A Mystic Sheaf and the Origins of Farming

Harvest season back home in the Palouse Hills often brings to mind bygone high school days. Trips from our Palouse Colony Farm to nearby Endicott lead past the school where I attended all twelve years, and where I served as principal in the 1990s. One of the great privileges of my education career was to return as a colleague with Mrs. Louise Braun, who had been my high school English teachers. She was a woman of capacious mind 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 our 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, 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. 


To my mind, our most formidable high school read was the epic poem Beowulf through which we battled for many days to make sense of alliterative Old English expressions that related ancient Scandinavian lore. This was a time before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had ushered in a resurgence of interest in classical fantasy literature. Mrs. Braun’s reminder that many of us had descended from these tribal peoples provided modest encouragement to continue our study of this oldest English long poem. The poem’s opening lines in Lesslie Hall’s modern translation, however, invoked intriguing agrarian reference:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.

Queries about Old English “Scyld the Scefing,” which may be translated “Shield Sheafson” or “Scyld of the Sheaf,” provided an remarkable glimpse into mystical realms also described by Tolkien in his legendarium of Middle-earth. The namesakes of the eponymous Scyldings’ (Sköldings) Danish royal house founder in Beowulf are associated with the crucial roles as historical protector of the people (Shield) and as agri-cultural hero (Sheaf). In the mythic past he arrived as a foundling from the west who washed up in a boat on the shore of Jutland’s Old Anglia. The golden child’s head rested on a pillow of grain stalks, and he would grow into a strong and wise ruler who was the ancestor of Beowulf. Like a medieval Triptolemus, Scyld also taught his adopted people the first principles of farming and husbandry. Tolkien further explored aspects this legendary figure who is also mentioned in lesser known works of Old English literature like William Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (“Deeds of the English Kings,” 1125) and the eighth century Historia Langobardorum (“History of the Lombards”). Tolkien’s imaginative rendition drawn from these several accounts is beautifully expressed in the poem “King Sheave,” published posthumously with “The Notion Club Papers” in Sauron Defeated (1992): 

In golden vessel gleaming water
Stood beside him; strung with silver
A harp of gold neath his hand rested;
His sleeping head was soft pillowed
On a sheaf of corn shimmering palely
As the fallow gold doth from far countries
West of Angol. Wonder filled them. 

Tolkien’s telling, the boy ascended a hill and sang a song of “sweet, unearthly, words in music woven strangely.” His hearers marveled at sounds miraculously dispelling the darkness and terror that had long gripped the region. From “King Sheave” descended many sons and their nations—Danes and Goths, Swedes and Northmen, Franks and Frisians, Swordmen and Saxons, Swabians and English. In the magnificent Scandinavian epic of Beowulf, Tolkien found a magisterial Anglo-Saxon antecedent of mythic grain king and culture hero skillfully interwoven with dynastic history to form an English national identity.

Farmhouse, Statehouse, White House — Agrarian Motifs and American Politics

Most everywhere in small town America local folks can provide names of favorite sons and daughters who left town to make a positive impact on the wider world. Many would like to think that youthful experiences born of rural community experience instill values of cooperation, hard work, and service to others that are evident in the lives of those who remain and others who head off to make lives elsewhere. Those of us raised in places like Endicott and St. John, Washington, heard many times about the exploits of locals raised on area farms who went off to distinguish themselves far beyond the rolling hills of the Palouse Country. I remember taking my E-SJ Middle School students in the 1990s to interview Carl Litzenberger, whose grandfather, Henry, was among the founders of our Palouse Colony Farm in the 1880s. Carl and his brothers were quite the adventuresome spirits and he told us about seeing a biplane fly over the Union Flat wheat field where he was working one day and deciding right then and there that we would do that someday. And so he did—studied blueprints, ordered parts, and built the thing with his brothers in their barn back about 1918 to become a true barnstormer. Carl became acquainted with Emelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, and host of other Roaring Twenties celebrities before another career of training World War II Army Air Corps pilots. He eventually served as a private pilot for political leaders back East before returning to the Northwest.

Endicott Union Elevator Company and Flathouse Railroad Grain Sack Storage (c. 1920);   R. R. Hutchison Photograph Collection, WSU Terrell/Allen Library, Pullman

Endicott Union Elevator Company and Flathouse Railroad Grain Sack Storage (c. 1920); R. R. Hutchison Photograph Collection, WSU Terrell/Allen Library, Pullman

There are many tales like this to share, but one of the most notable individuals to hail from our home was Washington Mike Lowry—born in St. John and a graduate of Endicott, who served in Congress in the 1980s and as Washington’s governor in the 1990s. Mike’s parents were vital members of the community as Bob managed the local grain growers cooperative in the 1950s while Helen taught school in nearby LaCrosse. I remember well when Mike returned to Endicott in 1992 for a downtown rally at which he announced his candidacy from the back of a wheat truck. Not long afterward in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Mike helped in significant ways to facilitate the Operation KareLift project that provided Northwest food and medicine to children’s hospitals and orphanages throughout the Russian Far East. We were saddened to learn of Mike’s passing this past spring and joined in a celebration of his life at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton near Seattle last May. Washington’s former governors were attendance along with other leaders who offered eloquent remarks on Mike’s longstanding commitment to the less fortunate. For me the most memorable reminiscence came from Pastor Kacey Hahn who recalled how last fall she asked for volunteers from the congregation to help with arrangements for a month-long tent city on church property for area homeless. She remembered that Mike had been among those who raised his hand but thought little more about it until coming to work early one weekend and hearing loud whistling from the downstairs laundry room. She investigated and found Mike making music while folding a mountain of clothes from the newcomers. At the memorial service Pastor Hahn asked how many retired politicians, or those from other walks of life, would spend time in such anonymous service, or as volunteer advocates for migrant farmer housing and the host of other humanitarian causes Mike so fervently pursued.  

As I continue to compose my treatise on harvest motifs in agrarian art and literature, my thoughts have turned to their use as political campaign slogans and images. The transformation of America from the land of self-sufficient yeomen to commercial farmers using labor-saving equipment took place throughout the nineteenth century when the rural populace still worked hard and sought land ownership, but depended increasingly on cash crops transported by newly constructed railroads to Eastern and foreign markets. The concurrent advent of improved agricultural mechanization fostered larger farm acreages and greater need for communities with bankers, merchants, grain brokers, equipment dealers, blacksmiths, and workers in other businesses and trades. The time increasingly witnessed a shift in rurality from small-scale farming as an end itself to consolidated land holdings that supported an array of local businesses, and held land value in similar regard to the old attachment to the land itself. Yet the agrarian myth of diligence, honesty, and independence had enduring appeal and remained a powerful symbol of the nation.

John McNevin, engraved by John Rogers,  Washington at Mt. Vernon  (1859);   Steel engraving on paper, 7 x 10 ⅛ inches;   New York Public Library

John McNevin, engraved by John Rogers, Washington at Mt. Vernon (1859); Steel engraving on paper, 7 x 10 ⅛ inches; New York Public Library

Vermont genre artist Junius Brutus Stearns (1810-1885), famed for his series on the American Founders, depicts a harvest scene in George Washington—Farmer (1850) in which the president, a reincarnation of the Roman general Cincinnatus, is clad in formal wear while conversing with his overseer as grain is cut by Mt. Vernon’s slaves. The symbolic scene is inspired by ancient writers like Hesiod, Virgil, and Horace whose writings in praise of husbandry formed the basis of a classical education for American upper classes, but overlooks the brutal realities known to toiling workers deprived of opportunity to own land. Cereal grains were raised in the South to a much lesser extent than cotton and tobacco, but agricultural mechanization came more slowly. The iconography of the benevolent harvester president as national patriarch and gentleman farmer was well established by the early nineteenth century. Popular prints followed Stearns’s painting including the fanciful harvest scenes of Washington at Mt. Vernon by Nathaniel Currier (1852) and by John Rogers (1859). The stereotype of hardworking, noble scythe-wielding agrarian remained a powerful image for nineteenth century politicians who sought to capitalize on public regard for rural rectitude and the patriotic farmer-leader. For this purpose various party organizers designed broadsides with agrarian imagery to promote candidates with campaign prints like William Henry Harrison, the Farmer of North Bend (1840), and Farmer Garfield Cutting a Swath to the White House (1880). The approach apparently reaped the expected benefits as both candidates, and many other seeking other offices, were elected.        

Currier & Ives,  Farmer Garfield Cutting a Swath to the White House  (1880);   Lithograph, 13 x 10 ⅝ inches;   Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Currier & Ives, Farmer Garfield Cutting a Swath to the White House (1880); Lithograph, 13 x 10 ⅝ inches; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

From Colonial America To El Camino Real — The Great American Heritage Grains Adventure (Part 3)

This blog is a continuation of a series on my (Richard's) recent trip across the country visiting important sites related to heritage and landrace grain studies. View the other posts here.

The Presido Of Monterey, California

Missions San Antonio Du Padua (Jolon) and San Carlos Borremeo (Carmel)


Mission San Juan Carmel Sanctuary (founded 1770); Good Friday, 2017

Mission San Juan Carmel Sanctuary (founded 1770); Good Friday, 2017

From 1973 to 1974 my wife, Lois, left the rolling hills of our native Palouse Country to begin married life in Monterey, California, where I attended the Defense Language Institute to study Russian at the oceanside city’s historic Presidio. While stationed there we explored many of the region’s Spanish missions that had greatly benefited from New Deal era restoration and other preservation work undertaken since the 1930s. One memorable visit to nearby historic Carmel Mission, founded in 1770, was a thoroughly multicultural experience—singing Russian folksongs with our Presidio choir in a Spanish church with commentary by our American conductor in English!

Cousin Patty Poffenroth Bell tending our German “Suesspleena” pancakes  (Monterey Bay beyond the windows!)

Cousin Patty Poffenroth Bell tending our German “Suesspleena” pancakes

(Monterey Bay beyond the windows!)

Monterey Bay’s breathtaking beauty is legendary, and we are blessed to have gracious relatives who have lived there for many years—John and Patty (Poffenroth) Bell. Patty’s grandmother and my grandfather were sister and brother, and our family has special memories of their annual summer treks north to tiny Endicott to visit us country cousins. Patty’s Grandma Mae Poffenroth Geier was a young girl when she arrived in 1891 with her Russian-born parents in the Palouse, and shared stories with me about her life at the Palouse Colony where they lived before located nearby on a farm where I was raised between Endicott and St. John.

Back in California, due to concern long before about colonial ambitions by Russia and Great Britain, King Carlos III of Spain authorized an expedition from San Diego led by Gaspar de Portolá and Franciscan friar Junípero Serra to travel overland to Monterey to claim the region “for God and the king of Spain.” They reached this scenic area in 1769 and six years afterward Monterey became the capital of Alta California. Father Serra established the Royal Presidio Chapel in 1770 and in the following year founded Mission San Carlos Borromeo as his headquarters in nearby Carmel Valley. Two hundred years later we attended a friend’s wedding here! San Carlos and San Diego were the first in a chain of twenty missions constructed along the 600-mile El Camino Real from San Diego to present Sonoma (San Francisco Solano) over the next fifty years.

Above: Mission San Antonio Threshing Floor and Grist Mill, near Jolon, California  Left: Father Serra Statue and Mission San Antonio du Padua Façade

Above: Mission San Antonio Threshing Floor and Grist Mill, near Jolon, California

Left: Father Serra Statue and Mission San Antonio du Padua Façade

Exhibits at the Presidio of Monterey Museum and Carmel’s San Carlos Borromeo showcase many treasured art objects associated with the missions’ spiritual and agrarian heritage including crosses meticulously decorated with lustrous grain straw appliqué, tapestries with colorful rural scenes, and deftly hand-wrought metal work in the forms of wheat stalks and grape clusters.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help Icon with Grain Stalk and Grape Cluster Candelabras (c. 1850); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Our Mother of Perpetual Help Icon with Grain Stalk and Grape Cluster Candelabras (c. 1850); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Wooden Cross with Grain Straw Appliqué (c. 1860); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Wooden Cross with Grain Straw Appliqué (c. 1860); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Until the United States seized control of California during the Mexican-American War in 1846 and later secularized the missions, these centers of regional development utilized Indian workers to raise vast livestock herds and substantial amounts of wheat, barley, corn, beans, and other crops. Areas of highest crop production, with a total of approximately twenty thousand tons of wheat produced from 1782 to 1832, centered around the missions San Gabriel Arcángel west of present Los Angeles, and at Santa Inéz and La Purísima Concepción to the northwest. San Antonio du Padua, founded by Father Serra in 1771 near present Jolon in central California, is today the most fully restored of the El Camino missions and features the original stone threshing floor—among the last extant in North America, adobe granary, and water-powered grist mill.

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, San Gabriel, California

Mission San Gabriel Sanctuary

Mission San Gabriel Sanctuary

In recent years scientists in the fascinating field of archeobotany have turned their attention to old adobe bricks from the El Camino Missions in order to determine the varieties of wheat, barley, and oats raised in the region from the 1770s. Since the bricks were made using grain straw and can be dated using church records with some precision, this research has been of great interest to many and has relevance to our work reviving landrace varieties at Palouse Colony Farm.

Cereal grains arrived in the New World in the late 15th century when Columbus brought Mediterranean wheats and barleys to Isabella, Puerto Rico, in order to sustain the men and livestock of his later voyages and subsequent arrivals. The grains of the early Spanish explorers did not mature well in the humid Caribbean, but eventually spread across fertile Mesoamerica following Hernán Cortés’ discovery of three wheat kernels in a sack of rice soon after the conquest of Mexico City in 1521. The conquistador directed his Black secretary-aide, Juan Garrido, to plant the grains in a newly established chapel garden plot (huerta). Andrés de Tapia’s sixteenth century Relaciòn Geográfia records that “little by little there was boundless wheat,” and by 1535 wheat was being exported from Mexico City to the Antilles. By the end of the century this grain was adapting to the fertile plains in Spanish-dominated areas to Oaxaca and beyond as the foreigners preferred wheat flour to the flatbreads and tortillas made from cassava, maize, and other indigenous crops.

Original El Camino Real Route, near San Juan Batista Mission, San Juan Bautista, California

Original El Camino Real Route, near San Juan Batista Mission, San Juan Bautista, California

“Chronicler of the Indies” Pedro de Cieza de León (c. 1520-1554) traveled widely throughout the Inca empire in the 1540s and records fields of wheat and barley “thick with stalks” in valleys of Ecuador. The Flemish Franciscan Jodôco Ricke had planted South America’s first wheat at Quito about 1538. Since the eleventh century, the Catholic Church only allowed wheat flour for altar breads so the far-flung missions of New Spain encouraged local cultivation given the irregular schedules of colonial pack trains. Cereals also represented means of acculturation and nutrition. “Eat that which the Castilian people eat,” preached Friar Bernardo de Sahagún to the native peoples of Mexico, so they could also become “strong and pure and wise.”

Mission San Gabriel Harvesters (c. 1895)

Mission San Gabriel Harvesters (c. 1895)

Frontier trade in grain northward advanced before Spanish settlement and evidence indicates that wheat reached the Pima Indians of the Gila Basin in present southern Arizona in the late seventeenth century. Father Eusebio Kino distributed wheat seed among the area’s native peoples upon his visit to Pimería Alta in 1687. Wheat sown in December during the appearance of Wēq—Sculpin (The Pleaides) ripened in the time of Na’sigînax-qua—Three Men in a Line (Orion’s Belt) after harvest of traditional crops like maize and pumpkins. In this way cultivation of Pima Club and other winter grains fit well into the agricultural calendar of the Pima and Papago peoples and were soft enough to grind with stone metatas. When explorer Juan Bautista de Anza visited the Pima in 1774, he wrote that “…standing in the middle [of their wheat fields], one cannot see the ends, because they are so long. Their width is also great, embracing the whole width of the valley on either side.”