In the museum of this little North Dakota prairie town, there is an old silent film that wonderfully records what rural life here was like in 1922. Fessenden, with about 700 inhabitants, is, so somebody said, 59 miles from the geographical center of North America. It sits out on a vast, empty, rolling, wheat-green, nearly treeless prairie, a stark landscape of fiercely intense light and a sky that seems too big to be true.
The climate is extreme, with record temperatures in 1912 of 124 degrees F. above and 52 below zero. In winter there are blizzards and northern lights, in spring mirages, migrating wild ducks and geese, sloughs alive with fireflies and croaking frogs. Summer crashes in with tornadoes and thunderstorms and howling winds that can roll the tumbleweed faster than a horse can run.
In the black-and-white film, taken in summer, you see men in soft caps or straw hats and women in narrow, tight skirts moving with speeded-up jerkiness about leafy streets with white frame houses. Little boys in sailor suits and girls in white dresses play in a schoolyard, holding hands. Horse-drawn farm wagons and Model T Fords pass by, raising clouds of dust. Dusty threshers in bib overalls pitch bundles with forks. The speed and power of farming is set by the three-mile-per-hour gait of the horse.
By 1940, as highly mechanized, highly capitalized farming took over, this way of life became a nostalgic memory. Since 1940, at the height of the shift from horses to tractors when the irreversible commitment to mechanized, industrialized farming was made, the number of Americans who farm has dropped from about 30 percent to less than 2.3 percent.
Some say this may be the most fundamental change for American society in modern times. Today scarcely 1 American in 10 can possibly remember what the old days were like. To the 50 percent of Americans under 30, those times must seem as remote as tales of the Civil War did to an earlier generation. In an interview in Fessenden, Chester Zumpf, a retired farmer in his 60s, recalled an average day on his father's farm north of town in 1922. It was 360 acres, bigger than the average American farm in 1922 (148 acres) but typical for the northern Great Plains. Wheat, oats, barley, rye, and alfalfa were the main field crops, and cows grazed in a 60-acre pasture. About 25 pigs rooted and squealed in their lot, and chickens clucked everywhere. To anybody passing on the dirt road, the farm and its white frame eight-room house looked like they would be there forever.
Mr. Zumpf recalled: ''Dad got up by 5 a.m. and he'd wake us kids up. He'd head for the barn and Mother took a corncob soaked in kerosene to start the wood-burning stove. We headed out to the pasture, walking through the grass wet with dew, to get eight or 10 milk cows. Dad haltered and tied the horses in their stalls; we usually had 12 and at least two colts a year. After they were fed, we milked. Then Mother separated the cream.
''We all helped. The separator had a hand crank that did 60 revolutions a minute. A bell would ring when it was ready. Cream, like eggs, was an important source of cash; Mother also needed it to churn butter once a week. We fed the skim milk to the calves and hogs, who also got a few bushels of ear corn. While Father and a couple of my older brothers curried and harnessed the horses, the rest of us fed and watered the chickens.''
Breakfast for the Zumpf family, with six sons and a daughter, at 7 a.m. or after two hours' hard work, was hearty: eggs, ham or bacon, fried potatoes, homemade bread and jam.
Zumpf went on: ''After breakfast we'd hitch four horses to one plow and three to another and head for the fields. We had a four-horse unit for discing and a five-horse one for dragging. You'd go back and forth across the field. On a hot day you'd rest the horses every other mile and do 10 miles in the morning and 10 miles in the afternoon. If it was cool you could do three-four miles without resting the horses. Twenty miles with a gang plow was a big day; it meant you'd plowed five acres.''
At noon the horses were unhitched, watered, and fed before the family ate. At night, it was the same. On schooldays, when the Zumpf children came home at 4:30 , they'd help with the chores - milking, separating, feeding horses, cows, hogs, and chickens - until supper at 7 p.m. By 9:30, after a final trip ''out back,'' one was ready for bed.
So it went, seven days a week, the routine varying some if there was planting , haying, harvesting, or threshing. But the cows had to be milked 365 days a year, morning and night. ''We've got to get home to milk'' was a common expression.
If, before the 1920s, change in farming methods was slow, the same was true of household work. Mrs. Zumpf, just as her grandmother back in Germany had done, hauled buckets of water from a well, chopped kindling to fire the kitchen wood stove, and boiled her laundry in tubs and scrubbed it on a washboard. ''Finally, '' her son said, ''Dad bought a Maytag washing machine with a handle and we kids took turns agitating the water.''
Mrs. Zumpf killed and plucked her own chickens, baked bread twice a week and churned butter once, patched the family's clothing on a foot-pedal sewing machine, and canned much of the family's food with a pressure cooker and two-quart jars, including 400 quarts of chicken, pork, and beef and 400 quarts of beans, peas, corn, and potatoes each year.
The big technological change came, as it did to most American families, when the Zumpfs bought their first car - a Model T - in 1914. Electricity reached their farm in 1924; the family got its first radio, an Atwater Kent with a storage battery and big horn, so they could listen to ''Amos 'n' Andy.'' ''Dad was a good provider,'' Zumpf said.
But no frills. Chester Zumpf recalled his father used to send him to church on Sunday barefoot, carrying a pair of polished patent-leather shoes. ''I put them on just outside the Lutheran Church. Those shoes passed down brother to brother. Some families used their cars once a week, to drive to church.''
Typically, farmer Zumpf bought his first tractor, a John Deere, in 1936. The shift from horses began in the 1920s but the number of tractors had reached only 378,000 by the 1929 crash. Only 50,000 were bought the first five years of the depression. Then in 1935-40, the total suddenly rose to just under a million as tractor sales began to soar.
In North Dakota, as throughout the Midwest, dust storms cursed the 1930s, as did plagues of grasshoppers. ''The worst Dust Bowl year was 1934,'' Zumpf recalled. ''You had to put lamps on in the daytime.'' One local woman, Aggie Bergsgaard, recalled selling eggs for 7 cents a dozen and butter for 11 cents a pound. She said, ''Land was only $34 an acre. We never dreamed wheat would someday go up to $7 a bushel. Why, two quarters of land down the road just sold for $1,000 an acre and not even good land, just sand hills and sloughs.''
Aside from the first tractors and modern machinery, the 1920s also saw the new application of chemistry and plant and animal science to farming. Its most dramatic impact would come in the 1940s and '50s. Nitrogen fertilizer production tripled in 1920-30. Hybrid corn swept the Midwest after 1933. Rust-resistant wheat, improved cotton, better hog and dairy cattle breeding, and higher-yield forage crops all date from the late 1920s. With the New Deal came such federal programs as the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, though these would mainly benefit bigger commercial farmers.
How did the Zumpfs fare by 1940? The farm was about to expand to 480 acres. Farmer Zumpf had sold all but one team of horses, which he kept until 1955 as a hobby and to harness in deep snow. He had torn out some cross fences to make bigger fields. His pastureland, needed for horse feed in 1920, was planted in crops or put into a conservation program (his check from the government to keep land out of production was about $2,000). Fertilizer was a new expense but was offset by higher yields. A large part of Zumpf's crop was ''sealed'' under a loan program of the Commodity Credit Corporation at so much a bushel.
He had sold most of the milk cows and would eventually sell his hogs, the old ''mortgage lifter.'' He no longer needed them, nor cream and eggs, as a source of cash income. Electricity provided light and pumped water, though indoor plumbing would come last of all, in 1947.
With an electric stove, refrigerator, freezer, and washing machine, Mrs. Zumpf's life had been revolutionized. (Her grandchildren would never learn how to throw out a little corn to attract a young chicken, catch it by the leg with a wire hook, wring its neck, dip it in boiling water to loosen the feathers, pluck it, dress it, and finally cook it for supper; they just went to the drive-in.)
This 20-year transformation did not happen all over the country. By 1940, the majority of the 6 million farmers did not yet have a tractor or electricity. The Zumpfs were on the frontier of change.
The forces that brought that change have stayed the same to the present: advances in science and technology, competition for land, a chronic cost-price squeeze, the time of entry into farming (harder for each successive generation), a patchwork of federal programs, and the ability of individual farmers.
Combined, these forces have produced ever bigger and fewer farms. By 1978, only 200,000 farms produced two-thirds of all America's crops; a mere 50,000 of these earned over 35 percent of the total cash receipts for farmers.
Computerized farm management, $100,000 air-conditioned combines, advances in plant genetics, cloning, nitrogen fixation, no-till herbicide farming, drip irrigation - technology continues to advance. Not only family farmers like the Zumpfs, but farmers in general, are going to be an ever-shrinking group in the 1980s and '90s.
Nobody seems to want this to happen. Since 1933, the United States has spent billions on price supports, credit, conservation payments, and disaster relief. The total for these came to $15.4 billion last year and could reach $18 billion this year if President Reagan's plan to pay farmers in surplus grain fails to result in less output.
The trend toward an ever-smaller minority of farmers continued during the 1970s despite - for the first time in more than 160 years - a higher rural than urban population growth. This re-ruralization of the country, however, like the suburban movement of the '50s, has more to do with social desire than economic opportunity.
A younger generation is drawn to rural areas that never knew the difficult, dirty work experienced by a farming family like the Zumpfs in the pre-1940 days. Yet it was this life that produced the traditions of America's post-frontier rural society: small, churchgoing communities; large families; forceful fathers; and children who grew up self-reliant by performing chores from toddlerhood, all in an atmosphere of gossipy neighborliness.
Without the old economic basis, such a society cannot be recaptured. As a woman in her 70s in Iowa put it, after relating that young families had moved into her community but failed to take an active role in the church and school, ''It's become a village of strangers.''
The old society also worked because there was no alternative. When the writer was a boy in the 1930s, and his father was a country doctor in Fessenden, it was already too late to observe the old ways. But an older brother recalls North Dakota summers working with big threshing crews, handling horses, and pitching bundles.
He said: ''Most of the crew were second- or third-generation farmers. We might see a Model T going by on the road and wonder where it was going. But we expected to be doing the same work the rest of our lives. None of us knew there was any other world. How would we know?'
Alvin Mohr, a Fessenden banker, described the long history of local farm families selling out, especially during the depression. A few who survived had grown rich as farms grew bigger and land values inflated. ''You get 4,000-, 5, 000-, 6,000-acre farms here today,'' he said.
Almost everybody in Fessenden's older generation seemed to be trying to reconcile modern agriculture with what it had done to rural society. ''We're the last generation that can really hope to have it better than our parents,'' Chester Zumpf said. ''All this beautiful new equipment. It's too big. The farms are too big. Somehow we've got to reverse the trend toward bigness.''
Another old-timer who still farms 1,200 acres himself, explains: ''There's farms around here with thousands and thousands of acres. One man owns almost a whole township. He hires men to operate his machines. That's not farming. It's greed.''
Where the Zumpfs' farm used to be, one sees many abandoned houses and farms. With such vanished communities have gone schools and churches, like the Lutheran Church Chester Zumpf described as ''the foundation and cornerstone of our family's way of life.''