Getting a Dairy Farm Through Drought and the Great Depression

A northern Illinois dairy farm survives all that Mother Nature and a shattered economy could throw at it.

First tractor ride

The author on his first tractor ride at less than a year old, being held by his grandfather. At the wheel of the McCormick-Deering (the same one used to plow under an infested field of oats) is the author’s uncle Amos.

Photo courtesy Clyde Eide

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As a 9-year-old, I saw it first. An ominous looking orange-brown wall cloud filled the western horizon. As usual, my sister and I were spending the summer on our grandfather’s farm near Capron, Illinois. I ran into the house to alert the adults of the approaching apparition.

My grandfather said it was a dust storm and that we should all get into the house and help close the windows. In those pre-air conditioning days, that big rambling farmhouse had a lot of windows to close. As soon as we finished, we were enagulfed by a thick cloud of dust. Though we were far from the Dust Bowl, that cloud had made its way to northern Illinois. Even with the windows shut, much dust found its way inside, coating everything with a fine powder.

Desperation move fails

The season started off fairly normal with the plowing and planting complete. And then, to paraphrase Louis Bromfield, “The rains quit.” I can still see my Aunt Stell looking longingly into an overcast sky, but only a few drops of rain fell.

There was not much hay to put up that year. Grandpa decided that a field of alfalfa was not worth cutting. Instead, he let the dairy cattle use it as a pasture. Since the field was not fenced for that purpose, we had to watch the cows. With all of that good grazing, not much watching was required!

A short time later at the milk-processing factory, my grandfather’s cans came down the return conveyor. Instead of being empty and hot from steam sterilization, they were full and cold. Tags were affixed noting, “Rejected for bad odor.” The last can had a note saying the milk had an alfalfa odor and no further deliveries would be accepted until fresh alfalfa feeding had stopped and cleared from the cows’ systems. For a while the farm’s hogs had a real feast on all that fresh milk. They did not mind the alfalfa odor!

Settling for slough hay

Prior to July 4, my parents arrived for a short visit. The decision was made that there would be no fireworks that year, with all the tinder-like grass. My dad bought me a couple of packages of firecrackers and we took them to the creek bed, which was still moist. While I enjoyed setting off the firecrackers, I missed the skyrockets, Roman candles and sparklers of past years.

At a premium price, my grandfather then bought the first of several orders of hay from northern Wisconsin. When the first truckload arrived, he twiddled a sample between his fingers and said disparagingly, “Slough hay.” Yet to keep his dairy farm operating, he had to accept it. I think slough hay was wild grass from a marshy area. During the drought, about anything green was harvested and used as fodder.

Finding another way to cool the milk

That lean year brought my grandfather yet another crisis: how to cool the milk. He had a stone milk house with a cooling tank inside. Ten-gallon milk cans were placed in that tank. The cooling water was supplied by a dug well near the house. Until then it had always provided plenty of cool water. But that dry summer was unusually hot as well.

Grandfather had a milk stirrer with a handle on one end and an agitator on the other. He also had a floating thermometer he could drop in the can. I can still see him frowning as he checked the milk’s temperature. It was no longer being adequately cooled. To stay in the dairy business, he had to do something quick.

This was in the days before mechanical milk refrigeration was common. He decided to build a second milk house (for summer use) under the Challenge windmill. It had a much deeper and cooler drilled well. He hurriedly arranged for a contractor to put a concrete tank inside a new double-walled wood milk house.

Of course he could not depend on the windmill to pump an adequate supply of water on a daily basis, so he installed a Challenge electric pump jack. It worked, but it was a material-handling nightmare to move as many as 11 cans of milk a day down to the new milk house on a two-wheeled handcart.

Disappointing harvest

When threshing time came, it was a sad version of what had once been an exciting event with several straw piles and lots of horses and wagons, to say nothing of the big crew. This time they put the Case separator blower directly into an empty hayloft, a dangerous procedure. Threshing machines were known to throw sparks and set fires to straw piles.

Handling the grain-end of the separator usually required the input of three people. One person was used to handle the grain spout and fill the grain wagons. That job was for old men who were not ready to hang up their overalls or young boys who needed entry-level work.

Another man was used to hitch and unhitch the team to move the wagons and drive them to the grain storage area and the discharge end to where the grain fell into the proper bin – either in the barn or granary.

This year they did not even get out the Sandwich elevator. My grandfather’s nephew, Hank, did the entire grain-end by himself. He would tie an empty bag around the spout and occasionally carry a full bag to the grain bins. It was an easy job. Since we were not around later in the season, I can only presume corn harvests were equally puny.

Blame it on broadcasting

After we started school that fall the rains returned. “It is too late for any crops,” my dad said, “but the pastures will be restored before the cold weather sets in.” Dad sent Grandpa a check to buy some slough hay for my sister’s ponies.

Grandpa had an interesting theory as to the cause of the drought. He said it was caused by “all of this broadcasting.” At the time, radio was proliferating around the nation. Today we have new technologies to blame for the larger category of climate change. Perhaps Grandpa was ahead of his time.

Stubborn survivor

Mother Nature was not yet finished with my grandfather. The next year, he had a bad infestation of chinch bugs in a large field of oats. That was before the insecticides we have today. His only choice was to plow the field under. A line of cars was parked along the county line road as spectators came to watch Uncle Amos on the McCormick-Deering 15-30 tractor pulling a 3-bottom gangplow. It was as though they had come to see a train wreck. It was too late to replant any traditional crops.

Grandpa heard about a new crop that could be planted late: soybeans. Somehow he managed to get several bags of seed. It was the first crop of soybeans in that area. He put the beans up like loose hay: They were never threshed. From that year on, the Johnson farm had a crop of soybeans.

Somehow Grandpa was able to get the farm through the drought and Great Depression. I marvel at his great managerial skills and resourcefulness. He never had the benefit of college agriculture classes or the technologies available today. Farmers always have meet new challenges and continue to do so today. FC


Clyde Eide lives at 3801 East Crest Dr., Apt. 3205, Bryan, TX 77802.