Harvesting Wheat

June 1989

Though wheat is harvested some place in the world each month of the year, June us the time for the Kansas harvest. Every farm family is organized and ready for the big rush to get the wheat in before rain or hail ruins the crop. This year the harvest excitement is mixed with apprehension since the wheat crop looks so bad. But good or bad, the combines will soon be rolling up and down the golden fields.

In a few brief days all the wheat in the county will be cut and the ground worked for the next crop. Harvest has not always been so quick and efficient.
The development of civilization can be linked to this history of wheat. When man discovered how to grow wheat and other grains he was able to quit his nomadic life spent searching for food and settle down in one place. Scientists believe that wheat was first cultivated in Asia in a land then called Mesopatamia, and is now Iraq. In 1948 an American archaeologist found kernels of wheat there that dated from about 6,700 BC.

The harvesting of wheat has changed through the ages. First wheat was cut with a sickle, then a scythe and then a cradle which not only cut it, but lay it down in a row this making it easier to glean.

For centuries wheat was threshed by driving livestock over it to trample out the grain. Then a tool called a flail was used. Harvesting became mechanized when Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper in the 1830s. The threshing machine was invented at about the same time. Then came the binder, the header and finally the combine which consolidated the cutting and threshing of the grain in one machine.

In the years I have lived, harvest time has changed radically. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, just cutting the wheat took over a month. About the first week in June men from Missouri and Arkansas began to drift into Kansas, usually riding freight trains. They lined the streets of any good-sized town waiting for farmers to come and hire them. Picking up their gunny sacks or beat-up suitcases holding extra pairs of overalls and shirts, they went with the first farmers who offered them a dollar a day and keep.

Each farmer hired five or six men to help. My earliest memory is of the wheat being cut with a binder and shocked. But Dad soon bought a header that was pulled by 12 horses. It cut off the wheat stalks and elevated them into hay racks where two or three men with pitch forks distributed the load. When the rack was full the horses pulled it to a designated spot and the men pitched off the wheat into stacks.

When the men were in the fields, Mamma and the hired girl, who made three dollars a week, were busy in the kitchen making three meals a day. With the family, that made 12 or more people squeezed like sardines around the dining table. After the noon meal the men went outside and sat or lay under the trees for a half an hour and traded tall stories and rested. Then back to the field until dark.

After the evening meal, eaten by lamplight, the men took baths in the horse tank before climbing the ladder to the hay mow in the barn and bedding down with a few quilts for covers. Morning came early, but Mamma had pancakes bubbling and bacon sizzling on the range when they got to the house.

After the last acre was cut, the men took their pay and went home to the Ozarks feeling rich as kings.

In a few days the threshing crew came. One man owned the machine and brought along a few men to run it, but the whole neighborhood would trade work with each other to keep the grain going into the monstrous machine. A young boy or girl was the water monkey and made the rounds offering the sweating men a cool drink of well water.

Every self-respecting woman fed the threshers like they were royalty. Each dinner was topped off with pie – two or three kinds – juicy fruit pies and cream pies piled high with meringue. Each woman competed for the honor of being the best pie-maker on the run.

When we married in 1940 there was still a threshing crew of neighbors who pooled their labor each year. Glenn Manning owned the machine that threshed wheat for the Diamond Community. Fry and Dunklebeger each owned threshing machines that had extensive runs.

But times changed and the combines took over and sped up the harvest. High school boys were hired for extra help. Today’s harvest whizzes by like a fast-moving locomotive. But even with the rush the same old magic hovers in the Kansas air when the harvest is in full swing and the moon hangs low and golden in the sky.

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