Winter days provided a farmer of the early 1900s with some needed time to repair his horse-drawn implements and leather harness in preparation for spring fieldwork and planting. The ability to improvise and create improvements to farm tools and traditional farming practices had historically been necessities for those who tilled the soil.

Being a jack-of-all-trades in practical ability was important to the farmer who worked the land with horses. First-hand knowledge of plowing, tilling, planting, cultivating, haying, threshing and harvesting, gave him a very personal perspective on the seasonal challenges and difficulties of farm life. The smallest improvement could make a significant difference in getting work accomplished

Tinkering with equipment, modifying existing machinery and inventing better ways of getting things done were important, when so much farm work had to be done by hand. The basic materials for repairs were iron, steel, hardware, wire and lumber, shipped by railroad and purchased in town. Making do with little was a familiar condition. Creating something to meet a pressing need was a way of life for farm families.

    In winter, there were still chores to do, animals to feed and tend, cows to milk, corn to grind, water to pump and wood to chop. For the family to be kept warm and fed, the kitchen stove required diligent attention with the fuel of corncobs, wood or coal. In the farmhouse, there was no central heating, running water or indoor plumbing.

    Heavy snows resulted in the need to clear paths to the barn, outhouse and other farm buildings with a horse and makeshift plow. Neighboring farmers also worked together to clear parts of their nearby country roads of snow, if the drifts weren’t impossibly deep.

    During the winter, a farmer might use his skills to make a needed toolbox or mailbox, build simple furniture, prepare his horse-drawn implements for spring, repair tools and mend leather harness. A small forge on the farm was used to work on equipment, create metalwork and re-set horseshoes.

    A trip to the blacksmith shop in town was taken for more complicated repair work and specialized horseshoeing. Often living far away from replacement parts for equipment, a farmer had to improvise, or have the local blacksmith fashion a substitute, so work could continue.

    Horse-drawn farm equipment, constructed of metal and wood, could be heavy and cumbersome. Adjusting and positioning implements required lifting, tugging and pulling by the farmer, both during repairs and when various pieces of equipment were hitched to the horses.

    Leather harness required regular upkeep to keep it safe and in good repair, both for work horses and driving horses. A specialized vocabulary described parts of harness fittings such as whiffletrees, reins, breechings, traces, collars, hames and pole straps. These were vital connectors to the horses, the implements or vehicles and the farmer driving them. Cleaning, repairing and oiling harness for work and basic transportation were regular, time-consuming activities when living with horsepower.

    Winter days also brought the fleeting dreams of inventing something as revolutionary as had blacksmith John Deere in 1837 at Grand Detour, Illinois, when he fashioned a self-scouring steel plow out of a broken saw blade and changed farming with his innovation. In reality, the would-be farmer/inventor had little time to commercially produce his ideas, because immediate work demanded primary attention and farming was a relatively isolated way of life.

    To create an invention and receive a patent from the government was an abiding dream at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, not only for farmers, but American inventors eager to improve life and industry. It was a time of optimism, created by the successes of the Wright brothers’ flight and Henry Ford’s automobile. The availability of small gasoline engines enabled people to further create their own ways to lighten the drudgery of endless handwork.

    Taking an invention beyond its use on a farm and into commercial production could be an expensive, difficult and time-consuming task. Even if a farmer had been granted a U.S. patent, his monitoring of any infringements on it was nearly impossible.

    A reflection of the changing times also appeared in popular stories and poetry published in magazines and books. James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), the Hoosier Poet, wrote Griggsby’s Station, a poem relating how the securing of a successful patent had forever altered a family’s life, at the expense of peace and comfort.

    Schoolchildren of the time often memorized the poetry of this celebrated Indiana writer, whose simple sentiments reflected on the passing of earlier country life. At one point, Riley was considered the most popular poet in the United States. His poems were read by lamplight on cold winter evenings as family entertainment and recited by students at one-room country schools on special occasions.

    Wintertime on the farm moved at its own unique pace because of weather conditions and shortened hours of daylight. If a brief thaw temporarily melted ice and snow, the time was frequently used by a farmer to go out and mend fences or clear rocks from the fields in preparation for the promise of spring.


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