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"Farming - Then & Now"

Back in the late 20's and early 30's during the Depression, farming was almost at a stand still. Production of grain was very low, and there wasn't a good market for what we did raise. Much of our grain and livestock was destroyed to help raise the price. Government programs paid to destroy small pigs and plow under growing grain. Some farmers burned corn instead of coal for heat. Many farmers went bankrupt and lost everything. It seemed hopeless but things gradually got better with new farm programs to get rid of the surplus to raise the price. When World War II started we had to feed most of the world so prices gradually increased. We didn't earn much money then, but we didn't need much. We only had to buy a few groceries. We lived out of the garden and hen house. We had plenty to eat, but no money. Everything was bought in large quantities. I remember my parents buying pork & beans by the case. Several times we boys would take a can opener and spoons with a can of beans and hide in a nearby wheat field to eat it. Other items were fifty-pound sacks of flour, fifty pounds of salt, fifty pounds of sugar, and pepper by the pound. We had good fresh milk and homemade cottage cheese, fresh churned butter, fresh eggs fixed numerous different ways and every kind of vegetable from the garden. The day my mother baked a fresh supply of bread and churned new butter I ate real good.

One summer we had over 100 degree-days for more than a month. About this same time the oat lice appeared (a slender crawling insect about one-forth inch long). With them and the hot, sweaty weather, life was miserable. The only way we got relief was to dive in the old swimming hole down on the creek. Some evenings we tried to listen to an old squeaky radio, but most of the time the static was too loud to understand anything. When the static was the worst we knew it was going to storm. Two of the programs we listened to when we could were "Lum & Abner" and Amos & Andy". Once in a while on Saturday night we got to go to a movie. It cost fifteen cents, so we didn't get to go very often. We had to create most of our own entertainment. After working hard all week, my dad would give me 50 cents on Saturday night. By the time I was 21 I got $5 a week and I got to use the family car. Later, we bought a 33' Chevy coupe for $75.00. It was Claris' car and mine for several years after we were married. It was a sporty looking car (4 cylinder Chevy coupe with oversized tires). It had freewheeling, which was the early form of the automatic transmission, only you still had to use the clutch to start and stop.

We started farming in March of 1937 on a 119 acre farm 1 miles northwest of Thayer, Illinois with six horses, one milk cow, and two sows. I borrowed $400 from Big 4 Loan Co. and bought an old wagon and some other machinery. I paid $4.00 for the old wagon, but had to build a wagon box for it. The farmland was fertile so I raised extra good crops and made a small profit. The large, nine-room house we lived in was hard to heat, so in cold weather we lived in two rooms that we could heat the best. Water would freeze in the teakettle on the kitchen stove every cold night. We raised a lot of chickens for food and had laying hens. We traded eggs for groceries. Sometimes we would sell fryers to earn money.

One spring we planted 5 acres of potatoes with 33 sacks of seed. They made 135 bushels per acre and I sold most of them for 1 cent a pound. We earned several dollars, but it was hard work. I hauled most of them to Springfield to a vegetable market. In 1939, my dad bought a two-row New Idea corn picker. I drove it doing custom work for neighbors until it was worn out. We would pick the corn and scoop it into the crib for 10 cents per bushel.

During the winter months for two years, I worked in the coal mine at Kincaid, Illinois. In 1945, we bought a self-propelled combine with a 12' grain head. I drove it doing custom work until it was worn out.

In 1947, I rented a 270-acre farm from Frank Stout. The following year he sold 80 acres off that had a house on it leaving us with 190 acres to farm. In 1949, we traded the self-propelled combine for two, six foot, power take-off combines and used them until I traded for an International Harvester Model 101 self-propelled combine that we used several years.

In 1954, we had a drought with 117-degree weather. Most of the crops in our area didn't produce any grain. In the winter of 1956 we finished picking corn early so I worked at Allis Chalmers in Springfield for two months until Louis Shepherd rented me 200-acres of land. I bought an IH Super C tractor and two-row planter and cultivator. All of the Shepherd land was plowed so I made quite a bit of money. I farmed this land for two years while Davey was in the Army. In 1959, I rented the Jim Stout 400 acre farm after his death. I took Davey in as a partner after his return from the Army.

We had 10 good years of farming, with good yields and rising prices. Each year we bought larger machinery and tractors. In 1959, we bought a 158-acre farm from John Ostermier southeast of New City for $450 an acre. Two years later, we bought 345 acres from a lawyer at Iles Park Place for $775 an acre. We later cleared off 15 acres of brush on the 158-acre farm. This brought the total to 503 acres.

David W. Dickey, Sr.


"Farming - Then & Now: Part II"

Before the tractors came to the farms, it took thousands of horses to do all the work tilling the soil and sowing the seeds. Many of the larger farms needed a pasture full of horses and several hired men to get the crops in. A good farmer had to know his horses' capabilities to get the most work out of them without hurting them, i.e., by not getting them too hot and possibly causing their death. During the hot summer days, the heat was hard on them, especially the inside ones in a four horse team or the ones that carried the heavy tongue of an implement. The corn planting horse team was the most important team. You needed ones that were fast walking and easy on the bit so as to make it easier to plant straight rows, have the right plant population and to plant around twenty acres in a day.

Four hundred acres was considered to be a large farm to be worked with horses, but as the tractors replaced the horses the farms grew larger. Today, an efficient size farm that can afford the necessary machinery with two men is about 1,500 acres.

In the days of horses, plowing was the slowest work with about three to five acres a day at four or five inches deep. With an average size tractor, this would be less than an hours work at ten to twelve inches deep. The corn is sowed or drilled now with a planter, instead of having to stop at each end to set a check wire to assure the correct plant population. An average planter today will cover about twenty acres an hour and apply starter fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide at the same time.

With the coming of hybrid seed corn and herbicide in the mid-thirties, farming changed completely. Everyone started drilling their corn instead of checking (arranging the plants in a concise pattern for easy cultivation), because the use of 2-4D would kill the weeds in the rows and thus, eliminate the need to cultivate the corn across the rows.

The hybrid seed corn was bred to produce one ear per stalk so everyone started drilling the corn thicker and applying more fertilizer. The first seed corn bought cost $4.00 per bushel. Now a bag of seed costs $50 to $70. Before the use of hybrid seed, we planted two grains of corn every 40 inches. A bushel of seed would plant ten to twelve acres. Now we drill a grain every three to five inches and a bushel will plant less than three acres. Most seed corn is packed by kernel count per bag. A farmer can tell the number of bags needed to plant a field by the population he is planting. The invention of the DICKEY-john seed monitor came along at the right time to help a farmer get the number of seeds per acre that he requires; also a monitor is needed to tell you that the planter is working correctly. To get the maximum yield with the amount of fertilizer applied, it is important to have the right number of plants per acre.

Several years ago, we were told you couldn't grow an ear of corn without a stalk so we started planting more seeds per acre. Every farmer has his own test plot to experiment with to try to get the best seed for his farm and try a different technique. Farmers are always trying to improve their yields. Because of their efforts, yields have increased from 35 to 40 bushels per acre in the 1930's to 150 to 180 bushels per acre today. Farmer's efforts to improve their lives have advanced agriculture faster than any other industry. Seed companies have new and better seeds each year, and machinery and equipment companies have kept pace with the changing ways of farming and have improved the quality of their products.

However, as farm income has increased so has the cost to produce a bushel of grain. Machinery cost has increased the most. In 1947, we purchased an I. H. C. three bottom tractor, plow, disc and two-row cultivator for $1,785. Comparable machinery today would cost $30,000 to $40,000. It's hard to realize that a self-propelled combine with grain and corn head could cost over $100,000. In 1945, a new I. H. C. S. P. 123 combine with a 12' grain head could be purchased for $2,875. The average farmer today has a small fortune invested in machinery.

As no-till farming (planting over the previous years crop residue) has made its entry, newer machinery has been introduced, including the planter and grain drill. Newer chemicals have made no-till possible. Our first try was in 1992. Some corn made 226 bushels per acre and soybeans 52 bushels per acre. Several farmers are trying no-till on some fields and will probably change completely to no-till. Because of the pollution of streams and creeks, the way of farming will change. All sloping farmland will have to be no-tilled and some of the steep land will have to lay idle. Pollution of the water supply has been a serious complaint, and will bring about gradual change in farming.

During the worst of the depression, prices of everything the farmer had to sell were so low that there wasn't any chance for them to earn any money and those that owed money had no way to repay it. Most of the small town banks closed their doors and went out of business. Any money you had deposited in them was lost, but if you owed them you had to repay or file bankruptcy. One such incident was a neighbor of ours who filed bankruptcy. A large crowd attended the sale. No one was supposed to bid on anything so the farmer could buy everything back. I remember a large team of horses selling for two dollars and fifty cents; milk cows for fifty cents each; horse drawn machinery at a fraction of its cost. This farmer and my dad owned some machinery on shares. One such item was a hay baler that they used to bale their own hay and earn extra money doing bailing for the neighbors. One man decided that he would like to own half interest so he ran the price up. The auctioneer sold it to him. One of the men asked my dad what he was going to do with his half, he said that it was going to stay right there. The buyer finally let it go back to the former owner.

Prices for grain at the time were: oats, seven cents a bushel; corn, ten cents; wheat, eighteen cents; livestock was: hogs, two and a half cents a pound; cattle, three cents a pound. If you smoked you could buy a corncob pipe for ten cents. Everything was cheap, but you couldn't buy without money. The hog market was so depressed that the government paid the farmer to destroy the small pigs. Several other programs were started and soon we had a slow recovery. This was the beginning for the farm programs that gave the farmers payment to lay land idle and low interest loans on grain. Yields of grain were still very low in the early thirties. We hadn't started using fertilizer yet and hybrid seed corn wasn't on the market. It didn't make much difference what you did, thirty-five to forty bushels per acre was all you could raise. With the farm programs we started plowing under some legumes and raised the yields when we got enough rain. But most of the early 1930's were hot and dry.

One year we lost about our entire wheat and corn crop to chinch bugs. They hatched out in the wheat and then moved into the corn. We fought them several ways, but it was a losing battle. With all the ups and downs the farmers had through these years, it is a wonder that they didn't quit farming and get into something else, but at the time there wasn't anything else to do. Extra farm help was one dollar a day plus your dinner. During the hot summer months, there was wheat and oats to shock then thresh and bale the straw out of the straw stack. In the fall, several farmers hired help to shuck the corn. Most of them were paid two cents a bushel for shucking and scooping it into the crib. That was a long drawn out job. We tried to finish by Thanksgiving.

David W. Dickey, Sr.