Less than 1% of the population today are farmers. In 1920, it was 30%. What was life like 100 years ago? This is a question I have had ever since I began volunteering at the Plymouth Historical Society. My reasons for asking this question were varied.
First, I wanted to better understand my family history — a history deeply tied to agriculture. My father is still farming in Wisconsin many years after his ancestors arrived in the 1830s. I grew up on his farm and realized rather quickly that my childhood experience was vastly different than my classmates. I lived the life of a farmer, but I wanted to understand more about why we did what we did.
I also perceived a shift happening now in agriculture that called back to the past. There are new discussions about eating locally and organically which is in stark contrast to the global marketplace that has developed over the past 100 years. This triggered a curious mind. What were farmers doing then to address the problems that they faced? What do we know now that they didn’t know? How did they manage without the use of the technology farmers have today? Finally, if so many advancements have been made in agriculture, what core beliefs and techniques from 100 years ago are people so desperate to restore?
It intrigued me to think about how much the world has changed since World War I ended 100 years ago. The progress of change now seems to be accelerating at an even more rapid pace. As a historian, when I have questions about the times I live in, my first inclination is to look back. How did others deal with change? What fears did they have? Is there something we can learn from their mistakes? How can I use the past to help guide decisions about the future? 100 years ago is a great place to look. The world was coming out of a conflict they couldn’t understand and technology was changing the very fabric of society, especially in agriculture with the increased availability of the tractor, electricity, and much more.
The culmination of these things led me to begin development on a class about farming 100 years ago. I had no idea what I would find, but I knew there would be a story to tell. 100 years ago, farming was much different than today, but there is so much modern farming can learn from the past for a more promising future in agriculture.
My class, “Early 20th Century Farming,” is being offered through the Plymouth Parks & Recreation program. It will take place Wednesday, May 22 at the Plymouth Creek Activity Center (14800 34th Avenue N). The cost is $12 per resident ($15 per non-resident).
For more information, please visit the City of Plymouth’s Parks & Recreation website. Registration begins Wednesday, March 20 for residents (Wednesday, March 27 for non-residents).