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Woodworking column: Mind-boggling pioneer labor

It's 150 years ago this week. Great-Grandad's diary tells me that he, his brother-in-law Shubal Breed and his pal Lyman McNitt were breaking land on Dave Wood's 160-acre farm. Years back I read that the sand flats in southern Trempealeau County were a piece of cake. Down there, around Trempealeau and Galesville, a pioneer would cut down a sizeable tree, leave the branches on, chain a yoke of oxen to the trunk end of the tree and drag it along the flatland, where the earth was so friable it just needed scratching to make it ready for the first crop of wheat.

Not so in northern Trempealeau County. B.F. Heuston, an early local historian, described the process:

"It required three men and a wide long-beamed sharp plow ... three yokes of oxen, or six animals, as the usual power. The first end of the beam was usually carried on one or two wheels. The coulter and share were continually kept sharp by filing. Width of furrow was 20 to 21 inches. One man would drive while another would hold the plow. The third man went ahead needed to cut grubs. There was considerable ague during breaking season. The odor from large tracts of decaying sod was similar to that by a person sweating after a genuine ague chill."

Phew!

After a week's work of breaking sod, Great-Grandad reported that 9 acres had been broken in 1869 at a cost of $6 an acre. Such was a good deal for him because earlier in the century, according to Carleton College historian Rodney Loehr, Minnesotans in the St. Croix River Valley paid up to $15 per acre 15 years earlier.

It's mind-boggling to think of the manual labor expended by the early pioneers. Great-Grandad's first farm was a large one for the time, 160 acres. At the rate he was busting sod in 1869 it would have taken him 17 years to turn sod for the entire farm.

Such was not the case because before he arrived in Wisconsin his predecessors, the Indians, had done his work for him. Each year they set fire to woodlands to encourage the growth of blueberries. (Remember Pemmican?)

And so how did Great-Grandad expend his time after those 9 acres were broken? He busied himself picking. Picking potato bugs first. And after that picking blueberries with his wife Mary, blueberries left behind by most of the Native Americans who left for friendlier parts. Not all of them left of course, and the ones who stayed each year set fire to his pastures, at which time Great-Grandad, Shubal Breed and Lyman McNitt ran up onto the hillsides to move the rail fences lest they burn down.

I wonder what the Indians thought about that.

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