"Your Loving Father, Jack": Southern Illinois Farm Life in the 1890s as Seen through the Correspondence of the Jack Pierce Family

By Mills, Randy; Hales, Karen Mills | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

"Your Loving Father, Jack": Southern Illinois Farm Life in the 1890s as Seen through the Correspondence of the Jack Pierce Family


Mills, Randy, Hales, Karen Mills, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


"The woods are getting green here"

From early 1894 to late 1898, southern Illinois farmer John "Jack" Pierce sent numerous letters to his son, Charles W. Pierce.1 The father occasionally addressed these letters to his fourth son to "Charlie my boy," and affectionately signed many of the correspondence, "Your Loving Father, Jack." Other family members and friends also wrote frequently to Charlie Pierce during this time. The letter writing flurry sprung from a simple cause-Jack's twenty-one-year-old son had abruptly left his home in the remote Horse Creek area of southern Illinois in early 1894 to work in the thriving farming region of Macon County, in central Illinois and, for a briefer period, in Iowa.

Going "up north" to places like Macon County was a common practice on the part of restless young men who had found themselves growing frustrated working the less prosperous soil of the southern Illinois region for low wages.2 Farms tended to include more acres in the flat relatively treeless prairie region of central and northern Illinois. On the other hand, southern Illinois farms, including those in Charlie Pierce's part of the state in the northeast corner of Jefferson County, were smaller, hillier and often broken up by large sections of woods.3 While overall, Illinois farmers at this time had higher capital investments than farmers in other states, this was not the case in the southern portion of the state. Census records for 1870 also showed that the southern Illinois region, including Jefferson County where the Pierce clan lived, was the poorest region in the state. The average value for real and personal property was $835 for the state as a whole but only $563 for the extreme the southern Illinois counties.4 Soil type made the difference. Dennis Nordin and Roy Scott, in their study of the development of Midwest farming starting around 1850, noted that the Midwest region where Macon County, Illinois, lay was the home of "the most fertile soil.. .in the United States." Conversely, Charlie Pierce's home region's soil in southern Illinois, along with similar soil types in southern Indiana and southern Ohio, "did not generally yield much for its occupants." Furthermore, it "seldom developed into successful farming operations."5 Few agricultural innovations occurred in these southern regions as a result. Cultural forces may also have also played a role in this. Connecticut native Solon Robinson, who would dedicate his life to improving farming in Indiana, lamented that southern Indiana farmers, and their backward upland south "indolent" ways were "the worst epidemic that ever raged in any country."6 Jane Adams especially emphasized the poorer upland southern culture of the bottom third tier of Illinois, noting "Geographically and culturally it is more part of the upland south...than of the rich prairie region to its north."7

In the rich soil regions of the Midwest, areas often dominated by New England settlers, innovation seemed commonplace.8 Nordin and Scott observed, in this regard, that "investments in agricultural implements and equipment soared" between 1850 and 1900 in these places." This dynamic may explain Charlie Pierce's many comments in his letters home regarding the greater prosperity "up north" and the more up-to date equipment and superior seed varieties available in Macon County. Interestingly, Charlie's New England-raised father was quick to write and tell his son to make these improved seed types available to his kin in southern Illinois.

Vast changes were occurring in farming culture at the time the Pierce letters were written. Susan Sessions Rugh, in her study of nineteenth century farming in Hancock County, Illinois, in the west central part of the state, contended that one major change involved the beginning shift away from family centered farming to a more business centered model.10 Jane Adams, in her case study of rural life in southern Illinois's Union County from 1890 to 1990, however, contended that the family, and ensuing community kinship connections within particular rural areas, stood at the heart of farming life in southern Illinois and that this dynamic lasted longer than in many other more productive farming regions of the nation. …

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