Winter Food for the Pioneers

cold pioneersDuring the winter months, pioneers in Iowa did their best to keep warm. They would keep the fire in their log homes going all day and wear warm clothes made of flannel and wool. But what did they eat? Iowa is too cold in the winter to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, so pioneers needed to find a way to make their crops from the summer last through the winter months. Here are a couple of ways they could do that: picklingPickling: Pickling means placing something in vinegar and spices to make it last longer. The vinegar helps stop germs from getting to the food and making it rotten. The pickles we see at the store are pickled cucumbers, but you can pickle almost anything, such as peppers, nuts, melons, cherries, and tomatoes. Can you guess what pioneers called pickled tomatoes? Ketchup! We still eat pickled tomatoes today! dryingDrying: Pioneers would hang food up to dry. Taking the moisture out of the food helps make it last longer. Pioneers would string foods up close to the fire where the heat from the fire would help dry them out, or they could place some food outside, and the heat from the sun would dry things out.  Some foods pioneer could dry include apples, pumpkins, pears, and grapes. Dried grapes are called raisins! root cellarRoot cellar: A root cellar is like a man made cave. Pioneers would dig into the side of a hill, and place some foods like root vegetables, underground. beets carrotsRoot vegetables are foods where people eat the part that grows under the ground such as potatoes, carrots, beets, and onions. The root cellar would stay about 50-60 degrees all year round, keep the vegetables from getting too hot or too cold. Pioneers would start preserving their food as soon as possible in the summertime to make sure they had plenty to eat during the winter. They would store these foods upstairs in their attics or keep them in the root cellar. applesYou can try these food saving ideas at home now! With an adult’s help, you can try drying apple slices. Cut two or three large apples into very thin slices and let the slices soak in a mixture of 3 or 4 cups of water and a half cup of lemon juice. Adults can do the slicing while kids help mix the water and lemon juice. The lemon juice helps keep the apples from turning brown. The pioneer  would not have had lemon juice–so you can skip this step if you want. Lay the apple slices out onto cookie sheets or baking racks. In the fall and winter, you can put the apple slices into your modern oven. Bake them for 1 hour at 200 degrees and then flip them apple slices over. Then bake them 1 to 2 hours more at 200 degrees. Sometimes a really juicy apple can take even a bit longer. The finished apple should be leathery–kind of like a raisin. Let the slices cool and then store them in an airtight container or bag. On a really sunny day, you can dry apples without the oven. Set your trays of apple slices in a very sunny place and lay cheesecloth over the slices to keep the bugs off of them. The apples may have to be in the sun for a day or two to dry completely. (If you are drying the apples outside in the sun, bring them in at night and put them out again the next day.)


Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy ThanksgivingThis Thursday is a special day in Iowa. Many people will celebrate Thanksgiving. It is a time when lots of people have a big dinner with their family and friends. They eat together and say “Thank You” for the special people and things in their life. Having a day to say “Thank You” is an old idea. At Living History Farms, we like to remember how people in Iowa have said thank you in the fall every year.venisonIn the year 1700, the Ioway people held big meals together in the fall. They had a party to be happy for a good garden and plenty of food for the winter. Their harvest dinners might have pumpkin, corn, beans, deer, and buffalo!

1850 mealBy the year 1850, new settlers had moved to Iowa. Many of these people had moved here from states in the east, like Massachusetts. They had grown up having a fall party called Thanksgiving. In 1844, John Chambers—he was a territorial governor for Iowa and an important guy—decided to have Thanksgiving as a holiday in Iowa, too. He said in the Iowa City newspaper, “We believe this is the first Thanksgiving Proclamation ever issued in Iowa; we are glad to welcome the good old Pilgrim custom to our midst . . .” Many settlers were still living in log houses in the country. They did not have a lot of money to spend on fancy foods. Their meal was still pumpkin, corn and potatoes. They might roast deer and wild turkeys. This Thanksgiving meal might be for friends and neighbors and just the people who lived right there. People could not travel very far. Remember they did not have cars or planes!

1875 mealtangen cake

Later in 1875, people who lived in towns like Walnut Hill also had Thanksgiving parties. Having family visit and eating a special meal were pretty important by then. A man in Iowa named Thomas Terrill wrote in his diary in 1871, “Thanksgiving Day . . . Folks here for dinner. Had a turkey roast.” In 1880, Thomas wrote, “Took our Thanksgiving dinner at home consisting of a stuffed hen and other good things. Were thankful that we had so much.” Trains could bring fancy foods to Iowa stores from faraway places. A fancy restaurant in Des Moines in 1870 let guests choose from oysters, trout, turkey, chicken, duck, goose, buffalo, and deer. All kinds of cake, nuts and fruit were for dessert. Trains would have brought most of these foods to Des Moines for the cooks at the restaurant.

1900 Farm mealIowa farmers did grow many foods right here to eat at Thanksgiving. An Iowa farm lady near Iowa City, Iowa wrote about raising turkeys on her farm and selling them every year for people to have at Thanksgiving. Miranda Cline wrote in her diary in 1895, “I sold Turkeys at 5 cents per pound, brought home 8 dollars.” In 1900, farm wives might have cooked turkey, and mashed potatoes, squash, chicken pie, pumpkin and apple pie, and might have even served ice cream at dessert to be fancy. One 1887 cookbook did suggest just serving “cold roast turkey” for supper that night. Even then there were leftovers!

Happy Thanksgiving from Living History Farms!All of these foods and parties became something people had every year. Doing something over and over the way our parents and grand-parents did is called a tradition. What traditions do you have for Thanksgiving at your house? Do you eat a big meal? Do you watch football? Or a parade? Whatever your family’s tradition is for this holiday, everyone here at Living History Farms hopes you have a wonderful day! Happy Thanksgiving!

Pumpkin Season!

pumpkins and squash

Pumpkins are everywhere in November! Pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin bars, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin cake! Many people just have to have a pumpkin pie with their Thanksgiving meal. Here at the museum, our historic sites grow lots of pumpkin. Did you know that pumpkins have been around a very long time? The pumpkin was first grown thousands of years ago in Mexico. All the way back to 7,000 B.C! That’s a really long time ago! The historic guides at our museum like to grow pumpkins and cook the types of pumpkin recipes people in Iowa would have had in the past. That doesn’t mean they make pumpkin spice coffee and cake, though! The sweet pumpkin muffins and cake we love aren’t very old at all. They only show up in recipe books starting in the 1940s. That’s only about 75 years ago! And that pumpkin coffee that everyone loves was first made in 2003. That’s only 11 years ago! So if people in the long ago past weren’t making cake and cookies out of it, how did they eat their pumpkins?

pumpkinspumpkin on the vine

At the 1700 era Ioway farm, museum guides grow many kinds of pumpkins. The Ioway word for squash is wádwan. Pumpkins belong to the squash family. You might think of big, round, orange pumpkins, but pumpkins come in lots of shapes, sizes, and colors. They can be green and yellow, white, red, or even striped! We are not sure exactly which kinds the Ioway grew, but we know they planted their pumpkins in the garden next to the corn and beans. The Ioway called pumpkin one of the three sisters of life. Pumpkins grow on vines with prickly stems and big leaves. The vines help keep weeds from growing around the base of the corn and bean plants.

The Ioway people ate a lot of pumpkin and squash all year long. In the summer, the Ioway would pick the squash flowers off of the vines and eat them in stews. The Ioway also ate fresh pumpkin in late summer. They roasted the pumpkins whole in their cooking fires. In fall, the Ioway women would pick the pumpkins, cut them into slices and hang the slices on wooden stands to dry out in the sun. The dried rings of pumpkin wouldn’t spoil during the winter. The Ioway could eat them like jerky, or cut them up in soup and stew all winter long. Pumpkin, corn, and bean stew would be a winter treat!

pumpkin dryingpumpkin stew

Before explorers from Europe crossed the oceans, pumpkins did not grow in Europe. Native American peoples taught European settlers how to first cook pumpkins. The Pilgrims in Massachusetts wouldn’t have eaten pumpkin pie at those first Thanksgiving dinners! They would have stewed or baked their pumpkins like their Wampanoag native neighbors had taught them. The Pilgrims did find ways to use pumpkins in some of their own favorite recipes. They learned to bake a creamy pudding made of milk, eggs, and spices inside the pumpkin. They also added corn meal to stewed pumpkin and made bread out of it. Later, European settlers did start to make sweet puddings and pies with pumpkin.

pumpkins 1850At Living History Farms, the 1850 era Pioneer Farm grows lots of pumpkins in the field with the corn. Many of Iowa’s pioneers grew pumpkins and squash to eat during the winter. They could have cut some of the pumpkins into rings and dried them out for eating in stew, just like the Ioway.

pumpkin slicespumpkin rings

They also stored whole pumpkins in the cabin attic or in a root cellar for winter.  pumpkins 1850

These pumpkins could be stewed or roasted and then mashed. Pioneers could add spices to the pumpkin—and sugar and cream if they had some!

pumpkin baking 1850A pioneer woman in a log cabin could eat this mashed pumpkin like a pudding or she could pour it into a pie crust and bake it in a bake kettle in the fireplace.

Farm families in Iowa also made a sweet spread for bread using pumpkins. At our 1900 era Farm, museum guides grow pumpkins and make pumpkin spreads on the wood burning stove. The cooks stew or roast the pumpkin until is very soft.  Then they mash the pumpkin and mix it with sugar and spices. The cook puts the mix in a pot over the wood burning stove and lets the pumpkin heat for a long time. The mixture gets very thick and very sweet. This is called pumpkin butter! This very sweet spread would have been stored in crocks or glass jars in the year 1900 for use all winter long.

jars 1900

You can still make pumpkin butter at home today. With an adult, mix 8 cups of mashed pumpkin with 4 cups of sugar in a bowl. Add 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of ginger, and 1 teaspoon of ground cloves. Now you need to cook the mixture. You can pour it into a heavy pot and let it simmer on top of a stove until it gets very, very thick. Cook it on low and stir it every so often. Or you can put the mixture into a heavy pan in the oven and let it bake it for several hours at 300 degrees. In 2014, we can even put the mixture in a slow cooker and let it heat four or five hours until it gets very thick. After you have made your pumpkin butter, you can put it into the refrigerator for several weeks or you can freeze it to eat later this winter!

pumpkin butter

Pumpkin Butter

8 c. mashed pumpkin      4 c. sugar

1 T. cinnamon                 1 t. ginger

1 t. ground cloves

Combine all ingredients; simmer over low heat until very thick. Stir occasionally.

Seed Starting

It’s going to be 60 degrees and sunny today! Time to really start thinking about spring and take those garden plans a step further!


When we think of gardening, we usually think of lots of big plants heavy with fruits and vegetables outdoors in the summer heat. Those plants don’t start out that big, though.

seed packets

Did you know that most plants in the garden start out as tiny seeds that have to be planted each year? Maybe you’ve planted seeds in a garden before and gotten to watch them grow into big, healthy plants.

Not all seeds can be planted straight into the garden, though. Some plants grow too slowly to be planted right outside. If we waited until it was warm outside to plant them, they wouldn’t have time to grow big enough to have vegetables for us to eat before frost comes in the fall.

Other plants are very sensitive to cold weather. We can’t let them be outdoors until the weather is warm enough. Farmers and gardeners can give these kinds of plants a head start. They plant these seeds in small pots indoors. Seeds like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cabbage, cucumbers, melons, and squash can all be planted or “started” indoors.

Starting seeds indoors is easy! You only need a few things and a little time and patience to give your garden veggies the head start they need! We’ll give you instructions on how to start your own seeds indoors. Make sure you get an adult’s permission and help before you start!

What you need to get started:

  • seeds such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, or lettuces
  • small containers to plant into; paper cups and paper egg cartons work well!
  • seed starting soil mix
  • water

First, take your containers and fill them about 3/4 of the way full with dirt. Using special seed starting mix will help your seeds get the best possible start, but regular potting soil will work, too.

Next, put 2-3 seeds in the middle of each container. You’ll thin these later so only one plant will be in each pot.

Sprinkle a little more dirt on top of the seeds so they’re just lightly covered with about 1/8″ soil.

Gently water the containers. Be careful not to use too much water – the seeds can wash away if they get flooded!

egg cartonsPlace the containers in a bright south-facing window that gets lots of sunlight.

Be sure to label what kind of plant is growing in each container. You could get creative and make fancy labels for your plants.

Make sure you keep them moist, but not too wet. In just a few days you should see baby tomato plants starting to poke up through the soil.

Eventually, you’ll want to transplant the seedlings into a larger container outside or out into your garden when it is warm enough. Check your seed packet for instructions.

If you don’t have small containers to plant your seeds into, you can make them out of newspaper like this!

Get those plants growing! If you start now, by September, your garden might look like this!

Dreaming of Seeds!

winter at Living History Farms

There is still snow in Iowa. The ground is frozen. But spring will be here soon and it is time to plan the fields and gardens at the museum!

field at Living History Farms

Lots of catalogs are coming in the mail with pictures of vegetables and flowers. These catalogs sell seeds and plants.

Our museum workers can also use their computers to search for seeds and plants. It is fun to look at the photos and think of all the wonderful things we can grow when it gets warmer.

seed catalog

What are your favorite vegetables and flowers? Do you grow any of these in a garden at your house?

How did the people who lived in Iowa a long time ago choose seeds for their gardens and fields? How about a pioneer farmer living in a log house in 1850? Here is one of our farmers working in the 1850 pioneer farm garden. Where would the seeds come from?

1850 Pioneer Farm garden

Iowa’s pioneers often brought seeds with them when they moved here. They could save some of the seeds from their first crops in Iowa to plant new crops the next year. If they lived close enough to a small town, the pioneer might also buy seeds at a General Store.

General Store

Even in 1850, a farmer could order seeds in the mail! The seed company would send the seeds to the closest post office. The farmer had to travel to the town’s post office to get his package. Iowa farmers continued to buy seeds in small towns and through the mail. Railroads made getting the seeds to Iowa easier. Flowers and plants for gardens got fancier and came from farther and farther away. Flynn summer kitchen garden

Our museum wants to make sure our farms plant the kinds of vegetables and flowers people did a long time ago. We use the lists in old seed catalogs and farm diaries to know what to plant.Landreth's Seed Catalog

The Landreth Seed Company is one of the oldest in America. You can learn more about their company here. Seed catalogs today are filled with color photographs of plants and flowers. A long time ago, the catalogs might not have any pictures, just words talking about the plant. Look at this very old catalog.  It doesn’t have any pictures at all! By the 1890s, some catalogs had drawings of the plant, sometimes in color and sometimes not. Like this one and this one. These catalogs were saved by National Agricultural Library at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Even without pictures, farmers in the past got excited about planning their gardens in February and March. It made that last bit of winter go faster! We still get excited at this time of year. It is fun to dream about warm spring weather and planting seeds!

Pioneer Farm garden

If you are getting tired of winter, plan an imaginary garden with us! Take a piece of paper and crayons and draw a big circle or square. It can be as big or small as you want it to be! What kinds of vegetables do you like? How many would you plant?


Draw them in your circle or square. Maybe your garden has flowers instead . . . what colors would they be?  Tangen Flower Garden

At Living History Farms, we save some of our seeds from year to year. We also buy our seeds from companies that grow very old kinds of vegetables. If you would like to browse a seed catalog like we do, check out this link. It might help you dream up new things for your imaginary garden plan!

Do you still need some ideas? Here is a blank plan of the garden at the 1850 Pioneer farm. Each rectangle and circle is a planting bed in the garden.


And here is a list of some of the things we plant there! Sometimes the types of vegetables have really funny names! Can you draw the plants on a garden map?

Scarlet Runner Beans
Red Core Carrot
Cayenne Hot Peppers
Bird Peppers
White Icicle Radish
Green Oakleaf Lettuce
Large Red Tomatoes
Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas
White Vienna Kohlrabi
Riesentraub Tomatoes
Glory of Enkhuizen Cabbage
Flat Dutch Cabbage
Soldier Dry Beans
Lazy Wife Beans
Bull Nose Peppers
Golden Beets
Green Nutmeg Melon
Missouri Gold Muskmelon
Silver Rose Garlic
Georgia Rattlesnake Watermelon
White Patty Pan Squash
Russian Cucumber
Rutabaga Red Onions
Early Blood Turnips
Mangle wurzel Beets