Life on a Midwestern Farm



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Life on a Midwestern Farm
Hopefully, this packet will provide you with just enough information to guide you on period farming and farm life in the 1860s. It is easy enough to read up on period farming, however, it still cannot replace actual hands-on experience. My biggest suggestion is to find a local or close living history site with an active farming program and to volunteer. Even a minimal amount of volunteer hours can provide you with quite a bit of experience. For more information on living history sites across the country, try www.momcc.org, or www.alhfam.org
Life On the Farm:

The easiest way to describe life on an 1860s farm, was that it was never easy. But, “the well planned and well built farmstead nourished a pleasant and secure way of life, even in the early days”. The farm was practically a self contained, self supported economic unit. The farm family was fed, clothed, sheltered, and warmed almost entirely by products from the farm. Any excess goods were sold or bartered for necessities not produced on the farm.

Before we get any further into period farming, we must first answer the question, “how did you get a farm?”. In the 1860s, there were several ways to acquire your own farm. First, the easiest method was to inherit an existing farm from your parents or grandparents. In this situation, the land has already been cleared and worked. Second, many farmers in the Midwest were existing farmers who had sold their holdings in the east. By moving westward they settled and new farmers and prospered. Third, many new or young farmers were “set-up” by their father or grandfather. The older generation would frequently work to provide a child with their own farm and homestead. This also guaranteed that the property would be in the family for years to come. Lastly, one other way to acquire a farm was through good old-fashioned work.

Many new farmers who were starting out could not afford their own farms. For this reason land was rented on shares. A new farmer could rent the farm and land and pay it off over a period of time. Usually this payment was in the form of produce or finished crops. To provide an example, the following information was taken in 1795 in Ohio: “1300 acres were under cultivation at Turkey Bottom, which was worked by tenants who paid a rent of a third of the produce.” This number varied greatly and was sometimes half of all produce. However, the desired result was to pay off your property. By the mid-1800s, the old rule of thumb was that it would take five years to own your own land.

Another way to work your way up, was to work as a farmhand. Farmhands were usually hired on farms to help keep up with the work. Some farmhands worked at a farm full-time and some were hired on a seasonal basis. This would usually be for such major activities as threshing or the fall harvest. But, as for the regular farmhands, most of them usually lived on the farm where they worked. Sometimes they might live nearby or on a neighboring farm and walk to work. Most farmhands were treated with respect, especially by the boys of the family. This was due to their hard work and tendency to get the hardest jobs. Altogether the farmhand was treated with respect by all. One saying by farmers, about farmhands, was “if they are good enough to work with me, they are good enough to eat with me.” However, the wages for farmhands were quite meager. Most farmhands worked for little pay. However, rising external factors such as the Civil War caused a rise in these wages. This would be attributed to the number of young men who went off to war. Overall, you can see how this occupation provides quite a bit of first person information and a good overall story-line.
What Was it like Living on a Farm?

As stated earlier, farm life was never easy. Days were tedious, monotonous, and filled with different chores and tasks. To best explain period farm life, we will look at some original diary accounts from a period farmer: The following diary is from Henry H. Arnold of Carriage Hill in 1853:

Thursday April 14, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I sawed plastering lath, & loaded a load of hay. & it was a pleasant day


Friday, April 15, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I hauled a load of hay to Dayton 2990 lbs & sold it for $19.95. & it was a pleasant day.


Saturday, April 16, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I hauled a load of hay to Dayton 3352 lbs & sold it for $1670. & it was a rainy day.


Sunday, April 17, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I was at Henry Rubsa meeting. I& went with sister Elizabeth to Fairfield to the doctor. & it was a fine day.


Monday, April 18, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I haulded a load of hay to Dayton 2206 pounds & sold it for $11.28 & it was very warm.


Tuesday, April 19, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I & Magdalena went to Dayton to market & it was a very rainy day.


Wednesday, April 20, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I sawed on the sawmil & it was a windy day.


Thursday, April 21, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I hauled cooper stuff from brant. & it was warm day.


Friday, April 22, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I harrowed corn ground & it was a very windy day.


Saturday, April 23, 1853; Henry H. Arnold

I harrowed corn ground in the F. & in the A. I went to Jonathan Brubakers on a visit. & Magdalena was at church meeting at the meeting house. & it was rainy in the afternoon.


As you can see by his accounts, farmers did a wide variety of chores throughout the day, on top of their typical everyday chores like milking, feeding, and farming. Many farmers were quite skilled and some even did do other work on the side, such as blacksmithing, woodworking, etc.. Another note to make about these accounts is the common reference to the weather. A farmer was always checking on the weather and making note of it for next year.
What Was the Size of a Typical Farm?

When discussing the size of a typical farm in the 1860s, it is extremely difficult to provide a set answer. The number, size, and type of farms varied greatly depending on your economic status, location, and time period. Thus, when looking at farm sizes and types you must work it off of the first person scenario or background that you are provided with. Obviously there will be some variation between a soldier from southwest Ohio and one from Northeast Ohio. This also applies to their farm sizes, crops, and animals. Money value of land, the size of a farm, and the kind of products to be raised were determined by the distance and importance of the nearest market. However, we do know some basic factual information on Ohio farms that would apply to other Midwestern states as well.



The notion of subsistence farming, or scraping out a living, was antiquated by the early 1800s in Ohio. The first settlers might have had a rough time the first year or so, but after that point, farming began to flourish in this state and other Midwestern states. Self reliance was a matter of pride for most farmers. In the 1860s there was quite a variety of farms throughout the state. According to the 1865 Ohio Agricultural Report, some counties reported their average farm size to be 99 acres, while some reported it to be 120 acres. Some of the grain producing counties of Northeast Ohio averaged between 80-120 acres with their value being between $70-100 per acre. However, in counties like Hamilton and Cuyahoga, who were the center of large cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland, reported an extremely varied farming community. Average farm sizes in Cuyahoga county were approximately 54 acres. However, there were also quite a few that were in the 10 acre or less range. This was due to the notion of market gardening. Market gardening was the idea of simply raising produce to take to market to sell. Thus, typical crops like corn or wheat were minimal or not raised at all. However, some counties in southeastern Ohio averaged out to be 120 acres of various crops and animals. In Wayne County, farms averaged between 100-120 acres and raised a wide variety of crops, but especially wheat. This county was also a large dairy county. In Pickaway county there was as least 53 farms that exceeded 1000 acres. So, as you can see, each area of a state varies in its farming. Some areas see general farming whereas some specialize in certain things like sheep or dairy or market gardening. Thus, farming for first person can vary depending on your character or background.


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