Friday, November 18, 2011

Isaac's Land from the Air Today

Movies and western songs have left the romantic impression of wide open spaces on the lonesome prairie. That description is more accurate today than it was during Isaac's life, when settlers hurried to claim homesteads on quarter-sections of 160 acre parcels of land. Because the homesteader was required to live on the property he or she claimed, it was possible for each square mile of land to have four different homesteaders living there, in some cases even more if the homesteaders claimed smaller parcels of land. A timber claim did not require that the claimant live on the property, so not every quarter of land contained a dwelling. The best land was claimed first, so poor, sandy acreage was available a while longer, but many settlers in Stafford County arrived in 1878, when Isaac staked his claim.

Isaac did not own a horse for several years following his arrival. He had to break the prairie sod with "man-power" or trade his labor in exchange for the use of a neighbor's horse and plow, and during that time he devoted most of his effort to cultivating trees. Understandably, a quarter-section homestead provided more than enough for one man to farm. During the early 1880s, when prices for crops were good and hopes for the future were high, Isaac and most other farmers acquired horses, mules, or oxen, and machinery for the animals to pull. Although this allowed one man to farm more land, it often meant the farmer had mortgaged his property to secure the money for his purchases. Within a few years, drought, mortgages, and falling prices for their crops caused many settlers to abandon their claims, and the population density declined. As even better machinery was invented, the number of farmers was further reduced.

Today, huge equipment allows a farmer to cover more ground in a few hours than Isaac could have covered in many days. In addition, the massive expenses of equipment, land, and such things as fuel, herbicides, and fertilizers have forced the remaining family farms to become large business operations, one family farming thousands of acres, with only a few exceptions. The use of irrigation has also contributed to the change. Isaac was an agriculturalist who advocated modern farming techniques and personally conducted experiments with different farming methods and seed varieties, as well as inventing and modifying equipment to improve what was available for farmers to buy. As forward thinking as Isaac was, he would probably be amazed by today's farms.

Let me use a recent aerial photograph of the land that was once Isaac's homestead and timber claim to illustrate some of the differences in today's farms. To orient yourself, imagine that you are sitting in the airplane looking out toward the northwest horizon. In the middle of the picture are two circular fields with green, growing crops. The circle that is only about half green-covered was Isaac's homestead; the nearly full circle of green to the north was Isaac's timber claim. The remnants of Isaac's tree rows are along the east side of both quarters of ground and a partial row still exists between them. The road that runs along the south side of Isaac's homestead is the county line between Stafford County to the north (where Isaac's land is located) and Pratt County to the south. Notice how the land is laid out in a grid pattern of square mile sections. The circles are created by irrigation systems that pivot in the center of a quarter-section field to water the crop growing within the circle of its path. The corners of the square field are often planted in a dry-land crop that doesn't require as much water. What was once Isaac's land occupies the west half of that section. The two quarters on the east half of the section appear gray in this photograph. Together, those four quarters form a square-mile section of land. When Isaac lived there, only his timber claim did not have a residence.

If you look closely at the land receding in the distance to the west in the photograph, you can identify another square-mile section. The SE/4 has a circle irrigation system, the SW/4 has a tree row between it and the NW/4, and the NE/4 is an empty gray square. There are no longer any homes in that section, although there were in Isaac's time. Continue looking to the west and you will see a small cluster of trees along the edge of the SE/4 in the next section. That is where my childhood home is located, with only a square mile section separating Isaac's old home and mine.

Isaac wrote in his Journal that in 1890 sixty-six registered voters appeared to cast their ballots in Albano Township, which at that time would have meant sixty-six men. Women did not have the vote, although there were female heads of households living in the thirty-six square miles of the township. Currently there are twenty-nine registered voters in Albano Township, which includes both men and women. The "wide open spaces" between homes are definitely greater and the prairie more lonesome today than in Isaac's time.

I hope this gives those of you who are not familiar with farms on the Kansas plains an idea of how they look today, as well as a sense of how different it would have looked in Isaac's day, with three or four families living on each square mile of land, farming irregularly shaped fields, and carefully tending tree groves, treasured for their shade in an age before air conditioning and their purpose as a wind break to slow erosion caused by winds racing unimpeded across the prairie.

In a future blog, I will return to this photograph to identify where some of Isaac's neighbors lived. I enjoy receiving your comments, clicks, and checks at the end of every posting, to discover which blogs you particularly like. My followers now include people from many states, both urban and rural, which makes your input even more appreciated as I include a variety of topics in the blog. Let me hear from all of you!

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