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Allis-Chalmers Tractors at Work on the Engstrom Farm
Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the September/October 2007 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
When the Second World War ended in September of 1945, it was clear that great changes were being wrought in rural America by the fact that the modern farm tractor was replacing the horse on the average farm in rural America. During the war, new modern farm tractors had been hard to obtain because of the mobilization of the whole economy of the United States for the war effort. However, once the war was over, sales of farm tractors skyrocketed. As use of the farm tractor became universal in rural America, the cost of producing an average bushel of corn began to decrease. Consequently, there was a long term decrease in the market price of corn which had started prior to the recent war and was now continuing with abandon in the post-war era. The family farmer needed to raise more bushels of corn to make up for the decrease in the price of each individual bushel. Thus, the long-term decrease in the price of a bushel of corn, was putting the economic pressure farmer to “get big or get out” of farming altogether. The effects of this economic trend were evident. Whereas, in 1940, farming had employed 18% of the North American population, by 1950, just ten (10) years later, this figure had fallen to only 12.2%. During the same period of time, the number of farms in the United States had decreased by almost 1 million farms, from a figure of 6,102,000 farms to a low of 5,388,000 farms. At the same time, the average size of the United States farm had increased from 175 acres in 1940 up to 213 acres just ten years later in 1950.
The trend toward bigger farms had always had its first and most deleterious effect on rental farm agreements. A rental farm agreement usually meant a division of the crops in half, with one half going to the renter, who performed the work on the land, and the other half going to the landlord, who owned the land. In other words, two families were attempting to live off the crops of the same piece of land. Even now in the post-war era, the owner of a small farm of 160 acres or less might be able to make a living. However, chances of a renter bring able to make a living on his share of the crop of a 160 acre farm were becoming increasingly doubtful. The story of the Engstrom farm of LeRoy Township, Minnesota is one such story of a post-war farm rental agreement. Like the previous article in this series, this story begins with a Swedish immigrant to America.
Just like Albert Anderson in the article in the previous issue of Belt Pulley magazine, August Engstrom was born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States. (See the article called “The Allis-Chalmers Model WC: the Styled Version” contained in the July/August 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) However unlike Albert Anderson, who immigrated to the United States in 1909 and came through the immigration process at Ellis Island in New York harbor, August Engstrom was a part of the much larger Swedish wave of immigration which arrived in the United States between 1865-1892, before United States Immigration Service had even opened the Ellis Island facility.
Born in Sweden on April 24, 1874, August Engstrom had immigrated to America with his parents in 1881 as a seven-year-old child. The family settled near Rockford, in northern Illinois. In 1900, the age of 24, August married Edna Preston. Together they moved to a farm near Byron, Illinois, in Winnebago Township in Winnebago County, Illinois. They entered into a rental agreement to work the farm. However, they dreamed of saving enough money to purchase their own farm. On this farm in Illinois, they lived and started their family with the birth of a daughter, Frances (Ruth), in 1902 and a son, Verne H., on January 28, 1904.
This was the “golden age” of farming and by 1905, August and Edna were ready to move to a farm of their own. They took the money that they had saved and moved to LeRoy Township in Mower County along Minnesota’s southern border with Iowa. There they purchased and moved onto a large 320-acre farm located in southeastern LeRoy Township in 1906. On their new farm their family continued to grow with the birth of a daughter, Danna, born in 1907; another daughter, Doris, in 1908; a son, Glenn, born in 1911; another son, Charles, born in 1913 and, finally, a last son, Eugene born in 1917.
Excluding the building site and the small 15-acre permanent pasture located just north of the buildings, the farm consisted of about 300 arable acres. On this farm, there was about 70 acres of hay and 100 acres of oats were raised each year. All the hay and nearly all the oats would be consumed on the farm as feed for the horses, chickens and pigs. Corn was the largest cash crop. About 70 acres of corn was raised each year. Initially, barley had served as the farm’s second cash crop. However, during the prohibition years there had been less demand for barley for malting beer. Accordingly, August and his neighbors, in Mower County had switched to raising flaxseed. Flaxseed was predominately processed and used as “linseed oil.” Linseed oil was used on leather, mainly horse harnesses, to preserve softness and flexibility of the harness. Each year, the crops were rotated from field to field in order to avoid depleting the soil. In this rotation, the hay field of the prior year became the pasture land for the current year. The old pasture land of the prior year had to be plowed and converted into a corn field.
Naturally, August needed help to work such a large diversified farm. First there were a great number of horses that needed care and feed year around. Then there were the dairy cows that needed to be milked and fed twice a day, the pigs and the chickens to be fed and cared for. Accordingly, when Lewis Hatlestad, the United States Census taker, showed up on the Engstrom farm on Friday, April 29, 1910, he found that a 23-year old hired hand, Joe Thelen, was living on the farm with the family. Joe helped with milking the cows and feeding the pigs in the winter. During the summer, Joe helped with the field work. However, the size of the farm required that August hire on even more help, on a temporary basis, during the busy times of the summer.
Nonetheless, these years continued to be good years for the Engstrom family fueled by high commodity prices for farm products during the First World War. Following the post-war recession which occupied the first few years of the 1920s, good prices for farm cash crops—most importantly corn—returned. Though the price of corn never reached the high level it achieved during the First World War, there was a return to a decent price which allowed a corn farming family, like August and Edna, made a good living on the farm even after paying the hired help. Like their neighbors, they suffered through the worst part of the Great Depression and felt the economy start to recover in the mid-1930s. However, by 1940, August was 65 years of age and Edna was 64 years of age. Thus, they began to plan for a retirement from farming. Because none of their children were showing any immediate interest in taking over the farming operation, August and Edna determined to sell the farm.
Among the people who were interested by the news that the Engstrom farm might be up for sale, was Frank Klassy who was living with his father on the farm immediately adjacent to the Engstrom farm to the west. Consistent readers of the Belt Pulley will recognize that Frank Klassy was the son of Matt and the late Ada (Loveland) Klassy. (See the article called “The Decline of the LeRoy Equipment Company” contained in the November/December 2006 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) As noted previously, Matt and Ada had purchased the present Klassy farm from Hans Rudolph in 1909. Born on September 10, 1902, Frank had spent most of his young life on this farm. Along the way there had been much hardship and tragedy. Frank’s younger brother Frederick was killed in a bizarre accident on October 19, 1922, when he choked to death on a pebble that he threw up into the air and caught in his mouth. Frank’s mother Ada died on March 16, 1934, after an illness and an unsuccessful operation in Rochester, Minnesota. To help his father on the farm, Frank had ceased his schooling when he was 15 years of age. It would take Frank eight additional years to complete his high school education. Eventually, Frank graduated from LeRoy Public Schools, at the age of 26 years, in the class of 1929 with his younger brother, Wilbur.
A few days after graduating from high school, Frank Klassy married Esther Ann Lamon on June 5, 1929 in an open air ceremony held at the LeRoy Municipal Wildwood Park. (Wildwood Park has since become Lake Louise State Park.) Together they moved back into the house on the farm with Frank’s parents. In May of 1930 Esther gave birth to a daughter Jeanne. Later, the family was expanded with the birth of a son, Donald F. Klassy, born on April 27, 1932 and another son, Robert E. (nicknamed Buzz) Klassy born on August 4, 1936.
Now in 1943, he and Esther were looking forward to having a home of their own. The Engstrom farm looked like the perfect opportunity. They would be living on their own farm, yet they would be close enough to the home farm that Frank would still be able to cooperate with his father in summer field work and share horses and farm machinery. Accordingly, Frank and Esther began to negotiate the purchase of the Engstom farm.
However, Frank’s father, Matt, had also been thinking about the future. He was now 68 years of age and he had been widowed for nine years now. He was tired of living alone. He had been seeing Doretta Spencer, a widow who lived in the town of LeRoy. Together they had made plans to marry. Matt wanted to retire from active farming but did not want to leave farming altogether. He made plans that when Frank and Esther moved off the farm, he would also move off the farm. He and Doretta would marry and they would move into her stucco house located at the corner of Luella Street and North Broadway Avenue directly across from the Presbyterian Church in the village of LeRoy. Matt thought that he and Doretta might live rather comfortably in retirement on the rental income they could receive by renting out the home farm.
As he related these new plans to Frank and Esther, Frank began to think about purchasing the home farm from his father rather than purchasing the Engstrom farm. In order to remain involved in farming, Matt, in turn, began to think about purchasing and renting out the Engstrom farm. With the current record high prices that were being received by farmers for their crops because of the World War in Europe and the Pacific, Matt wanted to remain involved in farming to some extent. Accordingly, in 1943, public records reflect that Matt purchased the 320 acre farm from August and Edna Engstrom. However, inside the Klassy family the purchase of the Engstrom farm is referred to as a “trade” or “swap of farms” between Matt and his son, Frank.
In actual fact, August Engstrom sold only a 5/6ths interest (or an 83.34% interest) in the farming operation to Matt Klassy. August Engstrom retained the remaining 1/6th interest (or 16.66% interest) in the farm. Probably, he wanted to keep his options open for the future, in case his own children expressed an interest in purchasing the farm sometime in the future. If ever Matt Klassy wanted to sell the whole farm to a third party, August would have agree to sell his 1/6% interest to the same third party. Few buyers would be interested in purchasing only part interest in a farm. The 1/6 interest retained by August would give him a chance to buy back the 5/6ths interest in the farm, if he so chose, before the whole farm was sold to a third party.
Both Matt and August, hoped to live in retirement on the landlord’s share of the crop from the farm. So the crops raised in the farming operation were now expected to support three families. The renting family collected the renters share of the crop and the landlord’s share of the crop would be split between Matt Klassy and August Enstrom.
On October 10, 1944, Matt married Doretta Spencer and he moved into Doretta’s house. Matt and Doretta planned to live off the proceeds of the Klassy home farm to his son, Frank, and from the rent obtained from his 5/6ths interest in the Engstrom farm. The degree of comfort that this arrangement allowed for each of the three families rested heavily on the relatively high prices that the farmers of North America were receiving for the crops they raised during the current war. Matt Klassy and August Engstrom found renters for their farming operation during the war. However, during the post-war era, the landlords once again needed to find another renter. They advertised and they found Curt Foster.
Born on December 9, 1921 to James C. and Myrna M. (Gorder) Foster, Curt had been raised on the family farm in Jenkins Township, Mitchell County in northern Iowa. He married Mary Ellen Aspel and they started a family. In 1947, a daughter Karen Kay Foster was born. In the months following the birth of Kay, Curt and Mary became aware of an opportunity to rent the large Engstrom farm located in LeRoy Township about 17 miles northeast of their hometown of Riceville, Iowa. The Engstrom farm was located just across the Iowa-Minnesota State Line. Curt and Mary moved their family onto the Engstrom farm on March 1, 1948. Other changes were afoot in 1948. On December 8, 1948, August Engstrom died. Eventually his 1/6th share in the farm was sold, by his widow, Edna, to Matt Klassey.
Moving to the large Engstrom farm, Curt Foster worried about the changes that had been wrought on farming by the recent war. The much anticipated post-war recession had not occurred because of continued economic aid which the United States had offered to war-torn countries of Europe and Asia including Germany and Japan under the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan pledged the United States to financing the recovery of all these countries. Based on the demand for corn created by the Marshall Plan, the price of corn remained at around $2.00 per bushel and United States farmers were encouraged to continue to grow crops from “fence row to fence row” just as they had during the war. Now in early 1948, Curt Foster was still worried, however. The countries in Europe and Asia would, sooner or later, recover and the Marshall Plan would come to an end. What would happen then? Perhaps the post-war recession would only be postponed and not avoided altogether.
Before moving to the Engstrom farm, Curt had sold his 1947 crop of corn. The very wet spring of 1947 had resulted in very late planting of corn in Mitchell County, Iowa. Consequently, as a result, the average corn yield in Mitchell County was reduced by 31.0% in 1947. Luckily, the nation-wide production had also been reduced. This meant that there was no glut of corn on the market and the price remained higher than normal—$2.74 per bushel as an average for the full month of January 1948. Riceville was located on the border between Mitchell County and Howard County Iowa. Both Mitchell County and Howard County were heavy producers of corn. Corn predominated in these two Iowa counties as the major cash crop. However, in Mower County, Minnesota, where the Engstrom farm was located, significant inroads were being made by a new cash crop—soybeans.
Mobilization for the war effort had developed many new products and caused new industries to spring up. One of these new industries was the plastics industry. Plastics had been required for the war effort. However, in the post-war era, plastics had converted easily into many new peacetime uses. Consequently, the post-war demand for plastics was still broad and growing. Soybeans were the main raw material used in making plastics. As a result, the market demand for soybeans, grew proportionately with the demand for plastics. United States production of the soybeans nearly doubled from 107,197,000 bushels for the 1941 growing season to 187,524,000 in 1942. However, demand for soybeans remained so strong that the price actually rose from $1.55 per bushel in 1941 to $1.60 per bushel in 1942. When the war ended, in 1945, despite the continuing increase in production of soybeans during each year of the war, the price of soybeans had actually increased to $2.03 per bushel. Rather than falling off at the end of the war, as industries converted over to peacetime production, the price of soybeans rose, in 1946, to $2.57 per bushel.
In 1941, only 17,800 acres in the whole of Mower County had been planted to soybeans. However, during the war, the amount of acreage of the county planted to soybeans had grown to 51,500 acres. Ever since the end of the war, soybeans continued to grow as a second cash crop on farms in Mower County. Already in 1947, farmers of Mower County were planting 40% of their cash crop acreage in soybeans. Because the terribly wet conditions and the late planting had ruined the soybean crop in 1947, soybean prices had continued to soar until now in early 1948 they were reaching $3.33 per bushel.
In Mitchell County, prior to his move to Engstrom farm, Curt had raised only corn as his cash crop. However, with the move to the Engstrom farm, Curt had determined to diversify his farming operation by raising soybeans. The large Engstrom farm would certainly offer Curt Foster opportunities for diversification into new cash crops in ways that were not available if he were renting a smaller farm. At 320 acres the Engstrom farm was twice the size of the ordinary 160 acre “homestead farm.” Continue reading Allis-Chalmers Farming (Part V): Tractors on the Engstrom Farm