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

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 By the 1950s, horses and headers had been replaced by a Caterpillar tractor pulling a combined harvester, and trucks were used instead of horse-drawn wagons to haul wheat out of the fields.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.