Farming in the early 20th century
CULTINE: Mildred Bennington of Fayette is 103 and still as sharp as a whip. Born in 1909 on her grandfather’s farm and later marrying a farmer, the petite woman has watched as farms have changed over the decades from the simple horse-drawn plows and wagons of yesteryear to the massive tractors and combines of today.
Farming in the early 20th century
By Amber Hovey
Driving past a corn or hay field today, you may see a tractor pulling a planter or a combine harvesting. Both have a cab with air conditioning and a radio.
For one local Fayette woman, she remembers a very different time in farming.
Mildred Bennington was born Dec. 31, 1909, on her grandfather’s farm located northeast of Arlington. Her parents later moved to Garner.
Bennington remembered growing up on a farm where all the laborious work was done through actual horse power.
The petite woman remembers the first experience with haying. “I must have been 8 years old. After supper, Dad wanted to finish up bringing in the last of the hay. I was taken out with him to the field. There was a horse-drawn hay wagon with a loader behind.
“There I was, holding the reins as we went down the windrow. I think the horses knew more what they were doing than I did,” smiled Bennington.
After graduating from high school in 1927, Bennington attended Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls for two years.
It was shortly thereafter that the U.S. was suffering from the Great Depression.
“I have thought back to that and, yes, we didn’t have much money, but we made our own entertainment. Neighborhoods would get together to play cards or host a dance at someone’s house,” recalled Bennington.
She does remember prices going up during World War I and then dropping during the Great Depression.
“Where you might have been getting $10 per 100-pound weight, you were now getting $2 per 100-pound weight for a hog,” Bennington continued.
Two years after college, she was offered a teaching job in Fayette teaching first grade.
It was during this time, in 1937, that the young teacher met her husband, Glen Bennington, through a junior group started by Farm Bureau, which got started in the early ‘20s, according to Bennington.
While at one of those meetings, Glen asked Mildred if he could see her home that night.
“Well, that was the start of that,” laughed Bennington. “After six months (of dating) he asked me if we could get married. I thought that was a little soon, but I did say yes.
“The trouble of it, though, was that my mother had been quite controlling of what I did, and she thought, ‘Here you are, a teacher, making money; why would you want to marry a farmer for?’”
Against her mother’s wishes, the two lovebirds were married at Glen’s sister’s home in the spring of 1938.
After marriage, Mildred gave up teaching. She helped on the farm and raised the couple’s two daughters.
“I never thought about going back to work. Up to World War II and maybe in World War I, I wasn’t aware of it, but women were working in factories. It was acceptable to work outside of the home. During the Great Depression, when there were so many men available to work, they said, ‘No, no. The women’s place was in the home, and I think to a certain degree that’s true even today,” explained Bennington.
“Within a year or two of getting married, we got our first tractor,” she recalled. Together the couple farmed 200 acres.
Glen, however, was never drafted into World War II.
“We had our first child and were expecting our second. He was never asked to go to war because he was a farmer, and after all, ‘an army marches on its stomach,’ as they say,” said the former farm wife.
“There has been a great change in farms today,” she declared. “If you had 80, 120, or 200 acres, that was quite a farm at one time.
“I will say the Benningtons, among others, were among the first to do contour farming.
“After the girls were grown and married, I moved from housekeeper out to hired hand,” said Bennington. She would run the tractor and plow.
“My husband once said, ‘And she even baled hay,’” said Mildred robustly. “That was really no big deal because it was all mechanical; all you did was make sure the machine kept running!”
Through it all, Bennington considered herself very fortunate. She and Glen were always able to pay their bills and even save some money.
“We did work to earn it, but I never thought of it as hard work as far as it affected me,” said Bennington.
She recalled one neighbor lady who, while her husband owned tractors, preferred to help milk twice a day to riding in a tractor like Bennington, even though it meant lifting heavy milk machines units filled with milk.
“I figured I had it a lot easier than she did,” remarked the farmer’s wife.
After the Benningtons quit farming and sold their farm, they took to travelling, mostly on bus tours. Mildred and her late husband visited every U.S. state as well as Europe on multiple occasions.
Mildred recalled one trip to Paris, in which there was an exhibition of farm animals and machinery.
“I was really impressed with the size of some of the machinery that the Europeans and other people in the world were using. We also learned there were other breeds of cattle besides Holsteins, Guernseys, Jerseys, Short-horns, and Angus.”
Nowadays, the retired farmer’s wife spends her time at Maple Crest Assisted Living, listening to audiotapes and reading books with her-closed circuit TV.
“I don’t know when my life will be cut off, but I am 103, and not many people live that long,” closed Bennington. “I have had a good life.”