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"Farming Life on the Southside" 1900-1920

By Donald Bryan Smith
Milestones Vol 9 No 2--Spring 1984


The sense of history, most intimately, is the personal discovery of the reality and concreteness of change. To understand even a little of what was is a privilege, one long cherished: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers who begat us." More than most, I have had that privilege.

My father was born in 1897 in the "Southside" of Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Living in a rural area within thirty miles of the great coal and steel center of Pittsburgh, he felt, if indirectly, the impact of industrialization and urbanization on his community and the agricultural life which was its rationale. The changes that came were perhaps inevitable and he wouldn't want them reversed, yet his memories of that other America are strong and good. Of course, they center on the farm.

The Smith farm which he remembers was 140 acres of rich land, of which 120 acres were arable and pasture, only 20 acres in woodlots. This farm was his father's share of the original 400 acre purchase made by his great-grandfather shortly after the Revolutionary War, a part in turn of a much larger grant made to a hero of the Pennsylvania war effort, General Muhlenberg; it was called Paradise. My grandfather proudly claimed it was one of the best farms in the area yet, as we'll see, the yield he derived from it was always a little short of its potential.

Although the farm's dozen cows were a valuable asset, dairying was not its economic backbone. It was a "general farm", with butter, not milk, the main dairy product and the rest of its output raining over eggs, wool, lambs (for mutton) and poultry. The latter were especially versatile; about 100 eggs yearly weren't sold but hatched the hens went toward replenishing stock, the roosters to slaughter. A half-dozen hogs were also kept, to meet the same fate in the fall as the roosters, the brood sow excepted. Before the internal combustion engine solved forever the problem of propulsion, horses furnished most of the non-human energy needed for farming. and 5 or 6 of these were always to be found in the Smith barn.

Fields of corn, oats and wheat covered most of the land but these grains weren't grown as cash crops. Ground by a neighboring miller and mixed in varying proportions, the result was fodder for the horses and cattle known as "chop". Clover hay comprised another important addition to the animals' diet; in good years a surplus of hay was usually produced, baled and sold at $20 per ton. Hay was also valuable in aiding the animals to produce manure. which was supplemented by phosphate and lime as fertilizers.

Corn, oats, wheat and hay were grown as part of a characteristic rotation, as follows: a field of 12 to 15 acres, which had lain in pasture for a few years would be plowed in the spring and sown with corn, which was harvested in September-cut, shocked, husked and cribbed as swiftly as other duties would allow. This field was then allowed to lie fallow until the next spring when it was prepared and sown with oats. At the same time, another sod field was being planted with corn, as the first phase of the cycle to be repeated on another section of the farm. Oats were harvested in July or August and by September the third crop, winter wheat, had been sown. The grain drill which planted wheat also sowed timothy and grass seed. By the next spring, clover was also growing in this field, having been broadcast by my grandfather on the surface of what he hoped was the last snow of the year. The winter wheat harvest took place in July and for the next four years clover and timothy held sway in the field, the former dominant at first, the latter during the third and fourth years. After the fourth year, the field was allowed to run to grass again and a few years later the cycle commenced once more with corn.

My grandfather used most of the common farm machines of the day: the aforementioned grain drill (a rectangular box on wheels, from which seeds dropped into their furrows through a series of 8 or 10 hoses), a binder for oats and wheat, and a mower and rake for hay, as well as a plow and harrow. Oats and wheat were "thrashed" by machine but since it was a task completed in only a few days, most farmers depended on a few of the more enterprising of their number, who possessed them and hired them out during the season. Thrashing was the most unpleasant of all jobs on the farm. Ten or twelve men worked steadily inside a barn where the temperature often rose above 100 degrees, forking wheat and oats into the noisy steam threshing machine and gathering the straw which was a by-product of the threshing process. The clouds of dust raised were difficult to contend with but if rust had struck the oats, an especially vile smoke rose which, when inhaled -in quantity, usually nauseated the workers. Harvesting, by comparison, was enjoyable; the heroic but exceedingly strenuous days of cradle and scythe were at least a generation in the past. Corn was still cut by hand, though, with long, machete-like knives.

As I've indicated, most of the grain crops were used as forage. My father's family actually derived a much larger direct income from their garden, where potatoes, lettuce. onions, tomatoes and peas were grown. This aspect of general farmer probably loomed larger in his life than any other, for the kitchen garden became his special responsibility very early and hoeing, weeding and gathering there constituted the major part of his chores. Twice a week for ten years, until he finally left the farm in 1920, he delivered vegetables, butter and eggs to customers in Aliquippa, a booming steel town about 12 miles from the farm. Many times during these years, he and his brother rose at 5 in the morning, loaded their wagon with produce and drove into town. They were usually sold out by noon and could relax for a few hours, with dinner at a restaurant and attendance at a "picture-show" the highlights of their trip, until they had to return to the farm. The prices they received weren't unusual for the time: a bushel of potatoes brought $2, eggs sold for 25 cents a pound. Some costs seem more incredible, with the going rate for agricultural labor one dollar per 10 hour day.

In retrospect, my father recognizes that operations which concentrate on dairying are usually more profitable but maintains that conditions in the Southside during his youth were more conductive to general farming. Not until better country roads were constructed and farmers with bulk tanks could depend on the milk companies to send trucks out for the milk would the general farm lose ground to the dairy. Another advantage of the former was that it made a near self-sufficiency in regard to food. There were always plenty of fruit and vegetables, milk, butter and eggs; bread was home-made from their own wheat flour, and meat, in the form of poultry and pork was in adequate supply. Only coffee, sugar and spices had t be imported.

A farm family harvesting the apple crop.


Other necessities of life were also derived from the farm or nearby. Two springs provided abundant water for both the stock and their owners but plumbing, after an unsuccessful attempt by my grandfather to pipe a supply into the kitchen. was nonexistent. A washhouse for sanitary purposes year-round. These were constructed from timber originally cut in the woodlot and turned into lumber by the Kennedy sawmill. The Smith home was heated by coal, also supplied by the enterprising Kennedy family who worked a small-scale mine. These were extremely numerous in western Pennsylvania and known as "coal banks", rendered coal almost literally dirt cheap in this region. My grandfather bought 10 tons, enough to last the winter, at $2 a ton. Virtually anything which couldn't be wrung from farm industry-clothing, shoes, tools could be purchased from Sears and Roebuck, whose "wish book" also gave a farm family access to a few modest luxuries.

Schooling for farm children was much more casual at the turn of the century than it is now. The full school year was only 7 months. from the first of September to the first of April and attendance was not compulsory. My Uncle Donald, several years older than my father and capable of doing a man's work at 14, often didn't start school until October and usually left in March, enabling him to give moret ime to farm-work. More rule than exception, this largely accounts for the presence of fairly intelligent 17 year olds, in the class room with children 10 years younger, still trying to complete their sixth grade of grammar school education (the Smith School, which was located on what had been Smith land when it was built, was a traditional one-room school). Very few children managed those six grades in as many years; my father, kept from starting until he was 7 by illness didn't graduate until he was 15.

The curriculum was rudimentary: the 3 R's plus some history, geography and physiology. The teachers were hardly qualified to handle anything more ambitious (my father doesn't remember if they were required to have even a high-school diploma; certainly nothing more). Paid $40 to $50 a month only during the school year, this largely male group of young people survived only because most of them came from farm families too and lived at home. Given this "training", the quality of their teaching was surpisingly high. What comes as more of a shock to a present-day student is the complete lack of institutionalized guidance offered: rural education, at least, was strongly laissez-faire and an ambitious student who wanted more learning had to work things out for himself. Not surprisingly, my father estimates that of the approximately 50 classmates he had, only a dozen went on to enter professions. Only at age 20, after determining on his vocation in the ministry, did he return to high school and, later, himself taught school to earn money for college.

The school had no money to waste on extra-curricular activities, either, unless ball-playing at recess and attending a spelling bee at the Crab Hollow school could be so classified. There were no athletic or music programs, again, as in the stereotype of rural life, people had to fend for themselves, to create their own entertainment and recreation. Unlike the pessimistic stereotype, the speaks of a relatively full social and cultural life. Perhaps time hung less heavy on his hands because of his passionate love of reading: although he didn't see the inside of a library until college, he managed to get his hands on a fair amount of books during his years on the farm and recalls that the first money he ever earned was spent on a subscription to the "Youth's Companion", the title of which accurately indicates its contents and from which he gained pleasure and inspiration that he's still grateful for. In a world unaquainted with radio, television or the stereo (he heard his first recorded music on a neighbor's phonograph), this companion was indeed a cherished one.

One institution which gave young people an opportunity for public recognition while bringing rural families together was the literary society. My Aunt Bertha was evidently a gifted speaker whose rendition of "Kentucky Belle" was particularly admired. The society also staged plays but, like many ventures depending on the energy and talent of a relatively few people. declined in importance as my father grew older. A revitalized Grange helped to fill the consequent cuItural gap after 1912 and Farmer's Institutes, which were annual occurrences at Service Church, presented speakers from the State Colleges as well as lighter entertainment. Country dances at Uncle John Smith's were widely known and well attended. The Kennedy's , exhibiting another facet of their versatile natures, had formed a family band and provided the music for most of these affairs. Neither the Beaver County Fair at New Brighton nor the more accessible Hookstown Fair played a very large part in the lives of my father and his family; they never exhibited stock and attended only the latter.

The community of the Southside at its widest never really embraced the new urban centers of Aliquippa and Midland. Certainly, there were economic ties between city and country and a dynamic relationship which was relentlessly depopulating the country, but the Southside was an overwhelmingly rural entity, subdivided into townships, school districts and church parishes. Within the narrower society of Raccoon Township and the Service Church congregation, my father perceived his family as prosperously average within a narrow range of welfare which had no place for extreme wealth or poverty. My grandfather -could never hope to leave an estate including a $50,000 bank account like Will Thorne did but he'd never have to worry about his sons having to become hired men either. Real poverty may have been well disguised or studiously ignored. It may be that, at least fora limited period, there really was a safety-valve in operation in Beaver County; there was an endless demand for labor in the towns I've already mentioned.

Of course, even the most fortunate inhabitants of the Southside accepted without question deprivations which seem quite shocking. There was no such thing as continuous medical care; a doctor was called in only when someone was seriously ill, and often not then. For years, the whole area was dependent on two physicians, old Dr. Shane and young Dr. Ewing, who had to shoulder an increasing burden as the years went by and literally worked himself to death, jouncing on the dusty or muddy, rutted country roads from crisis to crisis. Two of my father's siblings died in infancy and there were many families similarly afflicted; Service Church cemetary was. he said, "awfully full of little gravestones." Diptheria was the great killer of children, typhoid of adults while smallpox was no longer the scourge it had once been, though pock-marked faces were not uncommon.

It doesn't require great insight to recognize that this was a society whose consumption of material goods (no indoor plumbing. electricity, rapid private transportation) and services (limited educational opportunity, minimal health care and mass entertainment) was at a much lower level than ours. Less obvious but of equal importance was its limited consumption of information, its detachment from what we now consider to have been the main currents of history in the early 20th century. Rural isolation, in this context. doesn't seem to apply to a situation within the community but describes the relation of the community to the "outside" world.

The Southside, always excepting its urban centers was overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in ethnic and religious character and Republican by political preference. The pattern of general farming seems to have cushioned the impact of market and railroad, rendering Populism less appealing. Although our family boasts of a distant kinship with William Jennings Bryan, my grandfather voted for McKinley in 1890 all the same. One of my father's first memories, in fact, was of the shock which his assassination caused and how well a cheap memorial biography sold when it was hawked from home to home by a neighbor boy. It's not surprising that a people who had to depend on the weekly Beaver Falls Review for news would be largely unaware of epochal scientific discoveries or the progress or decadence of modern art but when I was informed that Teddy Rossevelt figured most prominently not as a trustbuster o rstatesman but as an advocate of large families, I was a little incredulous. Progressivism was largely an urban phenomenon; when Progressives did have something to offer country dwellers, they found responsive citizens, as did Gifford Pinchot when, he promised, if elected governor, to "get the farmer out of the mud" by paving the roads.

Farmers are naturally ambivalent in their reactions to the contention of capital and labor. Often feeling oppressed by the former and a kinship with the latter because of a perception of common productive effort, they are also employers and men 'of property themselves. On the Southside, I think this ambivalence was rather negatively formulated as a "plague o' both your houses" attitude. My father's youth was spent during a lull in the intensity of labor activity in western Pennsylvania. The steel workers had been broken for a generation by Carnegie and Frick in the 1890's and the Smiths, least of all people, would have been affected by the great anthracite strike of 1902. There were irreverent remarks about the idle rich and Rockefeller and Vanderbilt (or even Carnegie) were not names which evoked awesome respect but there was no great dissatisfaction with the status quo. Indeed, there may have been something of a consensus that things were organized rather well. In the summers of 1907, 1908 and 1909, the Standard Oil Company ran three 6-inch pipelines on their way from Oklahoma to Pittsburgh through my grandfather's fields. He appreciated this windfall, of course, but my father enjoyed more deeply watching the somewhat exotic Italian laborers digging ditches, followed by the arrival of the popes and their assembly and laying by largely American "tong gangs" (the machine used in screwing pipes together resembled giant tongs). Even after the pipes were safely buried, potential leaks caused Standard Oil to hire a man to walk the 36 miles from the Ohio border to the line's terminus near Pittsburgh and back once a week to report on its status. This pipeline walker was a guest at the Smith house every Wednesday for many years thereafter.

The Southside could easily ignore the events in Europe which were leading to war; my grandfather was optimistic and told his son, as late as 1912, that there would be no more wars. When March, 1917 arrived, however, there was no protest over American's entry into the war. American opinion had become so belligerent that the few Germans in the area, my father recalls disapprovingly, were given an extremely hard time. What more thoughtful Southsiders had noticed for years was the growing number of abandoned farms. Farm families had diminished in size since the 1850's and the 1860's. as machinery reduced the amount of human energy that had to be expended. But a man still needed 2 or 3 sons to help him out; rom the end of the 1890's, more and more farm boys were leaving for the towns, for all the immemorial reasons. Left without this unpaid labor, most farmers couldn't afford to continue; they sold what they could, but there were always more sellers than buyers. Savings were usually modest and in some cases, while a farm which had been cultivated for a century stood idle, its owner worked as a hired man a few hundred yards away. Membership shrank so much at Service Church that it was forced to share its minister with another congregation. Yet, the loss in attendance was only in absolute terms; relative to the smaller population it remained the same. By this measure, the community was in decline, but not disintegrating.

Farming life was satisfying to my father-hard work but plenty to eat and enough to wear, though the cash return was small. With deep sympathy, he sees his father as a man who struggled against his own frailty, the loss of his beloved wife at a sadly early age and a succession of small misfortunes, all of which kept him from making as much of the farm as could have been. In the 1920's, cultivation of the Smith farm was no longer practical as my father left for college to follow an ideal that couldn't be confined to the Southside and my uncle to fulfill his own family responsibilities. During the experiment with Prohibition, moonshiners from Pittsburgh took advantage of the many empty farms by renting them, for the professed purpose of pasturing cattle; behind this protective facade; illegal stills were set up and operated. My grandfather was hood-winked in this manner by a "butcher" from the city.

The homogenization of American culture accelerated in the 1920's and succeeding decades, leaving the Southside merely the southern half of Beaver County. The rural areas are being peopled more heavily now than they ever were, but the farming life my father knew can never return. Very few even of those who lived it would wish it to and I've attempted to avoid historical sentimentalism. All I wanted to do was help to preserve and understand a man's memories of a different and lost existence which is part of our past.


The substance of this paper is largely derived from several conversations with my father, the Rev. Harold C. Smith on May 7 and 8, 1975. The interpretations blend of his opinions and mine, with some reliance on widely accepted generalizations.