Nobody like us: Draft horses helped feed the world


They turned back the clock more than a century at the Calvin family’s Summer Harvest Festival July 9 and 10 near Prospect, Ohio.

Unlike some of the large farm shows and demonstrations of antique farm equipment, the Calvin family event is a local show set on a small family farm setting.

With comparatively small groups at each demo, spectators can quiz the workers running the machinery as the work takes place and really learn to appreciate the evolution of primitive farm tools and machinery from a century ago.

Growing event. Ask how a small, local show of this quality came into being and you will get a few modest answers such as preserving knowledge, skills, and equipment in use during the early 20th century, but it goes a little deeper than that.

The senior Calvin, Walter, was born in the late ’30s and saw the exit of the last of the old hand- and horse-powered farm tools and machines as this nation emerged from the Great Depression.

Years later he related stories about antique farm equipment of his youth to his son, Tim, with enough clarity to fire the boy’s imagination.

As Tim grew older he started collecting antique farm equipment for posterity.

He wanted his children and others of the coming generations to know just how much we owed to the farmers and craftsmen who built the farm tools that fueled the industrial revolution, and exactly how they did it.

Living off the land. The first white settlers to the Ohio country had only the tools they could carry with them to clear the impenetrable forest: a broad ax, knives and perhaps a forged shovel and mattock.

They lived off the land until they could clear enough forest to support their families.

Their only power source was their own backs. With little little cleared land, few had enough to pasture a cow and to grow winter forage that had to be cut with a scythe.

Animal power. A few scrub oxen that could be quickly turned into beef, food, were used for draft animals. With barely enough grain to feed themselves, few kept the small native horses that the Indians used for trade.

The heavy European draft horse was not imported in appreciable numbers until after the Civil War.

In a land rich beyond imagination in natural resources, it wasn’t long before small quantities of coal and iron ore were brought together and gave birth to the world’s greatest steel industry and eventually the industrial revolution in America.

But first they needed fuel and food to feed the waves of immigrant workers pouring into this country and the draft horses, such as the now extinct Conestoga breed from Pennsylvania, then the breadbasket of America.

Little by little. In blacksmith and carpenter shops, and farm sheds across the country men worked, often by lantern light after a hard day’s work in the field, to design and build tools and machinery that would help lighten their work load and increase production on their farms.

By 1820 they had successful grain binders and reapers were soon to follow.

The fledgling steel industry was producing efficient plows and a wide assortment of other horse drawn farm tools and production increased.

None like us. To get the most work out of a horse, a high energy diet (grain) has to be fed. No country in the history of the world had ever had enough grain to feed both their population and the number of heavy draft horses that the U.S. would eventually harness.

And harness them they did, for no other country put as much leather into their horse harnesses as did the U.S.

With the introduction of gain harvesting machines and tools, the feed bottleneck was broken.

With enough grain available to feed horses, the U.S. started importing heavy European draft horses by the shipload.

Getting more done. Bigger and faster planting and harvesting machinery was developed, a dozen, two, even three dozen horse hitches were eventually rolling across our great plains.

They harvested bumper crops of grains, the likes of which the world had never known.

The American farmers were not only able to feed all the horses they could use on their farms and those needed to move commerce over our highways, short hauls between rail heads and on our city streets, but they also fed the hungry hoards of immigrant workers pouring into our burgeoning industrial cities, and eventually much of the rest of the world.

Great quantities of grain and hay were consumed in the cities to feed the countless horses that moved commerce and transportation.

Many of our fine barns and farm homes were built in that era.

Poverty to prominence. Because we had the grain and forage to feed an unlimited number of horses, a mobile power source, the American industrial revolution dwarfed the British and other European manufacturing efforts and propelled this country from poverty to world prominents in a matter of decades.

The rise of the American industrial complex may have had a very different outcome without the sweat and genius of the American farmer.

In the fall. The Calvin family, with the help of numerous volunteers through their harvest festivals, have found a wonderful way to pay tribute to these early agricultural pioneers and to pass on their story to future generations

I’m looking forward to the Calvin Fall Harvest Festival Nov. 6-7, 2004, at Ottawa Bota Farm, 7585 Taway Road, Radnor, Ohio.

Call the Calvins at 740-494-4243 or visit


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