Places & People

Gleaning’s Early Modern Revival

Through arrangements with the US Department of Agriculture made possible by my friend and fellow historian Alex McGregor of Colfax’s The McGregor Company, I was recently able to visit Washington, D. C. and document works of agrarian art in our national collections. Among many highlights was seeing the gritty paintings of 1930’s New Deal artists like Ben Shahn as well as classical European works. Among the most beautiful were paintings on exhibit in the National Gallery by Jean-Antoine Watteau who turned to prevailing art academy representations that emphasized the human form of workers rather than the conditions of their lives. Rembrandt van Rinj, Nicholas Poussin, and Bernard Fabritius also rendered the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz in exotic settings and costume with a sacred gravity far removed from the period’s gritty realities in rural Europe. Not until Enlightenment attitudes supplanted aristocratic sentiment were peasants more fully reintegrated with aspirations of the rising middle class through art and literature consistent with era’s ideals of fraternity, progress, and rights of the common man. Enlightenment literary attention to gleaning is also notable for its association with feminine aspects of harvest and the state’s professed benevolent concern for the destitute.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

Studies of customs and laws on gleaning challenge conventional interpretations that conflict over the poor’s harvest share arose with the emerging market economies of early modern Europe. But very few and obscure references to gleaning are found the late Roman period with the term virtually unknown in documents from the sixth century AD for the next six hundred years. References to the practice that emerge again in twelfth century English and French village by-laws regulate compensation of workers, describe limits to gleaning in village commons typically reserved as pasture, and are not explicitly associated with the poor. The raking of stalks missed by wielders of sickle and scythe had likely become one of the several steps embedded in the typical harvest cycle in which all able-bodied workers participated. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Ceres (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The dominant narrative has held that as private ownership of land and the enclosure movement weakened villagers’ traditional communal rights and the aristocratic great estates, capitalistic demands for productivity eroded moral commitments to the impoverished. But gleaning had become conventional harvest practice and had long since lost its distinct association with the indigent. Population increase since the seventeenth century and the growth of Europe’s cities created substantial numbers of landless poor. Rather than addressing the new realities with comprehensive interventions for public welfare, state officials variously enacted archaic gleaning laws that fomented conflict in the countryside instead of ameliorating needs of the dispossessed. Church leaders often invoked religious rhetoric to justify such government efforts by attempting to apply ancient Levitical imperatives and the story of Ruth to distinctly new economic realities emerging in Western Europe.

Agrarianism as Essential Discipline

Many folks will recognize the colorful flowing Great Depression farm art of Thomas Hart Benton. American regionalist painters like Benton and Marion Greenwood sought to portray the tensions of rural social and economic change wrought by the Great Depression and global farm commodity markets. Their British contemporaries included writers George Ewart Evans and Lady Francis Donaldson, and renowned artist-author Claire Leighton. Themes of sustaining values amidst economic dislocation were also subjects of the stirring 1930s harvest photography of Federal Security Administration photographers Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein.

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field  (c. 1958), From  Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher  (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field (c. 1958), From Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Rural change in the wake of world wars, the rise of consumerism, and environmental challenges have been explored more recently in essays and stories of conservationists like Russell Lord and Wallace Stegner. As founder of Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop, Stegner mentored a new generation of influential regionalist authors including Edward Abbey, Scott Momeday, and Wendell Berry. Traditional themes of deliverance drawn from the Bible have been expressed anew in such modern art as Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning the Grain (1960), Ben Shahn’s Wheatfield—Ecclesiastes (1967), and recent operatic works by Lennox Berkeley and James Niblock. One of the founding “mystic artists” of the abstract Northwest School, Mark Tobey (1890-1975) painted After the Harvest (1970) and The Harvest’s Gleanings (1975) with the small, overlapping brush strokes that suggest the Oriental influence of his spiritual beliefs.

The reciprocating influences of agrarian art and literature offer important understandings to this contrasting complex of cultural ideas involving fulfillment and struggles with rural labor, individual and cooperative endeavors, and the facts and fictions of life on the land and impacts of technology. Progressive change to promote well-being of the countryside and future generations can be unwisely limited by amnesia as well as nostalgia. Amnesia is forgetting about cultural legacies bequeathed by ancestors and society, while nostalgia appeals to life in some halcyon past often overlook very real challenges of such times. We remember places, mark lines and verses, and appropriate elders’ counsel for synergy and solidarity to foster human flourishing and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. For these reasons aesthetic understanding through agrarian art and literature remains an essential discipline. 

Most Flavorful Breads, Very Beautiful Implements

I was not surprised when famed culinary host Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s hit TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” selected Richland’s Ethos Bakery to feature for an upcoming episode. Ethos founders Angela Kora and Scott Newell manage one of our areas most popular eateries and one trip inside their attractive space offers proof through aroma and flavor of some of the finest breads, soups, and pastries available anywhere in the region. Small wonder Angela and Scott and their talented team were accorded such an accolade. We at Palouse Heritage were especially pleased because we have long been supplying Ethos with heritage grains like Crimson Turkey wheat and Purple Egyptian barley which they mill on site for the freshest baked products possible.

Ethos Bakery & Café Culinary Treasures; Richland, Washington

Ethos Bakery & Café Culinary Treasures; Richland, Washington

I first learned about Ethos after meeting Angela at one of the annual “Grain Gatherings” sponsored by Washington State University at their Mt. Vernon Research Center north of Seattle. These convocations draw participants from across the country while others hail from Europe and Australia. It used to be that use of agrarian folksayings, recounting tales of Old and New World seasonal farm labors, and harvest work songs were the obscure domain of cultural historians and ethnologists, but burgeoning interest in such topics is evident in sustainability and food sovereignty movements here and throughout the world. At a recent Grain Gathering session, groups toured test plots of heritage White and Red Lammas wheats, Scots Bere barley, and Lincoln oats, and learned about methods and marketability of artisan breads, craft brews, and other specialty food and beverage products. Even names of event sponsors suggest Old World associations—the Bread Baking Guild, King Arthur Flour, and Wood Stone, a custom builder of stone hearth ovens.

Conference presenters shared lines by the sixteenth century agrarian poet Thomas Tusser, and showcased a “Harvest Heritage” exhibit of art based on rural themes by plein air French Impressionists, American Realists, the Russian Itinerants. American folk art was represented in the once familiar Harvest Star quilt design and nineteenth century steel engravings of field workers wielding sickles. A notable modern depiction of this ancient tool is the sculpted stone bas-relief roundel carved by an unidentified New Deal era sculptor in 1941 for the Adams County Courthouse in Ritzville, Washington. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle in all its variations over time to be the most beautiful implement ever crafted.

Grain Sheaf Bas-relief (1941), Adams County Courthouse; Ritzville, Washington

Grain Sheaf Bas-relief (1941), Adams County Courthouse; Ritzville, Washington

Simple ancient depictions of sickle-bearing field workers gave way in a blended gradualism to medieval and early modern images of scythe-swinging harvesters. The social contract that had long governed and guided enduring social systems changed little until the nineteenth century. Inventions sparked by the Industrial Revolution led to the gradual replacement of sickles and scythes with mechanical reapers. This advancement in agricultural technology greatly relieved the arduous labor of harvest fields, but also compounded pressures of urban growth throughout the great grain growing nations of Europe and the America.

The horse-powered reaper developed by American Cyrus McCormick in the 1830s featured a moveable bar of small sickle sections that effectively cut grain stalks which fell onto a platform for binding and threshing. Just like anyone can enjoy today at Ethos Bakery & Café, exceptionally flavored heritage grains like Crimson Turkey were routinely held back by families to mill at home for delicious breads and other baked goods. Community elder Donald Reich of Colfax, Washington, recently told me that he remembered his immigrant father driving all the way to the Pataha Mill near Pomeroy to get their wheat ground into flour. How convenient we can go to places like Ethos and experience what they knew to be a treasure. 

“Give Us This Day”: Daily Bread and A Home for Every Orphan

This past week brought another opportunity to travel west of the Cascades to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as Sequim was the site of an amazing organization’s annual meeting. A Family for Every Orphan (AFFEO) has long been endorsed by our families and Palouse Heritage as one of the most consequential non-profit groups focused on strategic solutions for the global orphan crisis. AFFEO is a leader in the concept of “indigenous adoption” through which caring families in other countries are challenged and equipped to promote domestic adoption in places where orphans have traditionally been institutionalized and shunned by mainstream culture. With the cost of Americans adopting children from abroad routinely ranging from $15,000 to $25,000, the expense of indigenous adoption is often less than $1,000 with funds needed for home repair and orientation seminars. In this way, AFFEO has facilitated the placement of thousands of children since it was founded ten years ago by a dedicated group of young people, many of whom have served in America’s armed forces.

German Decorative Plate (c. 1965), Palouse Heritage Collection

German Decorative Plate (c. 1965), Palouse Heritage Collection

AFFEO executive director Micala Siler, a graduate of West Point, is passionate about strategic interventions to place orphans in caring homes in countries where they presently reside. With approximately 10,000,000 orphans presently available for adoption worldwide, she described important AFFEO initiatives underway in eight target countries—Ukraine, Romania, Kyrgystan, Russia, Ghana, Uganda, Bangladesh, and India. As I listened to the various presentations made by Micala and other team members who had come at their own expense from various parts of the country and world, I marveled at how such a group of successful young people could gather with such a spirit of determination to make a positive difference in the lives of children they would never know.  

A Home for Every Orphan Board Meeting Table Spread (October, 2018)

A Home for Every Orphan Board Meeting Table Spread (October, 2018)

In recent years I have traveled to Kiev, Moscow, Singapore, and other places in order to better understand the global orphan crisis and promote adoption. When the AFFEO board first gathered together from their far flung travels in Sequim this past week, I was pleased to see a flavorful spread of artisan breads at their host’s welcoming table. Through mutual friends many on the AFFEO team know about our work with heritage grains, and in this day of war refugees on the Horn of Africa, Mediterranean boat people, Central American immigrant caravans, and other turmoil, I sometimes wonder how children and parents in these circumstances manage to survive. Of course some don’t. While attending the subsequent AFFEO presentations, I found myself drawn to the Fourth Petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). I recall reading some time ago that the last five words of that verse are a translation of a Greek term unique not only to the Bible, but in all of ancient literature. That we might be part of others’ “day-by-day” provisioning through whatever means available to us seems to be a task of utmost nobility. For these reasons, we are honored to donate a portion of all Palouse Heritage proceeds to AFFEO’s work.

Northwest Colonial Festival — Heritage Grains under the Big Top

The Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula is famous for hosting continental America’s only rain forest which averages about 150 inches of annual precipitation. That fact might make ocean-side grain culture there a hopeless prospect, but far from it on the dry and sunny north side of the Olympic Mountains. To the contrary, the imposing mountains shelter the vicinity of Sequim, Washington, from the region’s prevailing southwesterly winds to create a rain shadow effect causing only about fifteen inches of rain to fall in that area. The peculiar semi-arid climate combined with fertile landscape create ideal conditions for raising wheat, barley, and oats. Match the geography with the patriotic dream of Dan and Jan Abbot to build a full-scale replica of Mt. Vernon as a five star bed and breakfast and you get… the spectacular George Washington Inn.

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

The Abbots have been friends of Palouse Heritage since we first met several years ago at one of the WSU Grain Gathering conferences. Dan shares our interest in health and history and wanted to learn about the crops of America’s Colonial Era in order to provide a “living history” experience to visitors to the Inn. He might not have expected them to harvest the crop, but thought that establishing test plots with actual varieties that once grew at places like Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello would be a fascinating project. And so was launched a partnership between Dan, the WSU Bread Lab in nearby Burlington, and Palouse Heritage.

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

The third annual Northwest Colonial Festival was held at the Inn this past August with hundreds of visitors attending a series of special events and reenactor encampments of British regulars and American patriots. Along with demonstrations of tool making, cooking, printing, weaving, and other traditional crafts, the August sunshine brought the landrace grain plots to maturity. Many of the guests gathered under an enormous tent where longtime WSU senior agronomist Steve Lyon and I teamed up to tell about the various varieties and discuss the challenges and benefits of heritage grain production. Several once prominent early American grains like Virginia White and Red May also made their way to the Pacific Northwest by the late 1800s, and seeing bountiful stands again wave in the seaside breeze presents scenes worthy of a painting.

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

One of the winter wheats planted last fall, Mediterranean Red, yielded terrifically and represents a remarkable chapter in the history of American agriculture. Most folks are familiar with the story of Hessian troops from Germany being used as mercenaries to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War. Many agricultural historians believe that these soldiers brought more with them to the Colonies that love of schnapps and sauerkraut. It seems that a tiny pernicious pest that came to be known as the Hessian fly likely arrived with the hay and grain brought over to provision the soldiers livestock. This insect wrought enormous havoc on cereal grains that had long been raised in North America, and local news and correspondence of George Washington and other farmers from the era is full of news about the calamity that ensured which threatened the food supply. Fortunately for the new nation, enterprising “farmer improvers” introduced Mediterranean Red which seemed to have a natural resistance to infestation. Scientists today study the remarkable genetic diversity of landrace grains that developed in locales throughout the world for millennia and continue to exhibit valued traits for hardiness, yield, and flavor.

Bridget Baker,  Olympic Gold  (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Bridget Baker, Olympic Gold (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Artist Katherine Nelson Creates Drawings Inspired by Grain

Our longtime Palouse Colony Farm friend, Baltimore artist Katherine Nelson, learned of our mutual interests in country life, history, and art through our cousin, photographer and musician Tom Schierman, of nearby Lancaster. In recent years Katherine has visited the farm several times to study locations for her phenomenal artistic creations in charcoal, paint, and fabric. She was here in the Northwest again this summer to participate in an art show held at Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where we both made presentations on agrarian art. A video of those presentations is provided below, along with an article from a larger feature written by Carrie Scozzaro for the July, 2018, issue of The Inlander.


The Palouse has inspired countless artists with its iconic vistas of grain-covered hills, yellow-gold and green against an azure blue sky and dotted with farmsteads. When clouds roll through and the light shifts, the hills appear to undulate as if a vast carpet of living color. Yet for artist Katherine Nelson, the allure of the Palouse goes well beyond the visual.

Drawing the Palouse is a quest to express the obvious and implied human connections within a unique place formed by nature and agriculture," Nelson writes in the artist's statement for the Art Spirit Gallery's July exhibition of her charcoal drawings alongside Jerri Lisk, Mark Lisk and Al Swanson. "After thousands of field observations, I have developed an admiration for farmers and agrarian fortitude. I see my work aligned with the work I observe, and think that sowing seeds of grain to nurture our bodies is analogous to developing artistic imagery for visual nourishment.”

Nelson's affinity for the Palouse began in 2001, when she relocated to Eastern Washington with her husband and two young sons. Early pieces, which she exhibited at the Art Spirit in 2005, ranged from still lifes to ravens, and from Oregon Coast scenes to rolling fields and broken fences amidst farmlands. By 2007, Nelson was featured in an Art Spirit exhibition entitled The Circle in the Center and Beyond. It conveyed the Palouse through graphic elements of design—light, value, pattern, shape, line—from ribbons of roads to the upswell of morning mist over the land.

“Charcoal is a perfectly suited medium for expressing the undulating Palouse fields and farmsteads," Nelson says in an interview from her home in Washington, D.C. "I love charcoal because it is fluid, forgiving, mysterious and strong. I draw by layering dark velvety values and build textures that are obtained through an additive and subtractive process using a variety of charcoals, pastels, blenders, brushes and erasers.”

What Nelson says she's trying to express is a "luxuriant textural carpet full of patterns, shapes and values" not unlike the antique carpets and weavings she remembers her father collecting while a diplomat in the Foreign Service who travelled throughout the Middle East.

The panels also suggest relationships, such as those Nelson developed while immersing herself in the grain community during Palouse visits from the East Coast, where she relocated in 2012. During one such visit she was introduced Tom Schierman, a St. John-area farmer and photographer who helped Nelson in her quest for Palouse vistas. He also introduced her to his cousin, Don Scheuerman, who co-founded Palouse Heritage — they grow ancient or landrace grains on their Palouse Colony Farm — near Endicott, Washington, with his brother, Richard Scheuerman.

Nelson has visited many private Palouse farms, talked with farmers, attended numerous grain-related events, including the Cascadia Grains Conference and the Grain Gathering, an annual event led by Washington State University to unite producers, consumers and anyone interested in grain. “From my perspective, as an observer and a visual artist," Nelson says, "these interdependent artisanal connections between farmers, millers, bakers, brewers and distillers are in fact, weaving people together quite like a carpet.”


Katherine Nelson,  Palouse Colony Farm  (charcoal on wove paper, 2017)

Katherine Nelson, Palouse Colony Farm (charcoal on wove paper, 2017)

Katherine at Art Spirit Gallery, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Katherine at Art Spirit Gallery, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Katherine and Tom Schierman, Palouse Colony Farm (July, 2018)

Katherine and Tom Schierman, Palouse Colony Farm (July, 2018)

Palouse Colony Vista (2018)

Palouse Colony Vista (2018)

Nethers and Runners: A Flavorful Tale of Northwest Milling Origins

This summer brought an opportunity for our extended family to spend several days at Curlew Lake in north central Washington near the town of Republic. Located about twenty miles from the Canadian border, Curlew Lake is magnificent place to fish while enjoying the music of the wind in the towering pines and joyful shouts of young explorers along the shoreline. My son, Karl, and I decided to also investigate the story of Ft. Colvile, the old Hudson’s Bay Company post located near Kettle Falls northwest of Spokane. This area marked the location of the region’s first farms and the historic grist mill that produced the first flour on the upper Columbia. (Note that the present town of Colville, as well as the 19th century military fort of that name, are spelled with two “l’s,” while the old fur trading post preserved the original spelling of namesake Scotsman Andrew Colvile.)

Left: Hudson’s Bay Company “Myers” Mill on the Colville River (looking southeast) near present Kettle Falls, Washington

Left: Hudson’s Bay Company “Myers” Mill on the Colville River (looking southeast) near present Kettle Falls, Washington

Same location today (looking southwest)

Same location today (looking southwest)

We learned that Hand-burr (buhr) milling equipment was used to produce the first flour at Ft. Colvile until a water-powered gristmill was built in 1830 several miles south of the fort at Myers Falls on the Colville River. Workers laboriously chiseled a pair of millstones from local granite, and the original stones are now housed at Spokane’s Museum of Arts & Culture. The early mills used two granite grinding stones with canted grooves cut in the rock so grist would be crushed rather than smashed between the stationary nether (bottom) and runner (top). As the runner turned, the grain gradually moved out more finely in the furrows to be thrown out at the edge as flour.

This crude milling required considerable time and produced an oily, starchy germ (which causes flour to become rancid) and whole wheat mixture of protein-rich gluten, fibrous bran, and vitamins. Other products used for “flours” and cereal included brans (outer skins or husks), shorts (bran and germ), and middlings (endosperm and bran). Five bushels of wheat weighing about sixty pounds per bushel typically yielded one 200-pound barrel of flour. Larger areas were soon under cultivation at two nearby company farms that yielded 3,000 bushels of wheat, corn, barley, oats, buckwheat, and peas in 1832. A second, more efficient gristmill was constructed near the original Ft. Colvile structure in the late 1840s and became operational in 1850 to enable substantial distribution of company flour to New Caledonia and the Snake River country.

Rob Smith,  Historic Hudson’s Bay Company Flour Mill

Rob Smith, Historic Hudson’s Bay Company Flour Mill

Ft. Vancouver’s first grist mill used a small hand-turned stone and was apparently located near the sawmill about 1828. Little of the original fur trading post remains in present Vancouver, Washington, but a magnificent living history recreation and museum are located along the Columbia River in the southwest part of the city. A larger mill at Ft. Vancouver made of locally quarried stone was operating in 1834 but powered by a slow-moving oxen or horses so provided barely enough flour for local needs, though pioneer missionary Samuel Parker considered it “of excellent quality.” Millwright William Crate’s water-powered gristmill was completed in the spring of 1839 on Mill Creek and could grind and bolt about sixty bushels of wheat per day, or 10,000 bushels annually.

Quern (Hand-Burr) Milling

Quern (Hand-Burr) Milling

The sonorous sound of rotating stones accompanied by the rhythmic clacking and splashing from the enormous wheel played pleasantly throughout the valley. A visitor to the fort wrote that the mill’s “deep music is heard daily and nightly half the year” in order to process the previous year’s harvest, which also came via wheat bateaux and barges from farms of Willamette Valley settlers. Rev. Parker noted in 1836 that the French Prairie “hunters turned farmers” McLoughlin had charitably aided were producing “first quality” wheat and found a ready market at the fort where it was traded for imported molasses, cocoa, salt, rum, claret, and Chinese tea.

Ft. Vancouver, Ft. Colvile, and Ft. Nez Perces (near present Pasco) soon came to employ a host of voyageurs, farmers, herdsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, tailors, and other laborers. They regularly worked from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. six days a week at these remote outposts where they raised such heritage grains as White Lammas wheat and Scots Bere barley. Ohio native and wagon train leader Lansford Hastings described bustling Ft. Vancouver in the 1840s as a place of “diligent and incessant plying of the hammer, sledges and axes, and the confused toiling and ringing of bells, present all the impetuous commotion, rustling, tumultuous din of a city life, in the oriental world.”

Palouse Colony Farm Scots Bere (July, 2018)

Palouse Colony Farm Scots Bere (July, 2018)