Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 3)

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.


Like young people in many rural areas, I spent considerable time among community elders and while still in high school decided to interview all first-generation immigrants living in our vicinity who had been raised in our ancestral Volga German village of Yágodnaya Polyána (Berry Meadow). This mission led to dozens of visits, usually in the company of Grandpa Scheuerman or my heritage-minded aunt, his daughter Evelyn Reich. She was our indefatigable family genealogist and provided essential service in what I later learned from social anthropologists was the special role of “folk broker.” In this way I was able to start listening and recording a fascinating series of oral histories and other memoirs about life in another dimension inhabited by field spirits and dire wolves, braucheri (folk doctors) and hexeri (spell-casters). My special interest came to be life an dem Khutor (“in the country”) where villagers sometimes lived for weeks on the open steppe miles away from Yágodnaya to tend fields, range livestock, and harvest their crops.

I sometimes attended early morning German language services at Trinity Lutheran in Endicott with Grandpa, and remember him visiting afterward once with his old neighbor on the farm Conrad Blumenschein in their peculiar Hessian brogue about the unusually dry summer. A stately, powerfully-built fellow who always dressed for church in a double-breasted blue suit, Conrad had emigrated in 1913, so had been old enough to thoroughly experience the Old World seasonal farming cycle. That Sunday I heard him tell how in the Old Country they feared times of drought and the dreaded Hohenrauch (“High Smoke”). This withering wind sometimes mysteriously arose from the Caspian and could reduce a ripening grain crop to tiny, shrunken kernels in just a few hours. “The Russian peasants would fall on the ground and pray for rain,” Conrad said. I asked if it did any good. “Ach,” he smiled kindly, “das Gebet kann nur hölfen.” (“Well, prayer can only help.”)

 Above: Lautenschlager and Poffenroth Threshing Outfit near Endicott (1911), R. R. Hutchison Photograph Below: St. John Harvest Carnival (1913), Whitman County Library Heritage Collection, Colfax, Washington

Above: Lautenschlager and Poffenroth Threshing Outfit near Endicott (1911), R. R. Hutchison Photograph Below: St. John Harvest Carnival (1913), Whitman County Library Heritage Collection, Colfax, Washington

On a visit to see Conrad at his tidy St. John home in May, 1980, I asked about his farming recollections as a young man in Eastern Europe, which included his vivid memories of the Volga harvest and hints of Ilya Repin’s famous painting The Barge-Haulers and familiar eh-eh-ýkh-nyem (“heave-heave-ho”) dirge of The Volga Boatman:

“Harvest began the last of June and early July. Sometimes folks ran out of bread by then so cut several bundles to dry and get 40 to 100 pounds of rye to get by. In July rye was pulled up to aerate in rows, two to three weeks of drying, then hauled home to a threshing yard on the outskirts of town. Four to six men flailed the bundles, one side at a time. Then the bundles were cut open. The ground had been trampled hard by the horses and watered down. Others lift the bundles with forks while others flail and stack it for the horses and cattle. Those who didn’t have granaries often flailed bundles on the ice in the yard during winter. Fanning mills were then used after flailing, a pile of grain put in to clean it and wheat runs out on canvas then shoveled into hundred pound sacks.”

“...In early August wheat harvest began and was done differently. We put tents up where there were no buildings an dem Khutor. ...Cut [the grain] with a sickle and bundled, then bundles opened and spread into a big circle, about 100 to 200 bundles. Then [it was] trampled out with horses and wagons, left alone in the middle, then with a pole go all around the ring and turn it over to shake the wheat [kernels] out. Then repeat with the horses. The women shake the stalks and rake it out on a pile. The chaff and wheat are piled into the center of the ring, 200 to 300 bushels. Then it is run through a fanning mill and deposited again on a big canvas or bagged. Sometimes wheat was taken to the Volga River and loaded by hand onto boats which were stranded in the river because of low summer flow, but that’s where the buyers were.”