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When Horses Pulled the Plow

Life of a Wisconsin Farm Boy, 1910–1929

Olaf F. Larson

Publication Year: 2011

In 1910, when Olaf F. Larson was born to tenant livestock and tobacco farmers in Rock County, Wisconsin, the original barn still stood on the property. It was filled with artifacts of an earlier time—an ox yoke, a grain cradle, a scythe used to cut hay by hand. But Larson came of age in a brave new world of modern inventions—tractors, trucks, combines, airplanes—that would change farming and rural life forever.
            When Horses Pulled the Plow is Larson’s account of that rural life in the early twentieth century. He weaves invaluable historical details—including descriptions of farm equipment, crops, and livestock—with wry tales about his family, neighbors, and the one-room schoolhouse he attended, revealing the texture of everyday life in the rural Midwest almost a century ago. This memoir, written by Larson in his ninth decade, provides a wealth of details recalled from an earlier era and an illuminating read for anyone with their own memories of growing up on a farm.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xxi

Olaf Larson is a generation older than I am. He grew up in the early 1900s; I grew up in the 1930s and ’40s. We were both farm boys, he in southern Wisconsin, I in central Wisconsin. Although some twenty-five years separate us, we had nearly the same farm experiences. We both grew up driving horses. Neither us had electricity, indoor plumbing, or central heat in our farm homes. And we both grew up...

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pp. xxiii-xxv

When my sons were growing up, they liked to hear my stories about growing up on a Wisconsin farm. Some stories they asked for over and over. To my surprise, my grandchildren also liked to hear some of the same stories. In time, I came to realize that a more complete account in writing might be of interest to my family. But...

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1. The Setting: Family, Farm, and Locality

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pp. 3-31

I Olaf Fredrick Larson, was born February 26, 1910, at my parents’ home on a farm in Fulton Township (Section 27), Rock County, Wisconsin. I lived on that farm until the fall of 1928, when I left to attend the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin, in Madison. I returned to the farm to work for my father during the summer of 1929. Visits home were fairly frequent over the...

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2. The Farmstead and Farmhouse

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pp. 32-46

The farm was on both sides of the country road that passed by it. On one side was the barn and forty acres. On the opposite side was the house with the eighty owned acres and, in the early years, the forty rented acres. On the barn side were two fields separated by a lane and about twenty-five acres of pasture and woodland. The lane went from the barnyard...

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3. Crops

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pp. 47-54

Most of our cropland was in field corn (maize); the grains, oats and barley; and hay. The ear corn was used to feed the hogs; some went to the horses along with oats; and some was mixed with oats to be ground for feeding the cattle and hogs. A small part of the crop was shelled for the chickens....

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4. Livestock

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pp. 55-70

My father never owned a tractor. All of the plowing and other such work was done by horses. Until I was sixteen, my family made every trip to town by horse-drawn buggy or wagon, cutter, or bobsled. Prairie Farmer’s Reliable Directory of Farmers and Breeders, Rock County, Wisconsin, published in 1919...

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5. Equipment

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pp. 71-85

The wagon was the most frequently used major piece of equipment on the farm. It had multiple uses. With the wagon box in place, the wagon carried sacks of grain from the threshing machine to the granary, or barrels of water from the water tank to the beds where tobacco plants grew. With a “bang...

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6. Hired Men

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pp. 86-90

During the busy season, from planting through harvest, my father could not do all the farm work by himself, so he took on a hired man, paid by the month. These men were always single. They ate their meals with us and had a room of their own, and my mother did their laundry with the family wash....

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7. Patterns of Work and Farm Life

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pp. 91-106

When winter snows melted and the frozen ground thawed and the robins returned from the south, we knew spring was at hand. Preparations for spring’s work had already been made. The harnesses had been washed in warm water, oiled, and repaired if necessary, and the brass parts polished. Oats and other grain to be used for seed had been put through the fanning mill to blow out the light kernels and...

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8. Transportation and Communication

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pp. 107-114

For years, a dirt road went past our farm to the country school. After wet weather, wagon wheels made ruts so the road was rough to drive on. The Town of Fulton bought road scrapers, and one of these was often left at our place. It consisted of two strong metal pieces, one in front and one in back, held together with a platform on top. When the ruts were bad, my father would hitch a team of horses to the...

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9. Country School and High School

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pp. 115-138

Icompleted grades one through eight at the country school, Cox School District No. 2, located about one mile from our farm. I started at the age of six in the spring of 1916, about two months before the end of the term. I have never forgotten my first day of school. The teacher put me at a desk on one side of the room near the front and gave me a reading book to look at. I started to turn...

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10. Health and Medical Care

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pp. 139-142

I never knew my father or mother to go to a doctor’s office or have one come to our house for them. I had a doctor three times for my left leg. When I was still crawling, I somehow fell over the rocker of a rocking chair and dislocated my leg. But this was not recognized until I could not walk when it was time; I just dragged my leg. Finally, I was taken to a specialist in Chicago who corrected the...

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11. Playtime, Pets, and Projects

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pp. 143-157

I was an only child. There were no children close to my age on nearby farms. I did not get to see or play with children until I went to country school at age six. At a very young age, I sometimes created imaginary playmates, especially a sister. Outside, I could play with the house cats. We had a dog, Ted, but he did not mean a lot to me. Inside the house, I played with toys received at...

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12. Other Memories of My Life on the Farm

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pp. 158-164

Weather was always a matter of concern on the farm, especially during the spring to fall seasons. If there was not enough rain, crops would not grow well and pastures would dry up. With too much rain, planting could not be done on time or corn could not be cultivated to keep ahead of the weeds. Wind with rain could “lodge” the grain at harvest time so the stalks were not upright for cutting. Too much...

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Epilogue: Back to the Farm, 1943–1944

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pp. 165-174

Fourteen years after my last summer on the farm in 1929, I unexpectedly found myself back on the farm as its operator and then as its owner. The event that prompted my return was the death of my father on June 23, 1943, after being kicked in the chest by one of the horses he was hitching to a piece of farm equipment....

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pp. 175-176

E-ISBN-13: 9780299282035
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299282042

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Edgerton (Wis.) -- Rural conditions -- 20th century.
  • Tobacco farms -- Wisconsin -- Edgerton -- History -- 20th century.
  • Larson, Olaf F. -- Childhood and youth.
  • Farmers -- Wisconsin -- Edgerton -- Biography.
  • Tobacco farmers -- Wisconsin -- Edgerton -- Biography.
  • Farm life -- Wisconsin -- Edgerton -- History -- 20th century.
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