One of the most overlooked areas of history in our county is the area of agriculture and its impact upon the history and settlement of our county. When the first settlers came into the county they existed on subsistence farming. That is basically getting enough food and fiber to provide for the family needs and a little extra to trade or barter with others for items they did not have. This period in Effingham County would stretch roughly from the first settlement of the county up to about 1840. Almost all of these early settlers would settle around a water supply of some kind (springs, rivers, creeks that did not go dry, etc.) None of these early settlement farms would be found out in the open or prairie areas of the county. They would almost always be at the top of a hill or on the side of a hill. Keep in mind that the prairie was considered to be barren, "any ground that could not grow trees would not be suitable for crops."
But there would be other factors as well with the prairie. Until John Deere came up with the steel plow in 1837 turning the sod under was no easy task. There is little sand or stone in our prairie soil to scour (scratch or polish) the moldboard of the old cast iron plows and the wood plows did not scour at all. The pull of the plow was so great that only oxen had the strength to do it and this was very slow. In fact that is how we arrive at the one-acre measurement. One acre of plowed ground is what a yoke of oxen could do in a 12-hour day. John Deere's steel plow would scour on the fine texture prairie soils, which allowed it to pull much easier than other plows. Since it pulled so easy a team of horses could now pull it and they could turn up to 7 acres in a days time. If your family came into Effingham County before 1840 they would not know of Deere's invention and would not be found on the prairie.
In addition the prairie was not a healthy place to be. The grass would grow so high that men coming down the national road would have to stand up on their horses back or wagon seat to look over the tall grass that was growing along the road. With tall grass and spring rainfalls there simply was no place for the water to go. These soils stayed wet and somewhat "swampy" or "mucky" as the settlers would call them. The insect population must have been tremendous. Early settlers tell tales of horses or deer's being killed by flies and biting insects if they tried to cross the prairie at night. In the daytime the horse and deer flies made life miserable both for oxen, horses and men moving along the prairie.
When you couple the above with the fact that wood was an essential necessity of the early homestead you begin to understand why they located on hilltops in the timber where they did. The hill tops allowed water to drain away and standing water was an open invitation to disease and insects. Almost everything on the farmstead was made of wood or used wood in some form or another. The shakes (shingles) of the cabin where made of wood as well as the walls. The fireplace or cook stove also had to be kept supplied with wood the year around. Many of the frugal German settlers of our county would move off the road a half-mile or more, right in the middle of their tracts and build their cabins and outbuildings there. As they consumed the nearby wood they would gain more farmland or pasture. Today a good example of the above practice can be found on South Raney Street where the farm stead's are a half-mile off of the road and in the Bishop Creek area.
From about 1840 to 1880 you find the small yeoman farmer type moving into our county. They would buy the small "improved" home sites and stump fields used by the subsistence farmers. Many of these farmers did not like the large number of settlers coming in as it affected their hunting areas and they were wanting to move to the wilder and more open land of the west. Many of these subsistence farms had no claim or title to the land and just sold their "improvements" to the incoming yeomen farmers. Some of these if they had title to the land would sell it as well as the "improvements" to the next group. In reading Perrin's history of Effingham County written in 1883 I am amazed at how small the farms were of that time period. One hundred and sixty acres of land was the normal sized farm, but there were many forty and eighty acre farms as well. Having fifteen to twenty head of cows, five to ten sows, and a couple of teams of horses would make you a modest to a well to do farmer of the period. By 1883 having a two-story frame home or even a two story home of brick was not uncommon and would become the norm. It is also during this period that the practice of digging a well came into the norm as well. With a good well a farmstead could (and was) located about anywhere in the county.
The 1880 to the 1920 time period would become the flowering of the high yield-high labor concept of agriculture in Effingham County. Homesteads were founded almost everywhere in the county, the prairie included. Many families would have many children because it eased the workload. Hands were needed and there was work for them to do. Many of the farms that grew during the 1840-1880 time period would expand their operations to maximum capacity in the 1880-1920 time frame. Almost all farmland was fenced for grazing and all level cropland cleared of brush and timber. Also, keep in mind that the mortality rate was quite high. They had large families but many of the children would not survive into adulthood. Medicine of this time period was primitive by today's standard. Simple sanitation that we take for granted they did not know about. Much of the city waste, as well as farmyard waste, washed into the water supply of the next town or family living downstream of the river or creek. Many people living in small towns of this era worked as hired laborers on the outlying farms. Check the census listing for your families occupation and if they lived in a small town and they were listed as a laborer, chances are good it was as a farm laborer.
The 1920-1980 period would witness the size of the farms becoming larger while the labor required on the farm becoming much less. Electricity would start doing some of the drudgery chores of the farms, such as milking cows, pumping water, etc. This also would usher in the era of the tractor and other mechanized machinery to do the farm work. So consequently we see the number of people on farms decline while the productivity of these farms rise. During this period we witness the rise of industrial Effingham and the exodus of population from the smaller outlying towns, Teutopolis and Altamont being the two exceptions.
So if your family was in Effingham County the time period has a great impact on what they did for their livelihood. There were other occupations in Effingham and the smaller surrounding towns I will grant you, but agriculture was the most common pervasive occupation in the foundation and early growth of our county.