"David Rankin, Farmer"
by David Rankin (1825-1910)
Published 1909, Tarkio, Missouri
Contributed by Elizabeth Richardson
[David Rankin spent most of his young adult life in Henderson County and was still enumerated on the 1880 census there, although by that time his farming interests had expanded to Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado. At the time he published his story his various land and stock holdings were valued in excess of $4 million.]
. . . and then moved out to Warren county, Illinois (now Henderson county), in March, 1836. We were about a month going from Indiana to Illinois, traveling every day. The trip was made overland with teams, a distance of about 250 miles. The horses would get stuck in the mud and, had it not been for the oxen we had along, and the oxen of our neighbors who were moving with us, we could not have finished our journey on account of the mud. There were no fences in the country and the houses were twenty to thirty miles apart. There were no bridges and we had to ford the streams. At the time there were only a few houses in Bloomington and Peoria. We had to cross the Illinois river at Peoria in a flatboat. Having to wait out turn, it took us two days to get across. This was about the only chance I ever had to go fishing.
We had no matches in those days and had to make a fire with the flintrock. I remember also seeing father start a fire with a little hand grain sickle, by putting powder on a Dutch oven lid and striking the lid with the sickle, using tow to catch fire from the powder. I have carried fire a mile from neighbor's when our fire was out at home. I was sixteen years old before I saw a match. It seems strange now to think that there ever was a time when there was no matches, now when you can buy enough matches for a nickel to last the ordinary family a month, and some careful and savings ones possible two or three months. . . .
My father built and operated a saw mill in Henderson county, Illinois, in 1837, and all of us children were drafted for work at the mill. As my father, being in poor health, was able to make only small profit from his mill, we had only clothing made of homespun cloth from the raw wool and flax. I was brought up in poverty and privation.
The only schools we had in those days were little subscription schools, held in log houses, with windows of greased paper. We had only greased paper windows in my home. The principal studies taught us were the three R's: Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic. I had very limited opportunity to get these prime essentials of an education. I expect the hard way in which I got them made them more beneficial to me than if I had had the easier facilities of learning that the boys of today have. I quit school at the age of eleven years and went to work to help support the family. Living in those days was on a different basis entirely from the life of today. A good education was not looked upon as so essential as now. Shoes were plentiful, but cash was so scarce that the common people could little more than afford shoes for the cold weather, for we had no money with which to buy them, and the most of them were home made. I went barefooted every summer until I was 28 years of age. The plain way of living which we practiced in those days gave people a much stronger constitution than the strenuous living of today.
About 1840, in order to pay a store debt for father, I hauled dressed hogs to Oquawka, Illinois, on the Mississippi river, and sold them at $1.00 to $1.25 a hundred. The corn these hogs were fattened on was cultivated with a single shovel plow and the ground plowed with a wooden mouldboard. With these plows you had to carry a paddle and clean the plow about every twenty rods. A good team of oxen would plow about an acre each day.
It is said that "good plowing" is the first thing necessary to good farm work, and I know that it is, but when I look back and see how crude our tools were and how poor the plowing was in those days, I wonder that we raised half as much as we did. Of course our land was new and rich, and we did not have so many weeds to fight. We had to do a great deal of hoe work in those days. They were great big hoes, one of them would weigh as much as four or five of the kind of steel hoes which we use now. Well, sir, it's might hard to appreciate what the steel plow has done for America, surely we never could have reached what we have accomplished in Agriculture without it. Farmers nowadays don't appreciate it, they can't, because they have never had to put up with the old kind of home-made tools. Why, some of our farmers are not too overindustrious with what we've got now.
. . . About 1844 the first plows of steel were made. These plows would scour. The first steel plow I ever heard of was at Farmington, Illinois, near Galesburg, made by hand. Shortly after that I learned that John Deere and others were making steel plows.
Father had got along pretty well, but when President Jackson vetoed the currency act, he lost all he had in the saw mill enterprise, because there was no money left in the country. He traded a filley and a cow for a quarter section of land in Henderson county. The filley and cow were valued at $50.00. A man and I went out on the prairies and put in an eighty acre crop of wheat. We had a little shanty and did our own cooking. There were lots of deer around there and they troubled us a great deal by pasturing on the wheat that winter. Land was very cheap. I knew of as good a quarter section as there was in Henderson county, or any other county, selling for $30.00 — not $30.00 an acre, but the whole 160 acres for $30.00 — and the man traded a yoke of oxen for it, as he had no money. This was four miles from where Biggsville is now located. The land had a fine spring on it and no waste land. By that time we were using cradles for cutting wheat instead of reap hooks. We had to haul our wheat about ten miles to the Mississippi river, and sold it for forty to fifty cents per bushel. We harvested some wheat at the time of the Mexican War, cutting it with the cradle, and we got fifty cents a bushel in silver — Mexican dollars.
In those days, when money was so scarce, a good deal of ingenuity was used in trading. It was barter and trade sure enough. One of our neighbors bought a horse and promised to pay the money for it, intending to pay for it out of his wheat. As he was able to get only one-fourth of it in cash, he was obliged to pay the rest in trade. There was a general merchant who kept, among other things, a line of hardware, and it happened that this man's neighbor wanted some hardware, so he let him have the hardware for the balance of the bill, and gave the other man the cash. In that way he paid for his horse.
While on this trip to Chicago  I saw the first practical reaper. It was made by McCormick. In 1848 I bought one. I think I paid $125 for it. This machine would cut a swath about five feet wide. As I remember, the grain fell on a platform and was raked off by another man with a fork or a rake, requiring two men to run the machine, and men followed and tied the bundles by hand with straw bands. This was a great improvement over the old cradle, but is not to be compared at all with the modern self-binder.
. . . In 1849, by the use of this McCormick machine I was able to carry on the harvest without whiskey the first time. In those days if you didn't have whiskey you couldn't get hands to harvest. I have always said that McCormick made it possible for me to do my harvesting without liquor. Here is a case where an improved farm implement helped me in two ways — to reduce the cost of harvesting and to enable me to take a stand in defense of temperance. If a man has the courage to stand by his convictions he will get along. What a ridiculous thing for people to say "can't." My!My! No one ever amounted to anything morally, mentally, physically or financially that could not say yes and no, so everybody could understand just what was meant. Few men realize what McCormick has done for the wheat grower, and the same is true of other inventors. We do not appreciate what John Deere has done with the steel plow to lessen labor for the farmer, in fact, made plowing a pleasure. If anybody used a wooden mouldboard they know what it is to stop every few rods and scrape the dirt off so it will shove the land over.
When I married, in 1850, I had eighty acres of land and a few cattle. I had raised a crop of wheat on the land before I got a deed to it. All the money I had I invested in young steers. When I got married I had only $4.00 or $5.00 in cash. This I gave to the preacher — the last cent I had. We had to trade for everything. I could not get first-class flour without paying cash for it, so I had to buy second-class flour on credit. It was packed solid in the barrel and my wife scooped out a place in the flour in the top of the barrel, and in this improvised bowl made our bread. She had to make bread in this way from the 21st of March until cucumber time, when the old tinner brought the big tin dishpan, for which I had traded lumber that spring. Up to this time she washed her dishes in the stove kettle. We had a nice little three room house 16 x 24 feet, all made of native lumber. We bought the shingles that had been rafted down the Mississippi river from up north. fine lumber was sold for $10.00 per thousand — just as fine boards as you would want to look at — and common lumber of grub plank, for $5.50 per thousand feet. We made cribs of any kind of lumber, no matter how good it was. It was floated down the river on a raft and was very cheap. Even walnut lumber, which is being scraped up and shipped to Europe in such quantities now, from wherever they can find it only brought $10.00 per thousand then. In fact, most of our furniture was made from it, because it was a nice straight grained wood and worked up easily by hand as that was the way all the furniture was made.
Our trading points were at Oquawka, Illinois, and Burlington, Iowa, twelve miles from my farm to either place. There was a ferry boat at Burlington across the Mississippi river. We drove oxen and it would take a day and a night to drive to town and back.
At Burlington the houses were along the river. There were only a few of them then, but it afterwards got to be quite a fine city. The land on which it was located was a part of the Black Hawk purchase and just came onto the market about that time. Father had some brothers west of the Mississippi but he stayed on the east side and never went across. He was determined to stay among the religious people.
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