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.”
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.