Sickles and Sheaves

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 8)

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.


Some of our local church traditions that were observed seasonally contrasted with some enduring aspects of agrarian folklore. We gleaned some of this from Norwegian farmer elders on Mother’s Sunwold side of the family who lived in the Palouse “upper country” environs of Fairfield, Waverly, and Oakesdale. I could grasp the significance of planting field potatoes on Good Friday, but among many members our grandparents’ generation the seeding of grain crops took place during a waxing moon, harvesting commenced when it waned, and in some cases women were not allowed out-of-doors during the combine’s first pass around a field of grain. Still in my day harvest concluded with spirited shouting and the ceremonial threshing of the straw fedoras worn by many of our fathers. Delving into the medieval European folk traditions occasioned by this study provides some explanation for why such traditions persisted through the years of my 1960s youth amidst harvest truck radios blaring rock music and news of Vietnam and moon landings.

Through verse by an accomplished local poet, Harry Helm (1906-1987), claimed as kin through some vague ancestral connection, we also knew poetic expressions about the beauty of area landscapes. Harry’s grandparents, John and Mary (Kleweno) Helm, had been among the first group of Volga German immigrants to settle in the 1880s in Palouse Hills not far from our country home. In a bucolic setting along the Palouse River, some half-dozen immigrant families established an Old World peasant commune using methods suggesting medieval origins—long, narrow Langstreifen fields (akin to English furlongs) in three-crop rotations (Dreifelderwirtschaft), Almenden commons for grazing and gardens, grain harvest with sickle and scythe, and “hoof-tread” threshing using horses led around a circle of piled stalks. Harry had grown up hearing stories about these ancient ways, and his reflective eye wove heritage and horizon into such poems as “Endicott Wheat Field” (1962):

Grandpa said:

The grass was like Europe’s grass,

Soft and waving like a sea.

It hissed and whispered like a friend

In well-known German words to me.

The hills were like German hills,

Green plumed against a feckless sky.

And I went riding bunchgrass trails,

Where the prairie chicken fly.

Clear waters tumbled through the trees

In every golden, sun-swept vale.

While flowers tipped their hats to me,

As they touched my prancing pinto’s tail.       

 

The Helm family’s aesthetic influence was prominently evident in the life and art of Robert R. Helm (1943-2008), great-grandson of John and Mary Helm. His mysterious, exquisite painted and collaged arrangements of landscape, rocks, and architectural fragments meticulously crafted oil on cherry, birch, and pine masterpieces reflected his relationship with heritage, terrain, and imagination. Though Helm’s style is sometimes associated with Surrealism and Luminism, its distinct physicality makes it more akin to that of a medieval artisan using unique combinations of format, composition, and color that explore meaning, reality and memory. Characterized variously as “icons of stillness” and “neo-trecento renditions of rural America,” Helm’s dreamy, rustic creations led to global recognition with his works exhibited in Paris and Berlin, and in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Louvre Gallery in Venice, California.

Although works by Helm evoke timeless themes of natural beauty and isolation, he drew inspiration from frequent travels along the Washington-Idaho rural borderlands between the Coeur d’Alene Valley and Palouse Hills where stories of his pathfinder ancestors were often retold in my visits with community elders. Oil on panel works like Spring Thaw (1985) and September Burn (1991) are notable for the placid depictions of hills, as well as for the artist’s meticulously crafted hardwood frames. “The Palouse has nurtured and reinforced his formal, psychological and metaphysical vision of life and its meaning;” writes Marti Mayo, director of the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery, which hosted a one-man exhibition of Helm’s art in 1994. Northwest author William Kittredge offers further commentary on how place shaped Helm’s art, just as it has power to influence others who take time to know a landscape relationally:

Go back to a place, Helm knows, and purely physical memories of who you were when you were there before may begin to echo in your body. You may remember exactly how things first felt and something of how it felt to be the person you used to be.

Go back enough times and your sense of yourself in that place may begin to stack up before you in layers. It’s a way to recall your story of yourself through the years of change and to relearn the reasons for your work and the consequences. It is a way to keep reinventing your knowledge of who you are and how you are trying to make your work matter in the world.

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 7)

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.


Our high school English teacher, Louise Braun, was a woman of prodigious intellect 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 us on 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, Time Magazine, 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. In response to adolescent complaint that poetic expression in our anthology of world literature seemed as foreign as many authors, Mrs. Braun confided that poetry was commonly composed for spirited oral delivery. Soon afterward local farmer Leonard Jones arrived as a guest speaker but had undergone a stunning transformation on the school stage into Leonard Jones, country bard. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” he thundered in the first dramatic recitation by an adult that I had ever heard. His delivery of “The Road Less Traveled” was made even more memorable in the knowledge that Mr. Jones was one of us, and obviously and unashamedly relished the written and spoken word. Soon Mrs. Braun had us wondering about just what Frost’s “long scythe” was “whispering to the ground” (from “Mowing”), and if “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” might mean that mature thinking could question some assumed claims of science and religion.

FFA advisor Dan Birdsell introduced us to Demeter and the classical symbolism of ancient farm tools by having us memorize the organization’s opening ritual. As youth we may not always have understood the meaning behind these emblems, but we came to know spring from fall barley, sickles from scythes, and that a bushel of wheat weighed about sixty pounds. Mr. Birdsell also arranged to have us periodically attend local Grange meetings in the neighboring hamlet of Winona for extracurricular practice in parliamentary procedure. Members met monthly for rural fellowship and to promote agrarian interests in state and national politics, and raised the roof with the Patrons of Husbandry unofficial anthem, Knowles Shaw and George Minor’s familiar hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” (“Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping….”). The organization’s official songbook, The Patron (1925), contained numerous selections commemorating the significance of field labors:

 

 “Harvest Song”

 “Grain that was in verdure waving,

Weareth now a hue of gold,

And the yellow heads are bending,

With the fruitage they hold.

That the ripened fruit be gathered,

Speed the sickle to and fro;

For the countless hosts of kernels,

Snowy loaves ere long will show.”

 “Soon from out the noisy thresher,

There shall golden streams be pour’d,

That the farmer’s heart will gladden,

And shall bring his just reward.

Smiles the land today with plenty,

Plenty for the needy throng;

Let all classes and conditions,

Join to swell the harvest song.”

 

“The Gleaner”

“When the earth is crowned with fatness,

And the yellow harvest yields

To the sickle of the reaper,

Toiling in the sunny fields;

Mark the glad, contented gleaner,

Gather one by one her store—

Ev’ry act of cheerful labor

Makes her richer than before.”

“Golden treasures, thickly scattered,

Strew the world’s surface o’er;

Man is but a humble gleaner,

Finding knowledge, seeking more.

Step by step he plods his way,

One by one his blessings rise;

He who binds his store together,

He alone is truly wise.”

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 6)

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.


Trinity Belfry and Sanctuary (c. 1960)

Trinity Belfry and Sanctuary (c. 1960)

Construction of our substantial Trinity Lutheran Church built in 1949 was based on Old World Northern European ecclesiastical design by Edwin W. Molander (1901-1983). The Spokane architect had received prominent regional commissions for Northwest churches and public buildings that reflected his distinctive blend of traditional and modern features characterized by exposed rough-hewn timbers, natural stone, and decorative carvings. A regnant color scheme of Prussian blue, turquoise, and umber with gold filigree and trim was used throughout the vaulted sanctuary and an attached cloister porch featured a substantial frieze of carved wooden panels depicting the life of Christ in symbols and Latin monograms. One approached the church’s main arched entry as if gently entering hallowed space.

The schedule of Pastor Fred Schnaible’s lectionary readings—presented weekly in both German and English, featured associations of such ancient Jewish harvest festivals as the First Fruits “wave offering” of barley sheaves and Feast of Harvest Ingathering with Early Church commemorations of Easter and the Transfiguration of Christ. Pastor Schnaible safeguarded the church’s remarkable library of rare books contributed by his predecessors including a massive volume by Christian Hebraist Johannen Lund (1638-1686) on the Old Testament offerings, Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheitenbound (The Old Jewish Shrines, Worship and Customs). The book, printed in 1701, was bound in vellum and lavishly illustrated with woodcuts by the German engraver Johann W. Michaelis of many biblical scenes related to ancient pastoral and agrarian traditions. Pastor Schnaible learned of local farmer and church member Walter Scholtz’s special skill as a calligrapher and prevailed upon him for years to inscribe countless confirmation certificates and other church documents in his distinct Old World script of red and black with gold embellishments that have become treasured works of art in their own right.

Plan of the Camps of the Children of Israel and Gathering of Manna    (detail);   J. W. Michaelis (engraver) and Johannen Lund (author);    Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheiten    (1701);   Ames Library Archives, Seattle Pacific University

Plan of the Camps of the Children of Israel and Gathering of Manna (detail); J. W. Michaelis (engraver) and Johannen Lund (author); Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheiten (1701); Ames Library Archives, Seattle Pacific University

Weekly worship services at Trinity featured “All Praise the God of Harvest” (“… with head and heart and voice. All praise the God of harvest; creation all rejoice”) and “Where Are the Reapers” (“sheaves of good, sickles of truth”) choir cantatas and hymns as well as sermon texts from Ruth about barley gleanings and her Kinsman Redeemer, Boaz. Our old brown hymnal featured considerable music of classical origin including John Galloway’s “Lord of the Harvest, Thee We Hail,” based a Franz Haydn tune from his 1798 oratorio Creation. Architect Molander’s majestic panels also included broad window base panels displaying carved grain sheaves as if homage to pre-literate medieval times when clerics valued visual expressions of biblical history and spiritual truths in cathedrals and chapels throughout Europe. We heard Psalms on “abundant wheat throughout the land” (72:16), prophetic words on nations giving up war and beating “swords into ploughshares and their spears into scythes” (Isaiah 2:6), and the weekly-sung offertory: “Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life….” Jesus’ familiar parables told of grain seed, bushel baskets, sickles, and harvest—these in the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel alone. 

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 5)

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.


Home, Church, School

Our mother was an avid reader and may have been among the few 1960s Book-of-the-Month farm wives in the vicinity which provided us with early access Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, Catherine the Great’s Memoirs, and other beautifully illustrated and bound volumes. Thanks to Mr. Yenny, our formidable school principal and eighth grade teacher, more thorough study of Grandpa’s poets came our way with agrarian relevance. We read every word of Longfellow’s Evangeline aloud in class, and my hexametric memories of “Acadie” remained evermore vivid not only because the heroine’s evocative if peculiar name was the same as my maternal grandmother’s middle name, but because the epic made recurrent reference to words familiar to our rural experience. In just the opening lines we met “goodly acres,” “harvest heat,” and “reapers at noontide.”   

Hans Franke (1935), Harvest Scene (detail)

Hans Franke (1935), Harvest Scene (detail)

Apart from a large mirror and family pictures on our living room walls, our home had little in terms of framed decor. But lack of popular country scenes by Millet or Brueghel did not limit the colorful and meaningful existence of a threatened agrarian lifeway. We were immersed in it. The “Northwest Drylands” popularized on calendars and canvas a generation later by photographer John Clement surrounded us in every direction. I enjoyed periodic visits to the home of an elderly relative and storyteller, Clara Schmick Litzenberger, not only to listen to tales passed down about Old Country living but also because of her wide-ranging interests in music and art. The copy of a large harvest time painting hung in her living room that, except for the distant woodlands, could have been of fields surrounding nearby Steptoe Butte. The artist was an obscure German, Hans Franke, and I learned many years after Clara’s passing that he favored scenes in the very vicinity of our ancestral Hessen homeland. We did not know the place existed back then, but my boyhood interest in these topics must have evidenced some indication of kindred spirit. Upon her passing in 1979, I learned that Clara had willed the painting to me. 

Edwin Molander, Grain Sheaf Window Panel (1949),   Trinity Lutheran Church, Endicott, Washington

Edwin Molander, Grain Sheaf Window Panel (1949), Trinity Lutheran Church, Endicott, Washington

Dad also kept a 1930s English translation of the German Ohio Lutheran Synod’s Gebets-Shatz, or Treasure of Prayers—probably a confirmation gift, with a “Harvest Festival Prayer” that reminded listeners of forces beyond mortal control known to farming folk: “O Give thanks to the Lord; for He is good; because His mercy and truth endure forever…. O, how we took we feared the destruction of the precious grain in the fields! O, how we took thought and troubled ourselves, lest the bread which God has yet given us… might be snatched away. Thou has given us the early and the later rain in due season, and has faithfully and annually protected our harvests.” Confirmands in my day were customarily presented a similar small volume containing a “For Fields and Crops” prayer: “…Teach me, dear Lord, to know that Thou dost supply, in due season, daily bread for us and all mankind. Give us the needed diligence and necessary skill in the sowing and gathering of our harvests. Protect our fields from hail, fire, and floods, and let the earth yield its increase. Make us a thankful people as we enjoy working amid growing things, and open our eyes to behold the beauty of Thy creation.” 

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 4)

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.


As I explored more fully our elders’ stories of harvests past and present, it also dawned on me that my grandfather’s treasured “Lautenschlager and Poffenroth” photograph (see Part 2 of this "Sickles and Sheaves" blog series) had been taken at the John Poffenroth farm near our home place north of Endicott. Grandpa was there because his older sister, our short, in dominatable Aunt Mae Poffenroth Geier, had married John. Beloved and sometimes feared Aunt Mae was a no-nonsense paragon of self-reliance. She forever cooked on a woodstove in her small Endicott home, sang and played the familiar Volga German hymn Gott ist die Liebe (God is Love) on an oak pipe-organ in her small living room. Had she decided in her seventies to butcher a hog or drive a tractor we would have gotten out of her way. She and John had raised their family just over the hill from where the 1911 harvest picture had been taken, and in a 1963 memoir she provided valuable insight regarding women’s essential and substantial roles at harvest time, even during pregnancy:

“We raised big gardens. An early garden was close to the house and late garden with potatoes, watermelon, and cucumbers out in the field away from the house. Sometimes I got up early while my children were still asleep to hoe the potatoes. It was quiet and peaceful with the fresh dew on the wheat fields and garden smell. Nothing I liked better with only the sun coming up over the hills and blue sky. ...When my twins were born we were harvesting our winter wheat. I was cooking for ten men and just before they were born the men went out to another place to harvest. Between then and when they came back to cut our spring wheat I had my twins and was back on the job cooking again and had to help to do the chores and heavy work.”

“…For at least three summers I also cooked in harvest in the cookhouse for Conrad Hergert’s crew. From ten to fifteen men were on hand. I baked bread for all the men every other day and cooked on a big old wood stove. One morning I counted the baked things and besides six loaves of bread, I baked twenty-four biscuits, twenty-four cupcakes, and three pies. If you ever wanted to smell something good it was coffee made in a big coffee pot on the stove. I got up at 3:30 in the morning to light the stove to have it hot by 4:00 a.m. to fry bacon and eggs, sometimes pancakes on Sunday morning.”

   

   

R. R. Hutchison, Busch Threshing Bee (Edgar Bergen & Chris Busch both in bottom photo), 1953; R. R. Hutchsion Studio Photograph Collection; Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections; Holland/Terrell Libraries, Washington State University, Pullman

R. R. Hutchison, Busch Threshing Bee (Edgar Bergen & Chris Busch both in bottom photo), 1953; R. R. Hutchsion Studio Photograph Collection; Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections; Holland/Terrell Libraries, Washington State University, Pullman

Among our area’s most colorful and continuous vintage harvest experiences were the September threshing bees first organized by Chris Busch at his farm near Colton, Washington, in 1947. Busch had known steam-powered threshing from his Palouse Country youth and as the massive old machines and harvest wagons became obsolete he began a collection that numbered over thirty in various stages of operation in the 1940s. Word spread throughout the region about the remarkable assemblage and with help from a dedicated network of other enthusiasts including neighbor Bill Druffel and C. R. Miller, retired WSC professor of agricultural engineering. Busch organized the Western Steam Fiends Club in 1951 with members eventually drawn from six states and three Canadian provinces. The event kicked off with a grand banquet sponsored by local church and school volunteers followed by a parade led by Busch’s favorite 1912 Minneapolis engine, 1917 McCormick reaper-binder, and Case separator. A spectacle of old-time harvest festivities followed that drew as many 4,500 onlookers, and the tradition is carried on today at the annual Palouse Empire Threshing Bee held on Labor Day weekend at the county fairgrounds near Colfax, WA. 

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.” 

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 2)

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

Richard and Don's grandfather, Karl Scheuerman, during harvest

Richard and Don's grandfather, Karl Scheuerman, during harvest

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.”  

Don and Richard "helping" during harvest

Don and Richard "helping" during harvest

Richard and Don's father, Don Scheuerman

Richard and Don's father, Don Scheuerman

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. 

1925 Scrapbook of Country Poems Fragement (Vol 2, Winter 1925, Private Collection)

1925 Scrapbook of Country Poems Fragement (Vol 2, Winter 1925, Private Collection)

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.”