shows that gained long-lasting notoriety included: Amos and Andy, Green Hornet, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Red Skelton, and Milton Berle.  Sports were broadcast live, and the Grand Ole Opry came on air in 1925.  The amazing fact is that farmers had radios before they had electricity, and for rural communities it was transforming.



Country Taverns – The old-world tavern was reinstated in the states as a cultural institution and gathering place in the 19th century.  The oldest tavern in Iowa opened in 1852, opened by a federal permit from President Fillmore. Only men were allowed in the tavern, especially in the German communities. The country tavern was not a fancy place, but the common man’s gathering place.


Gristmills –The gristmill is a mill equipment with large grinding stones to grind grain.  Many were water powered until electricity became popular.


Country stores – Almost every town in early America had a general merchandise store.  These stores sold groceries, seeds, cattle feed, bait, hardware and sometimes housed a post office.  Often there was a gathering area for the local residents to meet.  The stores were social centers for both men and women.


Barbershops – Cutting hair, shaving beards, shining shoes, and in the early years, surgical operations were performed in barbershops as its customers shared news, told stories, and listened to barbershop music. Barbershop music was unaccompanied four-part close-harmony singing that was popular from 1900 to 1919. Barbershops served as community centers.


4-H Clubs – Learning how to sew, cook and can, raise livestock, plant crops, and to do everything rural was the realm of the 4-H Club.  The 4-H clover and motto, “To Make the Best Better” represented an emphasis on unity of Head, Hands, Heart, and Health.  In 1914 Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act which created the Cooperative Extension Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gave 4-H a government liaison.  The Cooperative Extension Service worked with farmers to provide the latest research on crops and livestock, and organized 4-H clubs to educate youth.


Country Fairs -  Colonial farmers began a European tradition of fairs to display livestock to the community.  As agricultural societies were organized in America in the middle of the 19th century, competitions began for farmers, and fairs in the Midwest were born.  Today 3,500 fairs are held every year in the U.S. and have developed into show places for Future Farmers of America members, 4-H clubs, and artisans.


Town Halls – The oldest form of government in the United States began in 1636 in the town of Providence, Rhode Island.  Over half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of town government.  The annual town meeting allowed residents to talk with their local representatives about taxes, roads, safety, and other concerns.  Towns maintained roads, held the elections at the local, state, and federal levels, maintained laws, provided security and fire control.  Towns regulated land use, building permits, and local regulations.


One-Room Schools –All eight grades met with one teacher in a one-room building. The teacher often lived in the building and took care of the grounds.  Originally designed to teach children how to read the Bible, the schools taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history.


Churches –Country and rural churches were a vital part of Midwest culture, especially in Scandinavian and German communities.  The Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian synods covered the landscape with locally built places of worship.  Many of the earliest churches in the area were built by Catholic missionaries. Many immigrants came to America for religious freedom.

Resting and Playing

Little Red Wagons – The Radio Flyer handcrafted wagons were manufactured in 1917 by Italian Antonia Pasin.  Children loved the wagons and demand exceeded supply.  In the 1930’s the Radio Steel & Manufacturing company sold 1,500 wagons a day.  The wagon was named in honor of Marconi’s invention of the radio and with new airplanes in mind. 


Sleds – Wooden sleds with metal runners and no steering crashed into trees and bushes on a downhill trip.  Samuel Leeds’s Flexible Flyer, built in the 1800's, was the first sled to be steered.  The Flyer had an arrow and eagle design on the slatted wooden seat as its logo.  Winter sports such as ice-skating, skiing, and the tobogganing increased interest in sleds.


Card Playing – Cards and checkers were a rural pastime.  Five-card stud, gin rummy, cribbage, whist, and pinochle were favorites, but some regions had their own games, such as the German game of smear.  People played cards in homes, schools, community centers and even held competitions.


Polka Bands – Germans and Poles brought polkas to the Midwest.  Polka bands were popular at weddings, anniversaries and festivals. Every group, the Norwegians, Belgians, Slovenians and Czechs brought their own music with them to the Midwest. 


Porches – Gathering on the porch in the evening or on a summer afternoon was a family affair accompanied by fireflies and lanterns.  It was a place for families and neighbors to talk, rest, and plan.


Adapted from: Apps, Jerry.  (2000). Symbols: Viewing a rural past.  Amherst, WI : Amherst Press.