University Museums

Title: Breaking the Prairie Sod
Name: Mural (three panels)
Date: 1936-1937
Period: American Regionalism
Medium: Oil on canvas
Country/Culture: American
Dimensions: Side Panels: 132 x 108 in. (335.3 x 274.3 cm) Center: 132 x 276 in. (335.3 x 701 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Commissioned by Iowa State College as a joint project of the federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) and Iowa State College for the Iowa State Library. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Location: Iowa State University, Parks Library, 1st Floor
Object Number: U88.68abc
More Information
Designed by Grant Wood and painted by students under his direction, "Breaking the Prairie" is an important example of the regionalist movement in American art. Grant Wood, an Iowa native and a regionalist leader, became known for painting scenes of rural midwestern America. Images, like those in Breaking the Prairie, are common in Wood's art, depicting rural and simple people heroically struggling with nature to produce the nation's harvest.

"Breaking the Prairie" was created as part of Iowa's Works Progress Administration, a federal government program during the Great Depression. Its mythic scene depicts a rural paradise devoid of personal hardship and economic peril, a fitting theme for the concept of the government-sponsored arts program. Although the clothing, farm implements, livestock and prairie flowers are historically and scientifically accurate, the overall theme is romanticized through certain stylized images. The plowed sod appears as plush as carpet, and neither man nor beast perspires despite the grueling work of farming the prairie.

The center panel tells the story of the settlement of Iowa in the 1840s, which began with turning the prairie soil (background) followed by planting crops (foreground). The mural also is a tribute to the founding of the land-grant colleges, including Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm in 1858. In the side panels, two muscular men who sharply resemble Abraham Lincoln chop trees, clearing the fields. The Lincolnesque figures, each with an ax, represent expansion, not only of the nation's land holdings and settlements, but also of the mind. They impart a message that education, hard work and moral courage are the honest ways to a better life. In addition, Lincoln played a vital role in the development of land-grant colleges like Iowa State when he signed the Morrill Act, establishing federal funds for the purchase of land in each state for an institution of higher learning. Iowa was the first state to accept the provisions of the law and awarded the funds to Iowa State Agriculture College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University), making it the first land-grant institution in the United States.

Breaking the Sod
The mural “Breaking the Sod” is permanently installed in the lower lobby of the Parks Library. It narratively tells many stories about the settlement of Iowa, establishment of Iowa State College and Model Farm, and a hard work ethic and the importance of education.
Historically human civilizations emerged immediately followed by the development of agriculture. In the 19th Century the settlement and development of agriculture in the Midwest brought about cultured society, including the founding of a college on the prairie in Iowa.
Conditions of the prairie influenced human settlement, and in central Iowa cultivation of fields were relatively easy because there were few trees. Following the initial year of tilling the prairie sod, the farmer could plant and harvest successful crops. The mural depicts two time periods, the 1860s and the 1870s. The first tilling of central Iowa’s prairies occurred in the 1860s and the required ten oxen and two men, as depicted in the mural’s background. By the 1870s the use of a revolutionary steel blade plow, which more easily sliced the ground, and required only three horses and one person. This reduction in human labor, time and animals allowed settling families to send their children to college, and learn practical arts that would lead to a better life. The Iowa State College and Model Farm appeared on the Iowa Landscape, and through its higher education, people continue to affect and influence the survival, growth and development of built and natural environments.

Published References: Messenger-Chronicle. Fort Dodge, Iowa. June 17, 1937. Delong, Lea Rosson. "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals" (University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa)