Michigan Family Farms and Farm Buildings: Landscapes of the Heart and Mind

Michigan Family Farms and Farm Buildings: Landscapes of the Heart and Mind

by Hemalata Dandekar


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051052
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 08/06/2010
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Michigan Family Farms and Farm Buildings

By Hemalata C. Dandekar


Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07105-0

Chapter One

The Raab Farm

It is a serendipitous meeting. It occurs on an initial foray in the late summer of 1986 driving around the country roads of Washtenaw County visiting one Centennial Farm after another. My student assistant Dan and I are learning to recognize which farmsteads retain the truly representative buildings, structures, and configurations of the traditional family farm in Washtenaw County. By early afternoon, driving south on Schneider Road, having passed the beautiful stone building of Bethel Church to the left, we turn right onto Bemis Road to try and find one more Centennial Farm. We have seen several and are beginning to understand the layout of farmsteads in the county. The owners of Centennial Farms we visited earlier have added newer structures and adopted the linear layout needed to mechanize and cultivate for a regional and national economy. Bemis Road is small, barely two lanes wide, muddy, and shaded with overhanging trees. It goes up and down small hills. We almost turn back. We are in my cracker-box-sized, first-generation Honda Civic. Even Dan owns a bigger car than mine. Although the Civic is navigating the terrain gamely, I am still new at this "quest for the perfect farmstead" and a little worried about being stuck in the countryside with miles to walk before we can reach a phone and call for help. It is 1986, several years before the ubiquitous availability of cell phones.

As we emerge from the woods at the top of a hill, to our left we see a contemporary house sitting on the high point of the land and to its west an exquisite grouping of structures: a traditional Michigan farmhouse, small and large barns, a windmill, and beautiful rolling land. Instinctively we turn into the gravel driveway and climb out to admire the buildings. Only then do we notice, working in a large vegetable garden to the left, a gentleman wearing a baseball cap and sturdy leather gloves. We introduce ourselves and learn that he is Rolland Raab. His family owns this farm and its archetypal traditional buildings. We ask permission to examine them and complement him on their beauty. He walks us around. The highlight of the tour is entering the big barn to a breathtaking view from its threshing floor of rolling fields leading down to a blue and shining Columbia Lake. It is the cusp of summer's transition to fall, one of those beautiful Michigan days when the sky is clear and bright, the leaves are just turning, the air is balmy and soothing, and there are no mosquitoes as the threat of impending chill is in the air. It is a day that makes totally understandable the reason why people who grew up in this countryside have the strongest of attachments to their land and farming way of life. Mr. Raab is quiet, but what he does say is to the point. He is a wonderful source of information, having the integrity to say only what he is certain of. We meet his son Ronald, who is busy farming, and photograph them beside their Centennial Farm sign, reserved men emanating pride in their farm.

The Raab farmstead seems frozen in time. Its buildings represent, in type, size, and configuration, those needed to run a successful diversified farm in its prime in the 1920s, meeting the subsistence needs of the family and producing goods for local and regional markets. Aligned in a rough axis around the looming big barn and farmhouse are the old barn, horse barn, smokehouse, woodshed, outhouse, windmill, corncrib, icehouse, chicken coops, silo, original barn relocated to become a toolshed, and the site of a former hog shed.

The buildings have an air of authenticity and belonging derived from long occupancy of the site. They are built largely from local materials, their structures developed in a practical, sturdy way to withstand climate and shelter animals, equipment, crops, and people. The farmhouse, built in 1858, faces Bemis Road with walls of dressed stone taken from the site. The barns have tongue-and-groove white pine siding painted oxide red and columns and beams of local white oak. The three-level big barn, built in 1913, is gambrel roofed and banked to provide access to the middle-level threshing floor with a basement for animals and an upper level for storing hay.

But compelling as the tangible reality of the Raab farmstead is, the diversified, self-reliant way of life becomes most clear through the descriptions of Mr. Rolland Raab and those of his wife, Helga (Lueckhoff) Raab. They make vivid the incredible transformation of rural life that has occurred during their lifetimes. In an environment of rapid technological innovation that greatly impacted the farm economy, able individuals such as Mr. Raab left family farming to become urban wage earners.

From Farming to Wage Work

In immediate response to my request to tell his life story, Mr. Raab reveals the centrality of the farm to his sense of self-identity saying: "Why don't we start with when we settled down here? The deed was signed in 1850. We always thought they came in 1848. We can't trace our ancestors. My great-grandfather and grandfather came over together. They seem to have come with the clothes on their back. A lot of people immigrated to the United States during the revolutionary period. They might have lived on the land for three years or so before they got the deed. My great-grandfather Jacob Raab owned it, then my grandfather Jacob Raab Jr. owned and added to it. He and somebody else would buy a quarter section and they would split it-twenty acres joining his plot, twenty ours. The Centennial Farm Book will have that. When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother owned it until 1911 and she passed away. She was 81. I was only five years old, but I remember her still. And my father became the owner. He passed away in 1926. He was the only son. There were two daughters. They worked out something. My grandmother owned some property, and the daughters got their share that way. After my father passed away, my mother became the owner. That time people did not have wills a lot of times. The property was in my father's name. So my brother and I quitclaimed the property, and it was in her name. She passed away in 1959, and my brother and I became joint owners."

The close bonds of trust in the Raab family are clear, as is the status of the women; grandmother and mother were trusted to become sole owners of family lands when their husbands died. Mr. Raab continues: "My brother [Oscar] never was married. He was my older brother. He lived there with my mother. He dated a girl for a while and they broke up and he was never interested in anybody else. He passed away in 1967, and I became the owner. In 1970 I talked to my lawyer about estate planning and decided to sell the farm in small amounts to my son and my daughter. My son lives right on the hill, on the farm. My daughter lives in Detroit.

"I lived there on the farm from 1905 to 1928 when I had a job in Ypsilanti. Then I was there on weekends, but by 1934 we got married. In '28, just before the Depression came along, things got rough on the farm. I had gone through Cleary College and graduated from there. And I loved the farming, so I went back and worked for him [Oscar] one year after I finished Cleary College. That was a bad year, and no, he didn't make anything. He was supposed to pay me 40 dollars a month. He gave me a check for it. We ran across that a couple of weeks ago, cleaning out some stuff. A check which he had made out to me, and I decided I had a job now making twenty-five dollars a week, which was big money in those days. And I never cashed the check. I gave it back to him after about six months. My mother kept it in her prayer book all those days. That's where we found it."

The quiet reciprocity and understanding of family circumstances and the appreciation of each other are obvious. He continues: "Depressions always seem to hit the farmers early. That's why I am afraid of the ways the depression is hitting the farmers right now. It is terrible. I don't know how anyone can even exist with that same income they are getting. So anyway, then I decided there just wasn't any possibility in both of us making a living off of that farm. I couldn't see the future in buying more land. So I decided that I would get a job. But I was always very much interested in it. We used to go out and help my brother. Although he didn't work it but for two years. Then we sharecropped it."

Mr. Raab's brother Oscar augmented the income from the farm with off-farm work. He learned to do plumbing installations. People were beginning to install indoor bathrooms in their homes, and he earned cash income doing that.

Sustainable Farming in the 1920s

At the time of this interview Mr. Rolland Raab was 82 years old (see note 3). It was like opening a time capsule. The past was crystal clear. He provided precise dates, names, and facts. The Raab farm flourished as a more or less self-sufficient operation in the 1920s. It sustained the family and allowed the cultivation of crops to pay for farm inputs and off-farm purchases and consumption. In 1987 the Raabs were still growing traditional crops using the same rotation patterns. According to Mr. Raab: "The crops are the same as they used to grow in the old days. That was a five-year rotation. They would cut hay the first year. It was good for horses. The second year the timothy. That had to go in the horse barn for the horses. For the rotation it was corn, then oats, then wheat. No commercial fertilizer. The manure was put out on the field for the corn where the timothy was cut off. So every five years it got manure. Once in a while we would have an acre or so of barley, which was used to feed hogs. There wasn't any set rotation on that. They didn't have yields like they have now. I don't know why the farmers don't go back to that. They would make just as much. Twenty-five bushels per acre of wheat instead of 50, 60, and save all that fertilizer cost. Your fertilizer is so expensive. That would take care of the surplus. I don't think that fertilizer is good for the land."

The Raabs divided their land into five fields and planted all five crops every year so as to conserve and replenish the land and also diversify and maximize, growing what they needed for animals and people. Mr. Raab sketched the fields and crop rotation for 1988, pointing out the "set-aside" land they had left fallow or "reserved" so they would be eligible to get "something back from the government," revealing his continuing detailed knowledge of his farm. He said: "My farming was all done with horses. The year I left was 1928, and my brother just worked it a year or so after that. That horse barn had six stalls and a granary space. And hay, loose hay, you see, we used to put that up above. That was enough hay to feed the six horses for the year. We used to put the oats in the granary so we didn't have to carry it too far to take it out. We used to have five horses. We used to have one odd horse you could drive anywhere. You had to have one to drive a horse and buggy. While plowing and dragging and some of those things, we used to use three horses instead of two, so you would use the odd horse with the team. They would be parallel. The horses would drag the harrow. Some of the farmers had tractors in the twenties. I know our neighbors had the Fordson tractor. It had steel wheels. They weren't too efficient though. We didn't buy one. We were a little bit more conservative and let the other guy buy one and try it out first."

The "extra" horse remained a fixture on the farm for years, as it was more efficient than the tractor in some parts of the farm. In a later conversation, Mr. Raab's daughter Carol said: "I remember the last horse. Her name was Fanny. She got stuck in the mud by the lake one Sunday. And it took the whole community coming with tractors and chains and shovels to get her out. After that she sulked."

Mrs. Raab remembered another significant machine on the farm, saying: "And of course now they combine the grain. In the olden days I remember when I was a little girl we lived out there and we had the old threshing machine. I remember all the farmers would help each other thresh. Some would bring the grain in from the field, and they would pitch it up in the machine. The straw would come out into the barnyard and that's what they would use for bedding for the animals and the grain would go in the granary. That was quite the thing, to see the old threshing machine go by the house up there."

Mr. Raab elaborated: "That would be in the middle of the big barn. And the straw would go into the barnyard and make a huge straw stack. You needed the fence or the cattle would keep worrying on it and get smothered under there. We'd keep the cattle out with a rail fence. All the grains would be thrashed, the oats, everything. Not corn. The corn we husked by hand. You cut the corn and put it in shocks to dry. You had to cut the corn before the stalks got too dry. I imagine it was a lot easier to handle than handling it dry. The corn would dry in the shocks for two or three weeks, and then we would husk it. When I was five years old, my grandmother used to take me out to the field where they husked corn. She would put me on to one side of the shock and she the other and we tipped them over. She'd give me a penny for helping her. I probably husked five or six, and if I was fussing too long she'd say throw it over here and I will break it off and you get going on another one. She didn't want to waste any time. She was quite a lady to get work out of people."

Mrs. Raab remembered: "And then you had a corn sheller if you wanted to shell corn. You put the corn in and turn it by hand. Then later they put a motor on them and you did things electrically, put the corn in one end and it separates the corn kernels and the cob falls out below and the chaff goes out the opposite end. We still have that machine in the barn." Farm produce was mostly consumed on the farm. The corn was largely used as feed for steers. Mr. Raab said: "We used to raise five or six cows and raise their calves. We had sheep. We used to feed the lambs. We had hogs. Wheat was primarily used to make flour for people. You tried to sell enough wheat to pay the taxes. The oats were fed to the horses. Hogs, you ground the corn and oats together, and if you had some barley you mixed barley. The lambs you fed hay and corn. And the sheep you just fed hay until two, three weeks before lambing time, and then you would start giving them oats, building up the milk so they can feed the lambs."

Barn Materials and Barn Raising

The big barn is one of the most striking buildings on the farm. It is a traditional, gambrel-roofed structure, large and standing straight and true. Mr. Raab provided some background: "That barn was put in around 1913. Part of it is older than 1913. I don't know when that old part was built. I guess there was a log cabin before, but I really don't know where. The barn is in really good shape. That one in the back is much older. I think it is the oldest barn. We use it for a tool-shed now. It does not have a floor. It was moved from about where the big barn is now. The south part of the big barn is the old part. It used to stand like this, east and west, and then I think the barnyard was kind of protected."

He knows the materials that were used to build the barn and said: "I think the siding was bought. But all the others, the rafters, the beams, trusses, the maws, were all done from the woods. It is fairly rough. I think the planks for the flooring were bought. You got the two doors there. To the left and right are the mows where you store the hay. The barn floor between the doors you have to have strong. You bring in the machine. I was only seven years old when that barn was built. I remember the barn raising and walking around it. I don't know how they walked around up there with just that framework you know. They worked for quite a few days getting set up. They had to have a lot of help. Then they had the barn raising, and they had to have everything fit. They had to raise it all in one day."

Mrs. Raab identifies with the barn raising, an event in which women played a big role. She said: "And all the women would come and help cook. They had a lot of men out there. And a feast outside. That was a big deal. I have been to them when I was a girl. The farm out on Schneider Road, Jake Del Meyers' barn, I remember when that was built. We were invited, and we went down there. The women cooked all the food. Everybody brought something and cooked it. Feed all those men. They would put up all those beams and rafters all in one day. I don't know how they got those beams up that go all the way across. They were a lot of weight. I don't know how they were raised up there. There were ropes and pulleys probably."

Mr. Raab added: "Most of those barns were probably built between 1910 and 1915 and 1916. Every two three weeks there would be a barn raising. It was going from the old-type barns to the hip-roofed barns."

This was a period of agricultural expansion in the area. The new style of gambrel-roofed barns provided considerably greater volume for hay storage and was constructed with milled lumber. The Raab farm buildings fit into the landscape and look like they have organically evolved from the site because by and large they were built of materials taken from the land. In 1988 the Raab farm had fields but no woodlot. Mr. Raab explained: "We had more than 32 acres of woods over in Freedom Township. We sold that some 20 years ago. That's where we got our wood from. In that time we had 175 acres, including the woods. You got the wood on horses and wagons. You extended the wagon and took it down to the sawmill to turn it to lumber. At Steinbach and Water Works, right on that corner was a sawmill-the Keebler sawmill."


Excerpted from Michigan Family Farms and Farm Buildings by Hemalata C. Dandekar Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

The Lower Peninsula

Part 1 Around Ann Arbor

Chapter 1 The Raab Farm 11

Chapter 2 The Lutz Farm 37

Chapter 3 The Wing Farm 61

Part 2 South Central Michigan

Chapter 4 The Honeywell Farm 81

Chapter 5 The Crawford Farm 98

Part 3 Elsie, the Dairy Capital

Chapter 6 The Young Farm 111

Chapter 7 The Cobb Farm 126

The Upper Peninsula

Part 4 Crossing the Bridge

Chapter 8 The Klaus Farm 145

Chapter 9 The Barn on Dafter Road 154

Part 5 Mines and Farms

Chapter 10 The Rheault Farm 165

Chapter 11 The Hanka Farm Museum 182

Chapter 12 The Johnson Farm 190

Chapter 13 Irene and Harold Vuorenmaa 210

Chapter 14 Marcia and Harold Bernhardt 227

Chapter 15 The Wilburn Olsen Barn 234

Chapter 16 The Paramski Farm 245

Reflections and Conclusions 249

Notes 259

Index 269

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