What’s for lunch? Squash!

pumpkinsHave you ever been to a pumpkin patch? Do you visit one in October to grab a jack-o-lantern pumpkin? Maybe someone in your family has a great recipe for homemade pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving? Visiting a pumpkin patch has become a special trip for us now. But in the past, Iowa farmers grew lots and lots of pumpkins in their fields. Iowa’s first farmers, the Ioway Indians, grew pumpkins as one of their three most important crops. Pumpkins and squash were easy to grow and they could grow to large sizes.

Lots of kids today have never tried pumpkins as a food. Many people have never tried squash at all! Pumpkins can be very tasty when cooked just right – even the seeds can make a great snack! In the 1700s, Ioway kids would have pumpkin or squash on their plates (actually, in their bowls) almost every day. And the kids would have to help grow the pumpkins their family ate.Ioway Garden

If you could see the Ioway’s fields, you would see tall stalks of corn with skinny vines wrapped around them. These vines had beans growing on them, climbing up the corn to get some sunlight. All around the ground, colorful pumpkins and squash grew, hiding under their big fat leaves.

Moms were the farmers of the family. But Mom had lots of help from aunts, grandmothers, and especially kids! After the older women had prepared and planted the gardens in the spring, the kids would help to take care of the plants and make sure that the crops were safe from weeds and animals. Of all the crops, pumpkins and squash really came in handy for the kids, because they helped keep animals away and kept the soil from drying out.  plants

Since pumpkins have big leaves, they kept the soil shady. This kept the soil from drying out as quickly. That meant the kids didn’t have to water the plants all the time! Squash vines are also very prickly. Have you felt one of the vines at a pumpkin patch? This helps to keep out small animals that might want to eat the corn and the beans. Can you imagine working very hard every day to have good food to eat, and then waking up to find out animals have snuck in to eat your crops? The pumpkins and squash help to make sure that doesn’t happen.pumpkins

When summer was over, Ioway kids would see that their squash had grown up into all sorts of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

Some of the squash would be cooked and eaten soon after it came off the vine. But most of it would be saved for eating in the wintertime, when no crops could grow.

squash

The Ioway cut their squash and pumpkins into rings. The rings were hung on big drying racks. The sun and the winds dried the rings out, taking away moisture. The rings became dry, thin, and crispy. Families stored them in a cache pit – like an underground pantry – near the family’s home. When the family wanted to eat their dried squash during the winter, they would put it into soups and stews! cooking

Mom would put the dried squash rings into some boiling water, along with dried corn, dried beans, and whatever meat had been gathered by the father. The Ioway family might have soup and stew all winter, until they could start growing some fresh food again. If you wanted to live like the Ioway, you’d need to like soups and stews! Those were the main dishes that the Ioway had to eat in the wintertime. And hopefully, you’d like pumpkins and squash too, because those were some of the main ingredients in their stews.

stew

The Ioway had to grow all of their own food for hundreds of years. Today some families still grow food in gardens, but we also have grocery stores to help out. And we can buy pumpkin and squash whole or in cans. Next time you go to the store, see if you can find any squash – it is still very tasty after all these years!

pumpkins

Parents and caregivers: The Ioway ate pumpkin and squash in stews, but there are many ways to introduce squash to kids. You can find kid-friendly recipes for squash here!

Broom Corn Harvest!

October is a month full of harvests! Harvesting is when farmers pick or cut the crops in their field and use the plants for food or other things. Many Iowa farmers are busy right now harvesting corn–for animals to eat and for people to eat.

At Living History Farms, we also have a special type of corn that is not for eating at all! Instead, it is harvested to make brooms! Broomcorn plant with different styles of broomsBrooms are made from a plant called broomcorn. Broomcorn is a type of sorghum plant. It is different from the corn that people and animals eat. This “corn” does not have ears filled with kernels. Instead it grows swishy tassels at the very top! These long tassels are what broom makers use to make brooms.

Broomcorn seeds  Broomcorn just starting to tassel

The seeds of the plant are very small. Farmers plant broomcorn sometime between the middle of May and the middle of June. Farmers plant the seeds 2 inches apart in rows that are 28 inches to 48 inches apart.

Broom corn plants grow slowly at first, but after they are a foot tall they grow very rapidly. There are many varieties of broom corn, from dwarf types that grow short to really tall types.

Farmers harvest the broom corn based on when they feel it has the best “brush” or tassel for making brooms. Some farmers feel the best brush is harvested when the plant is in flower, or at most when the seed is only slightly formed. At Living History Farms, we usually harvest the plant in the middle of October when it looks like this.

broom corn When the farmer feels the broom corn is ready, the plant is tabled. Our farmers walk through the corn patch and bend the stalk over like this.

Tabled broomcornTabling is when the stalks of the plant are bent over, about 30” from the ground, towards the next row in a diagonal direction. As the stalks are bent over the next row it creates the look of a table top in the field. Doing this allows the tassels to stay straight as they continue to lengthen.

Broomcorn tassles with seeds

Sorted broomcornWhen it is time to bring the tassels out of the field, the tassels are cut off with about 8” of stalk on them. The farmer then takes the tassels to a building that has slotted shelves to place the tassels on. These shelves allow the tassels to completely dry in a flat position. The seeds are then combed off the tassels and the tassels taken apart in order to separate the fibers by length. The sorted tassels are then placed into bundles and the different length bundles are sold to broom making factories. The factories then use the broomcorn to make different styles of brooms to be sold at stores. At Living History Farms, our broom corn factory still makes brooms using machines over one hundred years old!

Brooms