Harvesting in Kansas, 1911: a scene from a picture postcard.
I would like to start this visit off by thanking everybody who has emailed, called or written me a letter. I appreciate it very much. I thoroughly enjoy hearing from everybody. It is hard for me to get back to everyone, but please know I read every bit of correspondence I receive.
This visit, as I write this, finds America fighting a virus. I hope all you readers are doing well. I have been lucky as I have been able to get out and check my cows and move around a bit. Here in Alva, Oklahoma, there have been just minor adjustments due to the virus. For once, being 65 miles from a town of any size is beneficial.
When I am out with my small herd of cows or sitting on my porch, I often let my mind wander. I figure if I can’t wander physically, part of me might as well get out and roam! I wonder what survivors of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression would think of all we are going through right now.
Some pundits say our current crisis will not last long; then another one says it may be up to 18 months getting over it. Others say our lives will never be the same. One says the economy is going to be worse than the Great Depression, while others say it will be back on its feet by the end of the year.
Is it possible the same types of conversations were going on back in the late 1920s? Did some think the drought was going to be short, while some knew it would last years? How about the Great Depression? I wonder what they were saying about that. I do know that the folks who made it through what were some of the toughest years in American history are known as the Greatest Generation. Maybe folks living today will be known for what they endure; only time will tell.
Back down the line
Each time we sit down to visit, there is a certain feel to it. I look through my collection of picture postcards and one will jump out at me with a story and I instantly know that’s the one. This visit was a bit different. I really struggled. Each day as the deadline approached, I continued to ponder over what to visit about. I would sit and start giving the subject a good goin’ over. I found myself at the same end, wondering if those who lived through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression had any idea how tough times would get. Then I came across this picture postcard. According to what was written at the top, this picture was taken in 1911, 109 years ago. A lot has happened in those 109 years.
I took this picture in July 2016, the first year I cut wheat in the Denver area. That is Earl Williams operating his John Deere 9770. See the mountains in the background. Cutting wheat on the Front Range is a wonderful experience: The view out your office window is breathtaking. In the background are a bunch of apartment complexes. Development was consuming cropland at an alarming rate.
The top of the picture says, “Harvesting in Kansas 1911.” It doesn’t say what they are harvesting but I assume it is wheat. When I think of harvest, I think of $500,000 combines making their way across wheat fields and dumping on semi-trucks. In 1911, what they consider “harvesting” was a two-part process, to my knowledge anyway.
First you would cut and bind wheat into bundles when it was still a bit green. As bundles were being laid out on the ground, they would be picked up and put into shocks. When done properly, these shocks would actually shed water. When the wheat was dry, you would load up the shocks and take them to the threshing machine. That completed the harvest cycle. Today modern harvesting has combined these two steps, hence the word combine.
Drilling into the details
The first thing I noticed on this postcard photo is how wonderful the wheat looks. I bet they felt really blessed to have a crop that good. If you look closely, you can see a person’s head sticking out the top of the wheat. I cannot tell if it is a boy or a girl; each time I zoom in and look at it I change my mind. I wonder if they decided to go out and sit in the wheat to show how good the crop was. You can tell by the livestock that it was at least belly-tall and it looks pretty thick.
In June 2017, I saw this John Deere 9600 harvesting wheat in the field next to us near Waukomis, Okla. If you look closely at the clean grain auger, you will see it is really pumping out the wheat.
The animals appear to be mules. If you look closely at the team on the empty wagon, one mule is tossing its head around. I thought that was pretty funny; it didn’t seem much interested in being still for a photograph. The back team of mules seems to have a bunch of strings hanging down off their backs; I think these things were to help keep flies off them.
It looks like the front team has some kind of blanket over them (look close at their head and you can see it). That seems like it would make them a bit hot; maybe they were wet and helped keep them cool, I don’t know. The wagons piqued my interest; I had never seen any like that. I wonder if they had a special name for those big buggies. If you look closely, the empty one in front looks to be in a little bit better condition than the one that is full. The one loaded with wheat bundles looks as if it has been patched a time or two.
A labor-intensive process
Off to the very left are what look like shocks of wheat. Maybe that field was owned by a different farmer, or maybe they shocked that part because it was a bit greener. Maybe between then and the time this picture was taken, they had gotten a shower and the wheat was dry enough to just bundle and take to the thresher. I found it kind of odd that they were binding the wheat and putting it into wagons when it looks like they shocked the other part of the field.
Let us discuss the binder itself. It may not be a binder at all; it is not like any binder I have ever seen. It appears to me that the gentleman to the very left is actually driving the team of animals that is pushing the binder. I am going to guess the guy standing behind the reel is running the machine. When I blow up the picture a bit, it looks like there are some lines going from the binder up to the wagon, but I can’t tell for sure. Maybe one of you readers can tell me what kind of machine this is.
If you look across the photo you see quite a few people; I counted 14. Progress is a double-edged sword, I guess, when you think about the fact that at least 10 of those people labored for days doing what one combine does today in a matter of hours. “Progress” is why I drive through so many wonderful little towns where nothing is left but empty buildings. I am not a big fan of progress.
Considering a staged photo
This is another one of those pictures that I think was scheduled. Behind the reel are what looks like a woman and young lady, and at the top of the elevator are two more young ladies. I thought the two ladies behind the reel must be related to that guy standing there: Why else pick that spot? It seemed a poor spot to be in the picture. All the ladies appear to be wearing nice dresses, so I don’t think they were there to work.
Photographed in June 2017, this outfit was harvesting next to us near Breckenridge, Okla.: Two Claas combines with a tracked Case/IH tractor on the grain cart. You can see wind generators in the background; they were all over in that area. When you got out of your machine, you could hear the swoosh sounds as the blades rotated.
The men in the picture seem to be cut from the same mold as most harvest crews back then. Not one of them looks overweight or out of shape. All but one has long sleeves, and that one looks to have his rolled up.
The most interesting thing about the men I noticed was the two in the empty wagon. If you look closely, they seem to have some kind of jug in between them. I am going to assume that that is a water jug and not some corn sippin’ whiskey. You can also see four-tine pitchforks. I thought the pitchforks used for bundles only had three tines. Again, maybe one of you readers can enlighten me.
What would the future bring?
As I studied the people in this picture, my mind questioned whether any of them had any idea of what the next 20 to 30 years would bring. Some of these young men might have become doughboys in World War I, shipped off to places they’d only heard of in school. Some might have even been buried in those places.
They would experience the 1918 influenza pandemic. They might have danced during the Roaring Twenties, when the sounds from the juke joints changed, slowly pushing ragtime out and moving jazz and the big bands in. It was a time when anybody could invest and become rich, and a time when rain followed the plow. The good times, Americans thought, would never end.
Then came the fall of 1929, when the music stopped and then the rain followed suit; all was lost in a matter of weeks and the dust followed. Great clouds of topsoil rolled across the prairie, some so huge they made it all the way to the east coast.
The young people in this picture might be parents during the Dust Bowl. Did the dust drive them to cover the children’s mouths each night with a damp cloth so they could breathe clean air? Did they have to doctor them for dust pneumonia? I wonder if any stayed on the land and struggled through the storms, jackrabbit round-ups and the grasshoppers, or did they leave and head west as “Okies”?
‘We sure are working hard…’
As the country desperately tried to regain its footing, the U.S. entered World War II, again sending our young people off to fight in foreign lands. Each time I look at this picture, I can’t help but feel admiration for these unknown Jayhawkers. I find myself staring at their weathered faces, trying to figure out what they are thinking, wondering if any of them had any idea what the future would hold. I would love to know what became of each and every one of them.
For me, the biggest disappointment with this picture postcard is the back. It had a message on it and had been mailed, but at some point, it was glued into a photo album, so the back has black paper stuck to it.
I can make out some of what it says. “Hello Kid, well how are you making it? I have not heard from you for some time… We sure are working hard… this summer.” And then it mentions something about harvest and I can’t make out anything else. I would love to get that black paper off so I could read more!
Harvest in colorful Colorado
By the time you are reading this, I should be getting ready to head to Colorado to harvest wheat. This will be my second year cutting for Pat Simons. Right now, I am looking forward to it. Those of you who have been following me for a few years have already “met” Pat, and his son, Kurt, who I usually help in Oklahoma and Kansas.
I took this picture in November 2018 when I was picking corn in the Texas panhandle by Follet, Texas. In Kansas, the farmer planted the pivot in straight rows; this farmer planted it in a circle. Once I learned how they laid out the fields in that circle, I really enjoyed it. I actually thought it was better than straight rows. They would go in a circle all around the pivot and turn when they hit the sprinklers. Then, when everything was planted, they would move the pivot and plant the turn rows. Planting this way may be more common than I know, but I had never seen it before.
For the rest of you who just started visiting with me, I will give you a bit of background. I have developed a few contacts over the years with custom harvesters. One thing led to another; now people call me when they need an extra combine operator for a few weeks.
It has really turned into an amazing experience. I’ve cut wheat in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado and picked corn in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. I have even harvested a bit of milo. It works out great, because I get to lay my eyes on new country and experience something different for a few weeks, and then go back home to check cows and rest up a bit. It also allows me to do some wandering on my way to and from the job.
Taking the good along with the bad
There are a good many days between now and harvest time in Colorado, but hopefully everything will work out. The one really wonderful thing about Pat is that some of his wheat fields are right next to Denver International Airport. As I am there harvesting wheat, planes from all around the world are landing so close to me that I can see the smoke coming off the tires. It gives me some great photo opportunities, but I think the most important thing I get from it is the memories. We can’t have too many of those, can we?
The drawback to harvesting wheat around the Denver area is the traffic. Most of those drivers do not possess any experience navigating around moving farm equipment. It makes it pretty stressful, moving from field to field, and sometimes those fields are pretty deep into the city limits. I take comfort in knowing that I am driving the bigger vehicle!
I will leave you with some pictures of harvest I have taken over the years. The equipment is not old, by any means, but I thought it provided a great contrast to how these Jayhawkers were harvesting in 1911. Harvest has changed quite a bit in 109 years. For the better? Well, I am not sure about that, but it has changed. I hope you enjoyed getting together as much as I did and I look forward to seeing you again. Until our next visit, remember to take time out of your busy schedule and enjoy the view from the backroads. FC
Anthony Lovelace lives in Alva, Oklahoma. He enjoys traveling and collects anything old, has a very small cow herd, and writes. Write him at P.O. Box 174, Alva, OK 73717; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.