This column ran in the April 12, 2010 edition of the Prairie Post
The pioneer farm family worked hard. In fact, it was such a family effort that it was said that a single man, or woman for that matter, couldn’t operate a farm alone in the days of horse powered agriculture.
How the family efforts played out varied from family farm to family farm. In some cases the farm wife and children toiled in the field alongside the husband.
But as the years advanced the standard changed at least for better off farm families. By the 1920s the men and older boys worked the fields while the wife and older girls cooked the meals for the family males and any hired men the farm employed.
This had to be quite a change for the immigrant farmers from Europe where a woman working in the field was the standard.
At least according to lore in some European countries it was perfectly acceptable to substitute your wife for an injured ox in the yoke being used to pull a plow in a field.
That doesn’t mean the American farm wife had things easy.
There was her own large family to cook for along with any hired hands the farm would employee. Large farms could have a large crew because labor was cheap. Keep in mind the yield from an acre of wheat would pay the wages for a hired hand for one month.
Some farms employed hired girls. According to some historians the hired girl made about half the wage of the farm’s hired male laborers. These teenage girls, most were married and working as a farm wife on their own family farm by the time they were 20, worked as hard as or harder than anyone on the farm.
The farm wife’s labor was so intense that the United States Department of Agriculture did a study on their efforts in 1920.
This study found the average farm wife in the United States worked 13 hours per day. According to the study 60 percent carried water from a well that was at least 40 feet from the house, 80 percent fed poultry and 40 percent milked the cows.
Of course these chores were on top of cooking meals for the family, the hired men and, during some seasons, large crews of seasonal labor. During threshing an extra 20 to 30 men would spend time on the farm harvesting the crop, and waiting to be fed.
It was a lot of work, but it had to beat being yoked with an ox in Yugoslavia.