Time Capsule: Farm Life

Time Capsule: Farm Life

Ancestors in their own words.

January 3, 1879
After dinner we hitched up a span of horses to the seed sower and sprinkled some wheat on the ground that Jim had turned upside down in the forenoon.

February 3, 1879
We went out to plow before sunrise.

February 12, 1879
Put in a crop of barley.

March 28, 1879
Got up this morning at half past three and had my team clothed in their appropriate regalia in less than no time; was out at work half an hour before sunrise.

May 9, 1879
I helped Alice wash the dishes this evening for a change.

May 10, 1879
I finished the [plowing] for the day but had no time to spare as it was sundown by the time I got through.

These diary entries, written by George W. Farris when he began farming in Dunnigan, Calif., in 1879, give us a glimpse of the day-to-day life of a 19th-century farmer. Farming was year-round work. Even in winter, farmers still had to feed their animals, milk the cows, repair fences and plant some crops, especially in temperate climates such as California.
Farming families were typically large. Ma and the girls handled the household duties, while Pa and the boys did the outdoor chores. Well-to-do farmers also had hired hands, some of whom resided with the family.
From sunup to sundown, there were few idle moments. But holidays and Sundays brought a little time off for church attendance, community gatherings and visits with neighbors and relatives.
Reading diaries such as this one reveals what life was like for your farming ancestors. You also can turn to social histories, such as Farm: A History and Celebration of the American Farmer by Gary Paulsen (Prentice-Hall), Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950 by John and Anne Van Willigen (University Press of Kentucky), Haymakers: A Chronicle Of Five Farm Families by Steven R. Hoffbeck (Minnesota Historical Society Press) and Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972 by John T. Schlebecker (Iowa State University Press).

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