My grandfather and my great-grandfather would have been very much at home in this 21st century world of technological wonders.

They welcomed every innovation of their times, and I have no doubt they would champion all kinds of cutting-edge developments today.

As a matter of fact, a lot of things I just learned about them sound like they were discussing the current news. They had strong views about impacts of foreign markets on agriculture, the promise of new inventions, and the importance of resource protection. 

Corn was the common denominator for them in the late 1800s and in the middle of the last century. In a 1903 feature story in the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine Section, my great-grandfather David P. Field told the noted journalist L.C. Bateman about his experience with a crop of yellow and sweet corn at his Auburn farm.

“We must raise our own grain instead of depending upon the West,” he said.

Yellow corn crops in Maine had nearly ceased to be planted and farmers were buying high-priced corn from producers in western states.

“This, in my judgment, is a fatal error,” he said, and he went on to outline his ideas on the economics and practicality of increased corn acreage.

Although the article contained a lot of dry statistics and political opinion, it also had some comments that emphasized my forefather’s thrifty Yankee nature. His advice was for Maine farmers to start raising their own feed corn for their cows … “without resorting to the purchase of a single bushel.“ He said, “The moment he begins to buy, that moment he begins to run behind.”

His descriptions of adapting the big farm methods of the West also were revealing.

“I plant all my corn with a machine, just as they do in Kansas and Nebraska,” he said. “The horse moves as fast as he can walk. I can easily plant from five to six acres in a day and not work hard at that.”

He described the advantages of using other machines such as his weeder and cultivator, and he said, “We have got to eliminate even the hoe in the future of Maine corn raising.”

In his conclusion, he said, “The last machine that I use is the cow. She is the best machine of the lot, as she takes the rough material and brings out the finished product for my benefit.”

About 35 years later, my grandfather Frederic S. Sargent also spoke up on the merits of corn. Grange members frequently shared ideas about current farming methods in speeches at their meetings. On one occasion near the end of the Great Depression, my grandfather gave a detailed talk at the East Auburn Grange hall about distilling alcohol from corn.

The benefits of increased use of alcohol and chemicals from agricultural products “makes the tales of the Arabian Nights seem tame,” he said, adding, “if carried out, it would mean a new dawn for our farm family.”

He backed up those remarks with some familiar predictions.

“Before another five years go by, our gasoline supply will begin to diminish,” he told his fellow farmers. He said a bushel of corn would produce 17 pounds of alcohol, 16 pounds of carbon dioxide for dry ice and 16 pounds of pressed feed material carrying 30 percent protein.

As he proclaimed visions of alcohol fuel replacing gasoline, he said, “Let me assure you it is no idle dream, but a reality that will come to pass in a very short time.”

I have many memories of my grandfather working in his beloved gardens or manicuring the fields with a hand scythe. I also have a favorite photograph I took of him in the 1960s. He was attending a Maine Agricultural Show in Lewiston and he was peering into the hatch of a replica of a space capsule.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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