Time to mow…

Guess what I did instead of writing a new Clark House Historian post! Here’s a clue, from about this time last year (revised and expanded for 2022)…

Spring weather in southeastern Wisconsin is pretty hard to predict these days. Spring 2021 was awfully dry. This year, spring has been wetter overall—I think—but the days have zigzagged rapidly and unpredictably between chill and damp or hot and humid. It’s almost like we haven’t had a proper Midwestern spring at all. And yet, the grass around the Historian’s house has already gotten pretty tall and scruffy. So it was time to get out the mower and tidy up (some of) the yard.

Maurer, Louis, Artist. The climax mower, most complete and perfect mower in the world, the Corry Machine Co., Corry, Pen. / L. Maurer. United States, None. [NY: the Major & Knapp Eng., Mfg. & Lith. Co., between 1869 and 1872] Photograph. Library of Congress.

This particular advertisement for The Climax Mower dates from 1869-1872, almost a decade after Mary Clark and her children left the Clark farm and moved to Milwaukee. Perhaps the subsequent farmers on the Clark farm, Fred Beckmann, Sr. (from 1868-1872), or the John and Catherine Doyle family (from 1872 onward), owned something similar. If you’d like to see a recent video of a similar mower in action, click this link. It’s not a long video; the view of the mower is better at the end.

Scything

Back in the 1840s and ’50s, the Jonathan Clark family would have probably cut the tall grass around the farmhouse—and the hay in the fields—with a scythe. Advanced grass-cutting technology such as The Climax Mower would not have been available until sometime in the 1870s.1

Using a scythe to cut grass or hay is hard work, but not as impossible as it may seem. A well-sharpened scythe in the hands of a practiced user can be surprisingly effective. Here’s a link to a short video of some old-school2 scything in Wales:

Misty Meadow Mowing, screenshot of YouTube video from scythecymru.com Click image to open video in new window, or click here to do the same.

There is also a wide world of modern competitive scything. Start here for a fun, if longish, video example.

Speaking of mowing

Wildflowers and native grasses at the author’s house, southeast Wisconsin, late-summer, 2021. Photo credit & head gardener: Laura Rexroth.3

Throughout North America, birds and pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and moths are under stress these days, and many species are in sharp decline. Loss of habitat is a serious problem for many once-abundant species, even in seemingly “green” neighborhoods of well-manicured lawns. (Think back: how many Monarch butterflies did you see last year? I remember meadows and parks filled with swirling “clouds” of Monarchs in the summers of my Illinois childhood.) In fact, typical American turfgrass lawns are so low in biodiversity that they are on their way to becoming “biological deserts.” This is a problem for all of us, as our food chain—and our gardens—depend on the work of these small animals.

Fortunately, there are simple, low-cost things that each of us can do to make life better for our bird and pollinator friends. If your home is currently surrounded by a tidy lawn of green grass, you might consider making a few simple changes that can transform the typical, all-grass, suburban lawn into a bird- and pollinator-friendly “wildlife garden.” If you are interested, you can find some excellent information at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site; this page has a nice introduction to some basic wildlife/wildflower garden ideas. And if you need seeds for all kinds of heirloom varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowering plants, I highly recommend the amazing Seed Savers, in Decorah, Iowa.

Coming up

I’ll be back with more Mequon history soon. Meanwhile, stay hydrated, keep your tools sharp, and don’t forget your sunscreen.

___________________________

NOTES:

  1. At least, I don’t think mechanical mowers like this become available until the 1870s. I did some research while writing this post and—don’t be shocked—there is not a lot of easily-accessible mechanical-mower history online. But as best I can tell, The Climax Mower circa 1868-1872 may be a very early example of the device in this form (at least in the United States).

  2. So old-school that this couple is not wearing shoes while scything. All things considered, I’d wear shoes while swinging a long, sharp-bladed tool from side to side while walking through tall grass. But it’s a nice video all the same. And the linked website has a lot of information—and additional videos—on scythes and their uses.

  3. Formerly about 250 450 square feet of turfgrass lawn and slightly-tired foundation plantings, this wildflower garden was begun in spring, 2021, and already attracts many species of birds, bees, moths and other pollinators. The flowers are lovely and, best of all, I have 250 450 fewer square feet of lawn to mow. Highly recommended. [Note updated May 16, 2022, because I didn’t do the math correctly.]

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