Farm Collector

The Mule Solution: Farming with Mules

When we talk about farming with mules decades ago, we tend to picture small operations. An Iowa ranch established in 1896 is a noteworthy exception.

William P. Adams was an unlikely farmer. Born in Massachusetts to a family with lineage stretching back to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, W.P. Adams owned stock in International Harvester, Illinois Continental Bank & Trust Co. and Union Pacific Railroad. After his marriage in Massachusetts in 1884, he and his bride, Nettie Moore, who had studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, moved to North Dakota to land owned by his father. They farmed in North Dakota until 1893, when they moved to Wheaton, Illinois, where Adams took an office job in Chicago.

In 1896, dissatisfied with office work and missing farming, Adams (then 33) purchased nine sections of land in western Iowa near the town of Odebolt. He reportedly paid $185,000 (about $5.2 million today) for the nine sections that he named Fairview Farm. He later purchased an additional section, and the farm became better known as the Adams Ranch.

Farming with mules

Farming 10 sections of land with mules seems inconceivable today, yet the Adams family did it successfully through the first half of the 20th century, using about 240 mules at a time.

Roger Rector, Ida Grove, Iowa, grew up on the Adams ranch in the 1950s when his dad, Ross, was the mule supervisor there. Ross started working at the ranch when W.P. Adams was still alive. “Every mule had a name and I think my dad knew at least 199 of them,” Roger says. “I recall him telling me that he couldn’t put Betty to work with Suzie because they didn’t work well together, and when they were out in the field being handled by a driver, you had to have mules that were compatible with each other.”

In a small office in the mule barn, a glass plate hung on one wall. Behind it was listed the stall number and name of every mule in the barn. “You could walk up and check to see that the number 12 stall held Suzie,” Roger says, “and that Henry was in number 19.”

Handling teams

When it was time to break a new team, the “green” team was hitched to a wagon in the mule barn with a broke team hitched in front of them. Two drivers drove the wagon. One held the lines and the other held a whip. After the mules were driven around a section, the new team was considered “broke.”

Most of the mules were turned out on the harvested fields during the winter to graze. When 200 mules were rounded up and herded to the mule barn to be readied for spring planting, it was a sure sign of spring.

In that era, mules and horses were commonly neglected after they were retired. Some farmers left the retired animals outside in all weather, while working animals were sheltered. On occasion, some were allowed to starve to death.

Late in his life, Adams nearly sold a few retired mules to a slaughterhouse. Terms of the agreement called for a ranch foreman to accompany the mules to the facility, to ensure they were killed humanely. “Every one of those mules is a friend of mine,” Adams is reported to have said. “They helped me get where I am now.” After that, Adams had his retired mules euthanized on the farm to ensure they wouldn’t be abused.

Plowing with 18 gangplows

The mule barn measured 90 feet wide and 220 feet long, and had enough space to house at least 200 mules. Storage space for hay and machinery was on the second floor, reached by a ramp at the back of the building. Adams bought his mules in Missouri, many from the Kansas City stockyards. At first Adams traveled to Kansas City to buy them, but later bought them from buyers who shipped them to the ranch.

Plowing was done with 18 gangplows and 17 single plows. Mules pulling 140 sections of 4-foot harrows moving together could cover 62 acres. One vintage photo shows nine binders cutting oats with each binder pulled by four mules.

Corn was picked by hand until the late 1920’s or early 30’s, at which time McCormick-Deering tractors and single-row corn pickers came into use. However, the tractors were only used to pick corn and were stored with the pickers the rest of the year. An old ranch photo shows 15 tractors in a row with 15 pickers.

Adams raised sheep from 1900 to 1925. A 1906 photograph shows a herd of thousands. Local residents remember seeing a herd of sheep as wide as the street and two blocks long being herded to stockyards at the railroad in Odebolt to be shipped to market.

The fields were farmed, for the most part, in mile-square sections. Rows of corn were a mile long, and oats were grown in an entire section. In 1943, The Des Moines Register reported that the ranch had 2,850 acres planted in corn, 1,800 acres to oats, 310 acres to flax, 220 acres to timothy, 800 acres to red clover and 300 acres to permanent pasture. Adams planted an acre of soybeans on an experimental basis. Henry Ford reportedly wanted Adams to grow soybeans commercially, but that never happened.

Managing a staff of 150

A ranch manager ran daily operations; 10-12 foremen on horseback supervised laborers. Adams met daily with the manager, foremen and bookkeeper to discuss the day’s progress and give instructions for the following day’s work. The men worked six days a week, Monday through Saturday.

Hiring and managing a workforce of approximately 150 men from spring through fall and 45 during the winter was a fascinating enterprise. An agent in Chicago hired men and sent them by train to Odebolt. Hoboes who hitched a train to Odebolt provided another source of labor.

Food for the men was bought wholesale, and two steers were slaughtered on the ranch each week. Ranch cook Jake Ohden baked all of the bread, pies and cakes. At one time he baked 32-40 loaves of bread, 18 pies and two cakes daily.  Bill Dreesen, Odebolt, remembers as a boy eating with the men in the mess hall. Bill says he especially enjoyed the freshly baked pie.

A self-contained operation

Adams set aside approximately 80 acres for the homestead and farm buildings and built about 50 miles of roads through the ranch that he lined with cottonwood trees. Once the trees were mature, they formed tunnels over the roads. Thelma Schroeder, Odebolt, remembers counting 74 trees in a 2-mile stretch. The trees also provided shade for the mules when the drivers rested them.

The fields were fenced with 60 miles of woven wire fencing held in place with concrete posts made by Charles Wetstein in a small factory in Early, Iowa. The fences and posts are gone now, but Mary Schroeder, Odebolt, has one in her backyard and has topped it with a birdhouse.

Adams built housing for his family and for married men with families (single male ranch workers lived in a bunkhouse). The ranch was also home to a kitchen, mess hall, commissary and icehouse. Other buildings included the mule barn, blacksmith shop, harness shop, water tower and grain elevator. Furnaces that burned corncobs heated the buildings. Adams also owned an elevator and a bank in Odebolt. The farm generated its own electricity and had seven wells. After devastating fires in 1905 and 1919, Adams built his own fire station. The 1919 fire caused $100,000 in damages and destroyed the mule barn, grain elevator and other buildings.

To the manner born

At the turn of the last century, the Adams family lived a lavish lifestyle. The house Adams built for his family was a mansion with a swimming pool and manicured lawn, bushes and flowerbeds tended by uniformed gardeners. He also employed maids, butlers and two chauffeurs. He took great pride in his farm and had a chauffeur drive him around the farm in a Pierce Arrow to “observe the land.”

At one point, Adams offered to pave the streets of Odebolt if the town’s name was changed to Adamsville. When the offer was declined, he had his men dump manure on the streets, claiming it would keep his mules from slipping on icy streets when hauling grain to town.

W.P. and Nettie traveled widely in Europe and elsewhere and owned a home in Miami Beach, Florida, where they spent winters. Before he died, Adams had sealed (in terminology of the day, grain was warehoused on the farm “under seal”) more than 300,000 bushels of corn under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, receiving a total loan of $135,594. This was believed to be the largest corn-sealing loan ever made. Adams never had a mortgage and was never in debt. No one seems to know why he chose to farm with mules.

Adams died at age 74 on March 25, 1937, in Miami Beach. He left the “residue of his wealth” to Nettie in trust for five years. Sole ownership of the ranch went to his son, Robert B. “Bob” Adams. W.P.’s older son, John Quincy, lived in Winnetka, Illinois, and had never been involved in the ranch operation. John was in the real estate business in Chicago and received “all valuable properties in Chicago.”

Ownership twists and turns

After his father’s death, Bob (who had been managing the ranch) took over full control. While Bob managed the ranch much like his father had, he also bred and showed American Saddlebred horses and built a stable and track on the ranch for them. Bob was a director of the American Horse Breeders Assn. and one of the founders of the Iowa Horse Breeders Futurity. He was Iowa Director of the Office of Price Administration during World War II.

Bob began the conversion to Farmall M tractors on the ranch in the 1940s. By 1951, the ranch had 20 Model M tractors and 50 mules. He added commercial cattle in 1940.

Bob died of a heart attack at an Omaha hospital on June 27, 1956, at age 69. William “Bill” Phipps Adams II, Bob’s son, inherited the ranch from his father. Bill added registered Hereford cattle in 1946. Bill served as president of the Iowa Hereford Assn., the American Hereford Assn. and the International Livestock Exposition.

Bill managed the ranch for seven years after his father’s death, selling it to Charles E. Lakin, Emerson, Iowa, in 1963 for $2.5 million. Lakin sold the ranch in 1967. Since then, the ranch has been subdivided and has had several different owners. Douglas Stenoien bought the remaining tract of three sections and the buildings from the Federal Land Bank in 1986.

Today Stenoien owns the buildings and a half section. Most of the remaining buildings are in various stages of disrepair with birds and wild animals as the only inhabitants. It is a sad end to the saga of a farm unique in the history of Iowa agriculture.FC

Darrel Wrider, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa. Contact him at

  • Published on Feb 9, 2016
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