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. 

Winter Sheaves and Celebration

Although holiday decorations and winter cold seem far removed from the affairs of summer harvest, in pre-industrial times life remained busy year-round as families needed to tend livestock and carry on other important chores. Considerable threshing of grain sheaves, for example, took place during winter as the brittle stalks that had been stored in barns since harvest were strewn about the covered threshing floor, or even on ice outside, to be struck with wooden flails in order to separate the golden kernels from the heads. To be sure, the winter time pace of labor was less intense than other seasons, and many agrarian traditions were associated with shortest days of the year.

Scandinavian farmers customarily saved the last harvest cuttings for the ceremonial “Yule Sheaf” (Norwegian Julenek, Swedish Julkarve) of oats or other grain which was suspended from a pole or barn roof during Christmas week and New Year as a blessing to the birds and goodwill offering for a favorable growing season. This tradition continued among some families in eighteenth century America as described in verse by Ohio poet Phoebe Cary’s “The Christmas Sheaf”:  

"And bid the children fetch," he said,
"The last ripe sheaf of wheat,
And set it on the roof o’erhead
That the birds may come and eat.

And this we do for His dear sake,
The Master kind and good,
Who of the loaves He blest and brake
Fed all the multitude."

As children we were always presented with a sack containing peanuts and an orange after the annual church Christmas program in our hometown of Endicott—a tradition that continues to this day. Only later did I learn that in ancient times oranges commonly symbolized the sun while acorns and other nuts were also given during the week of the winter solstice (December 21) to celebrate the return of longer days and life’s renewal. 

Suesspleena    Before and After Flipping

Suesspleena Before and After Flipping

Like families of many cultural backgrounds, ours has also long observed festive Christmas Eve dinners. A favorite entrée is the wide, paper thin Suesspleena egg batter pancakes and accompanying hot Schnitzel fruit soup of raisins, apples, peaches, and other flavorful “pieces” for which it is named, which is mixed with cream just before serving. When our beloved cousin Al first married into our clan many years ago, he led the procession around the holiday buffet and assumed the bowl of steaming brown was gravy, so proceeded to cover his mashed potatoes with it. We’ve never let him forget.

These pancakes remain an important part of Maslenitsa, Eastern Orthodoxy’s “Butter (or Crepe) Week,” celebrated now in the spring during Lent but observed in ancient times during mid-winter. Our German ancestors in Russia were known to stack them into layers spread with jam for a delicious treat, and the “4-3-2-1” recipe handed down to us remains a holiday staple. It calls for 4 eggs, 3 cups of milk, 2 cups of flour, and 1 tablespoon of sugar. We also add a dash of salt and fry them on a hot buttered skillet. Don’t worry if the first one or two are ruined as you gauge the proper temperature and master the flipping technique. After all, there is an old Russian saying that basically translates, “The first blina (pancake) is a disaster”!

We now LOVE making family Suesspleena meals using our Palouse Heritage Sonoran Gold flour. Not only is it more authentic than the modern flour you'd buy in the grocery store today, but it delivers a naturally sweet, nutty-tasting flavor. Delicious!