Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 2)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


The setting of Grey’s novel blends both actual places of the Columbia Plateau like Spokane, Connell, and Kahlotus, with fictitious communities that include sufficient geographical description to suggest likely locations—Ruxton in Golden (Walla Walla) Valley, Neppel (Moses Lake), and Glencoe (Pasco). Grey also references the work of notable agriculturalists like Frederick D. Heald at the State Agricultural College (present-day WSU) and Experiment Station in Pullman. Grey’s original version, now in the Library of Congress, also mentioned the communities of Ritzville, Odessa, and Marlin. Subsequent insight by local historians regarding the book’s principal families also shed interesting light on the influence of particular individuals and farms. Grey is known to have visited areas in Franklin,  Adams, and Whitman Counties in 1917, and comparison of the writer’s itinerary with the Dorns’ and Andersons’ various travels in the book suggest composite figures drawn from families in the vicinity of Wheeler, Connell, Hooper, and Walla Walla.

The Anderson-Owsley House and Farm Today

The Anderson-Owsley House and Farm Today

Much of the book’s action takes place at the Anderson-Dorn farm, a place of Grey’s imagination but likely modeled in part on a ranch owned in 1917 by R. F. Anderson and located approximately nine miles south of Connell. The property was later owned by the Kenneth Owsley family. Connell had been platted in 1883 as “Palouse Junction” for a spur of the main Northern Pacific transcontinental line that tapped the fertile Palouse Hills grain district to the east. Later named Connell for a railroad official and pioneer resident, the town had long served as an important grain storage and transfer point with substantial timbered flathouses along the rail line for storing sacked grain, a thriving main street business district, and local newspaper, the Connell Tribune-Register.

The tableland surrounding the Anderson farm presented Grey with a stunning vista with Oregon’s Blue Mountains to the east and flaming sunsets beyond the grass- and sage-covered Horse Heaven and Frenchman Hills rising in the west. The farmstead included a two-story main house that remains on the site and substantially conforms to Grey’s description of the Dorn home, numerous outbuildings, crenelated water tower and windmill, and a 60´ x 110´ barn that enormous even by Big Bend standards. The property was situated along the area’s principal north-south “Central Washington Road” and had served in earlier days as a way-station for stage coaches who tended and exchanged teams of horses in the large barn.

Pat Boyer, “E. T. Thompson Threshing Outfit” Mural, City of Connell, Washington

Pat Boyer, “E. T. Thompson Threshing Outfit” Mural, City of Connell, Washington

According to local tradition, Grey stayed at the Anderson place in mid-July to visit with area farmers and experience harvest field labors firsthand. During the time of his visit to the area, the Tribune-Register reported on the commencement of field operations: “Harvest has begun already and will be in full swing here by the middle of next week. While the hot, dry weather has interfered somewhat with the later grain crop, the fields which matured earlier are in splendid condition and promise a good yield” (July 20, 1917). Ezra Thompson farmed land adjacent to the Anderson spread  in 1917 and a photograph of his horse-pulled combine taken in the Twenties shows the kind of threshing equipment Grey described in the novel. The picture was recently transformed into a colorful City of Connell building mural by Pullman artist Pat Boyer.

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 1)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


For many years I kept a copy of Zane Grey’s novel, The Desert of Wheat (1919), on my bookshelf. I confess it was mostly there because the title had piqued my hope that the famed Western author might have once turned his attention away from Southwestern cowboys to farmers in the Northwest. A few pages into the book confirmed its setting to be on the Columbia Plateau. But encounters on its opening pages with “motor-cars” and labor organizers led me to set it aside in favor of what I thought might be more interesting reads. Only in recent weeks did I return to the book after realizing that Grey had composed it amidst the convolutions of American involvement in World War one hundred years ago. So I pulled it off the shelf again and this time found myself immersed transported through compelling prose to a remarkable time that I found had high relevance to many issues of our present day.

Best-selling author and conservationist Zane Grey (1872-1939) is considered the father of the modern Western novel. He wrote eighty books with nine selling over 100,000 copies in their year of initial publication, including the quintessential Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) which became a million-seller. Even today sales of his many works typically reach 500,000 copies annually. Grey’s novels and some 300 short stories were known for idealizing the American frontier spirit with archetypal characters inhabiting moral landscapes who exemplified the Code of the West—integrity, friendship, loyalty. British poet John Masefield and Ernest Hemingway considered his writing praiseworthy and others compared allegorical storylines laden with struggle and mystery to the ancient Beowulf saga and Star Wars science fiction trilogy. Though some critics found Grey’s plots to be formulaic, several of his works ventured beyond worlds inhabited by cowboys and desperados to explore contemporary issues, and human influence on landscapes.

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Grey and his wife, Dolly, journeyed from their home in Pennsylvania to the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1917 and traveled through eastern Washington in July. That same tumultuous month Alexander Kerensky was named premier of the Russian provisional government after revolutionaries toppled the Romanov monarchy, and a major German World War I counter-offensive commenced on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Grey closely followed world events through newspaper reports sought to incorporate their impact on American national life into his writing. He had been encouraged by The Country Gentleman editor Benton Currie to compose an agrarian-themed story for serialization the following year.

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

While attending a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in July at Spokane’s opulent Davenport Hotel, Grey and A. Duncan Dunn, regent of the state’s agricultural school in Pullman, discussed the plight of the region’s farmers since Northwest grain markets and labor unrest seemed highly related to unfolding international events. Inspired in part by events in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) sought to organize itinerant harvest laborers throughout the wheatlands in order to hold out for raises from two to three dollars for a customary ten-hour day of intense physical labor tending the annual threshing operations. The Wobblies were strongly opposed by farmers on economic grounds, and many throughout the country considered their socialist leanings a threat the moral and political order. The inland Pacific Northwest was also heavily populated by immigrant farmers of German ancestry from central Europe and Russia. Grey’s story would also explore the tensions within families and communities created by complex relationships between heritage and nationalism.

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Grey’s “The Desert of Wheat” would first appear in several installments of The Country Gentleman in the spring of 1918, and Harper’s published the first of numerous printings in book form in 1919.  His earlier works had been known for vivid descriptions of action and environment, as well as respectful inclusion of Native Americans and minority cultures. This new work appealed to both reviewers and the general public, and opened with lines inspired by his summertime journey across the Columbia Plateau’s vast farming district:  “Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills…. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth.”

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Through dialogue about Bluestem and Turkey Red wheats and rattling threshers under the hot harvest sun, the story lauds the hard work and struggles of taciturn Kurt Dorn, son of an elderly German immigrant farmer. Young Dorn faces drought, blight, and the elements in order to support his father, and experiences World War I prejudice and rural labor strife. Although Grey’s characters are not typically prone to mystical reflection, Dorn and protagonist love interest, Lenore Anderson, ponder the significance of change in their own relationship, his  enlistment and brutal experience of European battle, and deeper meanings of wartime damage to culture and conviction. As do few other books in Grey’s considerable corpus, The Desert of Wheat exemplifies his lifelong compulsion to express “Love of life, love of youth, [and] love of beauty.” Dorn and Anderson’s dialogue further attest to the wastefulness of war and Grey’s own ambivalence over conceptions of patriotism and heroism. Literary historian Christine Bold characterizes Lenore Anderson as the personification of humanity’s spiritual core—a “Western version of Ceres,” and like waving heads of grain frequently described she symbolizes renewal amidst an odyssey of life, loss, and land.

Country-Style Breads (Part 3)

This post is the third and final of a three-part series focusing on delicious, wholesome bread recipes that feature our landrace grains. These recipes and many others are included in our newly released updated edition of the Harvest Home Cookbook, available here in both print and eBook versions.

Braided Sweets

The restoration of landrace grains and availability today of identity-specific variety flours also makes possible the customization of time-honored recipes to flavor and texture preferences with consideration of new techniques. At Palouse Heritage we have worked for years to foster “flavorful authenticity” by providing an array of nutritious pre-hybridized landrace grain flours like Crimson Turkey hard red wheat, Sonoran Gold soft white, Yellow Breton soft red, and Purple Egyptian barley. These and other grains arrived from Eurasia during the earliest years of North American colonization to make possible a incredible continental cornucopia.

Blue Hill Restaurant Palouse Heritage Breads, Rockefeller Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture; Tarrytown, New York

Blue Hill Restaurant Palouse Heritage Breads, Rockefeller Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture; Tarrytown, New York

Ancestral country-bread styles handed down through the ages were not necessarily meant to be unchangeable, fixed lists of ingredients and directions. Now in her hundredth year, spirited Vera Grove Rudd is the eldest member of our extended clan. She was raised at our Palouse Colony Farm and vividly recalls joining her mother to gather hops that grew profusely along the river in order to make a sourdough starter from the naturally occurring yeast that grew on the cones. I have recently learned that this practice was a folk remnant of common practice in medieval times. The hops still grow at the farm in abundance, but times change and Vera came to use store-bought active dry yeast for her country-style breads. As times change so can baking methods and availability of healthy ingredients. Rather like Van Gogh at work on his glowing harvest canvases or Thomas Hart Benton painting Midwest threshing scenes, distinct grain flours serve like paints to enable artisan bakers at home or elsewhere to follow long favored ways, as well as make marvelously new variations.

Although country-style breads have generally been made without eggs, dried fruit, or baked vegetables, these ingredients have long been included by experienced home cooks for special holiday breads. The following recipe from our extended family’s hundred-year-old matriarch, “Miss Vera,” brings to mind her stories of enjoying it every Friday evening when she was a girl living on the family’s Palouse River farm. Recipes like this were popular submission to the many school PTA, church, and social organizations loosely bound cookbook fundraisers. She noted that her mother gathered hop cones every summer for yeast that imparted a unique and wonderful flavor.


Braided Sweet Bread

  • 4 cups Palouse Heritage Crimson Turkey Flour
  • 3 ½ cups Palouse Heritage Sonoran Gold flour
  • ½ cup lukewarm water
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1 ½ cups lukewarm milk
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • ¼ cup soft butter
  • 2 ½ tablespoons shortening
  • crushed walnuts optional

 

Dissolve yeast in mixing bowl with ½ cup of water. Stir in milk, sugar, and salt. Add eggs, shortening, and half the blended flour. Stir with a spoon, add the rest of the flour, and mix by hand. Turn onto lightly floured board. Knead about 5 minutes until smooth and roll around in a greased bowl. Cover with damp cloth and let rise in a warm place 1 ½ to 2 hours until double in bulk. Punch down, round up, let rise again about 30 minutes until almost a double in volume. Divide dough into 6 parts, making six 14-inch long rolls. Braid 3 rolls loosely, fastening ends. Repeat for second braid. Place on 2 greased baking sheets, and cover with a damp cloth. Let rise 50-60 minutes until almost double in bulk. Heat oven to 425°. Brush braids with glaze of egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of water. May sprinkle with crushed walnuts. Bake 30-35 minutes.

A Mystic Sheaf and the Origins of Farming

Harvest season back home in the Palouse Hills often brings to mind bygone high school days. Trips from our Palouse Colony Farm to nearby Endicott lead past the school where I attended all twelve years, and where I served as principal in the 1990s. One of the great privileges of my education career was to return as a colleague with Mrs. Louise Braun, who had been my high school English teachers. She was a woman of capacious mind with expectations that students read and appreciate Shakespeare and Robert Frost with the same enthusiasm shown for sporting events. A native of tiny Viola in the Idaho-Washington Palouse borderlands, Mrs. Braun guided our uncharted literary journeys across time and place with the peculiar incentive—highly controversial among faculty and parents, that once a week we could spend class time reading Farm Journal, Field & Stream, or any other periodical of our own choosing. “Reading is the main thing,” she would say in the context of expanding young minds. 

SuaronDefeated.jpg

To my mind, our most formidable high school read was the epic poem Beowulf through which we battled for many days to make sense of alliterative Old English expressions that related ancient Scandinavian lore. This was a time before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had ushered in a resurgence of interest in classical fantasy literature. Mrs. Braun’s reminder that many of us had descended from these tribal peoples provided modest encouragement to continue our study of this oldest English long poem. The poem’s opening lines in Lesslie Hall’s modern translation, however, invoked intriguing agrarian reference:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.

Queries about Old English “Scyld the Scefing,” which may be translated “Shield Sheafson” or “Scyld of the Sheaf,” provided an remarkable glimpse into mystical realms also described by Tolkien in his legendarium of Middle-earth. The namesakes of the eponymous Scyldings’ (Sköldings) Danish royal house founder in Beowulf are associated with the crucial roles as historical protector of the people (Shield) and as agri-cultural hero (Sheaf). In the mythic past he arrived as a foundling from the west who washed up in a boat on the shore of Jutland’s Old Anglia. The golden child’s head rested on a pillow of grain stalks, and he would grow into a strong and wise ruler who was the ancestor of Beowulf. Like a medieval Triptolemus, Scyld also taught his adopted people the first principles of farming and husbandry. Tolkien further explored aspects this legendary figure who is also mentioned in lesser known works of Old English literature like William Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (“Deeds of the English Kings,” 1125) and the eighth century Historia Langobardorum (“History of the Lombards”). Tolkien’s imaginative rendition drawn from these several accounts is beautifully expressed in the poem “King Sheave,” published posthumously with “The Notion Club Papers” in Sauron Defeated (1992): 

In golden vessel gleaming water
Stood beside him; strung with silver
A harp of gold neath his hand rested;
His sleeping head was soft pillowed
On a sheaf of corn shimmering palely
As the fallow gold doth from far countries
West of Angol. Wonder filled them. 

Tolkien’s telling, the boy ascended a hill and sang a song of “sweet, unearthly, words in music woven strangely.” His hearers marveled at sounds miraculously dispelling the darkness and terror that had long gripped the region. From “King Sheave” descended many sons and their nations—Danes and Goths, Swedes and Northmen, Franks and Frisians, Swordmen and Saxons, Swabians and English. In the magnificent Scandinavian epic of Beowulf, Tolkien found a magisterial Anglo-Saxon antecedent of mythic grain king and culture hero skillfully interwoven with dynastic history to form an English national identity.
 

Country-Style Breads (Part 2)

This post is the first of a three-part series focusing on delicious, wholesome bread recipes that feature our landrace grains. These recipes and many others are included in our newly released updated edition of the Harvest Home Cookbook, available here in both print and eBook versions.

Country Whole Wheat

Multigrain rustic breads contain ingredients unique to some cultures. Our ancestors’ Old Country Slavic neighbors often added small amounts of coffee and molasses to their round loaves of mouth-watering Russian rye-wheat Chyorni Khleb (Black Bread). Oblong boules of the Jewish mainstay Corn Rye Bread (Kornbroyt) can be enlivened by including a small quantity of dark beer in the recipe. Early American “thirded” breads brought together the auspicious prospects of wheat flour and cornmeal combined with a third grain flour—often from milled oats or barley. Non-gluten ingredients like buckwheat flour and hazelnut meal have also been creatively used in these ways.

Harvesting Crimson Turkey Wheat (2017), Palouse Colony Farm; Endicott, Washington

Harvesting Crimson Turkey Wheat (2017), Palouse Colony Farm; Endicott, Washington

Legendary baker-chef Shaun Thompson-Duffy of Spokane’s Culture Breads points out that the range of family traditions and methods makes for an endless variety of bread possibilities with deeper flavors. He finds burgeoning interest among consumers to find out “what real bread has long been.” Shaun points out that you need not be an experienced baker to bring these succulent staples to life. In fact, until the appearance of French manuals on baking in the 1770s, breadmaking skills were primarily passed along in families through observation and trial and error over a wood fire at home. Whether for special occasions or throughout the year, the “staff of life” has long been a chief function of the household and counted among life’s greatest blessings for feasting and fellowship by young and old alike.

Spokane Master Baker Shaun Thompson-Duffy’s Palouse Heritage Breads

Spokane Master Baker Shaun Thompson-Duffy’s Palouse Heritage Breads