March 04, 2024

Reflections: Corn and bean harvest a Fox Valley constant

By the time you read this column, the year’s corn harvest will be finished and the soybeans harvested and trucked off to market.

Another year in the farmers’ calendar is just about complete. Farmers say that spring planting and fall harvest periods are when they earn their keep.

Fourteen-hour days spent in the tractor cab during the race to get crops planted or harvested before rain or snow comes — again — are common.

Modern tractors boast automatic transmissions, heat, air conditioning, two-way radios, cellphones, GPS satellite trackers, computers more powerful than the moon landers had and stereo FM and satellite radios, a far cry from the 1960s when anyone with an AM radio strapped on his tractor — sometimes with baling wire — was considered some sort of cutting-edge tech pioneer.

Historically speaking, the vast fields of corn that carpet northern Illinois are the most evident reminder of the area’s Native American heritage.

Without the Indians and their Indian corn, the colonists and pioneers would surely, had they not starved, at least had a much tougher life.

Besides, tragically, a variety of staples from corn whiskey to fried cornmeal mush would never have been invented.

Indians, as my friend Dr. Ray Hauser, now retired from Waubonsee Community College, pointed out, never practiced agriculture.

Instead, they relied on horticulture. The difference between the two is significant although little understood.

Agriculture relies on the use of the plow for planting and cultivating, while horticulture, or gardening, relies only on hoes or other hand tools.

Indians never developed the plow nor the domesticated animals needed to pull it, but evidence of ancient use of hoes and other such tools is common throughout Kendall County and Illinois.

But although they never practiced agriculture, that didn’t stop Native Americans from developing a huge variety of really good menu selections.

When sitting down to such foods as roast turkey, boiled potatoes, Boston baked beans, squash, tomatoes, cranberry sauce, corn on the cob, cornbread or pumpkin pie, most of us are unaware of the Indian origin of these traditional dishes.

American Indians were good farmers and, as noted above, they developed and grew a wide variety of crops.

Corn, beans, peanuts, potatoes, cassava, tapioca, squash and many other foods were first cultivated by Native People. The most important of these native crops, however was corn.

Corn is really nothing more than a genetically altered grass developed by careful crossbreeding over thousands of years.

It can grow in areas too dry for rice and too wet for wheat. Also, its yield per acre is more than double that of wheat.

When corn was noticed by Spanish colonists in the last years of the 15th century, it was taken to Europe where it quickly caught on.

As a result, corn was grown in Europe many years before the Jamestown settlement was established in Virginia or the Pilgrim colonists arrived on the Massachusetts shoreline.

So when the Pilgrim Fathers happened upon a store of corn hidden by Indians, they immediately knew what it was.

And not having any of their own and seeing no one around to contest its ownership, in typical European fashion, they stole it.

Wrote Pilgrim leader Gov. William Bradford, “A heap of sand … newly done, we might see how they (the Indians) had paddled it with their hands — which we digged up … and found a fine great basket full of fair Indian corn, and digged further, and found a fine great basket full of very fair corn of this year, and with some six and thirty goodly ears of corn.”

The stolen corn enabled the Pilgrims to survive that first winter and to plant a sizable crop the next spring.

Until they leaned better, American Indians were very forgiving of the Europeans, even teaching them how to plant, fertilize and harvest the crop grown from their stolen ears.

Despite this assistance, the Indians still had to provide food for the Pilgrims to tide them over their second winter.

Here in Illinois, the Native People were hunters, fishermen and farmers. In the Illinois tribes, women did the majority of farming.

The life lived by Indian women was about as hard as that lived by their colonial European counterparts.

The Indian women of the Fox Valley area usually held title to the cornfields and furnishings of their homes.

Because of their importance, women of the Potawatomi Tribe often were allowed to sit in council with the men.

The women took care of the actual planting, cultivating and harvesting after the men cleared the fields.

When the fields became unproductive, they were abandoned and the whole village moved to a new site. Upon reaching a new village location, the men would build new lodges and then clear the fields.

In the fall, any remaining trees standing where the new fields were located were girdled by cutting strips of bark off all around the trunk, effectively killing the tree.

The following year, the dead trees were felled and the whole field set afire. The land was left over the winter with the ashes adding potash to the soil.

The following spring, the women planted their first crops. Corn was planted in hills two to three feet apart with four kernels in each hill. They then planted beans and squash between the corn rows.

The bean plants used the corn stalks for support and the squash spread out among the rows like living mulch, keeping the ground moist during dry weather and choking out most of the weeds during wet periods. At harvest time, the best ears of corn were kept back for the next year’s planting.

Except for the division of labor, not much has changed in Illinois for several hundred years.

Corn and bean — with admittedly much different strains — fields are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

What is interesting, however, is that this activity is as important here and now as it was 1,000 years ago.

Roger Matile is a former farm boy and retired weekly newspaper editor, columnist, reporter and photographer. Read his blog, History on the Fox, at