05 March 2015

Agrarian Nation Update

Dateline: 5 March 2015
By: Herrick Kimball

Apple picking into the ox cart
This 1880 photograph is one of my favorites 
from the archives of this web site.
(click for a larger view)

I have ceased publishing new information to this web site, and am now focusing my efforts on a new web site called Agriphemera

All the Farmer's Calendar excerpts that were on this site have been removed and will be incorporated into the "Farmer's Calendar Project" at Agriphemera.com

But this web site is still full of many other wonderful excerpts from the Agrarian Nation. Here are links to just a few of the most popular posts...


Check the archives (right column, at the bottom) 
for many more excerpts from the Agrarian Nation!

30 March 2014

Earth Ovens


Photo Link


The following excerpt comes from The Cultivator & Country Gentleman magazine of January 7, 1869


In answer to an inquiry as to whether bake ovens could be constructed of clay, you give a negative answer. I refer to the article on page 396 of the last volume, where you say: “We have never known of building ovens with wet clay.” My pioneer experience in Central Indiana  is different from yours, as I have seen dirt ovens, and helped build them too, as well as eaten of the incomparably fine bread baked in them, the memory of which puts to flight the triumphs of the latest improvements in the cook stove.

The platform or base of these ovens was generally built of clay, sufficiently thick to prevent the burning of the wooden foundation on which they were constructed. On this is built a pile of chips and bark precisely the shape of the inside of the oven. This is the framework, around which the wall of the oven is built of well worked mortar, in which the requisite amount of straw has been worked to give it additional strength, and prevent cracking in the process of drying.

The clay thus prepared is worked into “cats” or balls by hand, and placed in the wall, carefully uniting and cementing the whole firmly together. After the wall is up and the “keystone” placed, then comes the finishing, which is generally done by dipping the naked hand in a bucket of water and slicking up the job, thus putting on the finishing touches, the builder of course not omitting so good an opportunity to inscribe his own name with his finger on the plastic wall, as well as the date of erection of the oven.

After the wall is thoroughly dried, the bark and chips may be fired and burned out, and when the heat has sufficiently subsided to indicate the proper temperature, it is ready for the baking of bread, pies, or whatever else may be deemed necessary for the next “log-rolling” or “barn-raising.”

In the rapid march of refinement, the dirt oven has long since been numbered with the things that were, and though many improvements have been introduced in baking, yet nothing that I have ever yet seen produced better loaf or finer pies than that dirt oven.

A. Furnas
Danville, Indiana

26 June 2013

Flax Culture


Flax in flower (photo link)

Flax was a common crop in the Agrarian Nation, especially in the northern states. Flax produced seeds for oil and fiber for cloth.

Cloth made with flax has a remarkable coolness to it. Hold a piece of cotton cloth to your cheek on a hot day and it will be warm. But a piece of flax cloth will be noticeably cooler. Someday I'd like to buy a shirt made of flax (linen cloth) just to experience the coolness of it.

The following excerpt comes from The Cultivator & Country Gentleman of March 26, 1874.


Your correspondent G., on page 168 (March 12) asks for some instruction as to raising flax, time to sow, and the manner of harvesting, threshing, &c. 

In this locality, it has been our practice invariably to sow at the last quarter of the moon in May. For one acre, one bushel of perfectly clean seed is plenty.

Sow evenly. To do this, sow both ways, taking a still time when there is no wind. Be careful not to fill your hand too full; otherwise you may lack seed at the cross sowing.

The land should be a sandy loam, that was planted to corn or potatoes and well manured the previous year, and kept clean from weeds; plowed fine and smoothed evenly with a fine-tooth harrow; then sowed as directed and covered with a light brush.

Flax bolls (photo link)

The time to harvest is when the bolls are well filled and begin to turn yellow. Pull and keep the buts even; tie up in small bundles; set up in small stooks; and when perfectly dry, draw to the barn and put away in the stables adjoining the barn floor, threshing at some time before your second harvest comes on.

Stooking flax (the buts don't look even to me)

Have your barn floor swept perfectly clean; take a five-pail iron kettle or an empty barrel; place it in the middle of your barn floor, and set the boys to whipping the bound bundles over the edge of the barrel or kettle, keeping the buts even; throw the threshed bundles out in your yard, and if it rains on them before spreading, all the better.

Rotting by spreading is our practice. (We have never tried water-rotting in ponds.) Draw out on a smooth, dry meadow, well protected from stock of all kinds; then commence spreading on the upper part of the meadow. One man to unbind and "handful" out, and one man to follow and spread, are sufficient. Keep the buts even and spread smoothly; no lapping of one gavel or row on another is allowed.

Dew-retting (a.k.a., "rotting") a field of flax in France.

When rotted nearly enough, turn over the gavels with a pole eight or ten feet long, running it under the tops and and turning it over.

If grown for seed, we get twelve bushels from a bushel of seed sown. 

Flax seed (photo link, with good flax-growing information)

When rotted enough, rake up in good sized bundles and bind; keep the buts even and draw to the barn on a very dry day; pack away over your barn floor under the roof.

A word as to "getting out flax," as they call it here. When March comes, have your "break" and "swinging board" and "swinging knife" ready, and go at it (a dry day is best); unbind and "handful out," and let the sun shine upon it a little. Finish it all if you can this month. A barn full of flax and no hay the first day of April is rather a poor sign in this locality.

R.M. Berkshire County, Mass.

A flax break. Click Here to see more flax tools.

17 February 2013

The Kerry Cattle


This installment of Agrarian Nation comes from the April 3, 1873 issue of The Cultivator & Country Gentleman newspaper. I am posting it for my friend, Richard Grossman, who raises this fine old breed.


To the Editors of The Country Gentleman:

It will be remembered by many of your readers that in 1860 Mr. Arthur W. Austin of Boston imported a herd of Kerry cattle. They were selected for him by the late Sanford Howard, who wrote a full and very interesting account of the breed, and the particulars of the cattle selected by him, which was published in the Agricultural Report of the Patent Office for 1862.

In 1865 I purchased eight of the descendants of the above herd, from which I have since been breeding, having made some few additions from other families, and frequent sales.

A few months before his death, I had a correspondence with Mr. Howard, in which he manifested great interest in the breed, and at his request I promised to write him an account of the result of my trial of them. The statement which I would have made to him, I will now give to you.

But first let me mention that during a recent visit to England and Ireland, I was surprised to find that so many Kerries were found in different parts of those countries. I saw them not only in their native hills around the beautiful lakes of Killarney, but on the grounds of noblemen of England, and in many of the fields along the railroads that I traveled. The finest herd that I saw were in the Park of Blenheim, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough. They were ranging together with a lot of massive Short-Horns, which made them look even smaller than they actually were. The Kerries all wore little bells, to enable the Duchess (as my guide informed me) to find them more readily. He said they were her pets.

I shall not undertake to give a history of this breed, or a minute account of the animals. Those of your readers who may be sufficiently interested in the subject, can find all that in the Agricultural Report to which I have referred. Suffice it to say that they are small, compactly built, and very hardy animals, not ugly in form, as some suppose (as the Jersey cow comes to be, for instance, as she gets old) but symmetrical in form, with (generally) a straight back and always fine limbs. The horns are long, but gracefully curved and tapered. The head is the coarse part of their bodies, especially in the bull. Their horns are perhaps a little longer than the Devons, but not much, and they resemble that breed more than any other in their general appearance, excepting in color. The Kerries are, or should be, always “jet black,” though sometimes they are red or brindle. Black is the color that is sought and bred for. They have a soft, mellow hide, which is covered with a thick coat of hair. The “milk points” of the Kerry cow are remarkably good. In my herd there is not one that has not a fully developed “mirror,” high and broad, what the Jersey breeders are always seeking for and seldom find, and the udders are of the most approved form, with teats well and equally placed.

They are not large milkers—that could hardly be expected of such small animals. They yield on the flush say from eight to fourteen quarts per day, but they are persistent milkers, and that is their great point of excellence. What I mean by persistent milkers, is that they continue giving milk long into the winter and near to the time of calving, and without what is called extra feeding. For example, as my favorite way of judging the merits of different kinds of stock is to keep them together, and as nearly as may be under the same conditions of food and care, I have in the same building with the Kerries a herd of pure bred Jerseys and some “natives.” For several seasons I have watched them, and have always found that in the latter part of January, the only cows (of those that are to calve in the following spring) that are giving milk are the Kerries, and this notwithstanding they receive no other food than hay, while the Jerseys have to have some meal and bran to keep them from “running down.”

As for the quality of their milk, I once made the following trial: For one week I had the milk of three Kerries and three pure bred Jerseys kept separate and carefully measured. All was made into butter, which was weighed and compared with great care. The result showed that it took 8-3/4 qts. of Kerry milk to make a pound of butter, and 8-7/8 qts. of that from the Jersey cows to make a pound.

The above you will say is rather a “rose-colored” account, but then there is never  a rose without its thorn. The thorn—the drawback— in the case of the Kerries, is the fact that they mature very slowly. They could never be profitable for raising veals. The calves are small, and seem to devote all the good milk they consume in their infancy to laying the foundation of a good, hardy constitution for later usefulness. In all my experience with the Kerries, I have had but one heifer drop her calf during the season that she was two years old. They generally come in at three, and afterwards are not as quick to develop into the full usefulness of the mature cow as some other breeds. I believe, however, that a herd of mature Kerry cows will make more milk and butter in a year on the same feed than the same number of cows of any other breed.

D.F. Appleton, Ipswich, Mass

16 December 2012

Patents on
Fruits & Plants


From the Cultivator & Country Gentleman magazine 
January 27, 1876

A correspondent lately sent us the printed copy of a bill introduced in Congress last month by a member from this State, entitled “a bill to encourage the production of new and valuable fruits and plants.” We are asked to publish it at length, or if that is impracticable, at least to express our views as to its merits. The purpose of the proposed act is to secure “the originator or discoverer of any new and valuable fruit or plant,” &c., “the sole right and liberty of growing, propagating and selling such plants for the term of seventeen years.”

On former occasions we have quite fully stated our conclusions on this subject and the reasons on which they are based—to the effect, in brief, that we can conceive of no method of accomplishing the objective above specified which must not involve greater injury to the community, and delay and vexation in the introduction of new varieties, than the value of all the “encouragement” it will give to the introducers.

Should such a law be enacted, our most earnest advice to all farmers and fruit growers would be not only to abstain from purchases of anything purporting to be thus protected, but also to be extremely careful about buying plants or trees which they suppose themselves to have been familiar for years. The very frequent cases of annoyance and extortion under our present patent laws, where it would be supposed that safeguards for the protection of the public could be devised and put in force, we should regard as sufficient reason for such advice.

We find nothing in the present act to change these views. Farmers and horticulturists everywhere would be completely at the mercy of all who chose to enter upon a career of swindling them. It would in all ordinary cases be easier and cheaper to submit than to appeal to the courts for protection.

If the time comes when an intelligent community fails to appreciate a good thing when introduced, or to take sufficient interest in improvement of labor for its accomplishment from other motives than that of getting a royalty on the fruits we eat, the grasses of the meadow and the flowers of the garden—we shall hope the public will be willing to rest satisfied with such poor varieties as we already possess, in preference to fettering their hands and pledging their purses, in the manner indicated by laws of this kind. Their result, we believe would be only evil, and that continually, as well for the introducers of new varieties as for the whole rural community.

Since the foregoing was written, we find a brief notice of the proposed law in that excellent journal, the New-England Farmer, from which we take a sentence or two to show its purport.

“The question is, who will be most benefitted by it, the inventor of the new apples and potatoes, the cultivators who buy the right of producing and selling them, or the lawyers who settle the disputes arising between the two parties? Deliver us from growing any fruit we cannot give away if we choose.”

“If every squash or pumpkin we buy for the table must have the seeds destroyed to prevent them from sprouting, for fear of infringing on somebody’s patent, deliver us from the patent laws, or the pumpkins.”


I was very pleased to discover this particular excerpt from America's agrarian era. The wisdom and foresight expressed by the editors of the Cultivator & Country Gentleman paper is remarkable. 136 years ago, these men saw patenting of plants as a dangerous slippery slope—as "only evil, and that continually." The bills were eventually passed, and more have followed.

Such laws paved the way for the rise and domination of Monsanto over world agriculture. 

"Only evil and that continually."

09 December 2012

A Remedy For
Canada Thistle


A young Canada thistle

From the Cultivator & Country Gentleman magazine 
May 20, 1869

The large fields covered with thistles on many farms, and the small amount of labor that can be spared for their destructions, are at variance. We must find some cheap and sure remedy, or pay a thistle tax beyond all computation. Canada thistles bear seed in abundance, some years more than others, and it is scattered by the winds and planted by the frost and rain, so that any acre of land in this neighborhood poorly tilled, will show Canada thistles. Now for a remedy.

In pasture lands, stock heavily, so as to feed close, either with cattle, sheep, or horses, or all together. Carry into the lot twice the quantity of salt that your stock would eat, made into a weak brine and put a little on a thistle here and there until it is gone. Repeat this once or twice a week for a single season. It induces the stock to eat the thistles. They become fond of them and will eat them quite clean.

N.P. Hedges
Wales Centre, N.Y.

Cows eating Canada thistle (photo link)

01 December 2012

Comb Protectors


(photo link)

From the Cultivator & Country Gentleman magazine 
January 13, 1876
A correspondent gives the Fancier's Journal the following description of a hood for protecting the large combs of Spanish and Leghorn fowls, in order that they might not be disqualified from competition at shows, by loss of combs from freezing:

I generally make them out of cotton-flannel. Take two pieces of cloth and pin them together. Then lay on the pattern and cut the hood out, and sew it around the edges, leaving a space for base of comb. Then take a piece of narrow tape or cord rubber, two and one-half inches long, and sew the ends on the base of the hood, one and one-quarter inches from the front of the hood, and it is finished.

Then catch the bird and hold its head firmly. Pull the hood on the comb, pulling it well on till it reaches the base of the comb. Then put the rubber throat latch under its bill. Then place the bird on its feet and I defy all cold to freeze it. I used them on my fowls last winter with perfect success.


You can buy diapers for your chickens but as far as I know no one sells hats. Chicken hats would not only serve to protect combs from freezing in winter, they could also protect a  chicken's head from being pecked by other birds. And, of course, they would be very stylish. 

So here's an idea for some imaginative and enterprising person. There isn't a doubt in my mind that you would be able to sell chicken hats on the internet, and probably more than you might imagine.