Harvest

“Header in the Wheat”—The 2019 Harvest Commences

Our grain harvest began the first week of August as we joined with our Palouse River neighbor Joe DeLong to cut our crop of Crimson Turkey (“Turkey Red”) wheat at his farm. The DeLong place is located several miles upstream from our Palouse Colony Farm between the communities of Endicott and St. John. We’ve been working with Joe for several years as he takes meticulous care of his land and is a master mechanic whose magic touch keeps equipment of almost any vintage purring like new. Below is a picture of the first round in the Turkey wheat with Joe at the helm of his Model 453 International Combine. (The “header” is the detachable assembly in front of the combine with sickle cutting bar and rotating reel that feeds the grain back into the machines threshing mechanisms.) Crimson Turkey is a high quality hard red winter bread wheat indigenous to the Black Sea’s Crimean Peninsula. Flanking the strip of ripe grain is a lower stand of green oats that Joe will use for livestock feed, and above is a colorful hillside of Sonoran Gold soft white spring wheat which should be ready to harvest in about two more weeks. The latter is one of the earliest grains raised in the Pacific Northwest as period accounts trace its origins to at least the 1850s after seed stock had likely found its way north from California. Sonoran is a Mediterranean landrace wheat that was introduced by the Spanish to Mexico as early as the 16th century and eventually became a staple of Southwest cuisine for flour tortillas, Indian frybread, and numerous other flavorful foods.

Crimson Turkey Harvest

Crimson Turkey Harvest

The picture below was taken this past spring when colorful native “sunflower” balsamroot set the hillside overlooking our Palouse Colony Farm ablaze in vibrant yellow and greens. The brown summer-fallow field covering the lower flat now hosts a fine crop of golden Scots Bere barley, the “grain that gave beer its name.” This ancient variety has grown in the northern British Isles since at least the 4th century AD when it was likely introduced by Roman legionnaires sent north to occupy the region.

Arrowhead Balsamroot overlooking Palouse Colony Farm

Arrowhead Balsamroot overlooking Palouse Colony Farm

Although we transport our grain to a cleaning and storage facility in the rural community of Thornton about eighteen miles northeast of the farm, grain handling modernization has recently come to our nearby hometown Endicott. In the early 1880s, Endicott was platted by the Oregon Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad, on its strategic branch line that tapped the fertile Palouse grain district along a route from the main NPRR transcontinental line at Palouse Junction (present Connell, Washington) eastward to Endicott, Colfax, and eventually Pullman and Moscow. A complicated network of feeder lines then tapped the northern and southern parts of the region. Construction of the central line, known in the late 1800s as the Columbia & Palouse, led to use of heavier rail than along other tracks which came to be an important factor many decades later for upgrading regional grain shipping operations.

Whitgro Unit Train Loading Facility, Endicott, Washington

Whitgro Unit Train Loading Facility, Endicott, Washington

With the merger of local farmer Endicott and St. John grain storage cooperatives in recent years into a larger entity known as Whitgro, a decision was made to construct a new storage and train loading facility in Endicott since the line there had been constructed with rail weight capable of carrying 110-car unit trains. The project called for construction of seven new immense steel grain silos to be located adjacent to a series of several other larger ones which brought total capacity in Endicott to approximately 3,100,000 bushels. The new storage facility was designed for rapid one-day loading of the trains which are capable of holding 100 tons of grain per car for a combined unit capacity of 420,000 bushels. Grain is trucked to town from farms and other elevators in all directions for shipment downline to tiny Hooper and then on to Portland for shipment worldwide. Work commenced on the enormous project last fall and the facility became operational just in time for this year’s bountiful harvest. The two R. R. Hutchison photographs below show grain storage at Endicott about 1910 when men worked long hours to carefully arrange 110 pound sacks along the railroad in tall stacks and in wide wooden flat-houses. Makes one grateful for trucks and augers.

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The McCormick Reaper

I couldn’t help but smile at the special childhood memory brought to mind recently when local historian Manton Bailie, lifelong resident and farmer in rural community of Mesa, Washington, showed me some old farm equipment in rusty retirement at this place. When Manton told me about playing on the old horse-powered mechanical reaper it instantly brought back memories of my own Palouse Country boyhood. Although the old McCormick reapers on the hillside above our house had largely been invaded by the branches of cherry tree, a skinny youth could still wiggle down between wooden draper roll and outside iron wheel and dream of driving a tank.

Edwin Fulwider,  Manton Poe  (Manton Bailie’s grandfather of Mesa, Washington),  The Ford Times  (September, 1953)

Edwin Fulwider, Manton Poe (Manton Bailie’s grandfather of Mesa, Washington), The Ford Times (September, 1953)

The effectiveness of mechanical reapers like Manton’s and my grandfather’s equipment led to their widespread use throughout the country and subsequent improvements further reduced the need for rural laborers and rendered traditional field gleaning virtually impossible. While some loss of kernels took place as grain heads could shatter from the reaper’s wooden reel paddles, the stalks were effectively captured to be bound, carted, and threshed. But the ancient grain varieties native to Europe for thousands of years and introduced to the New World as early as the 1500s remained essentially unchanged until twentieth century plant genetics spawned hybridized cultivars resistant to shattering and lodging. The inexorable shift to technological modernity eclipsed eons of social and economic relationships that had guided human endeavor since the beginning of recorded history.

Reaping in the Olden Time;  Above:  Reaping in Our Time  (1857)

Reaping in the Olden Time; Above: Reaping in Our Time (1857)

“Reaping at Syracuse,”  Harper’s Weekly  (August 1, 1857)

“Reaping at Syracuse,” Harper’s Weekly (August 1, 1857)

The momentous tilt that brought greater productivity can be dated with some specificity through art and literature from the period. Explicit depiction of the new horse-power order was shown graphically in an August, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The unattributed author and artist depicted a gathering during the previous week of the influential U. S. Agricultural Society near Syracuse, New York. Crowds had surrounded a grain field there to witness a competition among ninety-five different mechanical reapers. A grand parade of contestants preceding the event led through an impressive castle façade adorned with colorful flags and banners casting mythic significance on the mechanical marvels, jousting drivers, and patron inventors.

“…[T]he days of the sickle are over,” proclaimed the reporter, who advised readers, “Lay it up—the old tool—in a museum, on a fair cushion; label it, number it, …for the time is coming when the sickle will be as rare as the headsman’s axe or the Spanish blunderbuss. We must have a machine like a steam-engine, with two horses to draw it, which shall tear devastatingly through a field of oats or wheat, cut ten feet wide of grain at a stroke, and lay it all ready for sheaving.” The advent of this “startling mechanical enterprise” would lead to the manufacture of an estimated 200,000 machines the following year, with one of the biggest beneficiaries of such land office business being the manufacturer of the Syracuse contest’s gold medal winner—the McCormick’s Reaper.

Defining Harvest, Explaining Print-Making

Although the words “reap,” “thresh,” and “harvest” are often used synonymously today, important distinctions define their use in period literature and among many farmers today. To reap is to cut grain either manually by sickle or scythe, or with a mechanical cutting bar, while threshing, or thrashing, refers to the separation of kernels from heads (spikes) of grain stalks by striking them with a wooden flail, the treading of animals, or being machine-run. Harvesting in former days meant the gathering and storing of unthreshed stalks, but since Early Modern times harvest has also come to mean all of these summertime operations.

B. F. Wetherbee,  The Harvest Moon  (1881), 10 ½ x 27 ½ inches (c. 1900 reprint)

B. F. Wetherbee, The Harvest Moon (1881), 10 ½ x 27 ½ inches (c. 1900 reprint)

In addition to oil and watercolor paintings featured in this series, art prints represent several production techniques. Artists have used intaglio methods by incising an image into a copper plate with an instrument to render a soft etching, or by using a burin to create a sharper engraved print. Intaglio is also used for mezzotint by roughening the plate for a print of greater surface contrast. Woodcuts are made through a relief process in which grooves are carved on a soft wood surface bearing the artist’s design so it remains standing in relief and is inked for the print. Wood engravings are similar but the spaces between the image’s lines are left standing above the surface and the design itself prints in white. Lithography is a planographic process in which the picture is drawn and treated with inks and solutions on a flat stone or metal surface to make multiple black and white or color impressions.     

The “Good Old Days” — Sweet and Sweat

Once in a while I’ll spot something on Ebay that has special relevance to my musings on agrarian art, and when it falls into my price range that makes it doubly rewarding. So it was recently when I found an exceedingly dog-eared copy of James Wilson’s Art Designs in Harvest Machinery (1884). I know, not exactly a best-seller back in the day let alone now, but it was filled with thirty large exquisitely rendered, large format steel engravings of farm scenes that offer many interesting details about equipment used at that time. Extensive recent research by agricultural historians Jerome Blum (1978) and J. Sanford Rikoon (1988) using period documents indicates how romanticized modern notions have been about social conditions of pre-industrial agrarians.

The emergence of medieval tenancies on terms that favored landlords and small free-holder properties demanded a single family’s devotion to their own limited holdings to make ends meet. Although farmers tended to cluster in villages throughout Europe where they gathered for worship and to socialize, little need existed to join with others for most field operations. To be sure, the weeks of summer harvest were a critical time to ensure sustenance throughout the entire year, and therefore demanded full and creative deployment of all able-bodied personnel from the vicinity and beyond. Modern perceptions endure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century “golden age of threshing” that fostered greater cooperation and neighborliness. These values were needed for grand “harvest rings” to pool labor and equipment but were a relatively short-lived phenomenon.

James Wilson & Son,  Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery  (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

James Wilson & Son, Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

As manufacturers in the U. S. and Europe developed more affordable mechanical threshers and steam engines, need for the larger cooperative endeavors diminished. The advent of internal combustion engines in the early twentieth century that replaced animals and steam to power threshing equipment further shifted the complex nexus of technological, economic, and social factors toward single family responsibility. Creative cooperative methods especially during harvest time have continued, however, with seasonal employment of additional workers, sharing and leasing of expensive combines, and organization of grain storage, transportation, and marketing networks.

Modern society’s reliance on convenience stores and relative abundance of provisions serve to obscure understandings of the stolid persistence required to seed, till, and reap lest the family and wider population suffer. Rural folk beckoned rain and sun in proper measure, and prayed that staples would not spoil or be stolen. Until recent times, much of the year for the masses was spent in hope and fear. Hope realized at summer harvest brought promise of sustenance through winter, and come spring it would all begin again. For rich or poor, survival came from what was grown in the good earth. The duties of sowing and harvesting, therefore, had religious connotations which have been reflected in a variety of creative forms of art, literature, and music.

Hands to Harvest! “Bringing in the Sheaves” in 2018

Few words conjure up richer connotations of summertime, country life, and abundance than harvest. During the past three weeks we have commenced harvesting our Palouse Heritage grains and are pleased to report excellent quality and yield. Ever being interested in matters of origin, I decided to investigate the derivation of the word “harvest,” and learned that it is derived from German Herbst (autumn). That word in turn descends from a root shared by Latin carp- (“to gather”) and Greek karpos (“fruit”). “Harvest” in the sense of reaping grain and other crops came into vernacular use during the medieval era of Middle English.

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Palouse Heritage Yellow Breton Wheat Harvest near Connell, Washington (July, 2018)

Palouse Heritage Yellow Breton Wheat Harvest near Connell, Washington (July, 2018)

Likely due to the light color of a wheat kernel’s interior endosperm, the word “wheat” in many European languages meant “white,” as with Old English whete, Welsh gwenith, and German weizzi. The Latin term “gladiators,” hordearii, literally means “barley eaters” since they subsisted on high energy foods like barley, oatmeal, and legumes. Roman legionaries were routinely outfitted with sickles in order to procure their livelihood throughout the far flung empire, and probably used them more often that their weapons. The helical frieze on Trajan’s Column in Rome (c. 110 AD) features a dynamic group scene of soldiers in full uniform harvesting waist-high grain with prodigious heads.

These days we don’t need to rely on sickles and legionnaires to bring in the crop. Good friends like Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, raise bountiful crops of organic Palouse Heritage varieties like Crimson Turkey and Yellow Breton. The latter is a soft red variety native to the northern France where for generations it was used for the prized flour essential for flavorful crepes. Farther to the northeast in the vicinity of Endicott, Washington, our longtime friends Joe DeLong and Chuck Jordan are harvestings stands of Palouse Heritage Red Fife, a famous bread grain originally from Eastern Europe, Sonoran Gold wheat, and Scots Bere barley that has become one of the most sought-after craft brewing malt grains.

Although there are some variations in climate and soil across the inland Pacific Northwest, this fertile region lies within the great arc of the Columbia River’s “Big Bend” easily identified on any map. While reading through some old newspapers recently I encountered the following poem titled “The Big Bend” by Louis Todd that was published in 1900. Little else is known about Todd’s life, but his literary expressions here make it clear he greatly appreciated this land of harvest time “golden splendor.”

 

No other river to the ocean

   Will a tale like thine unfold,

Of the wealth seen in thy travels;

   Of the wealth thy borders hold;

For thy thoughts the grandeur bear,

   And thy breath the sweetness breathes,

Of the boundless fields and forests,

   Of the richly laden trees.

 

And there grows within thy roaring

   All the fairest of the vine;

Luscious fruits in clusters hanging

   From the north and southern clime.

Great fields of wheat in golden splendor,

   Waving like a mighty sea,

Holding safe their precious treasure

   ’Till the grain shall ripened be.

 

Where nature works with freest hand,

   Builds her greatest work of art,

Will the feeble life of man

   There most smoothly play its part.

Oh, leave the dreary course you travel,

   Spurn the rocky path you go,

Join again your life with Nature,

   Where the fragrant flowers grow.

 

Palouse Heritage Red Fife Wheat Harvest (July, 2018)

Palouse Heritage Red Fife Wheat Harvest (July, 2018)

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Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 3)

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.


Grey’s novel relates the tragic end of protagonist Kurt Dorn’s father, Chris, who collapses while fighting a crop fire. While recovering from the loss and challenge of bringing in his grain from the field, Kurt is unexpectedly greeted by “a wonderful harvest scene.” Neighbors from all around his home gather for a grand threshing bee to complete the harvest. Grey cleverly uses this special “American” event—commonly seen in rural areas for families in distress, to describe the complicated and labor-intensive process of grain harvesting operations in an era of horse- and steam-power. Kurt arose to see “the glaring gold of the wheat field… crisscrossed everywhere with bobbing black streaks of horses—bays, blacks, whites, and reds; by big, moving painted machines, lifting arms and puffing straw; by immense wagons piled high with sheaves of wheat, lumbering down to the smoking engines and the threshers….” Few other novelists provide such colorful and detailed narration of the harvesting sequence from cutting by combine and reaper to threshing and hauling the year’s precious yield to storage:

First Kurt began to load bags of wheat, as they fell from the whirring combines…. For his powerful arms a full bag, containing two bushels, was like a toy for a child. With a lift and a heave he threw a bag into a wagon. They were everywhere, these brown bags, dotting the stubble field, appearing as if by magic in the wake of the machines. They rolled off the platforms.

…From that he progressed to a seat on one of the immense combines, where he drove twenty-four horses. No driver there was any surer than Kurt of his aim with the little stones he threw to spur a lagging horse. …[H]e liked the shifty cloud of fragrant chaff, now and then blinding and choking him; and he liked the steady, rhythmic tramps of hooves and the roaring whir of the great complicated machine. It fascinated him to see the wide swath of nodding wheat tremble and sway and fall, and go sliding up into the inside of that grinding maw, and come out, straw and dust and chaff, and a slender stream of gold filling the bags.

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910,   Palouse Heritage Collection

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910, Palouse Heritage Collection

With the successful completion of harvest providing payment on the farm’s mortgage (Kurt sought no favors from Lenore’s sympathetic landlord father) and resolution of further WWI turmoil, young Dorn finally feels free to enlist in the army. Following basic training in the East, he is transported to the front lines in France where he experiences the brutalities of war. Grey paints the ugliness of battle in vivid terms that also express the wastefulness of violent conflict. While an ardent patriot who decried foreign aggression, Grey also uses dialogue and description to relate the horrific long-term consequences of war for survivors frequently overlooked in contemporary press accounts. The injuries Dorn incurs going over the top of a trench amidst machine-gun fire, panic, gas-shelling, and bombardment nearly end his life. The scene is less heroic than nauseous in “pale gloom, with spectral forms,” and death. He returns home as a broken man haunted by hideous dreams and devoid of hope for the future. Once again the abiding power of love and land shown through Lenore in their native fields of Columbia grain bring forth meaning and restoration:

Then clearly floated to him a slow sweeping rustle of the wheat. Breast-high it stood down there, outside his window, a moving body, higher than the gloom. That rustle was the voice of childhood, youth, and manhood, whispering to him, thrilling as never before. …The night wind bore it, but life—bursting life was behind it, and behind that seemed to come a driving and mighty spirit. Beyond the growth of the wheat, beyond its life and perennial gift, was something measureless and obscure, infinite and universal.

Suddenly he saw that something as the breath and the blood and the spirit of wheat—and of man. Dust and to dust returned they might be, but this physical form was only the fleeting inscrutable moment on earth, spring up, giving birth to seed, dying out for that ever-increasing purpose which ran through the ages.

With the completion of The Desert of Wheat in 1918 and lucrative contracts from Harper’s for future works, Grey and his wife, Dolly, relocated from Pennsylvania to southern California in 1920 and acquired a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival mansion near Pasadena. He had long been an avid outdoorsman, and his financial success led to worldwide fishing expeditions and support of conservation efforts. Although one of America’s most prominent authors, Grey had still harbored doubts about his continued capacity for creative writing. But the recent Western travels and popular acclaim for The Desert of Wheat fostered renewed commitment and a turning point in his career. His journal entry of February 16, 1918 records, “…[M]y study and passion shall be directed to that which I have already written best—the beauty and color and mystery of great spaces, of the open, of Nature and her wild moods.”

The commercial success of Grey’s books led in 1920 to his formation of a motion picture company, Zane Grey Productions. The company released a silent movie version of The Desert of Wheat which played in theatres nationwide as Riders of the Dawn. He eventually sold the company to Paramount Studios but continued writing short stories novels for the rest of his life and consulted for later Hollywood productions of dozens of films based on his books.

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from  Starry Night  (2016)

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from Starry Night (2016)

The Desert of Wheat also inspired Paxton Farrar’s award-winning 2016 short film Starry Night funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Farrar cited “the vastness of the landscapes” and “melancholic romance that permeates the land” as important cinematic influences. In Farrar’s presentation the main character is a young woman who seeks escape from small town life  to pursue her passion to become an astronomer. The film’s starlit scenes evoke young Dorn’s evening soliloquy as he surveys the cosmos and expresses an eloquent philosophy of life uncharacteristic of a Western novel: “Material things—life, success—such as had inspired Kurt Dorn, on this calm night lost their significance and were seen clearly. They could not last. But the wheat there, the hills, the stars—they would go on with their task. …[S]elf-sacrifice, with its mercy, succor, its seed like the wheat, was as infinite as the stars.” Whether returning to familiar Southwest scenes and frontier action for new novels, or while sailing to the South Pacific, Grey’s time on the Columbia Plateau left a favorable and enduring impression.

 

Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes:  New Deal Farm Security Administration Harvest Photos and Art

A remarkable team of photographers were associated with the Department of Agriculture’s WPA-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1943 including Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marjory Collins. Although they had little background in farming, these individuals immersed themselves in the realities of Depression era farming to create some of the nation’s most iconic images of the time. The group worked under the direction of FSA Historical Section director Roy Stryker to formulate a vernacular realism of images and articles that honored rural traditions. Rothstein (1915-1985) found it useful to overcome the suspicions of country folk by conspicuously carrying his Leica camera for several days when visiting with residents on a new assignment without actually taking any pictures. Eventually his subjects felt accustomed to his presence and would even ask to have their pictures taken in formal settings and for what Rothstein sought as “unobtrusive camera” shots: “the idea of becoming a part of the environment… to such an extent that they’re not even aware that pictures are being taken.” While visiting harvest fields in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington, Rothstein gained special appreciation for the significance of small details and came to understand with his colleagues that their mission was not photojournalism, but “photography as fine art” depicting “man in relationship to the environment.”

Marion Post Wolcott,  Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia  (1939);   Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm;   Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Marion Post Wolcott, Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia (1939); Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Russell Lee (1903-1986) was especially sympathetic to the rural poor and traveled widely in the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest in the spirit of his unpublished “Hired Man” project. Lee sought to document the essential if substantially neglected public depiction of hired farm hands and transient “tramp” laborers, also derisively called “hobos” and “bums,” who traveled the countryside to find work during the harvest season. The collaborative efforts of FSA photographers contributed to widespread public support for New Deal rural improvement programs as images of austere farm homes, windswept fields, and beleaguered harvest workers were featured at public exhibitions and filled the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers and periodicals. As her FSA colleagues worked extensively in the Midwest and South, Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) documented rural experience of the era from New England to the Southern states. Her stirring images also express the administration’s social consciousness and the presence of a woman sometimes provided them access to persons and situations that excluded other outsiders.

Ben Shahn,  Harvest Dinner  (1938);   Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm;   Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ben Shahn, Harvest Dinner (1938); Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was already an accomplished National Academy of Design artist and printmaker in Manhattan when also hired in 1935 as one of the first FSA photographers. He used his pictures not only to advance the agency’s moral mission to inform the wider population to support rural economic and social reform, but also as models for various forms of agrarian art including many harvest paintings and lithographs including Bountiful Harvest (1944), Beatitudes (1952), and Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967). The latter is a watercolor of several dozen black stalks of wheat highlighted by swaths of bright colors in areas where the stems cross. It was also used for Shahn’s illustration of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season….”) in a collection of photo-lithographs rendered with handwritten and illuminated text by the artist for Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris: The Trianon Press, 1967). In the book’s preface, Shahn attributes the origin of his artistic commitment to Old Testament references by family and community elders in his Jewish hometown and a particular verse from Solomon’s ancient book: “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion….” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).  

Shahn’s remarkable series of Ohio grain harvest photographs taken in August, 1938, on the Virgil and Cora Thaxton farm near Mechanicsburg consisted of over 200 images with many that feature women preparing and serving meals to famished harvesters. The artist’s notebooks include details on his hosts’ Depression era economic plight known to many tenant farmers who struggled with low crop shares to make ends meet:

Virgil Thaxton rents a 120-acre farm… [which] is the fourth farm he has rented within the last eight years. At each change he hopes to make enough to have a nice home for his family. Within the last eight years hogs have not brought more than ten cents on the foot. Wheat brought sixty cents per bushel this year. Mr. Thaxton is constantly agitated. He is conscious of the rundown condition of his farm. He would like to have it look as neat as Mr. Brand's own farm. In his agitation he is constantly pulling up a weed here, a weed there, but must then break off to tend the stock. Mr. Thaxton votes for Roosevelt…. Mr. Thaxton loves the land. Two years ago he was offered a small political job in the city. Mr. Thaxton: “But when I thought of the young wheat coming up and that pretty green on top of the hill and it is pretty I just wouldn't think of it. And then the children…. I hear wheat is bringing sixty cents now. If it only brought a few cents more I could afford to fix up this place. As it is, what with giving Mr. Brand his half, we can just get by.”

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes  (1967);    Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher    (Paris, 1967)

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967); Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris, 1967)

Shahn’s vernacular visuals provide an intimate look at domestic farm life as if Shahn and his camera are invisible observers inside the home. The midday meal was one of the most harried times for the apron-clad women who are shown cooking and serving, while men and boys dressed in overalls sit almost reverentially to partake of the abundant provisions and break from harvest labors. Shahn’s interior views show a sparsely decorated but comfortable home with paper calendar and mercury thermometer above a substantial wooden sideboard laden with meat, potatoes, bread, cake, and other fare. Another view shows a large framed picture on the wall of Christ holding a child, as if both are looking down at a boy—the Thaxton’s son, Harold, seated beneath them. Two tables covered with white fabric tablecloths are splendidly set with silverware, patterned china and Depression glass serving bowls, pitchers, plates, salt and pepper shakers, and wine glasses that probably hold a dessert. The workers eat quietly and drink coffee as if grateful for the bounty and mindful of the long hours of hot afternoon labor that await them.