Mechanization on the Farm in the Early 20th Century

As tractors began to replace horses, farm families witnessed the birth of mechanization on the farm.


It was a time of transition, and the families who went from horses to tractor horsepower witnessed the birth of mechanization on the farm. While sons were anxious to get on that first tractor, most fathers were reluctant to let go of their dependable team of horses.

Neil Harl: "My father liked horses.  He was very good with horses. He continued using horses long after many others had shifted to tractor power. He had arguments why horses were superior. You could grow their feed. You couldn't grow gasoline but you could grow feed for horses. You could raise your replacement horses. They didn't cause compaction of the soil."

Laverne Hult: "My dad never liked to drive a tractor. He thought it simple when I got mine in '37. I told him, "You can drive it and see how nice it is." And so he drove it a couple times around the field, but he says you've got to watch where you're going all the time. When the horses come to the end, they'd turn around themselves and go back the other way. So he thought that was simpler. He never drove a tractor after that at all."

A team of horses could do things a tractor couldn't do, such as pulling a wagon while the driver was hand-picking corn. The farmer merely had to make a sound with his teeth to move the horses forward and yell "whoa" when they were to stop. It was inconvenient to have to stop, get on the tractor, pull it ahead, and then resume picking corn.

Dwight Jorgensen: "This one Saturday he told us if we went out and helped pick all the corn and put it in piles, finish picking it, that he'd buy us a dime carton of ice cream. At that time a dime carton was a heaping pint. So we went out there and worked hard that Saturday morning and got our dime ice cream.

Harold Woodruff: "It was hard work but it was a lot of fun to go with Dad when he was doing the shucking of the corn. If you didn't do it right, he'd give you one row and he'd take two rows. If you were slowing down, once in a while that ear of corn would hit you upside the head and make you speed up a little."

Philip Ingmanson: "The horses didn't travel very fast, and when we cultivated corn, we cultivate one row at a time three times. Now the renter that farms my farm, they don't do any plowing. They just put chemicals on it to kill the weeds. That's all they do."

The increased mechanization of agriculture has made farmers more independent of each other. As tractors, combines, and big, round balers made their way into the fields, old customs were pushed out. Neighbors no longer rely on one another as they once did. Extra hands are no longer needed to get the work done. The technology of power, the technology of equipment, the technology of seeds have utterly transformed the countryside and it has altered farm neighborhoods as well. Today, for better or worse, rural America has a new face.

Excerpt from "The People in the Pictures: Stories from the Wettach Farm Photos," Iowa PBS, 2003


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