Posts Tagged: decorah

From Steam to Gasoline: The Tractor!


By Benji Nichols | Image above courtesy Randy Leffingwell, LA Times

There are few inventions in history that have literally changed the landscape like the modern tractor. Steam locomotives were being primitively built as early as the late 1700s in Europe and then America, but it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that steam technology was applied to “Locomobiles” or traction engines (tractor for short!). These early replacements for draft horses were incredible inventions, but also proved to be slow, heavy, and cumbersome. This is where the story of the tractor takes an interesting turn on a little road in Northeast Iowa.

John Froelich was born November 24, 1849 in Giard, Iowa. The first of nine children born to German settlers Johannes Heinrich (Henry) Froelich and Kathryn Gutheil, his life work went far beyond the typical farm – he operated a grain elevator near Froelich, Iowa and ran a threshing operation in Langford, South Dakota. As the story goes, John Froelich was fascinated by steam-driven machinery and farm implements. And not only that: he also worked on them and understood their weaknesses. In 1890 Froelich purchased a gasoline internal combustion engine from the Van Duzen Engine Works in Cincinnati, Ohio, to run his grain elevator. While working with the engine at his elevator he began to tinker with the idea of using the gasoline engine to power a traction engine.

In 1892 Froelich mounted a single-cylinder Van Duzen engine on a Robinson chassis with a traction system of his own design and thus created the very first internal combustion-powered tractor that moved forward and backward, and could also power a threshing machine. Froelich’s sidekick and assistant, William Mann, helped him transport the machine by rail to their South Dakota operation and proceeded to use it to power their J.I. Case threshing machine through 72,000 bushels of grain in 52 days.

On the heels of this accomplishment, a group of investors backed Froelich and formed the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company in 1893. But unfortunately they only built four of Froelich’s tractors – two of which were returned by unsatisfied customers. In 1895 the company became the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and went to work building small stationary gas engines for such uses as pumping water and powering grain elevators. Froelich soon left the company and the Waterloo Company changed hands more than once in the early 1900s, but eventually began to produce the “Waterloo Boy” gas engine farm tractors, a design much like the one John Froelich brought to the company more than a decade before. By 1918, Waterloo Boy had produced three models of the tractor including the LA, R, and N models with over 8,000 tractors sold.

In 1918, The John Deere Company in Moline made a bid of $2.2 million dollars to acquire the Waterloo Boy Tractor Company, thus taking on the most successful modern tractor company of its time, and all of this built off of John Froelich’s original design for the gasoline internal combustion traction engine. John Froelich went on from his early tractor-building endeavor to create engines at the Novelty Iron Work in Dubuque, and then worked with his brother Gottlieb in manufacturing before moving to St. Paul. He was a life-long inventor, credited with such things as a washing machine, dish washer and dryer, a mechanical corn picker, and the first air conditioner that later became the Carrier Air Conditioning Company. In the late 1920 Froelich caught some more bad luck working in the investment world. The great crash of 1929 wiped out much of his livelihood and savings and he spent the final years of his life with his daughter, Jenetie, in St. Paul where he passed away in 1933. He was never recognized for his inventions until decades later. Froelich was inducted into the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991. To this day, his name sits on the sidelines in the history of the common farm tractor, but it was indeed his invention and tinkering with the old Van Duzen single cylinder engine that led to one of the world’s most important agricultural implements.

PHOTO COURTESY FROELICH FOUNDATION

Today the village of Froelich, Iowa sits perfectly captured and re-built as a still-shot from a century ago. A model of John Froelich’s tractor rests outside the refurbished general store. Once a year the village comes alive with action from all over the tri-state area for the annual “Fall-der-All.”

“Fall-der-All” is the annual celebration of the Froelich Tractor and attractions, including the Burlingame General Store Museum, Tractor Museum, one-room country school, blacksmith shop and more. It’s an opportunity for those that love vintage farm equipment to bring their collection in and show it off,” says Froelich foundation President Denny Eilers.

This year, the festival and fundraiser will take place September 26-26, with a variety of displays and activities suitable for the whole family.

The Froelich Foundation board-of-directors is an all-volunteer group that manages the museum, grounds, and historic preservation of Froelich.

“The town of Froelich is significant in agricultural history as it’s the birthplace of the modern farm tractor,” Eilers says. “The Froelich Tractor is the direct ancestor to today’s John Deere tractor division in Waterloo, Iowa, and around the world. There is a huge amount of history coming out of this small village, as historians credit the modern farm tractor as the key tool that helps American farmers create an abundant food supply for our country, plus produce enough to export to other countries. It’s a history we treasure, and the Froelich Foundation was started 21 years ago as a non-profit group of volunteers to preserve this history and pass it down to the next generation.”

You can find out more about the story of John Froelich, the village named after his family, and the annual Fall-der-All by visiting the Village of Froelich located on Highway 18 between Monona and McGregor, Iowa – open through September from 11 am to 5 pm daily except for Wednesdays, and weekends in October. More information and history at www.froelichtractor.com or by calling (563) 536-2841.

Benji Nichols has been fascinated with old tractors and single-piston-engines for as long as he can remember his Grandpa tinkering with them. He looks forward to the Froelich Fall-der-All and Hesper/Mabel Steam Engine days every fall and someday hopes to learn how to engineer steam tractors.

Minnesota’s River Root State Trail & Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail

By Lauren Kraus | Photo by Explore MN Tourism


Cruising along, breeze on face, sun on skin under a canopy of large trees next to a sheer rock-face covered in a mossy green blanket, yes, I was reminded that true trail beauty might sometimes include asphalt. The Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley State Trails in Southeastern Minnesota are a great, smooth, easy-flowing example of this. Hidden in forests, at the bottom of limestone bluffs, meandering through quaint communities, these two state trails are well worth the trip and not to be missed this summer or fall or winter! They are both multiple-use trails ready for walking, biking, running, in-line skating and groomed for cross country skiing in the winter. The Root River State Trail and most of the Harmony- Preston Valley State Trail were constructed on an abandoned railroad grade making the journey fairly level and wheelchair accessible. Few sections have hills. The Harmony-Preston trail is 18 miles long and connects Harmony and Preston with the Root River State Trail, which is 42 miles in total length from Fountain, Minnesota stretching to Houston, Minnesota.

Each trail is dotted with rest shelters, picnic tables and beautiful bridges crossing the Root River. In addition, the picturesque, rural communities along the route not only provide tasty restaurants (a notable pie shop in Whalan, MN), cool historical buildings and museums, but services for trail users too. Outfitters to supply kayaks and canoes for the river, several campgrounds along the way, bed and breakfast inns and fun shops make these state trails a great, new adventure. There is parking available in all of the towns the trails go through, so it is a matter of finding the closest one to you and hitting the pavement! Fountain, Preston and Harmony are all along Highway 52 and very accessible from wherever your starting point may be. Check out www.rootrivertrail.org for great information on the trails and the communities they go through, helpful maps of the trail including a mileage chart and other useful links to the area. Grab your bike and take some time to enjoy this beautiful area via paved, easy going asphalt trail – it’s something to take advantage of in the Driftless Region.

Lauren Kraus, Decorah enthusiast, knows the best way to get to know an area or become familiar with the land is to run on it, tromp through it, hike in it, bike around, just soak it in. Not in a vehicle. Hooray for the good weather of summer and fall.

Getting Our Hands Dirty: A Growing Interest in Community-Focused Gardening


Story and Photos by Kelly Larsen 

The disdain I once held for gardening still remains distinct in my memory. As a little kid, I dreaded being told to pick beans from the long, lush bushes beyond our back porch. With dirt-encrusted ice cream buckets in hand, my siblings and I would trudge out into the sunshine and complain our way down the never-ending rows, sweating and moaning.  Mission accomplished, bushes bare, we would trudge back inside, plopping the bucket onto the scarred kitchen table only to be greeted with a smile, a cutting board, and the task of trimming heads and tails from the beans before dinner. After considerable protest, we would sigh, resigned to our fate, and begin the monotonous chopping process. I hated gardening, my nine-year-old self decided. I liked beans, but definitely not gardening.

If only I had known.  A decade later, my college roommate and I found ourselves craving homegrown, flavorful produce after a semester of cafeteria food. In a surge of optimistic domesticity, we soon had our own little assortment of plastic cups and earthenware pots lined scraggily along the windowsill in our dorm room: carrots, marigolds, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, and violets. Some were successful, some less so. But we treasured our little garden, watering it daily with drips from our Nalgenes, rejoicing together over little green sprouts in the early spring gloom of papers and exams. In our garden we found a return to home, the satisfaction of growth and development, and a little outlet from the stress and cares of college life. We loved our garden. It didn’t matter that our carrots were underdeveloped and the oregano never grew. We were trying it. Soon our curious friends came in to examine our attempts, some eventually planting their own flowers and veggies. Our puny plants quickly blossomed into a community garden of sorts, an assortment of pots worth much more than the sum of its parts.

Gardening – both community and home-based – is growing just like those scrawny plants in our dorm room window. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, approximately 36 million American homes – 31% of US households – had a food garden in 2008. In 2009 that number was expected to increase dramatically, up to 43 million households (37%). Reasons for that upswing varied, with the desires for better tasting, cheaper, higher quality, and safely grown food topping the list.  Though the vast majority of food gardens are still found at individuals’ homes, more than a third of those surveyed said they would be at least somewhat interested in community gardening. The idea of gardening in community, a group of people sharing a plot of land, has been around for years, especially in urban communities where green space is scarce. In recent times the trend has spread into more rural areas, including Northeast Iowa.

Gardening has already proven itself a valuable pastime. The monetary return over one growing season from the average American’s $70 garden investment equals about $530.  With recession-frugality reigning and a generational trend towards organic, eco-friendly, and homegrown products, gardening – especially community gardening – has become a popular way to share, produce, and save. Even the White House has caught the bug: Michelle Obama’s food garden has made international news and the USDA’s People’s Garden is inspiring embassies around the world. Gardening has gone mainstream, appearing on such popular shows as Martha Stewart, where Decorah’s own Seed Savers Exchange was featured in February 2009.

Though Seed Savers Exchange’s focus is seeds, not produce, the organization plays an important role in area agriculture and gardening. Its lavish gardens, nestled among the Heritage Farm’s acres of woods and trails, certainly catch the eye of local and visiting gardening enthusiasts. It was misting gently when I visited, and my jaw dropped at the veritable Eden of growing plants. Notebook in hand, I strode quietly alongside Shannon Carmody – an Illinois native now interning at the heritage farm – as she pointed out highlights of the organization’s many on-site gardens. Vegetables and herbs nestled among flowers and themed mini-gardens within a broader tapestry of flora all provide beautiful examples of edible landscaping, companion planting, and organic gardening at their finest. But the Seed Savers gardens serve a greater purpose than just beautifying Northeast Iowa. The number of needy recipients of the organization’s Herman’s Garden program – a seed donation program designed to help non-profit community gardens and educational programs around the country – jumped more than 30 percent in 2009. Seed Savers has seen huge growth in public interest in gardening over the past year and membership has also increased 47 percent.

“It’s trendy,” Shannon laughs.  “Especially with people in our younger generation, there’s a do-it-yourself trend.  Knitting, home brewing… even gardening.  It’s vogue; it’s hip now. It’s hip environmentalism.”  Of course, she adds, the increased interest in gardening isn’t solely due to the garden projects of celebrities like Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama. “It goes mainstream, and then it’s accessible. I hope people actually see that it’s important. It’s important to have your own food, to understand where it’s coming from.”

Seed Savers Editor John Torgrimson agrees. “I think the growth is due to a lot of different things,” he says. “You could say that the economic times are such that people are looking for ways to control costs, and gardening is something you can actually do. A lot of people do it for recreation. It’s a great pastime. And the benefits are obvious.”

John and his wife Pat enjoy a large garden at home, while Shannon maintains a plot in Decorah’s community garden, located in the floodplain by the Upper Iowa River.

That community garden, Shannon adds, has been a joy, and enables inexperienced gardeners to learn from others. “It’s hard to be the pioneer when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explains. “But when you see your neighbor doing it, it becomes accessible.”

Rick Edwards, Decorah Parks and Recreation director, was instrumental in bringing the Decorah community garden to fruition in the spring of 2008. Though a massive flood wiped out the first year’s efforts, this summer there has been a resurgence of interest, with different families and individuals maintaining about 20 gardens. The 20-by-20-foot plots cost $25, with water and mulch provided. The soil is good, Rick adds, though the deer can be bad.  But that’s part of the gamble of gardening.

The beauty of the community garden aspect, he says, is in the collaboration and creativity. “Everybody gets together and talks, you know, about how stuff is growing, how the deer are eating it… some people are having pretty good success,” he explains.  “We have everything from very experienced gardeners to some gardeners that are giving it their first shot. But they’re all in one spot, so the novice gardeners can get advice, see how the experts do it, help each other out.”

The sense of community, however, isn’t the only thing that drew Edwards and residents of Decorah’s neighborhoods to gardening. For Rick, like many others, it comes back to knowing where his food comes from and what’s in it. “There’s something great about having a tomato and knowing you’re the only one who’s touched it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, that desire for healthy, local food is also part of what inspired Decorah’s Jenni Werners and Deborah Bishop to organize other volunteers and plant a garden specifically designated for the Decorah Area Food Pantry.

“Most people at the food pantry can’t afford to garden themselves, or housing is the issue, or even transportation to get down to the community garden,” Jenni explains.

Surrounded by fencing draped with clanking, deer-dissuading tin pie plates, the plot is full of a variety of well-tended vegetables, from the conventional potato to the mysterious rutabaga. Jenni and Deborah also know of many other groups that have collaborated on garden projects for donation to the community. Theirs is just a small patch in what they hope to see grow into a larger movement. Though the struggling economy has probably bolstered the growth in gardening, both women agree that the revitalized interest is a good thing.

“It’s got people excited,” says Jenni. “And it’s really a lot of fun,” Deborah adds.

Gardeners like Jenni and Deborah are an enthusiastic lot, and that enthusiasm seems contagious. Luther College has a large community garden for faculty and staff flourishing on Pole Line Road; Waukon boasts a community garden which was planted to improve access to locally grown food; the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness initiative maintains a heavy emphasis on fresh, healthy, and local food; the Decorah Community School District has begun working to add garden-grown produce to its cafeteria options; and even college students like myself, stereotypically both busy and cheap, are forgetting their childhood disdain and digging in.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. Gardening is chic again, and the generational trend of re-learning our grandparents’ habits is inspiring. Maybe next year my roommate and I will be able to find a patch of ground on campus where we can dirty our hands and grow a few herbs and veggies. If not, the windowsill will work fine. After all, the carrots are only part of the joy. Growing them together is the real fun.

Kelly Larsen is a student of international relations, journalism, and Spanish at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Next year she dreams of growing a watermelon in her dorm room “garden.”