History of Farming and the Harvest in Chesterfield
I’m not normally the type of person who adorns my car with bumper stickers. I do have one, though. It simply asks, “Who’s your farmer?” Many of us spend a great deal of time thinking about food. We anxiously anticipate a meal at a gourmet restaurant. We run to the grocery store to grab a last minute dinner or we might opt for carryout when we’ve had a long day. But how many of us truly stop to think about where our food comes from?
Chesterfield’s literal and figurative roots are in farming, but with the growth of the city, many of those farms have slowly disappeared over time. Some do remain though and now, during the harvest season, is the best time to take a look around and think about locally grown food.
During the earliest years of the Chesterfield community, there were some large farms with hired workers. But most were family farms that operated on a subsistence level. That is, farms were very small and the family used much of the farm’s yield for their own needs, with little left over to sell. By the turn of the century, some aspects of farming had become more mechanized thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Of course, even family farms expanded in size somewhat during this period—albeit still small compared to most farms today—as more food was needed for an expanding population, many of whom were moving to cities and no longer growing their own provisions.
Corn, wheat and soybeans, as well as numerous varieties of fruits and vegetables, were (and still are) the primary crops of Chesterfield. Many farms dotted the bluffs of Chesterfield. In fact, the home you are sitting in right now may once have been the field of a local farmer. Since the soil in the river bottoms tends to be the most fertile, thanks to the restorative effects of occasional flooding from the nutrient rich river water, many farms were also located in these areas.
Families put in the most hours and hardest work during the harvest season. Two primary activities this time of year were threshing and shelling. Threshing, which referred to wheat and shelling, which pertained to corn, were the processes of removing the grain from the shaft and stalk or cob respectively. Early threshing was achieved by beating wheat on the ground. Eventually horse-powered threshing machines were invented and later gasoline powered threshers took over. However, even those required a lot of human work.
My great-aunt, Lois, described the process to me. “During big farm events such as shelling corn or threshing wheat, the community would share the use of expensive equipment needed for the job. Neighbors and perhaps some hired workers would gather with the equipment at one farm, work there until they were finished and then move on to the next farm. These were large gatherings that people often looked forward to. Even though they involved a lot of work, it also allowed the opportunity to socialize with neighbors.”
Men were not the only ones who put in long hours. My great-aunt, Lil, wrote the following in a postcard to my grandmother in 1940. “I got to bed at midnight last night. Then I had to get up early this morning and come out and help Aunt Rosie thresh all day. I’m about ready for bed now at 7 o’clock. I’m waiting to see what Bing Crosby will sing.”
Of course, someone had to feed all of the hungry workers throughout the day. In an oral history interview, my great-grandmother, Lena Hoefer, recounted how much work women put in, particularly during the late summer and early autumn months. “Usually a farm wife would rise early, her husband providing the wood for the cookstove, and ready her dough for the day’s baking. If it was a busy time of year, such as a harvest, when extra men might be working, she would be baking bread and pies in quantity. A large breakfast of: eggs, bread, homemade jellies, fried potatoes with onions, bacon, ham or sausage and possibly oatmeal along with coffee and fresh milk was served. At mid-morning a ‘snack’ was taken to the fields (often by the children), of sandwiches or pies.” These were popular and an early form of fast food that could be eaten on the go, as daylight hours were precious and halting work was not an option.
If you think the stream of homemade food ended there, think again. Lena continued, “A large lunch-dinner was served at noon and another snack in mid-afternoon. Supper was a lighter meal, possibly some left-over meat from the day, with more fried potatoes, vegetables, tomatoes, onions, etc.” If that seems like a lot of food, take a look at the photos of the men, women and children taking part in this process. It gives an idea of the caloric expenditure required for such work, as no one really seemed overweight, despite large quantities of food throughout the day.
The work that went into preparing a day’s meals must have been exhaustive to say the least, considering that the women made everything from scratch. Can you imagine facing the pile of dishes that needed to be washed after preparing a day-long meal such as that without a dishwasher? I’m sure that’s where the children came into the picture. Also, women weren’t cooking in an air-conditioned kitchen, but often a “summer” kitchen, a separate building away from the main house, designed to keep the living quarters cooler and away from the heat of the wood cookstove. And, of course, the entire cooking process would begin again the following morning.
When harvest was finished, there was still more work to be done as men took surplus crops to area markets, sometimes as far away as Soulard. They also began making straw bales from the leftover wheat shafts, which provided winter bedding for their livestock. And since not all of the fruits and vegetables could be consumed during harvest, despite the lengthy days’ menus, women turned to canning and preserving all of that produce!
I’m proud that my dad was a farmer and that I grew up on a farm. It instilled in me a sense that everything we eat comes from somewhere, whether it is real food from a farm or processed food from a factory. Farming and farmers are important, not only to our history, but to our everyday lives today. Where we get our food and who provides it is essential to keep in mind. In an age of industrial food processing, sometimes it is healthier for both our bodies and our economy to look closer to home to find our food.
We have the luxury of not needing to thresh our own wheat; that doesn’t mean we can’t take the time to explore some of the local farms that are still in the area. Two nearby farms, open to the public on a regular basis, are Thies Farms–ThiesFarm.com and Rombach Farms–RombachFarms.com or check out the seasonal farmers’ markets–AmericanTowns.com/Mo/Chesterfield-Local-Food for a listing.