In the decadesafter the Civil War, from 1865 until theearly 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Americans moved into the area ofthe West called the Great Plains. Beforethe Civil War, most people going to the West passed right overthe Great Plains. They considered the area a vast treelesswasteland. Their goal was to get to the far West – usuallyCalifornia orOregon. After the CivilWar, the perception of the Great Plains changed. Therewere many new inventions,adaptations, and technological advances that made itpossible to farm the land in that area. Some examples areshown in the photographs below.
Inventionsand adaptations that made it possible to settle and farm the Great Plains:
The two pictures below show settlers onthe GreatPlains. Wood for building houses was hard to get, because thereare not many trees in that area. So the early settlers made theirhouses from sod – the top layer of soil and grass – cutand stacked to make the walls. Even the roof wasoften made of sod placed over wood beams. If the farm wassuccessful, the owners would later build a new house using wood boardsshipped inby railroad.
As settlers began moving onto the GreatPlains, theydiscovered that cast iron plow blades commonly used in eastern stateswould often clog up. The soil of the Great Plains is thick andrich, and would often stick to the cast iron blade. Fortunately, a blacksmith named John Deere invented a wayto make plow blades out of steel. Steel is harder than cast iron,and can be made so smooth that it cuts through soil without clogging up. The photo below of a plow made with a steel blade is froma demonstration of old-time farming techniques. The plow cutsthrough the soil without any problem.
The drawingbelow shows John Deere”s steel plowblade and the wood handles of a “walk behind” plow. As a horsepulls the plow, the farmer uses the handles to keep the blade of theplow moving just at the right depth in the soil. The blade cutsand turns over the soil, which is then ready for planting.
3.Water-pumping windmills There is notmuch rainfall on the GreatPlains, especially in the summer. The invention of an inexpensivewater pumping windmillhelped solve that problem. As the wind turns the blades of the windmill, along rod that runs downthe tower moves the handle of a water pump up and down. The pumppulls waterup from a well, and sends it into a storage tank or othercontainer.That way there is alwayswater available for people and animals. Windmills like this are still used in manyfarming areas in the West, because theypump water without using electricity.
The photobelow shows a farm boy adjusting the pump mechanism at the base of awindmill. The pump is on top of a metal pipedrilled down to the level of groundwater. That may be anywherefrom about 20 to more than 100 feet deep. If there is no wind,the pump canalso work by moving the long handle up and down by hand.
Barbed wire,invented in1874, solved the problem of building fences on the Great Plains.Wood forfences wasn”t easily available, since there were not many trees in theregion. Barbed wire was affordable and easy to put up.
Railroads were an importanttechnological advance thatmade itpossible tosettle the West. They could bring in supplies at an affordableprice. They also made itpossibleforfarmers to ship out theircrops and ranchers to ship out their cattle.
The double photo below is an old stereoscope card. It shows atrain on the famous Transcontinental Railroad line that wascompleted to California in 1869. When looked at in a hand-held viewer like the one on theright, stereoscope cards gave a 3-D image of the scene. Thesecards and viewers were very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The heavy red lines on the map below show some of therailroads built into the West during the 1860s and 1870s. Theline connecting Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, is thefirst Transcontinental Railroad. Many more lines were built later.
Farmers needed a crop that would grow well in the dry, hotsummers of the Great Plains. Wheat was the crop that best fit theclimateconditions. The wheat grains at the top of the plant areground into flour that is used to make bread, cereal, and many otherfoods.
Wheat was alsoa good match for the farms of the Great Plains because the flat land isideal for using the mechanical reaper to harvest thecrop. The reaper came into wide use after about 1850, and made itpossible to harvest large plots of wheat quickly. The photo belowshows an old-style reaper in action in a wheat field.
Farmers savedsome of the wheat crop for themselves, but most was bagged and sold towheatbuyers in big cities. The photo below shows a farmer ready toloadhis crop on a railroad freight car for shipment.
Farmers of the Great Plains developed dry farmingtechniques toadapt to the low rainfall and conserve as much moisture in the soil aspossible. Thesetechniques included: 1.Choiceof acrop (wheat) that did not require much rainfall to grow. 2. Plowing the land deeply to allow moisture to getdeep into the soilmore easily when it did rain. 3. Planting seeds inthe ground deeper than normal, perhaps two inches downinstead of one inch down. That put the seeds in contact with moremoisture than the very top layer of soil. The drawing below shows a old-fashioned seed drill. It is a devicefarmers use toplant seeds in their fields after the land has been plowed. Thewheat seeds go in the box at the top. As the device is pulledthrough the fields by a horse, the seeds drop a few at a time throughthe tubes and into soil at a depth set by the farmer.
Some parts of the Great Plains were ideal for raising beefcattle. So that choice, too, was an adaptation tothe conditionsof that area. Texas was the most famous state for cattle ranching.
Hand colored images of sod houses arefrom the Fred Hultstrand Historyin Pictures Collection at the Library of Congress. Black andwhite photos are from the Library of Congress. The drawing of the John Deeresteel plow courtesy of the Augustana College Special Collections. Colorwheat field photocourtesy of the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, used by permission.The farm museum photo of ahorse-drawn plow is courtesy of theWisconsin Historical Society.Seed drill imageis a public domain image used courtesy of ushistoryimages.com.The map and color photos of barbed wire are by David Burns.Some images have been edited or resized for this page.