This blog post is part of a series I (Richard) am writing about my past life experiences that helped develop a love and appreciation for agricultural heritage in general and landrace grains in particular. The series is called "Sickles and Sheaves - Farming, Faith, and the Frye" and you can view the other parts of this blog series here.
Palouse Harvest Memories
When I once asked Grandpa Scheuerman for explanation of harvest operations in bygone days, he retrieved his leather-cased sack-sewing needle—still razor sharp after many years in retirement, and an old photograph from his bedroom closet. The image (shown below) was labelled “Lautenschlager and Poffenroth, 1911”—surnames of familiar relatives, and I instantly recognized Grandpa standing under the wooden derrick clasping the handle of a pitch-fork. He then patiently described the role of each member of the substantial crew and introduced me to terms like derrick table, header-tender, hoe-down, and other agrarian vernacular from the steam-powered threshing era. Many farm families treasure such pictures today, and I have unrolled many that stretch as wide as a kitchen table. Grandpa delighted in relating tall tales of bygone August “thrashin’ weather” happenings—when the Moore brothers threshed a thousand sacks of grain in a single day the same harvest season R. R. Hutchison took that picture, the bumper crops of 1908-1911, and how Black field hand Otis Banks could lift a 120-pound sack of wheat with his teeth.
Among the few books I recall in my grandfather’s home were a Bible and ancient three-volume New Testament commentary in German, while our father’s most frequented volume may have been the weighty and exceedingly smudged parts manual to our dilapidated International-Harvester Model 160 pull-combine. I felt a bit embarrassed in a day of efficient self-propelled machines operating in every direction that in the 1960s we still resorted to an exceedingly faded red Rube Goldberg contraption of sprockets, pulleys, and straw walkers that Dad patiently guided through the seas of wheat during our annual month-long harvest. But the good feeling of accomplishment swept across all the crew with the cutting of the final swath that vanquished any boyhood unease over lost grain, equipment collisions, or other mistakes in the field. “No one should be deprived of harvesting,” artist-folklorist Eric Sloan observed in his illustrated 1971 rural memoir, I Remember America. “Beyond the value of feeling the fruition of nature all about you, there is the satisfaction of beholding the results of your own efforts.”
Like most boys in wheat country, my brother and I started driving truck in the harvest field on teen farm permits that legalized our trips throughout the day to the Endicott and Thera elevators to unload grain loaded into our faded red and blue ’56 Chevy truck and older black Ford. The obligation came with explicit warnings about harvest time dangers—field fires, equipment collisions, and tragic combine tip-overs on steep Palouse hillsides that claimed the lives of more than one boyhood acquaintance. While periodic visits to the field by friends and relatives provided welcome breaks in the daily routine of waiting for the several “dumps” needed to fill a truck, considerable time for other pursuits is available when waiting alone in a draw of stifling heat or on a breezy hilltop. Perhaps our mother’s example had led us to be readers of paperbacks available on a large revolving rack at the local drugstore. While my brother was attracted to Ian Fleming spy thrillers, I found myself introduced to new worlds of former experience through historical fiction.
The Galilean archaeological dig in James Michener’s The Source (1965)—a thick book I thought would last all summer, acquainted me with Stone Age wadi life in the fictional village of Makor where the Ur family matriarch comprehends the value of planting grains for self-sufficiency while the men travel widely to hunt. Having grown up hearing many tales of our Norwegian-born Sunwold great-grandparents on the Dakota frontier, I was also incredibly captivated by Ole Rølvaag’s stirring and often disturbing scenes in Giants in the Earth (1927) in which Per Hansa and his wife, Beret, struggling against storms, locust plagues, despairing homesickness, and the mystical universe of Old World thought. The Hansas, in turn, led me to meet Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson in a subsequent summertime encounter with Vilhelm Moberg’s magisterial four-volume Emigrant Series (1949-1959). The books dramatize the 1850s Swedish farmer immigrant saga of home building and barn raising, and planting and harvesting in Minnesota Territory. Experiences described on many pages reminded me of family tales my grandfather often spun about Palouse “sod-bustin” days as he rode in the harvest truck with us to see the hills of his youth—
“He liked to sit at the window and look out at his fields; this was the land he had changed. When he came the whole meadow had been covered with weeds and wild grass. Now it produced rye, wheat, oats, corn, potatoes, turnips. The wild grass had fed elk, deer, and rabbits; now the field yielded so much there was enough for them as well as for other people.”