The fields of summer in Nebraska
September 19, 2011
This summer we have beautiful golden fields of wheat in our area. Wheat and other small grains have been somewhat of a rarity in recent years. When I was a child they were a staple for every farmer. The threshing machine was a common sight in July, traveling from farm to farm as each family hosted threshing day. Neighbors helped neighbors, all the farmers and their hired men converging on the site for the day. Some brought their own horse teams and hayracks to transport the grain (reaped and shocked earlier) from the field to the thresher. Others pitched the grain bundles into the machine where the kernels were separated from the hulls and poured from a spout into a waiting wagon. The chaff was blown out the back of the machine forming a pile on the ground that would be a strawstack for kids to play on later.
I must have been about seven years old when I watched my final threshing day before Daddy ended it with the purchase of a combine. The whole operation was fascinating to watch, and it was equally exciting to help serve dinner to the gang. At our house the men washed up at a table set out under the ash tree with an enamel basin and towels. Then they trouped into the kitchen where huge platters of fried chicken were passed, along with potatoes and gravy, vegetables, coleslaw, plenty of bread and coffee, with pie for dessert. My mother and I stood over the table waving dishtowels to keep flies away from the diners. After resting a bit, the men were back at it, sweating in the hot sun until the work was done. I had to stay in the house at that point, to wash dishes and help prepare the afternoon lunch that would be served to the crew before they went home to do chores. We made sandwiches and cut cake for the lunch, and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. It was always a mystery to me why anyone would want to drink hot coffee on a hot day, but they all did. To compound the heat, we had a wood-burning cook stove as did everyone else in those days.
Though I was never what you could call a farmhand, I loved the land and enjoyed the times I was able to help with something in the field. A time or two I got to ride on the lister behind the tractor during planting. It was my job to pull the lever that moved the stream of flowing seed to the second seed pot when the first was empty, but all these years later I can’t picture exactly how that was done. What I do remember is the time Daddy stopped the tractor and pointed at something on the ground. I was startled to see a huge bullsnake. “Meet old Joe,” said my dad. Apparently he saw this snake regularly and they were old friends. He waited for Joe to slither out of the way before driving on.
One spring when Daddy was cultivating corn, he had Margaret and I walk the rows to uncover young cornstalks that slid under the dirt. We made a game of about everything we did, and this particular time we made “pass balls”, clods of soil that we handed to each other as we met on each round. It sounds silly, but it was something to do.
Most of my field time took place in the hay meadow. My job was minor, but helpful. Grandpa raked the hay into windrows with our horses, Bud and Dan, pulling the rake. Daddy had a sweep mounted on the front of the tractor. He would go down the windrows gathering the hay with the sweep and depositing it onto the teeth of the stacker. Then he’d back up and I’d attach a cable to the tractor bar with a clevis and pin. When he pulled forward, the cable and pulleys would lift the stacker arm and dump its load onto the stack. He’d reverse again for me to remove the connection, and go for another load. Occasionally he’d get off the tractor and climb up onto the stack to level it with a pitchfork. Farmers took some pride in shaping a nice-looking stack, and my dad was one of the best.
One thing I remember about those haying days was the water jug, a glass vinegar jug wrapped in wet burlap to keep it reasonably cool. If the original cork was lost, a corncob was used to plug it. We all drank out of that unsanitary thing. And we had the constant irritation of sweat bees. Those bothersome little insects would get into creases like the crook of an elbow or back of the neck and make painful bites. The highlight of our day was the time in mid-afternoon when Mom and the other kids would bring us a lunch of sandwiches, cake or cookies, and Kool-Aid. One thing that was common to all of us farm families in those days was that our noon meal was called dinner, and lunch was something served in the afternoon for workers or for Sunday company before they went home.
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After we moved from Grandpa’s farm to what we called the Bunker Hill neighborhood, we found ourselves in prime watermelon country between St. Paul and St. Libory and, like all our neighbors, we raised melons. It was up to us kids to plant the hills of melons, hoe them, and gather them to eat or sell. We didn’t have a nice roadside stand like the vendors closer to St. Libory. We just loaded the car trunk with melons, backed it up facing the highway and opened the trunk so travelers could see what we had. Every one of us kids worked with watermelons. When we older ones had graduated from high school and moved on, the younger ones kept it going. It was a good experience for us, and we made a little money for school expenses.
Farming is far different now, but I still love to look at beautiful fields of tall green corn, fragrant alfalfa fields in bloom and of course the “amber waves of grain” that are the wheat fields.