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Farm and Forest History of Agriculture


Pioneer Farming in the Watershed

When the early pioneers arrived, they needed to get crops in right away. Instead of chopping trees down to clear the fields, they girdled the trees and planted crops under them. Girdling involves cutting a shallow circle around the trunk. Eventually this kills the tree by stopping the flow of sap through the sapwood, thereby preventing leaves from growing that would shade the crop. Later they cleared the dead trees to make fields for planting. 


Zanoni MillThey raised row crops like wheat and corn in the narrow fields created in the bottomlands along the creeks that flow through the Ozark hills. Farmers then took their wheat and corn to mills, powered by water wheels, to grind the crops into flour and corn for making bread and other food. 

When farmers fenced the fields where they grew crops and vegetables, they usually used split rails to keep their livestock out. Today we use fences to keep livestock in, but in those days, everyone let their hogs, cows and goats graze in the woods because the land was rough and there was plenty of it for the amount of livestock they had. 

Farmers would often burn the woods in spring to stimulate the growth of forage grasses for the livestock. And they could tell which livestock belonged to which farm because they often burned an identifying mark on their livestock using a branding iron. 

Even milk cows were allowed to range because the farmers knew that they would generally "come home" to be milked and to get their daily portion of corn or other fodder. But because they were not penned up, sometimes milk cows would stay out in the woods during the night even though the farmer wanted them to stay nearby. 

Tommy Medlock told a story from the Civil War days around Bryant Creek when his grandmother was glad the milk cow stayed out. Confederate soldiers retreated through this area after the Battle of Wilson's Creek near Springfield. One night, they camped on Medlock's grandmother's property. Her husband was away fighting for the Union forces. In the morning, the Confederates took what they wanted from her farm. They found a horse and grabbed it. Because the milk cow had stayed out that night, they didn't get away with it. 

The "open range," or no-fence, approach to grazing common in the Ozarks was not just a turn of the century feature. Some places still had open range grazing up into the 1950s. By then, however, more and more people were raising crops or livestock for market, not just their own use. Free ranging livestock could do too much damage, so fencing laws were passed. 

In the 1910's to 1930's in the watershed, farmers planted many of their acres in tomatoes and strawberries, both for home use and for market. Tomato canneries were scattered across the area, and the canned tomatoes and loads of strawberries were sent to market by way of the narrow-gauge train that ran to Ava from Mountain Grove. From Ava, the railroad took produce to Mansfield and then to Springfield. At the peak of the berry business, Mountain Grove used the railroad to ship five boxcar loads of strawberries a day!

More on Pioneer Life

Visit with a Pioneer Family

Early Settlers in Douglas County

Tom Brown

Pioneer Hog Butchering

Pioneer Log Building

Spinning & Weaving

History of Transportation

The Railroad

History of Forestry

The Old Water Mills

  Written by Hank Dorst. Source: Reminiscent History of Douglas County 1857-1957,
J.E. Curry, published by the Douglas County Herald