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The Family Farm

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You've seen it in Little House on the Prairie, or perhaps in the faded sepia photographs in your own attic—that immigrant family farm sitting out in the breadbasket of America, with a sturdy husband, an aproned wife, and several rosy cheeked children—it was a requirement to be rosy-cheeked. There they were, hardworking but content on their eighty acres of corn and wheat with enough space for an apple tree and vegetables to put up each fall.

These peasant farmers, said Thomas Jefferson back in 1800, are the backbone of the United States. What will happen when the last one disappears, and we are left with only agribusinesses?

Look at the Michael Sullivant farm on the Illinois prairie, by contrast. The Sullivant farm comprised 80,000 acres, 23,000 of it under cultivation and pasture, until he lost that farm in a financial crisis and turned to a larger tract near Paxton. Here, he planted 18,000 acres of corn, and 5,000 acres to other crops. In a good year, he harvested 450,000 bushels of corn, employing up to two hundred men. The Sullivant machine shed housed 150 of John Deere's steel plows, 142 cultivators, 45 corn planters, 25 gang-harrows, and a ditching plow operated by 68 oxen and 8 men.

In contrast to the little house on the prairie, the Sullivant farm was an agribusiness.

However, it did not replace the little house. It preceded it by 20 years. Michael Sullivant farmed in Illinois in the 1860s—during the Civil War. Not every house on the prairie was little, even then. The railroad had arrived by 1860. The Illinois Central was already encouraging large farms in order to take advantage of the railroad's enormous shipping capacity. And even though the John Deere plow works in Moline had only been open for fifteen years or so, the improvements Deere had already made to farm implements allowed farmers to expand their sixty acres to eighty, to a hundred and eighty, to a section, and even to Sullivant's 18,000 acres. There were not many farmers even back then who set out to cultivate as small a piece of land as they could. And even fewer who said to John Deere, "That's a good plow, but no thanks, I need the hard work."

The little houses on the prairie were far rosier, even on black and white television, than they ever were in real life.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.