Adapted from a novel by Walter D. Edmonds and a play by Marc Connelly, a young man who wants to be a farmer falls in love with a cook who wants to stay on the Erie Canal.
Fortune Friendly (Slim Summerville) uses a map to show Della (Jane Withers) how goods are shipped from Europe through the Erie Canal to the west and back. Fortune is going to pull a tooth from Ivy whom Elmer Otway (Andy Devine) is getting drunk. At a bar Fortune and Sam Weaver (Roger Imhof) talk about the coming of the railroads. Men come in and sing about the Erie Canal.
Molly Larkins (Janet Gaynor) and Jotham Klore (Charles Bickford) on a boat in the Erie Canal watch two old men fighting in a street. When one man is down, Dan Harrow (Henry Fonda) intervenes to stop the fight. Jotham quarrels with another boatman about a landing place. Jotham pushes the man in the water and is told he can’t swim. Jotham jumps in to rescue him. Dan asks about Molly.
Fortune tells Elmer he pulled the wrong tooth. Outside Molly tells Jotham to change his wet clothes so they can go shopping. Elmer asks for a load for his boat and tells the Freight Agent Fisher he cleaned his boat of the smell of hogs. Ivy says her mouth feels empty. Fortune charges Elmer two dollars, but Molly settles the dispute by saying he should pay one dollar for pulling the wrong truth. Jotham tells Molly he is not going to eat her dinner. He tells her not to give him orders in front of others.
Molly gets angry and tells Sam who calms her down. Sam asks if she is going to marry Jotham, and she says she is no longer sure. Sam asks Molly to detain Dan for him. Dan comes in and asks for Sam. She tells him to wait. They are pleased to meet each other. He heard she is the best cook. She says she works for $12 a month. Dan knows she works for Jotham. She asks him why he stopped the fight. He does not relish fights. He is not sure he will like the canal, and she gets upset. Dan wants to buy a farm and admires cows. She loves the canal the way he loves a farm. She likes traveling on the canal and hopes the canal will grow on him. Sam comes in and says he knew Dan’s father. Sam hires Dan, who hopes to see Molly again.
Jotham tells her he changed his mind. He says he is going west to Rochester. Jotham goes into the office and gets the wheat load for Rochester, taking it away from another man. On the street Fortune sells Sam a ticket to the Ohio for one dollar. Dan tells Molly he hopes to see her on the river, but she is going to Rochester.
Jotham and Molly have nearly finished their circuit on the canals. They and Fortune see Junius Brutus Boothe, a Shakespearean actor. Jotham shows them a newspaper with a picture of Abraham Lincoln.
In the evening Molly suggests they tie off by Sam’s boat. She tells Jotham not to drink too much and stays on the boat. She brushes her hair and plays a music box, looking out the window at the other boat.
On a foggy morning Dan makes noise that wakes up Molly. She gets dressed. Dan advises a blacksmith about the hoof of his horse. Elmer tells Molly that Jotham drank more than anyone ever on the canal. Dan talks to Molly about farming, and she gets mad. He says he has been thinking about her. She asks if they have a cook yet. Dan says he can cook steak. They talk about the flowers, and he suggests she make wine. Drunk Jotham is staggering and singing. Molly introduces Dan to him. Molly says he is drunk and broke the record. Jotham says he does not like Dan. Jotham says she tied up there because of Sam’s boat. He orders her to get on the boat, but instead she orders him. Jotham obeys. Dan asks if she knew it was his boat. He suggests she work for Sam as a cook. She goes to make breakfast for Jotham. Dan says he may take a job working on a farm.
Molly tells Jotham to sleep in his own cabin, and she offers him eggs. Molly comes off the boat angrily and tells Dan and Lucy Gurget (Margaret Hamilton) she is quitting Jotham. Dan hopes she will cook on his boat. She agrees and urges Dan to stay with Sam. Dan says they are building railroads all over. She hopes good canal cooking will make him feel differently. She goes to get her things.
People parade and sing, “Buffalo gal, won’t you come out tonight.” Sam gets out of a carriage and tells Dan he won $5,000 in the Ohio state lottery, and he makes Dan half owner of his boat. Sam suggests he can buy a farm at the end of the year. Dan runs over to Molly and asks her to marry him. She says she likes him. Dan says he owns half the boat but wants to buy a farm. She asks if he might stay on the canal. She is not ready to marry yet. She suggests they promise not to talk about farming or the canal. Fortune is in shock because he sold the winning lottery ticket to Sam.
Dan and Molly are ready to go on Sam’s boat. Sam sees Jotham drinking water on his boat. Sam, Lucy, and Elmer expect Jotham to get angry. Jotham asks Elmer where Molly is, and Lucy says she quit. Sam alerts the agent that Jotham is coming to find out where Molly went. Jotham goes in the office, and windows break.
Dan and Molly find the canal peaceful. Jotham is being restrained and will have to spend ninety days in jail. Dan and Molly see people in covered wagons going west. Dan says some are going to California. He says they will have to work hard. People in the wagons sing about Scotland.
Three months later Fortune talks to Molly, who says she is in love with Dan. Lucy tells Molly she is going to the fair before her. Jotham is out of jail and is on the canal. He smells the hogs on Elmer’s boat and passes him. Lucy takes what Molly made to the fair for her.
On a horse Molly tells Fortune she does not like hauling rails for the railroads. She thinks Dan is getting to like the canal. Dan and Molly walk in the country and talk. They are both happy. He says he made more money, and they can get married. She assumes he won’t want to leave the canal. She apologizes for breaking her promise. He suggests they not talk about getting married. He says the soil smells sweet. Soil brings life. She says he is talking about a farm.
Fortune is practicing taking out teeth, and Molly made a cake. Dan brings her a large mirror. Dan admires the cake, and Molly says they are taking it to the fair. Dan likes Molly’s dress. Molly asks Fortune to tell about the fair when the Erie Canal opened. He describes the fair in 1828. Dan talks about the cattle at the fair. He says Vanderbilt will make a speech, and she calls him a railroad man. Molly sees books on California and farming. Dan sees Indians arriving on horseback. Dan and Molly go to talk to them. The chief says they are going to make a new treaty in Washington.
Elmer buys a bottle of cologne. Lucy asks what Elmer has on and says she would rather smell hogs. A fortune-teller tells Jotham that he is going to be in a terrible fight. Jotham gets angry and refuses to pay. He goes out and says he wants to find Dan.
Lucy tells Molly that she did not win the contest. Butterfield tells Dan that he will see him in Utica. Dan tells Molly they need to leave now for Utica. She asks if Jotham is there.
Jotham throws stones through the windows of a railway car, and other men do the same. Jotham is told where Dan is.
In the boat Molly asks Dan if he is scared of Jotham. She says he is a coward because he is running away. He says he needs to be in Utica because he bought a farm. She says he never gave the canal a chance. She says he can’t play fair; he bought things for the farm. She will never marry him now. He wants to show her the farm. She says he lied to her by saying one thing and thinking another. He says she can go back to Jotham. He gives his half of the boat to her. He is leaving and packs. He says times have changed because trains go four times as fast as boats on canals. He leaves with a carpetbag and hears the train whistle. After Dan is gone, Jotham arrives and asks Molly where Dan is.
On a farm Dan milks a cow.
Fortune tells Molly that her pies smell good. She says she was in love with a coward. She says she is not unhappy over him. She is tuckered out. Fortune says he is going on a trip for business.
Dan is plowing and sees Fortune arriving in a buggy. Dan says he hoped it was Molly. Fortune says she is worried. He says people will not speak to her because they don’t like anyone who worked for a coward. Fortune says Jotham is the only one who pays attention to her. Dan learns they are in Rome and says he will be in Rome to buy horses.
Men sing, “We’ll be working on the railroad.” Sam tells Molly they are going to work on the railroad. Jotham questions Molly and invites her to come back to his boat. He wants her to invite him for dinner and tells her to expect him.
Sam gives a speech against the railroads. Dan boards a boat and calls for Sam. Molly answers, and he asks how she has been getting along with the canalers. She says no one has been insulting her. He wishes she was on his farm with him. He asks her to come for the winter. She could not go with a man she does not respect because he ran away. Dan is going to fight Jotham. Molly does not want him to fight him.
Sam tells Jotham that it is going to be a fair fight, or he will use his club. Dan walks, and Molly tries to hold him back. Dan and Jotham meet in the middle of a crowd. They fight with their fists. Lucy takes Molly aside. Others hear of the fight and run over there. Jotham and Dan knock each other down. Dan knocks Jotham into the canal, and Lucy says it is over. Fortune won a bet on Dan. Jotham says a better man licked him.
Dan asks Molly to go back to the farm with him. Molly says he will be famous around the canal now. He is disappointed that she does not want to come back with him, and he says goodbye.
Dan is plowing. He sees Molly has arrived with a bag. She asks if that is his farm. She asks him where his kitchen is.
This romantic story portrays the Erie Canal in the 1850s when railroads are becoming more important than canals. Two people like each other but have to resolve the difference in the careers they want.