Determining the Facts
Reading 2: Early 19th-Century Wheat Farming Near Waterford
John Jay Janney, a distant cousin of Waterford founder Amos Janney, was born in 1812 near the Quaker settlement of Goose Creek, about 10 miles south of Waterford. Ninety-five years later, in Ohio in 1907, Janney penned his memories of his childhood. In addition to writing about all facets of life in Loudoun County in the 1820s, he outlined the farmer's duties regarding his crops for an entire year. The portions concerning wheat are excerpted here and describe farming activities similar to those around Waterford.
After [corn] harvesting was over [in the autumn], we plowed for next year's wheat crop, and when the ground was ready for sowing we hauled all the manure from the barn yard and the hog pen, usually a good supply and scattered it over the poorest part of the field....
We had not yet heard of "wheat drills" but sowed our grain "broadcast." We would take a bag and tie the string to one corner so we could hang it about the neck...and carry...about a bushel of wheat in it. We would catch up handfuls and sow them broadcast having first marked out the field into "lands" of a proper width. A little practice enabled one to sow very evenly. We then dragged a heavy harrow over it. Now [in 1907] a man will do the same work in a better manner sitting in a pleasant seat driving two horses....
After mowing [the following summer] the wheat...was bound into sheaves and put
in shocks of a dozen sheaves each. The children were nearly all, boys and girls, kept home from school to carry sheaves for shocking.....All the mechanics in the neighborhood worked in the harvest fields. The rule was, to pay them wages per day what wheat sold for per bushel. If wheat was worth a dollar per bushel, they got a dollar a day....
During the winter we "trod" out the wheat....we had a "treading floo" in the barn about 40 feet square. Many farmers' barns were not large enough for that, and they had what is called a "threshing floor" in the Bible: a level piece of ground, fifty or sixty or more feet in diameter, made smooth and packed hard....
We stacked our wheat as near the barn as we could, in the "stack yard," and when we commenced treading it out, we would take the sheaves into the barn, take off or loosed the bands, and lay a ring of sheaves four feet or four sheaves wide all around the floor. We laid the first one flat on the floor, the next one with the heads upon the butts of the first and so on all around the floor. We thus had a ring of sheaves about four feet wide, with the heads of the wheat only showing, and a vacant space in the middle of the floor, of about twenty feet in diameter.
We then put four horses, two abreast, walking around on the wheat, against the
way the wheat pointed. After the horses had walked around sufficiently, two of us would each take a pitchfork, one on each side of the wheat, and turn it over. This we would repeat until the grain was all out of the straw, which was then raked off and stored as feed for the cows and steers during the winter....
Treading out wheat always made me feel as if I had a cold, headache, back-ache
and slight fever, the result of the dust; and my grandmother used to say it always made me "take a bad cold."
When the wheat was all "trod," or when the floor became full, we cleaned it. We ran it through the wheat fan twice; the first time through the coarse riddle taking out the chaff only; the second time through the fine riddle taking out the "white caps" leaving only the clean wheat. The "white cap" was a grain of wheat with the chaff still fast on it. We then took it to the mill, where it was passed to our credit, to be drawn out for use or for market. We cleaned our wheat so well that it was never "docked" as that of some farmers was, that is, a number of pounds or bushels deduced, sufficient to make up for the refuse matter the wheat contained....
Farmers rarely if ever sold their wheat. They delivered it at the mill and got credit for it at the rate of sixty pounds to the bushel and when they wanted flour, they got for every sixty pounds of wheat, forty pounds of flour and about fifteen pounds of bran.¹
Questions for Reading 2
1. In what season was the wheat planted near Waterford? When was it harvested?
2. Who carried the sheaves for shocking?
3. What was the pay for a farm laborer's day of work in the 1820s in Virginia?
4. How might we describe today the "illness" Mr. Janney experienced while treading out wheat?
5. Did farmers get much money for their wheat? Explain your answer.
6. What does the reading indicate the miller might have received for his work?
¹Werner L. Janney and Asa Moore, editors, John Jay Janney's Virginia: An American Farm Lad's Life in the Early 19th Century (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications Inc., 1978), 72-75.