Why Every Curator Should Enter a Plowing Match

The plowing match is one of my favorite events at ALHFAM annual meetings/conferences. I wrote the following after a particularly rewarding experience:

The Chrisman sisters, near Goheen Settlement on LIeban Creek, Custer County, Nebraska, 1886. Courtesy: Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1053
The Chrisman sisters, near Goheen Settlement on Lieban Creek, Custer County, Nebraska, 1886. Courtesy: Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1053

This summer at the ALHFAM annual meeting I plowed. Granted it was only two furrows in the horse-drawn plowing match, but in my mind, I plowed.

I was nervous, as there were lots of things to remember and much that could go wrong. I was in the novice class and had an expert “mentor” standing beside me, ready to take over if things went awry. This was both a comfort and a motivator. My goal was to make it down the field with only my hands guiding the plow. I did it and felt inordinately proud of myself. I spent the rest of the match cheering and strategizing and examining rocks with plow scars with the other participants. Not surprisingly, it was fun. Surprisingly, it also had me thinking about how I relate to the objects I’ve been tasked to care for at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

I have lived primarily in urban areas and my personal experience with farming is limited. As a curator, I’ve walked past and looked at photographs of plows several times a day. By and large, the artifacts in our collection are preserved and not used. I’ve been trained to take care of plows, exhibit them, research them, and make them available to the public, but I’ve never been trained to use them.

Using a plow was by far the most complex interaction I’ve had with an artifact. During the match I plowed in two different locations. The experts warned that the soil in the second section was difficult, and they were right. It was harder to keep the plow bottom in the soil. Though I saw no rocks, I hit bumps I didn’t encounter in the first field. I needed helping keeping the plow straight.

This was fascinating. Why did the soil differ so much in such a small area? If I didn’t see rocks, why was it so bumpy? Was it my technique or the quality of the soil that made my second run less successful than my first? How much experience would a person need to be able to handle all types of terrain? I was full of questions and found myself thinking of the plows in our collection and what it would be like to use them. These thoughts had never crossed my mind before.

I have attended a number of professional meetings throughout my career to learn about caring for and sharing the artifacts of our past. What I appreciated about the plow match at ALHFAM, and other hands-on offerings there, was that they helped me understand how objects work and what it feels like to use them. This helps me relate to the people of our past in a way that would never happen by just passing a plow in storage or on exhibit day after day.

This experience also had me thinking about a photograph in our collection. It shows the Chrisman sisters, some of the few women that came to Nebraska to claim their own homesteads. I’ve seen their faces hundreds of times, but I began to wonder about them as people. Did they learn to plow before they came to Nebraska? How did they manage their first time? Were they mildly elated like the rest of the novices in our match? Did they feel a sense of accomplishment, or did they feel discouraged that only one furrow was turned and so many were left to go? I was relating to these women differently now because we had a shared experience: we all stood behind a plow.

What about you: have you ever had an ALHFAM experience that changed your perspective?

–Deb Arenz


6 thoughts on “Why Every Curator Should Enter a Plowing Match”

  1. Great read, Deb. My first plowing experience was at the Firestone Farm at The Henry Ford Museum. It was much more difficult than I imagined it would be and I was out of breath by the end of my row. I wondered why, I hadn’t run. When I asked the expert who went down the row beside me he said, “Oh, I forgot to remind you to breath.” I had concentrated so hard on keeping the plowshare in the furrow and making it straight that I had forgotten to breath.

    1. The soil at Firestone Farm pre-2004, and probably still, is tough. It had/has a lot of crushed limestone, gravel and other debris. During Spring Farm Days and Fall Harvest we gave guests buckets and they helped remove the rocks and dumped it at the fence line. So don’t feel too bad Carol, even if you had remembered to breath that was a tough place for a first experience.

      My observation was that the soil was a little wet a CW this year. I didn’t plow but the way the way the oxen sank into the soil seemed more than what most farmers would have worked in if they had a choice. It was doable but not an reflection of what our ancestors would have done.

  2. We used to say at the Kelley Farm that people would forget what we said about plowing with oxen, but they would never forget what it was like to walk behind a team and guide the plow. I think that is true. But the experience of making a round with a team and plow is so different from what the farm experience was really like and invites romanticism. We always impressed on people that a team of oxen could generally plow 1 acre of land in 10 hours. It usually took a plowman and a teamster to do the job, so 20 “man hours.” Multiply that by the number of plow-down acreage, say 40 acres, not unusual in mid-19th century when oxen were plentiful. That’s 800 man-hours. Now plow that round again and think about doing it for 10 hours a day for 40 days. Then you are ready to harrow it a few times before planting.

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