by Shanna Hatfield
Due to spring arriving about a month early this year, wheat harvest has begun in our area. Just the other day, we noticed the number of fields that had already been harvested. Soon, smoke will fill the sky as the farmers burn off the stubble and prepare the fields for another year.
In my Pendleton Petticoats series is set in Pendleton, Oregon, in the early 1900s, several of the stories include scenes of wheat harvest.
Back in the early years of the twentieth century, Umatilla County (where Pendleton is located) produced approximately one percent of the nation’s wheat crop. Wheat harvest brought workers to town, provided income for families, and was quite an event.
It was also a lot of hot, sweaty, backbreaking work. Growing up on a farm, I write from experience about the dusty, itchy chaff that makes the air thick and hard to breathe.
When I looked for visual inspiration, I found several photos taken in the general area.
1903 in Sherman County, Oregon. (If you’ve read the Grass Valley series, it is set in Sherman County.)
Although I had a general idea of what each piece of equipment on the machine did, I had no idea how to describe it.
oldoregonphotos.com website, shows the team of 32 pulling a hillside harvester in 1900. Because of the rolling hills, the farmers needed a machine that wouldn’t tip over on the steep inclines.
golden kernels near Arlington, OR. The woman on the end doesn’t look particularly excited to be there- but if I had to cook for a threshing crew in the unbearable summer heat dressed in layers of petticoats and long sleeves, I’d probably look really, really grumpy.
After gathering the historic photos and studying them, I still had no idea how to describe the equipment, so I contacted my dad and asked his sage advice. I emailed him a couple of the photos. He called me and told me what all the parts and pieces were as well as giving me the names of the different jobs of each man on the equipment.
The jigger sewed the sacks shut once they were filled. The tender made sure the cutter was going where it was supposed to while the skinner drove the team. I had no idea!
My dad, who comes from a long line of farmers, also spent several years after he and my mother first wed working in Pendleton in the early 1950s. He had first-hand experience with the terrain, the hillside harvesters, and even told me why so many of the farmers preferred mules to horses (because the mules could go all day without a problem and the horses often got sores or sick.)
As I watch the modern equipment bring in this year's crop, it makes me think of those long ago days when a legion of four-legged and human workers were needed to harvest the wheat.
When this hopeless romantic isn’t writing or indulging in rich, decadent chocolate, Shanna hangs out with her husband, lovingly known as Captain Cavedweller.
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