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.

Turkey Red Wheat Harvest 2017

This past week marked the beginning of our Palouse Heritage harvest as our first crop of organic Turkey Red bread wheat was cut at our partner Brad Bailie’s Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington. We have been raising this legendary hard red bread grain for the past two years in order to carefully increase our seed stock, and finally this year we had enough for several acres of organic production at Brad’s farm since we needed space at our Palouse Colony Farm for the flavorful soft red variety English Squarehead, also known as Red Walla Walla, which historically was used for pastries, biscuits, and other flatbreads as well as for crafting nutritious Old World Hefeweizen cloudy brews.

Harvesting Organic Turkey Red Wheat;   Scene of the Great Yellow Jacket Harvest Battle

Harvesting Organic Turkey Red Wheat; Scene of the Great Yellow Jacket Harvest Battle

Turkey Red is the legendary grain long raised by our German ancestors in Eastern Europe where bread wheats had grown since time immemorial from the Great Hungarian Plain to the steppes of Russia and Ukraine. Prior to the introduction of Turkey Red to the Midwest in the 1870s, a winter variety sown in the fall, and its genetic spring-seeded cousin, Red Fife, an Eastern European relative that came to North American via Scotland, all wheat breads in early America and Canada were made from soft white flour sometimes mixture with low gluten milled rye, barley, or oats, or “thirded” combinations of these grains. The resulting baked goods were rather dense but still flavorful and served as the “staff of life” for countless families in eastern American and on the western frontier. Our elders here in the Northwest told us that their crops of Turkey Red as recent as the 1950s were too precious to sell like modern hybridized grains for national and world markets. Instead they held back sufficient quantities of Turkey Red to be milled at area flour mills in Colfax, St. John, and at tiny Pataha south of the Snake River near Pomeroy where historic Houser Mill has been substantially restored by the Van Vogt family with a portion of the main floor refurbished as a restaurant and museum.

"Our elders here in the Northwest told us that their crops of Turkey Red as recent as the 1950s were too precious to sell like modern hybridized grains for national and world markets."

Unexpected happenings often occur when commencing harvest and this year’s first round provided a couple interesting moments. After going a few dozen yards on our first round in Brad’s combine, I stepped behind the machine to blow on the ground and see if too much grain was being blown behind. Even the most advanced combine in this day of high tech threshing and electronic monitoring betrays some grain loss, but Brad’s John Deere was running very clean. I jumped back on and paused when entering the cab so we could check for any cracked grain going into the bulk tank where the grain is stored before unloading into a truck or in our case, large fabric totes capable of holding a ton. We had no sooner reached our arms back to retrieve a handful of grain that a wild onslaught of very angry yellow-jackets burst forth swirling around our heads! In an instant we received their stinging message of most likely disturbing a nest in the process of putting running augers and dumping grain into the bin, so we retreated back into the safety of the cab.

Marsh Hawk Stubble Nest

Marsh Hawk Stubble Nest

On the next pass around the field I noticed an enormous bird fly from the uncut grain we were approaching as the combine reel flailed along like a rapidly moving ferris-wheel. Brad immediately stopped the machine and said he it was one of several marsh hawks with whom he had shared his property. Brad is an advocate of natural growing systems and seeks to preserve native species, so was concerned that the hawk’s next was likely in the path of the combine’s next round. We descended the ladder and slowly approached the area in the uncut wheat from which the bird had taken flight. Sure enough there we found a trampled area about two feet in diameter with two white eggs resting in the center. Late July seems somewhat late for a hatch, but not being experts on marsh hawk habits we thought the eggs were likely still vital or they would not still be tended. So we returned to the machine and cut in a wide circle all around the next to keep it protected, and hoped no coyotes would find their way to the small golden sanctuary.

Later in the day I took a sample of the Turkey Red to the Connell Grain Growers substantial grain handling facility in Kennewick in order to get it tested for protein and moisture. The place is a massive complex located along the Columbia River and a several tractor-trailers filled with wheat were waiting in line to dump their loads in the elevator grates for storage in the adjacent concrete and metal silos. I was ably assisted by Kara Shibley, Angie Garcia, and Jose Carrea-Moya who shared my interest in heritage grains though our conversation was regularly interrupted by intercom calls and other office traffic attesting the incredible pace of harvest work inside such offices as well as out in the fields. The result came back in moments most satisfactorily, so we did it again with another sample and the numbers were identical—low 9.1% moisture, and very strong 13.5% protein—fully two percent higher than the average of modern hard red wheats then coming to the elevator. With that good news it was back to work and preparations to harvest our stands of soft red English Squarehead (aka Red Russian), Purple Egyptian hulless barley, and other grains scarcely seen in the region for over a century. The flavorful and nutritious adventure continues!

Jose Correa-Moya Testing Turkey Red Wheat for Moisture and Protein;   CHS Elevator; Pasco, Washington

Jose Correa-Moya Testing Turkey Red Wheat for Moisture and Protein; CHS Elevator; Pasco, Washington