Whitman County Wheat Harvest

The difficult terrain of Whitman County, Wash., was managed by custom threshers and a unique tramway system during the wheat harvest

Sewing filled sacks shut

Sewing filled sacks shut.

Content Tools

Exceptionally difficult terrain created unique harvest-time challenges nearly 100 years ago in eastern Washington. But in the high country of Whitman County, a resourceful approach teamed a McCormick header pushed by eight mules, a threshing machine powered by a Holt Model 45 Caterpillar tractor and a nearly one-mile long aerial tramway to deliver sacks of grain to a terminal on the Snake River in a canyon 1,700 feet below. Photos I purchased a few years ago capture the 1920 harvest of 320 acres of wheat from steep, rolling hills. 

These photographs also show how the rancher hauled sacks of harvested grain from the field using a wagon pulled by eight mules to a storage area near the rim of the Snake River canyon. The sacks of grain were piled in an outside storage area before being lowered to the bottom of the canyon, about 1,700 feet below the canyon rim.

Farmers in that part of Whitman County used a wire-rope or cable tramway system to lower sacks of grain, one by one, in buckets attached to the cable. The tramway system used a loop of steel cable that spanned a distance of nearly one mile, reaching from the terminal at the rim of the canyon to a second terminal near the edge of the Snake River. Gravity moved the sacks to the bottom of the canyon. The rate of descent was controlled by a large brake (on an 8 foot cast iron wheel) located at the upper terminal. When the grain arrived at the bottom of the canyon, it was stored in a warehouse and later transported to market.

I was interested in this group of photographs because, for three summers in the 1950s, I worked in that country during the wheat harvest to earn money for college. I attended Washington State College at Pullman, about 25 miles from where this 1920 harvest took place. By the 1950s, horses and headers had been replaced by a Caterpillar tractor pulling a combined harvester, and trucks were used instead of horse-drawn wagons to haul wheat out of the fields. The hills were still just as steep and harvest hours still stretched from dawn to dusk. My work was hard, but not nearly as difficult and demanding as required in that 1920 harvest. 

The end of an era

The Palouse Country is a rich grain-growing region that includes Whitman County in Washington and is part of a larger grain-producing region known as the “Inland Empire,” comprising all major grain-producing regions of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. By 1920 most of the grain produced in the northwestern states, including the Palouse Country, was harvested by combined harvesters. 

“Here and there they still head the grain and thresh it, but when one remembers that there are 140 combined harvesters in use in Umatilla County (Ore.) alone, and that few of them thresh during a season less than a thousand acres, one realizes that the old way is not much in vogue. It is outgrown,” wrote R.M. Hall in Pacific Monthly, October 1904.

Starting in the 1890s, hundreds of combined harvesters were produced annually by California manufacturers. Many were sold to farmers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. In 1915, Holt Mfg. Co. opened a factory in Spokane, Wash., to assemble several smaller Holt combined harvesters designed for the needs of Inland Empire grain farmers. 

Tailored to the market

In the spring of 1917, International Harvester Co. started selling two different combined harvester models in the Inland Empire, providing serious competition to the Holt machines. The McCormick and Deering divisions of this Chicago-based farm machinery manufacturer introduced their small “harvester-threshers” to the northwest.

These two machines were similar in design. Each had a nine-foot cut, was ground powered and could be pulled by eight to 12 horses. They had no leveling device and were not very efficient, but they sold for an affordable $1,600 ($27,397) and needed no more than a two-man crew – making a farmer independent of everyone but his banker. These McCormick and Deering “harvester-threshers” (also known as “stubble bugs”) were a perfect fit for the small grain farmer, who could harvest his own crop working with one man or his son. 

The IHC machines had another large advantage over the combined harvester manufacturers in the Northwest and in California: The eastern factories could produce the machines in larger numbers and at less expense. Stubble bugs were the finishing blow for the custom threshers who harvested with horses, headers, wagons and threshing machines. But as photos accompanying this article show, at least one custom thresher was still on the job in Whitman County in 1920.

The McCormick header

That surviving custom thresher harvested wheat with a 14-foot McCormick header. The header was pushed by eight mules and controlled by a single teamster. The teamster controlled the mules, steered the header and controlled the levels of the sickle bar that cut the wheat and the drapers that fed cut wheat stocks into the header wagon. Three header wagons were used in this 1920 harvest, filled by one header.

The header of 1920, except being made of steel, was little changed from the header of 1876, based on this description published in an 1876 issue of the Pacific Rural Press: “A header is a machine which cuts the standing grain at the elevation the driver may see fit, and throws it into the header-wagons which attend it closely. It consists of a broad, strong frame poised upon a single axle, with a tail-piece supported by a grooved steering-wheel which is managed by the driver.

“Along the front edge of this frame, which is parallel with the surface of the ground, is a sickle like that of a reaper; a set of triangular teeth moving to and fro through projecting tongues. Sometimes this sickle is twelve feet long, sometimes sixteen, sometimes even more. Just above the sickle is a long, revolving frame, which catches the tops of the grain-stalks and bends them in upon the hungry lips of the knife.

“The horses that work the machine are in the rear behind the axle, and, as they advance all abreast, the knives are forced into the grain and cut a swath in advance. The driver, who must be very cool-headed and very expert, stands upon the tail-piece with the tiller of the steering wheel between his legs, his left hand handling the reins, the ends of which are tied above him upon a brace, while with his right he raises or depresses with a huge lever the frame which carries the sickle. It is easy to understand why that man may be wearied at the end of a long day’s labor in the sun.

“After the sickle has done its work, the heads of the grain, together with the portion of the stalk that has been cut off with them, fall to the rear upon a traveling belt some forty inches broad, which, running up over a shoot projected from the left side of the header, carries the grain out of the header and tips it overboard into a header wagon, which is always in attendance.” 

Each header wagon needed two men, one to drive and a second with a pitchfork to assist in filling the wagon. When a header wagon was full, it was replaced by an empty one. The cut grain was then taken to the threshing machine and directly fed by pitchfork to the Jackson self-feeder attached to the Russell threshing machine. As soon as a header wagon was unloaded, it was sent back to the field to be refilled.

The Wawawai tramway

A bucket tramway built in 1901 near the small town of Wawawai (rhymes with Hawaii), Wash., moved sacks of grain harvested from nearby ranches from the rim of the Snake River canyon to the canyon floor. From there the grain was shipped to market by steamboat or by rail. Constructed on land owned by Nate C. Myers, the tramway was successfully operated from 1901 to 1938, serving farmers in the Ewartsville and Union Flat districts of Whitman County.

Forty years after it was constructed, the tramway fell victim to a World War II scrap drive. In 1975, the town of Wawawai disappeared as well, buried under 80 feet of water when the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River was completed.

A well-written description of the Wawawai bucket tramway appeared in the September 1904 issue of Pacific Monthly. The wire-rope tramway system used at Wawawai was invented and manufactured by San Francisco engineer Andrew S. Hallidie. Hallidie started producing tramways in the 1870s to transport ore from inaccessible mines over difficult terrain to locations where the ore could be processed or moved by rail. Hallidie later designed and developed San Francisco’s famous cable car system. The first cable car route was completed in August 1873. Hallidie’s 1901 cable tramway at Wawawai was one of the last of that design produced.

"Mechanical Sheep Herder" Gets Dealer in Trouble

The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco celebrated the Panama Canal’s completion and commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Balboa. The construction of this Expo (which took more than three years) also celebrated reconstruction of the City of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake there. Running from Feb. 20, 1915 until Dec. 4, 1915, the fair was considered a huge success.

Holt Mfg. Co., which launched its Holt Caterpillar Model 45 in 1915, was among the event’s commercial exhibitors. An article published in Implement and Vehicle Record explained that Holt employees were required to “be on hand at all times to extend the glad hand of welcome, and to explain Holt machines to all who are interested.”

Famous engineer and former Holt employee Oscar Starr recalled an incident with a Holt dealer who grew weary of offering that glad hand of welcome. “That San Francisco Fair exhibit had a sidelight story I recall very well,” he related later. “The Holt 45 with no front wheel was rigged up to turn slowly in a circle on the floor (powered by an electric motor). Holt dealer Dad Crook, who had been trained for the ministry, was in charge of the Holt exhibit and naturally had to answer a lot of foolish questions. But he booby-trapped himself when he casually assured a visitor that [the Model 45] was a mechanical sheep herder. This fellow went away to spread the word among friends and didn’t see anything funny in being made to look foolish when his listeners finally convinced him that he had been sold a left-handed monkey wrench with an envelope stretcher thrown in for good measure. He came back a few days later to check up and was in a bitter letter-writing mood after he discovered the turning machine was a tractor. Crook had to apologize.” FC 

See video the amazing Palouse Country wheat harvest, including the horse-drawn combine and the Mayview Tram.

To learn more: 
-Riding The High Wire: Aerial Mine Tramways in the West, Robert A. Trennert, 2001. 
-The Bucket Tramway, Pacific Monthly, September 1904.  
-The Caterpillar’s Roots, Jack Alexander, 2005, the historic Holt Caterpillar Model 45 and other Holt and Best tractors. 
-Of Yesterday And The River, June Crithfield, 1964, Wawawai and Snake River history. 
-The Staff of Life, Fred Lockley, Pacific Monthly, October 1906, the history of wheat in the Inland Empire. 
-The California Combined Harvester, Jack Alexander, 2010, the history of headers, threshers and the harvest of grain on the Pacific coast. 
-Grain-Growing in the Northwest, Rinaldo M. Hall, Pacific Monthly, October 1904, the history of growing grain in the Inland Empire. 
-Catalog: The Cable Railway Company’s System of Traction Railways for Cities and Towns, Cable Railway Co., San Francisco, April 16, 1881.  

A resident of Gilroy, Calif., Jack Alexander is retired from a career in the aerospace industry. He is the author of several books on steam power in agriculture and antique tractors, including The First American Farm Tractors, The Caterpillar’s Roots and The California Combined Harvester. Contact Jack via e-mail at jacklee@garlic.com.