Today we learned about Kansas farming and homesteading in the late 1800s and early 1900s in our class on Farm Family life. This class is based on a trunk from the Kansas State Historical Society. The Farm Family trunk was filled with items used by Kansas farm families in their day to day lives.
We started our class by having the kids walk around the display table and write down on a worksheet their guess of what the various items were called. Some items were very familiar to the kids who have visited Mahaffie or the Ag Hall of Fame – washboards, a coffee grinder, a vegetable slicer. Others were less familiar, like the husking peg or the cattle lead.
After the kids made their guesses, we talked about what each item was actually called and how it was used. We had a great time trying out the different tools (gently, of course!). The kids were surprised to find out how many of the included tools would have been used by children. They were also surprised to find out how much of a child’s day would have been devoted to farm work – there was not the free time or playing time of today’s child. (Pictures of the tools at the end of post.)
While we talked about the different kinds of tools, the kids made butter in jars. We poured a container of cream into two jars, put on the lids and then passed the jars from child to child, giving each one a couple of minutes to shake the jar. Halfway through, we opened the jars to see the whipped cream that was made, and talked about how this whipped cream would have been used to top fruit or other desserts. We then capped the jars again, and went back to making butter. After we made butter, the kids were able to sample it with some saltines, or on a spoon. Our butter was very creamy, with a soft yellow tint – and the kids pronounced it “delicious!”
The kids had a chance to try out a “chuk-a-luk” corn planter, which was advertised as an improvement on hand planting corn in the fields. We used popcorn kernels to give the kids a sense of how it worked, and how difficult it would have been, even with a tool, to plant the acres of corn that were necessary to support a family and livestock.
We also ground coffee in the coffee grinder. The kids quickly found that the coffee had to be ground multiple times to become more like the coffee grounds that most of us are used to seeing. Even after three or four turns through the grinder, the coffee was still quite rough-looking! Seeing the grounds, it was very easy to understand why ground canned coffee became such a popular item once it was available.
We looked through the various photos provided by the Historical Society. The kids were fascinated to see small children working – feeding chickens, churning butter (with a dog-powered churn!), helping with the milking. The young boy practicing with his team of young oxen and small wagon was intriguing, as was the young woman gathering cow chips/buffalo chips with her bare hands, and the farmer using the “chuk-a-luk” corn planter. We talked about how even small children would be responsible for tasks like gathering cow chips or firewood, helping to stoke the kitchen fires, feeding animals, gathering eggs, learning to cook and bake, doing laundry, and any other jobs needed around the house or farm.
Free time did exist, though perhaps not as often or in the same way that we are used to. Husking bees, apple bees (celebrating the apple harvest), barn raising and other work parties, as well as church and community events made up the social life and filled the limited free time of farm families. As families became more prosperous and towns more settled, sending children to school became a more attainable luxury. We talked about how going to school was less of a chore for some children, as it was a chance to sit down and not have to do physical labor for a few hours during the day.
One point of interest to the kids was just how important a child’s work was to a farm family. Given the tenuous nature of subsistence farming, a child’s ability and willingness to help out and do a share of the work would have improved a family’s ability to become successful farmers. Children who were reliable about doing their chores made it possible for a parent to devote energy and resources to building up the farm, diversifying crops and livestock, and making the family more secure. The work of kids truly mattered to the success of the family.
Even with all the work by parents and children, farm life was hard. It only took one or two disasters – a tornado, a prairie fire, grasshoppers, or drought to undo all the work put in by the family. But the families who stayed, the ones who survived, they laid the groundwork for the lives we have today, full of leisure time and food in refrigerators at home and available on store shelves, washers and dryers to make laundry easy and convenient and so much more.
Thanks so very much to the Kansas State Historical Society for making these trunks available to us. The kids (and parents) enjoyed our class today, and really appreciated the opportunity to be hands on with history.
The farm family tools included in the trunk:
A corn husking peg and a cherry pitter
A video on how to use a corn husking peg.
All tools and black and white images courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.
Various photos courtesy of families who attended today’s class.