Sometime in the early 1940s, windstorms knocked down the wheat near Geary in Canadian County. Combines could not be used, so farmers in the area came together for a community solution. They cut the wheat and hauled it to an old-fashioned thrashing machine, which normally had been replaced by combines.
Leo Cade, a family friend, owned a farm near Geary. He invited my brothers and me to help haul wheat on this remarkable occasion. Area women set up card tables so men could eat between trips to pick up wheat.
That event reflected two remarkably historic eras in Oklahoma farming — community efforts to use thrashing machines and later the use of combines to cut, thrash and bail wheat, farm by farm.
“Most Oklahomans, within one or two generations, can trace their family roots to a farm,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “The culture inherited from life on the farm, traits like hard work, optimism and rugged individualism, have helped define Oklahoma history.”
Efforts to preserve this history of Oklahoma farming and farm life are well under way in various parts of the state. A spectacular “Farm Life” exhibit will be featured Sept. 1 to Jan. 7 at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid.
Other farm life exhibits include the Sod House Museum, which illustrates how homes and farms were developed on the Oklahoma prairie; cotton farming at the Pioneer Heritage Townsite Center in Frederick; and a garden developed at Fort Gibson Historic Site to show how soldiers raised crops in the 19th century. All are operated at least partly by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center portrays the history of farming in northwest Oklahoma after 100,000 people made the Cherokee Strip Land Run.
“By 1900, northwest Oklahoma produced more than 10 million bushels of wheat,” said Andi Holland, director of the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center. “Many large farms in northwest Oklahoma also raised chickens, supporting flocks ranging from several hundred to thousands. By 1918, Enid led the nation in poultry production.”
Enid also became a prime location for terminal elevators, said Holland, because of the development of farming, a railroad hub and Enid's designation as a weighing and inspection station.
The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center features exhibits on “Where the Wheat Grows” and “Roads, Rivers and Rails.” The “Enid Story” gallery highlights the poultry industry. Other exhibits include agricultural tools and elements of farm life ranging from plows to butter churns.
The Sod House Museum near Cleo Springs features the two-room “soddy,” built with bricks of sod in 1894 by Marshall McCully. It is the only sod house built by a homesteader that is still standing in Oklahoma, said Renee Trindle, director of the museum. The museum encloses the Sod House.
A steel-beam-rod breaking plow, which was used to plow a 12-inch-wide strip of sod four inches thick, is on display. The strips were cut into sod bricks. It took one-half acre of sod, weighing 96 tons, to build a two-room house.
“A traditional acre was the amount of land tillable behind one ox in a day,” said Trindle. “Traditional acres were long and narrow due to the difficulty in turning the plow. One acre actually measures 40 rods long and three rods wide. A rod is a historical unit of length equal to five-and-one-half yards.”
In Frederick, the Pioneer Heritage Townsite Center represents farming in southwestern Oklahoma. It includes the 1902 Frisco Depot, the 1907 Nill House (originally a corn crib), a 1924 farm house, a general store, a 1983 barn that represents how a barn functioned in the 1920s, and the 1924 St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“The 1902 Horse Creek School is used to teach children about school in a one-room facility,” said Jimmy Espinosa, director of the Pioneer Heritage Townsite Center. “The implement shed features a collection of farm machinery from the 1800s to the 1950s, and a blacksmith's shop was used by farmers to heat, cut, reshape and weld metal.”
A Seed to Sew education program is offered during November to show elementary students how cotton was grown and harvested in the 1920s.
In eastern Oklahoma, the Fort Gibson Historic Site has opened the new Arbuckle Heritage Garden to display how, starting in 1824, soldiers began farming in the area to produce some of their own food.
“Eventually, more than 30 acres of farmland were established along with a thousand head of cattle and other livestock such as pigs,” said Correy Twilley, Fort Gibson historical interpreter. “In 1840, 36 soldiers were utilized as farmers.
“When our staff and volunteers come for a program, they eat period food grown in the period fashion and prepared in a period kitchen with period recipes. Local townspeople help with the upkeep, and visitors tour the gardens.”
That, said Blackburn, is a unique way to bring 19th century history directly to 21st century visitors to help them understand the farm history of Oklahoma.