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

| May 2011

  • Sewing filled sacks shut
    Sewing filled sacks shut.
  • Front view of the header
    Front view of the header. Note how the horses pull on the side of the hill. The wagon’s rear axle is on the 12-ft. side; the front is 5 ft. 2 in. Handwritten note on the back of the photo: “This ranch is the hilliest in the Palouse Country and the rancher had 320 acres of wheat and (we) thrashed 14 days including 1/2 day for oats and one day of barley, Washington 1920.”
  • A panoramic view of the Snake River
    A panoramic view of the Snake River.
  • Sacks of wheat going down the tram
    Sacks of wheat going down the tram. A total of 128 carriers were bolted to a nearly two-mile-long endless wire cable. According to a 1904 article in Pacific Monthly, the tramway hauled about 50,000 sacks of wheat each season.
  • Rear view of 14-ft. header pushed by eight mules
    Rear view of 14-ft. header pushed by eight mules. Handwritten on the back: “This ranch is the roughest in the county.”
  • Three men (one complete with necktie) and three children (one striking the official pose) with a Holt Caterpillar Model 45 in a photo dated Aug. 20, 1920
    Three men (one complete with necktie) and three children (one striking the official pose) with a Holt Caterpillar Model 45 in a photo dated Aug. 20, 1920.
  • A view into the tramway’s top terminal
    A view into the tramway’s top terminal. When working at full capacity 10 hours a day, the tramway transported 200 tons of wheat.
  • On the move in August 1920: a Holt Caterpillar Model 45 pulling what appears to be a New Russell thresher
    On the move in August 1920: a Holt Caterpillar Model 45 pulling what appears to be a New Russell thresher. The Stockton Holt Caterpillar 45 was manufactured from 1915 to 1921.
  • Controlling the brake in the upper tramway terminal
    Controlling the brake in the upper tramway terminal, from a 1904 issue of Pacific Monthly. The upper terminal was 1,700 feet above the river.
  • Four to eight mules were used to haul a load to the warehouse
    Four to eight mules were used to haul a load to the warehouse. Sacks of grain were fully exposed to the elements until they were hauled to storage.
  • What appears to be a New Russell thresher with a Byron Jackson self-feeder
    What appears to be a New Russell thresher with a Byron Jackson self-feeder.
  • Scene on the bluffs of the Snake River showing the carrying towers and buckets of the tramway, one ascending, one descending
    Scene on the bluffs of the Snake River showing the carrying towers and buckets of the tramway, one ascending, one descending. From a 1904 issue of Pacific Monthly. Distance between the two terminals was about 5,150 feet.
  • Headers at close range. Note the driver’s stance, leaning into the steep hillside
    Headers at close range. Note the driver’s stance, leaning into the steep hillside.
  • The crew takes a break atop a mound of bagged grain
    The crew takes a break atop a mound of bagged grain. Each filled sack was valued at $5 (roughly $55 today). According to a notation on the back of one photo, the farmer’s August 1920 harvest yielded more than 7,000 sacks of grain.
  • The Holt Caterpillar Model 45 was manufactured by both of the company’s factories
    The Holt Caterpillar Model 45 was manufactured by both of the company’s factories (located in Peoria, Ill., and Stockton, Calif.). The Stockton machines differed slightly, most noticeably in the radiator. After the war, Stockton offered an orchard version with a lower profile. The Stockton Model 45 Caterpillar was produced until 1922, when it was replaced by the Holt “Western Ten Ton” Caterpillar.

  • Sewing filled sacks shut
  • Front view of the header
  • A panoramic view of the Snake River
  • Sacks of wheat going down the tram
  • Rear view of 14-ft. header pushed by eight mules
  • Three men (one complete with necktie) and three children (one striking the official pose) with a Holt Caterpillar Model 45 in a photo dated Aug. 20, 1920
  • A view into the tramway’s top terminal
  • On the move in August 1920: a Holt Caterpillar Model 45 pulling what appears to be a New Russell thresher
  • Controlling the brake in the upper tramway terminal
  • Four to eight mules were used to haul a load to the warehouse
  • What appears to be a New Russell thresher with a Byron Jackson self-feeder
  • Scene on the bluffs of the Snake River showing the carrying towers and buckets of the tramway, one ascending, one descending
  • Headers at close range. Note the driver’s stance, leaning into the steep hillside
  • The crew takes a break atop a mound of bagged grain
  • The Holt Caterpillar Model 45 was manufactured by both of the company’s factories

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.