Chad Bedell: Harvest time should rekindle memories
October 5, 2008
In the 1940s and ’50s, farmers from Steamboat to Clark grew grain crops to supplement their dairy herds during the long winters. The harvesting of the crop was done by a single threshing machine that serviced all the family farms, which in turn created a summer ritual for multiple families to share in the work and pleasure of helping one another bring in the annual harvest.
Many family farms in the Clark area during and after World War II raised and milked small dairy herds to sell milk to the local Selch dairy and creamery in Steamboat Springs. To supplement the nutritional needs of the dairy cows, these farmers raised small plots of grain that could mature in the short growing season of the mountains. Oats were the primary crop, but barley was raised to some extent, though the long beards on the grain were a problem to remove. The grain from these crops was fed to the cattle, as well as the straw left over after the grain was removed. Straw left over from the threshing process could be as good as hay. Wheat was grown to some extent but used primarily for grinding into flour for use by the mill in Steamboat Springs.
The grain was harvested by teams of horses and later by early-model hand clutch tractors pulling binders, which cut the grain on the stalk and then bound it into shocks and dropped six to eight shocks in a pile. The shocks were then stacked eight to 10 in a circle with one or two on top and allowed to cure for two to three weeks. Raymond Gray, of lower Elk River, had one of the last grain binders in the valley, and it was operational before he sold it in the not too distant past. The separator was a large, cumbersome machine which virtually shook the grain seed loose from the stem. It was pulled in to the field, then set in place and was powered by a long belt that ran off of the flywheel of a tractor. Early tractors had iron wheels, but later, rubber-tired models would generate enough static electricity to knock a person down, so a log chain was draped over a part of the frame to the ground which dissipated the electric charge. Once in place, the shocks were delivered to the separator by wagons or sleds pulled by horses, and then the shocks were fed in to the machine. The separated grain was stored for use, and the straw pile left over from the separating process could be 20 to 30 feet high and was feed in the winter.
Many people, including children, were needed to complete the process, so families helped out in the harvest as it moved from farm to farm. This process could take 10 days to two weeks to complete, so many family farms spent the months of September and October helping each other by driving teams, operating the tractor and separator, stacking straw, hauling grain, and most importantly, the women cooked three meals a day plus snacks for the workers and children. This was accomplished by the likes of Violet McLaughlin and Doris Franz among others who helped out by bringing foodstuffs to cook meals large enough for the threshing crews, which sometimes could number as many as 30 people or more. Everyone, including men, women and children, had a job to do and everyone helped out in some way.
The crews would start at Steamboat and move up the valley ending at Clark. If you drive County Road 129 to Clark, you will pass many of these farms, which still are ranches or farms today; the Ron Powell farm now is the Pete Kurtz ranch, Russell Whitmer farmed just south and east of the Clark Store, Dave Troegler farmed the bench which is currently the Home Ranch, Pat McGill farmed land immediately west of the bridge on the Elk River and C.R. 129, Orval Bedell farmed ground still owned by Jay Fetcher, and Hollis Tuffly raised grain on land that now is owned and farmed by Chuck and B.J. Vail.
The hard work that went into the annual grain harvest was shared by farmers and their families and helped foster a close-knit community that depended immensely on one another to survive in the years immediately following the Great Depression and the hardships of the Second World War. If you stop today at the Clark Store, you still can see some of that close community and friendly atmosphere, and you even can imagine small grain fields being harvested if you drive around a bit.