By Lyle Spencer
In the late 1930s, one event just as exciting as attending the Iowa State Fair was our annual livestock drive during late May or early June. In those days all cattle and hogs fed in the previous year were driven to a marketing substation as close to the family farm as possible. For us, it was Adaza, a tiny Iowa town a mile and a half west of our farm in Greene County, Iowa.
My younger brother and I were always willing, able and fully prepared for the drive. Our one-room country school would have just shutdown for the summer. Dad would have readied us for the drive by taking us to the Ray and Mabel Canady General Store in Adaza where he bought us each a new straw hat and a pair of leather gloves. We were treated with an ice-cold bottle of orange pop and given a real silver 50-cent piece. We were ready for the good times of summer.
The drive would begin at sunrise to avoid the heat later. Most of the 300 head or so of Hampshire hogs weighed in at around 350 pounds. Those muscled-type hogs were raised on an open range for the most part and could really run. The white-faced Hereford steers weighed around 1,200 pounds and were so fat that during a rainstorm, water would collect and stand in the middle of their backs.
We started at daybreak—it would be a long day and a memorable one
So there we were at 5 a.m. with all the cattle and hogs going out the farm gate walking along together on top of the road and in the ditches. In those days, farmers most everywhere had hog-tight fences around their farms, which made this drive possible. First out of the gate went a familiar sight to the livestock -- the feed wagon which was pulled by a pet team of horses that hopefully would help lead the hogs and cattle to Adaza.
My younger brother and I liked to ride in this high-wheeled wagon specially built for seeding oats in the wet early spring. Next to the horses was our collie dog, trotting along in his glory trying to be helpful. In the rear were several ponies and additional help.
Down the road a quarter mile west was Guy Kinsman's 120-acre farm. Guy, with his family, could be found guarding their farmyard entrance and helping herd the livestock further west. At the half mile mark was Highway 17 (now Highway 4) a busy road for that day because it was the main route from Des Moines to Jefferson, Churdan, Adaza, Lohrville and eventually Spirit Lake. It was sort of the interstate of the 1930s. For our livestock drive, this road was to be reckoned with because of the auto and truck traffic. As kids we were told to watch out for cars with number 77 license plates. They were from the big city of Des Moines, cars likely to be going at least 50 mph.
Once on the big road, as we were herding the livestock along, we would come to another farm drive, a 160-acre farm owned by the Henry Nafke family. As with the Kinsman family, they would be guarding their driveway and their oldest son, Ernie, would join the drive. When the heavier auto traffic appeared, they would weave their way through the drive rather unconcerned.
Hounded by pack of dogs, an experience for everyone involved
I'll never forget the drive of 1939 because of one particular incident. Just before arriving at the Walter Board's 160-acre farm near Adaza, we looked up and saw a paralyzing sight. Some 25 to 30 Adaza town dogs covering the entire width of Highway 17 were coming toward us, most with their tails straight up.
The sight of the horses, our dog and the drive apparently motivated this huge pack of dogs. Our collie dog saw the dilemma and for his protection he took to walking between the horses and under the double trees. In just a few minutes, those town dogs hit us. The wagon with 40 bushels of ground feed on board never stopped.
First thing I noticed was yelping dogs under the right rear wheel of the wagon. That was the end of it. Most of the dogs headed back to town, some with cracked or broken ribs running a bit more sideways than usual. Our collie was unhurt.
Now the work really began, when we arrived at the Adaza stockyards
We arrived in Adaza. Houses lined two streets with few front yard fences and the effort to head the drive into the stockyards was not easy. With more volunteer help, the drive was finally in the corral where there was water awaiting and some shade from a stand of trees. The cattle and hogs were sorted in respective pens. It was pushing the noon hour before everyone could breathe a sigh of relief.
Back at the farm during the early evening we pitched on a load of loose straw and the same pet team used on the drive pulled the wagon back to the Adaza stockyards. We used this straw for the bedding of four to five railroad cars waiting on side tracks. The first car was loaded with hogs and moved down the tracks. Moving these loaded cars was another adventure. Dave Lightner, a man who stood about 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighed nearly 300 pounds and who owned land on two sides of Adaza, had a huge Persian workhorse available that just loved to pull these cars.
That was real horsepower; huge horse pulled the railroad cars into place
Weighing in at over a ton, that huge horse was broke to just "lean into the collar" and very slowly the wheels of the car would start to turn. At dusk the livestock were all loaded onto the railcars and the train was destined for the Union Stockyards in Chicago. Sometimes my dad would ride in the caboose with the drive. To this day I would love to have the chance to ride a caboose to Chicago with hand-fed, "make or break" cattle and hogs.
Some years our folks would drive their 1935 Ford to Chicago ahead of the train. This was quite an adventure for them driving a modern car on such a long trip. This car not only had a V-8 engine, hot water heater and balloon tires it had a radio built into the dashboard. Trading in a Model A, a team of workhorses and $200 cash purchased the car at the Ford dealership in Jefferson. To begin their trip to Chicago, mom and dad would head for Jefferson. Four miles north of Jefferson was a new paved road and once in Jefferson they could head east to Chicago on the first paved transcontinental highway, "Lincoln Highway."
Livestock prices of the 1930s were low, dollars as big as wagon wheels
By 1939 the Great Depression was beginning to ease but relief for the farmer did not really come until the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. For the most part, in the mid 1930s, hogs were sold in Chicago for a little over 3 cents a pound making a 350-pound hog worth $10 or $11. A fat 1,200 pound steer would bring 9 to 10 cents a pound or about $120. One must remember however that those dollars were as big as wagon wheels. A new Ford car like the one mentioned could be purchased for about $500. Farmland in Greene County, Iowa was selling for $60 to $75 per acre.
So ends the story of a livestock drive as seen through the eyes of a 7- year-old farm boy of Adaza, Iowa in the early summer of 1939. This cattle and hog drive was our final drive because a huge grain elevator fire took out a big part of Adaza including the stockyards. Also improved roads and larger trucks made it more feasible to send our livestock to Sioux City via truck instead of by rail to Chicago.
Editor's note: Lyle Spencer farms near Goldfield and writes about his true life experiences growing up and living in rural Iowa.