Looking back at the 'wheat era'
Glimpses of Yesteryear
Wednesday, October 03, 2012 4:38 AM
At a recent 50-year class reunion, Jon Lundby brought in the accompanying photo postcard labeled Spring Valley, Minn. It is possible this abundance of bagged wheat was awaiting shipment via the railroad, and a photographer took the photo at an unknown point and sold it to any number of towns along the railroad that could put their name on the card.
Farmers unloading bags of wheat at an unknown point, but maybe there are some Spring Valley laborers among them!
In the Spring Valley history, "Tales of Our Town," historian Sharon Jahn writes about the "wheat era" of 1870-95 when most farmers put their available cropland into wheat. Apparently this is one of the reasons James Wilder came here from New York, where he had been raising hops. The Wilder family, including sons Royal, Almanzo and Perley, brought their fine Morgan horses and we believe they built the barn on their home place, still standing on the present Roger Svebakken farm. Almanzo, of course, went on west to Dakota Territory where he met Laura Ingalls, and we trust you know "the rest of the story."
Wheat became the first real cash crop in this area, and Jahn noted that in 1860 one farmer planted 15 acres of wheat, which produced 32 bushels per acre. Early settlers surely used a cradle scythe to cut their grain but in August 1876, Spring Valley's newspaper, the Western Progress, reported this. "Harvester trials are now in order. There was a harvester trial on J.M. Wilder's farm yesterday between the Massilon and Marsh, in which the Massilon came off victorious. Messrs. Whitman and Brown are agents for the Massilon, which has been newly improved, and which claims now to be King of the Harvest Field."
It was also reported that year grasshoppers were doing "sad work" in many places, causing the crop to be light, but labor was plentiful, paying wages of about $2 per day. Whitman & Brown Agricultural Works was a significant business located in southeast Spring Valley, producing all manner of goods, and featured in the 1874 Minnesota Illustrated Atlas. In 1882, James Whitman invented and patented a "bag holder" used in grain elevators, and which can be seen at the local museum.
Historian John Halbkat wrote stories of the early settlers and hard times in this area. During the "Panic of 1857-58," prices on farm products dipped to "miserable lows." Farmers had to haul their wheat and dressed pork by ox teams to markets in Winona or LaCrosse. The hardships of those grueling three to five day trips is difficult to comprehend - hauling wagons or sleds along impossible roadways, often in cold stormy weather, sleeping under the wagon boxes, trying to feed and water teams as well as themselves. At times they arrived at market only to find 25 or more loads of wheat ahead of them, all waiting in their misery to unload.
As early as 1854, there was a call for railroads through southern Minnesota, and many years passed while promoters raised or dashed hopes of those along the proposed routes. At last the Southern Minnesota Railroad pushed through Spring Valley in 1870. This town became headquarters for work trains, working east and west to build depots, platforms, windmills, water towers, sidetracks and additional buildings.
Unbelievably, 20 years later, "powers that be" were able to bring a second railroad to Spring Valley - the Winona & Southwestern RR. This required countless meetings and a great deal of money invested to make it happen. The line first came from Winona to the north and east, en route to Osage, Iowa, but eventually a branch was built to Rochester and about 1900 the Chicago Great Western acquired the line. The Winona & Southwest actually bought a corner of the Wilder farm and built the enormous trestle that forms the western boundary of our city, later covered with dirt, parts of it still in evidence.
The coming of the railroad necessitated building elevators and "flat-houses" for cleaning and storing grain. The Grange Elevator Stock Co. was organized in 1874 and a large capacity elevator was erected along the downtown tracks at a cost of $5,000 to hold 24,000 bushels.
During the 1870-80 era, there were five elevators - the Grange, McGeorge, Hodge & Hyde, Cargill Bros., and one owned by T.J. Thayer. The latter party in 1893 married Eliza Jane Wilder, whose story is told at the historical society's Methodist Church Museum. When the Winona & Southwest was established on the west side of town in 1890, a large elevator was also built along those tracks.
Wheat, oats and barley were all raised as cash crops and Halbkat stated that in 1879, Fillmore County raised more wheat than any county in Minnesota. He goes on to tell that the land became "over-wheated," herds increased, and more acreage went into corn, oats and barley now that cattle could be shipped by rail, and this diversified farming "saved the day" for area farmers.
In the photo we see an attempt was made to "colorize" certain areas and you may note cross-hatching on the clothing, etc.
It is awesome to view the bagged wheat and ponder the intense backbreaking labor that went into the end product shown here, and how little they received for their efforts.
We can only appreciate the dogged determination of these early settlers and their families to wrest a living from the land. We benefit today from their efforts in our well-maintained community with its businesses, schools, churches, good friends and neighbors.
Bless 'em all!