STAFFORD: Springfield author chronicles history of Ohio agriculture; will discuss at library event

Timothy Thoresen, author of “River, Reaper, Rail’’ will discuss the family farm at the Clark County Library on Tuesday/STAFF Cox Media

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Timothy Thoresen, author of “River, Reaper, Rail’’ will discuss the family farm at the Clark County Library on Tuesday/STAFF Cox Media

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Springfielder Timothy Thoresen will be in the Gaier Room of the Clark County Public Library to discuss how the family farm fits into the larger history of Ohio agriculture.

The scholarly knowledge he brings to the subject was learned in the 14 years it took him to research and write “River, Reaper, Rail,” released this year by the University of Akron Press.

In that book, the historian and college teacher states with admirable simplicity the issue that, from their arrival in 1795 until the arrival of the internal combustion engine decades later, was the heart of it all for all Ohio farmers.

It involves the state’s earliest cash crop — wheat.

His book’s academic slant is obvious both from its publisher and its subtitle, “Agriculture and Identity in Ohio’s Mad River Valley, 1795-1885.”

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But for those with enough interest in the history of agriculture and its related industries – and in the crucial role infrastructure and technology played in the developing American economy – Thoresen’s 192 pages of text are worth reading.

For local readers, it also brings a local focus.

The project grew out of research Thoresen was doing for a presentation celebrating Urbana’s bicentennial in 2005. “What I discovered,” he said in a recent interview, “is that for roughly … a decade from the middle 1840s to 1850s, Urbana was at the center of everything agricultural in the nation.”

Even in the 1820s, the county was thought to be active by regional agricultural standards; but because of a lack of cash and tillable land, pioneer farmers who’d come from the Virginia Piedmont and from Pennsylvania by way of Kentucky, were still struggling to clear woodlots for farming.

In the early days, wooden moldboard plows too often broke when oxen pulled them against remnant tree roots. Only with time did metal plows morph into more practical design and become affordable enough to allow their new technology to change the farming landscape.

Thoresen said the situation faced by farmers of that era and others he studied made him change his attitude about what he’d assumed was farmers’ embedded, if not inbred, conservatism.

“I found myself saying they’re not conservative, they’re cautious, because they can’t afford to be otherwise.”

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Without additional available labor, “You can’t just buy more land. Who’s going to work it?” For the same reason, “You just can’t buy another piece of equipment. Who’s going to operate it?”

When improved metal plows did begin to slice the Champaign County earth in the 1840s, the oxen that farmers had used for power gave way to mules and horses — and for good reason: With less power needed to pull a more efficient plow, the horse not only could do that job but pull a light wagon or carriage, or be ridden. It was, practically speaking, a four-legged multi-tool.

The furrows cut by the metal plows also did double duty. They both promoted better drainage and reduced erosion, making marginal improvements another variable of operations: the land’s productivity.

Farmers reaped even more benefits with the arrival of cutting-edge metal tools, the author explains, most notably, the long curve-handled walking scythe fitted with a cradle.

But the tool did more than make for an orderly harvest of corn and wheat; it allowed a single skilled worker to cut three acres a day of instead of one, a trebling of efficiency. That made it practical for farmers to expand the acreage of their two most important crops.

As much as better tools boosted efficiency, the benefits were severely limited by an infrastructure constraint addressed by a farmer of the time: “A want of good roads, either by land or water, on which our home productions could be transported.” Without those, another added, “the farmer had no motive to increase the product of his fields.”

Just as President Dwight D. Eisenhower would later institute an Interstate Highway System in part for the purposes of defense, national lawmakers decided the threats of the War of 1812 required better troop travel routes in Ohio should the border with Canada become a scene of conflict again.

Of course, the same roads built northward from Cincinnati to link with Lake Erie cleared a path for crops to be shipped and the economy to grow – particularly after 1817, when New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton began building the Erie Canal to deliver goods shipped over Great Lakes waters to New York City.

Until the canal’s completion opened northern markets to Champaign County and other Ohio farmers, all other commerce headed south to Cincinnati, then down the Mississippi to New Orleans for shipment around the Florida peninsula and up the East Coast – an easier task than hauling the goods back east over the mountains.

Steam powered boats that eventually began traveling to Dayton could facilitate trade to the South, but the cost of transportation often outweighed the benefits, and Champaign County was short enough on cash to be, effectively, a barter economy.

With no practical way to sell any excess crops, said one observer of the times, “the farmer had no motive to increase the product of his fields.”

For Springfield, the arrival of the National Road in 1838 provided some access to markets, just as the city’s greater access to water power would allow it to become a manufacturing center for farm implements.

Although Ohio began working on canals to improve its transportation and economic infrastructure, the arrival of the railroads undercut the canals and proved to be the game changer for local farmers and the state’s economy.

Thoresen writes when it came to rail service, no state was more all aboard than the Buckeye state.

“Ohioans were supporting the nation’s largest proportionate increase of railroad track mileage ever, with an antebellum peak in 1854. By the time of the 1860 census, Ohio was nationally in first place with nearly 3,000 track miles.”

It may not be coincidence that the state with the strongest rail infrastructure also gained political strength that sent Ohioans to the White House with such frequency.

The infrastructure set the stage for the huge post-Civil War agricultural and manufacturing boom. Farmers with more money could first pool their resources to buy reapers, both those made in central locations by Cyrus McCormick, and those built by local licensees of Hussey, like Minturn, Allen & Co. of Urbana.

“What previously had taken three or more people 10 days to accomplish could now be finished in two days, theoretically enabling an equivalent number of workers to reap nearly five times the acreage,” Thoresen writes. “The costs were the capital investment in the reaper and the maintenance of multiple horses.”

Farmers continued to expand the land they were working by cutting more woods, draining fens and then; adding tools to smooth the soil to make a better path for reapers; and, as land became more difficult to find, improving the quality of the soil with new practices.

Steam threshers, now centerpieces of Ohio fall festivals, competed with horse powered threshing machines, some owned by individual farmers, more in the possession of those who specialized in threshing the way blacksmiths came to specialize in tending to the needs of the horses, those multi-use animals whose utility is the reason that modern day machines are not rated by oxen- or mule-power.

Thoresen again provides a whimsical glimpse into the horse sensibilities of the times when he discusses the history of agricultural societies that began the tradition of county fairs.

At a time when Champaign County had dueling organizations in Urbana and near Mechanicsburg, debates raged over whether it was proper for the Urbana-based society to allow horse racing – and its attendant wagering – at the fairs.

“Do the managers really propose to outrage the moral sense of the religious public by such arrangements?” one critic asked.

Thoresen both rightly and cleverly describes the Urbana Citizen’s editor’s response as amoral. “The masses approve of (the races), as is abundantly evidence by the large crowd of men, women and children who assemble to witness the performance,” he wrote. “And until better satisfied that it is productive of evil, we shall not feel at liberty to condemn it.”

Whether that opinion is best described as horse-sense or horse manure depended on the listener.

By the time Thoresen’s readers reach that portion of the book and are able to form their own opinions, it’s a good bet that they also will have a better understanding of how Ohio’s still largest industry took root.

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