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The Homesteaders – Solutions

to their Farming Problems

Problems - Recap

Ploughing the Land

Growing Crops

Lack of Water


Crops getting Trampled

Plagues of Insects

Size of the Landholding


Extremes of Weather

To begin with the homesteaders had to do

almost everything by hand. The work was
physically hard and never ending. The
homesteaders were too poor to afford the
machinery that could help them farm.

Even if they could afford new machinery,

there was little technology in the 1860s
and 1870s that could work on the Plains.

Broken machines and implements were

also a problem at first. Replacement parts
were expensive and difficult to obtain
from often distant towns or suppliers in
the East.
To cut through the soil of the
Plains the homesteaders
needed a much stronger
plough. In 1830 an Illinois
blacksmith named John Deere
had made a steel plough for one
of his neighbours, in order to
solve the same problem the
homesteaders faced. This ‘Sodbuster’ plough was
soon adopted by the
homesteaders and provided
them with the means to
plough their land. Steel is a
much stronger metal than
iron, so the plough did not
The homesteaders needed
a way to trap the rainfall in
Dry Farming
the soil before it was lost.
They used a method known
as ‘Dry Farming’. Every
time it rained or snowed, This left a thin layer of
the homesteaders soil on top of the newly
ploughed their land. fallen rain which was
trapped underneath.
The water was then
available for use when
the new crop was
planted in the spring.
In 1874 Daniel
Halliday perfected
wind pump
technology suitable
for the Plains. A
well was dug with a
high powered drill
to reach the water.
This could be
anything from 30 to
120 feet.

A windmill was then

built above the well
to pump a constant
supply of water for
the homesteader.
Although too
expensive at first, His windmill had four wooden
the price fell to $25 blades that pivoted and would
self adjust according to wind
by 1890. speed. It had a tail which caused
it to turn into the wind.
Wind Mills on the Plains
Better Crops and "Kansas will be to America what the

Methods country of the Black Sea . . . is now to

Europe -- her wheat field."
--Topeka Commonwealth, October 15,
The homesteaders needed to
recognise that they could not
grow crops that were unsuited
to the climate of the Plains.
They needed crops that could
cope with the extremes of
temperature and the lack of

In 1874, Mennonites from

Russia started to move onto
the Plains. They brought their
crops such as Turkey Red
Mennonites, like the Amish
Wheat with them. and Hutterites, are a hard-
working, God-fearing
Christian community.
Russian-German farmers
helped turn Kansas into
the nation's breadbasket.

Unlike most other farmers

new to Kansas, they were
experienced at prairie-
style agriculture.

Mennonites often are

credited with introducing
Turkey red wheat to
Kansas. This hardy winter
variety flourished on the
This wheat grew in the harsh
conditions of Russia, a very
similar climate to that of the
Plains. Although the hard
Turkey Red Wheat could not be
ground by American mills at
first, by the 1880s mills were
built that could cope with it.
The homesteaders at last had a
crop that would grow
successfully in the climate of
the Plains.
In 1874 Joseph Glidden Barbed wire allowed
invented Barbed Wire. homesteaders to overcome the
This was a cheap and shortage of trees on the Plains.
simple method for the They were able to clearly mark
homesteaders to fence the boundary of their claim, and
their land. to keep stray cattle and buffalo
Barbed wire did cause conflict with the ranch owners however as it
often cut off precious water supplies from their cows.

This well known photograph

was staged by
photographer Solomon D.
Butcher to illustrate the
tensions between farmers
and ranchers created by the
appearance of homesteads
on the range. It is unlikely,
however, that these
pantomime desperadoes
were likely to do much
damage with their wooden
wire cutters, a detail lost on
many historians over the
years who published this
photograph as the real
The only solution to the problem of fires was to be
Fire Prevention careful. Some homesteaders tried to stop fires
from spreading by leaving gaps in their crops.

However the shortage of land made this a measure

that was impossible for most to contemplate. Even
if a break was left, the high winds of the Plains
spread the fire quickly, even across gaps.

Until the development of major towns with a road

network and an infrastructure including a fire
service in the 20th century, this remained a major
There was no solution to the problems of
grasshoppers and other insects until the
early years of the 1900s.

After 1900, chemical companies started to

mass produce effective pesticides to kill the
flies that lived on the Plains. Homesteaders
could pick the insect larvae off their crops,
but this was ineffective against a plague DDT was not
swarm. developed as a
pesticide until the
Until these were available however, the 1930s
homesteaders lived in fear of a plague of
grasshoppers, as they knew the effect it
would have and knew they were powerless Health risks led to it
to protect their crops. being banned in the
Increasing Landholding Size
The government eventually recognised the
problem. In 1873 it passed the Timber Culture Act.
This gave homesteaders another 160 acres of
land. To get this extra land the homesteaders had
to plant 40 acres of trees.

In 1877 the homesteaders were offered more land

in the Desert Land Act. This allowed them to claim
640 acres of marginal land where it was available.
They had to irrigate it and after three years could
buy it for $1 an acre.

So by 1877 homesteaders could own up to 960

acres of land. This was enough for most to survive
on the Plains.
You can’t beat the weather!
Dust Storm on the Texas Plains, 1935
Until they could grow trees of a significant size, the
homesteaders had no defence against the weather on the
Plains. The storms just had to be ridden out in the sod house,
hoping that the crops would not be destroyed.
The homesteaders were initially fooled by a series of unusually wet and mild
years in the 1860s on the Plains. Many claimed that the climate had been
changed by their presence. However the extreme weather returned in the 1870s
and remained a problem from then on.
The Coming of the Railroad
The railroads spread across the Plains during the 1870s and
1880s. They acted as cheap and fast transport from the
Eastern states to the Plains. This enabled suppliers of tools,
spare parts and machinery to send their goods to the
homesteaders for relatively low prices. The spread of towns
encouraged by the railroads allowed the homesteaders to get
hold of the parts and machines they wanted.
1830s Reaper

Scythes New machines such as
reapers, binders and
threshers made farming the
Plains much easier.
Homesteaders could farm Reaper-Mower
more land and harvest more
crops. The price of this new
machinery was relatively
low and affordable for the

1930s Self-Rake
Harvester- Reaper

1920s Binder
1.Ploughing the Land 1. Deere’s Steel Plough
2.Growing Crops ‘Sodbuster’
3.Lack of Water 2. Turkey Red Wheat
3. Dry Farming & Wind
4.Fire Pumps
5.Crops getting 4. Being careful
Trampled 5. Barbed wire fences
6.Plagues of Insects 6. No solution
7.Size of the 7. Government Acts,
Landholding Railroads
8.Machinery 8. Mechanised tools
9. No Solution
9.Extremes of Weather

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