Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 3 Breaking Prairie

    In the 1830s and for about 80 years more the land that is Midewin was home to 224 farmsteads.

    Four generations of European settlers farmed the land destined to become Midewin. This spanned a time period of 80 years. Before the arsenal was built there were 224 farmsteads 14 schools, and 5 cemeteries on what became the arsenal and part of which is now Midewin.

    Early settlers to Illinois tallgrass prairie in Illinois had learned there was fertile soil beneath the prairie. Gone was the notion that land only growing grass was infertile. It was once thought that soil without trees would not grow crops. Prairie soil was difficult to till because of the thick prairie roots. All wooded land in Illinois was claimed by 1835, while large tracts of open prairie land were still available for purchase from the government for another 20 years. Once settlers ventured out onto the prairie to farm they still needed timber for building and for heat. In addition to the prairie land, settlers also purchased 10 to 20 acre wooded lots near rivers or streams to supply their timber needs. These timber lots could be as far as 10 to 15 miles from their farm.

    There was black gold in the soil locked beneath the roots of prairie plants. Getting to this rich soil was the problem for these early settlers. Cutting through the intertwined roots and massive root stocks was a daunting task. Farmers struggled when using the standard wood plow to cut into the prairie sod. These first settlers were subsistence farming. It took so long to create fields that the fields were small. The crops they grew were just enough to feed their families.

    This standard plow was called a moldboard plow. This plow introduced a horizontal cutting blade and moldboard enabling a total rotation of the soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface and burying the remains of prairie plants, weeds, or previous year’s crops. The first versions of this style plow were made of wood. Cast iron was added to later moldboard plows to create a sharper edge. This cast iron could be sharpened with a file as needed. The cast iron also helped deal with rocky New England soils. Although adding cast iron created a much heavier plow.  

    Illinois settlers had to purchase the land they wanted to farm. They had two years to make enough money to pay off their loans. If a settler wanted more acreage plowed sooner and could afford it he hired commercial plowmen to cut the prairie roots. The price per acre for “breaking prairie” varied from $2-$4 per acre. They used a huge double wheeled plow with a 7 to 12 foot beam and 24 to 32 inch moldboard made from cast iron. Three to six yoke or pair of oxen were needed to pull these plows. A crew of 2 to 3 men was needed to drive the oxen team, guide the plow and control the depth of the furrow, and scrape off soil that stuck to the moldboard. Illinois soil is heavy as well as sticky. Prairie soil did not “scour” or fall off the cast iron moldboard like woodland soils.

    Not all settlers could afford a hire big crews of men to break prairie for them. They used whatever sized plows they had from 12 to 30 inch. They used oxen if they had them but horses were used, too.   Settlers would pooled their resources. One neighbor might own a breaking plow but not enough livestock to pull the plow. While another had the livestock but not the farm equipment. Surviving the prairie meant settlers helped their neighbors. Taming the prairie was back breaking work but made easier with the hand of a neighbor.

    Two to three acres could be broken in a day depending on the size of the plow and the number of oxen used. The goal of turning the sod was to cause it to rot. It could take several years for grass roots to rot into a nice loamy soil. Through trial and error settlers found it best to break the prairie sod from early or mid-May to mid-July.  A man could break an “eighty” that is eighty acres in two months and plant it with “sod corn” or flax. “Sod corn” could be planted every fourth row. The other option was to cut a slice with an ax into the overturned sod & drop 3 to 4 kernels of corn into each slice and seal the cut by stepping on it. The rotting roots helped grow the “sod corn”. This would yield a half crop of corn in the fall of 15 to 25 bushels per acre.

    Several individuals, including John Lane of Will County, Illinois, developed a steel version of the moldboard plow. The key to these new plows was the use of polished steel. Moldboard plows made from this new wrought steel were lighter, cut efficiently and stayed sharp, were not brittle and easily broken like cast iron, and sticky soils of the prairie scoured right off the moldboard. The first man to patent his version of the cast-steel moldboard plow was John Deere of Grand Detour, Illinois in 1837. He then perfected a way to mass manufacture an affordable plow for farmers by the 1850’s.

    Ten times the amount of land could now be cultivated or broken by a farmer with just a three horse team and John Deere’s “self-polisher”. This simple invention changed the lives of farmers in the 19th century dramatically. This plow was equal to the prairie sod. It is said that the cutting of the roots of prairie plants sounded like a volley of pistol shots which was further amplified by the tempered steel of the moldboard. Breaking the prairie was a crucial step in unlocking the treasure beneath the sod.  The steel plow let farmers plow more acres in fewer hours. Illinois and prairie land to the west were opened to an era of agricultural development. In Illinois, during the 1850’s, the population doubled from 850,000 to more that one and a half million people. Now with this new plow, farmers were no longer subsistence farming. They were growing food on what were once prairies for the growing population. 

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