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Legislative Chronology

Deciding to Go and Getting There

Proving Up

Life on the Homestead

Proving Up

  •  Farming

Converting a claim into farm was often one of the greatest challenges facing a homesteader, particularly for those taking forested claims in the Olympic Peninsula. The farmer's first task, clearing the land for planting, varied greatly depending on local geography and vegetation. The Olympic Peninsula homesteader often had to contend with massive cedar, spruce, and fir trees. In much of nineteenth-century America, clearing land of trees was largely accomplished by the long-standing method of "slashing and burning." This entailed felling trees with an axe, piling the debris and putting it to fire. Stumps were burned, left to rot, or pulled out with levers, mattocks, and peaveys, sometimes with the assistance of animal power. Some chose the slower method of "girdling" trees by removing a circumferential layer of bark and the outer sapwood layer of the tree through which the vital nutrients passed. This shallow cut killed the tree but left it standing until it succumbed to weather and decay. Some of these techniques had been used by Native American Indian tribes for centuries; others methods were brought by European immigrants. By 1900 other technologies including stump-pulling machines and explosives began to see wider use in the stump wars. For those who could afford to buy or rent them, steam donkey engines, and later tractors and bulldozers, were the most effective means of clearing land - but these resources were not typically part of homesteading or farming in general before the 1910s.

From the wheat fields of the Palouse to the apple orchards of Clallam County, Washington's agricultural economy was marked by diversity. Soil and climate were central considerations in deciding which crops to plant, however, the development of different agricultural practices during the Homestead Era broadened the range of possibilities for farmers. The adoption of dry-farming techniques in the 1870s and 1880s in parts of Washington Territory, for example, opened lands in eastern counties formerly thought unfit for farming to cultivation.

The increasing mechanization of farming during the Homestead Era, especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, also contributed to the expansion and productivity of agriculture in Washington. Technological innovation was first concentrated on the tasks of cultivation which brought improved plows, harrows, seed drills, reapers, mowers, binders, combines, threshers into wider use. Later in the nineteenth century, new methods of motive power were developed. Animal power, which had been a fixture on farms for millennia, was supplemented by steam and internal combustion engines. Mechanization increased the capital costs and production capabilities of farming - in some counties, such as Clallam and Jefferson counties listed below, these trends were accompanied by a decrease in the average size of farms and an increase in the size of the largest farms. Science, which had long been applied to American agriculture, took new institutional forms in the agricultural research stations and university agricultural science programs established in Washington after statehood was achieved.

In areas where agricultural productivity was sufficiently high, a 160 acre homestead might send a portion of the harvest to markets; elsewhere, much of the farm was dedicated to subsistence. In the Olympic Peninsula counties of Clallam and Jefferson, just feeding one's family and livestock might demand considerable effort. Not only was the average size of a farm consistently smaller than the state average, less than thirty percent of these farms were usually "improved" acres - the portion ready for cultivation.

Average Size of Farms, 1890-1930 in Acres

  1890 1910 1930
Washington State             231       208       191
Clallum County 194 103 79
Jefferson County 139 120 96

The 1910 Census reported that farms in Washington typically had 54.4% improved land, whereas only about 27% and 21% of Clallam and Jefferson county farms, respectively, were improved. This meant that the average land ready for cultivation in these two counties was only about 25 acres. Although Jefferson County led the state in the production of potatoes in 1890, it is not difficult to understand why in terms of number of farms, improved acreage, and value of crops the Olympic Peninsula counties were typically below most of the other counties in the state.

If the average Olympic Peninsula farms was smallish and often had to contend with more rainfall than other parts of the state, what did homesteaders tend to plant? A survey of more than eighty claims within the boundaries of the Olympic National Forest made under the terms of the Forest Homestead Act of 1906 showed that in this area, homesteaders usually started a garden and planted some fruit trees for home use, then established crops that worked well on small plots often interspersed with stumps and trees such as hay, root crops (mostly potatoes), and clover. In the river valleys, prairies, and less forested areas of the peninsula - climate permitting - other crops including hops, apples, wheat, and strawberries were common.

The task of inspecting homesteads in the National Forests for evidence of having "proved up" was given to the USFS rangers. Armed with a notebook and occasionally a camera, rangers recorded the progress of homesteaders, and made recommendations on whether or not to grant titles to the claimants. One such report provides a rough sketch of the life of a typical Olympic homesteader, Theodore Beebe. Beebe staked a claim in the Big Creek drainage in the southwest corner of the Olympic National Forest in 1918. Some five years later when under the terms of the homestead law he was eligible to apply for a patent to the land, he had built a rough house on the site for his wife and four children, had partly cleared three acres for cultivation, and had slashed two additional acres. Beebe managed to bring between 0.5 to 1 acre of land into cultivation per year, planting oats, timothy, clover hay, potatoes, and garden truck. Stumps still remained on some of the cleared land. The ranger's report noted that "all clearing, cultivation, and slashing was done by the claimant." It is likely that claimants were quick to claim sole responsibility for performing such work, as it no doubt underscored their "good faith" effort to bring the land into cultivation - a key requirement of proving up. Beebe had one horse, and it is possible that he used the horse to pull stumps and plow. Homesteaders nearly always kept some number of cattle, horses, poultry, sheep, or swine when possible. The ranger estimated the average cost of clearing Beebe's land to run about $100 per acre, and when cleared, to be worth about $75 per acre.

The 1920 census showed that Olympic Peninsula farms were still growing the crops such as oats, wheat, hay, potatoes, strawberries, and apples that had characterized the region's agricultural production for several decades. By the 1930 census, the region's agricultural economy had moved toward dairy, poultry, and animal specialty. Clearing the land for the cultivation of crops was waning in the last years of homesteading on the peninsula.

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