Friday, 31 August 2012 10:03

Mega Farming ... With Mules! – Remembering the Adams Ranch

Written by  Don Vosburg
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Iowa's largest farm, covering ten square miles, was powered by mules for over 50 years. Photos courtesy of the Odebolt History Pages
Odebolt Historical Museum - Barb Horak & Bonnie Ekse, editors

What kind of farming could 150 hired men and 200 mules do on 6,000 acres of Iowa crop ground? For a half-century between 1897 and 1950, a huge farm just outside Odebolt in west-central Iowa, operated as a showplace dedicated to answering that very question.

In 1896, W. P. Adams, a 33-year-old born back east in Massachusetts, bought nine sections of western Iowa land from a pioneer Iowa settler named Hiram Wheeler. After his land purchase from the railroad in 1871, Wheeler cleared much of the acreage and put it to the plow, but then sold out and moved to Texas.

Nine binders at work, pulled by four mules each, equals 36 head–enough to stop traffic for a better look, which often happened at the Adams Ranch/Fairview Farm in west-central Iowa.

The new buyer could already claim 12 years of experience farming on a huge scale near Wahpeton, North Dakota. W. P. Adams called his massive Iowa land purchase Fairview Farm, but the place also became known as “The Adams Ranch.” Farm or ranch, under Adams’ ownership, the acreage became the largest farm operation in Iowa and a showplace in every sense of the word, eventually covering 6,510 acres–fully ten sections–of land. Each section was fenced with cement fence posts and rows of shade trees were planted around the outside of every section. That ten-section acreage remained intact for a few years even after a third generation Adams sold Fairview Farm in 1963.

W. P. Adams was by any definition well-heeled. Reportedly from a branch of the Massachusetts family that gave rise to United States presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, he held stock in International Harvester Company, as well as in Illinois Continental Bank and Trust Company and in the Union Pacific Railroad. As he continued to bring his massive Iowa acreage under cultivation, Adams insisted that the draft animals used for farming would be mules. Throughout the 35 years that W. P. Adams ran Fairview Farm and well into the next two decades that his son, Bob, owned the farm, horses were frequently ridden and even driven hitched to carriages, but the farming was done with mules. There is no indication why Adams insisted on mules, and there is nothing to indicate any mules were ever raised at Fairview. Mules were, however, the order of the day and they became something of a signature trademark for the place.

In the center of one section located a mile southwest of Odebolt, Adams had approximately 80 acres set aside for the farm’s headquarters. Wide roads led diagonally from every corner of the section into the headquarters to accommodate all the traffic to and from farm buildings. In addition to a grand home for himself and his family, Adams also had a giant barn built to house the 200-plus mules it took to farm the place. That barn–90 feet wide by 220 feet long–featured two-by-eight rafters and a second story which could be accessed by a ramp at the back of the barn. In addition to hay storage, the upstairs of the mule barn housed machinery such as manure spreaders and farm wagons when they were not in use.


For unknown reasons, W. P. Adams insisted that the draft animals used on his enormous farm were mules.
Throughout the first 25 years after Adams moved to Iowa, the Fairview Farm headquarters took on the look of a small city. Other buildings included a bunkhouse–built much like a military barracks–that reportedly accommodated over 100 hired men, a blacksmith shop, a kitchen and a huge dining hall. Massive sheep barns and corncribs were also part of the headquarters. The farm even had its own water tower. As his enterprise matured, Adams built another large home for his son, Robert Brooks Adams, as well as multiple homes where his farm supervisors and foremen lived and raised their families. In 1915, W. P. Adams had an ornate bank built in Odebolt, and he ran the bank until the depression of the 1930s.


Like most of the inputs necessary to operate his grand farm, Adams bought the mules that powered the operation. According to workers who drove mules for Adams, many of the mules came from the Kansas City Stockyards. Sometimes buying mules involved a trip to Kansas City, but after a time, reputable dealers and order buyers would provide big, young mules in railroad car quantities whenever an order was placed. There are no records of the length of service or the turnover rate among the mules at Fairview. Newspaper articles suggest as many as 350 mules may have been used at one time on the farm, but consensus among former employees suggests the actual number of mules at peak use was between 200 and 230 head. In that huge mule barn and a second smaller barn, there were tie stalls for 100 teams or more.

The massive mule barn Adams built measured 90 feet wide by 220 feet long. It housed 200 head of mules and besides hay storage, machinery and farm wagons were stored on the second and third floors, accessed by a ramp at the rear of the structure.


Evening feeding of grain involved driving a small wagon loaded with oats and pulled by a single mule the full length of the barn while the mule supervisor walked between each team to dump a ration of oats in each animal’s feed box. The mule superintendent knew each animal in the barn, as well as their quirks. When Roger Rector grew up on Fairview Farm, his father was the mule supervisor. 

“Every mule had a name and I think my dad knew at least 199 of them. I recall him telling me that he couldn’t put Betty to work with Suzie because they didn’t get along or they didn’t work well together, and when they were out in the field being handled by a driver, you had to have mules that were compatible with each other. When you walked into the big mule barn, there was a little office in the corner, and on the wall was a glass plate. Behind that plate they had listed the stall number and the name of every mule in the barn. You could walk up and check to see that the number 12 stall held Suzie and that Henry was in number 19.”

According to one farm employee who worked with mules at Fairview well into the 1950s, when new young mules arrived at the farm, they met only a few criteria: the animals were young, growthy and they were always green. He described the way young replacement mules were put into service.

“They would use a farm wagon that was usually loaded with some rocks and if they didn’t have brakes on the wagon, they might chain the back wheels. The mule superintendent would harness the new mules inside the barn and they’d take the wagon into that big mule barn to hook them the first time. The green team was hooked right in front of the wagon, with a good broke team out in front of that young team. A lot of times it might take a little while to get them hooked the way they wanted, but when they had all four mules hooked up, they’d holler to open the barn doors and out they came. There were always two fellows on the wagon, one with the lines and one with a whip. They would drive that wagon out to the road and then around the section. With a good broke lead team the youngsters wouldn’t run over them, and if you worked it right, you could even have those young mules pulling most of the load. If you wanted your green mules to go a little faster, you just clucked up your lead team and the young ones would have to keep up or the leaders would pull them along. The rule was to drive young mules that way completely around the section, and when they got back, they were broke.”

During winters, most of the Fairview mules were turned out on the different sections of harvested cropland to graze and forage. One official sign of spring was when the supervisors and foremen would ride their horses to round up the mules and bring them in to the headquarters. According to a former employee, the spring roundup could often be thrilling and even somewhat entertaining.


In its heyday, the ranch headquarters included its own water tower, blacksmith shop and bunkhouses (shown above) for 150 employees. Wages weren't high, but the workers enjoyed three squares a day in the mess hall.
“With 200 mules being brought up in one bunch, it was quite a sight. All the houses at the headquarters had these really pretty little white picket fences and when the mules came through, a lot of those fences got broken up.”


Compared to other farms in Iowa, everything about Fairview Farm was enormous. So, too, were the misfortunes that beset the farm. A fire in December 1905 destroyed the cookhouse. Adams had it rebuilt. Far worse was the September 1919 fire in which the great mule barn, a cattle barn, the grain elevator, blacksmith shop and the water tower were destroyed. The total loss was estimated at over $100,000, but again, all the buildings lost were rebuilt. According to newspaper accounts of the time, 150 mules died in that blaze. The new mule barn–an exact replica of the one that burned–contained a sprinkler system aimed at preventing future catastrophes.

Although tractors had been tried at Fairview Farm as early as the 1920s, the machines were considered useful for the single specialized job of corn picking and were put away for the rest of the year. With the 1939 introduction of the International Harvester Model M tractor, however, there was ample evidence that tractors could probably do as many jobs as could mules. Accordingly, IH Model M tractors were gradually incorporated into the fieldwork at Fairview Farm after World War II. As more tractors were purchased, fewer mules were housed in the huge barn’s tie stalls. According to the Des Moines Register, as late as 1951 there were still 50 mules in use at Fairview, working alongside 20 Model M tractors. Mule numbers rapidly dwindled within a few years, however. When Ron Bloom hired on at Fairview in 1955, he was assigned what he believes was the last mule team at the farm.

“When they hired me, I got that team of mules, a wagon and a scoop shovel and they told me my job was to feed the cows,” Bloom said. “I worked those mules for three years and after the third year, they gave me a tractor and a feed wagon.”

The farm's switchover from mules to tractors was well underway when this shot was taken. There were just 50 mules left, but 20 tractors in use – just 23 men were employed at the time, including: Sam Nieft, driving a rake; Harvey Dotson, in the center; and Ira Oldmettle, driving the tractor.


Before W. P. Adams died in 1937, his son, Bob, had taken over most of the farm management and by the time Bob died in 1956, his son, Bill Adams, was making most of the farming decisions. It was largely under Bob Adams' ownership of Fairview–from 1937 until 1956–that tractors went from a seasonal novelty to a reliable mechanical alternative to mule power.

When Bill Adams assumed ownership in 1956, he quickly made substantial changes. All but Ron Bloom’s team of cattle feeding mules were already gone. Bob Adams’ prized American Saddlebred horses, however, must have particularly irked his son, Bill. Barely 60 days after Bob Adams died, Bill disposed of all his father’s Saddlebred horses at an auction held at the farm. He was even quicker to get rid of the fine harness show equipment and carts that had become a part of the Fairview Saddlebred operation, reportedly piling them up and burning them the day after his father’s death. Bill had the grand farmhouse built by his grandfather torn down–according to the wishes of his grandmother–within a few years. Bill also stopped planting trees along Fairview Farm roads. Although Bob Adams had introduced commercial cattle to the Fairview operation in 1940, Bill made a big change by introducing registered Hereford cattle in large numbers. When he sold Fairview Farm in 1963, Bill Adams moved with his family to an equally expansive western Nebraska ranch where he continued to raise cattle.

The huge mule-powered farm operated by W. P. Adams, his son, and, briefly, his grandson was eventually broken up and underwent several changes of ownership during the 1980s. Many of the buildings at the former headquarters are still standing, including the huge mule barn. Most, however, are in disrepair. The Odebolt bank built by W. P. Adams still serves as such, with little evidence of change to the mahogany, brass, marble and concrete adornments found inside. Many Odebolt residents tell stories of Fairview Farm they have heard from locals who worked or lived there.

One man who lived at Fairview as a child admitted he has difficulty trying to describe the place he knew. “It’s very hard to express just how beautiful that place was at one time," he said. "With five or six roads coming into farm headquarters and each one lined on both sides with trees, it was just like driving through a tunnel. In addition to all the big farm structures there was a swimming pool, five homes for supervisors and three large homes where members of the Adams family lived. The grounds were very well kept up, the lawns absolutely manicured. It really was a showplace.”

Editors note: Information for the preceding article was drawn from interviews with former Fairview Farm workers, as well as
written accounts in newspapers and books.

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