For nearly 140 years dryland wheat farming has flourished in Adams County, Washington. From the first wheat crop, right up to the present time, the topic of conversation among farmers and those living in town usually includes some aspect of the golden grain that made Adams County famous. The beginning, of this now thriving industry, had its start among skeptics who said wheat could not be grown amid the bunchgrass and in such an arid region. As is often the case, the skeptics were wrong.
One who doubted the skeptics was James Bennett, who harvested the first wheat crop raised in Adams County in 1880. The variety was club wheat and was harvested by O. S. Edwards with a 10 horsepower Buffalo Pitts threshing machine. Four years later, in 1884, George H. Kanzler, Fred Rosenoff, Henry Thiel Sr., and Jacob Thiel Sr. each bought a bag of Australian Bluestem wheat in Walla Walla, Washington, for $2.50 a bag. The wheat was planted the following spring on the second plowing. Kanzler’s crop yielded an amazing 45 bushels per acre and the others fared nearly as well. This type of yield was in sharp contrast to the 7 to 10 bushels per acre that were the norm in the early years, especially in the western regions of the county. At that time it was the first Bluestem wheat sown north of the Snake River. Because of the high yield, it was the preferred variety of spring wheat in the Big Bend area. In 1896 Daniel Buchannan and Jacob Thiel Sr. purchased a carload of Jones Red Fife winter wheat. By 1950 the Blue Stem variety had all but disappeared in favor of other varieties.
Most of the original wheat farmers in Adams County settled on 160-acre homesteads. This ground could be obtained from the government at no cost after they had worked it for five years and after other conditions were met. Other settlers acquired their ground through preemption. Records show that this ground was sold by the government for about $2.50 per acre. Land could also be purchased from the railroad from $1.25 to $5.00 per acre.
Raw land was usually broke out with a one-bottom, “foot-burner” plow. After a second plowing, the fertile ground was seeded. At first, this method was employed every year, but about 1889 farmers begin to realize that their ground needed to lay fallow every other year to conserve moisture and increase productivity. It should be noted that farmers were dependent on whatever rain fell to water their crops. This method of farming is known as dry-land farming. Conserving moisture in this manner has continued to the present time in Adams County, although irrigated wheat has become popular in some areas in Grant County to the west.
Farmers had to contend with a variety of hazards in those early days. Dust storms and prairie fires were frequent, and hoards of squirrels plagued farmers for many years. It was common for entire crops to be ruined when the squirrels stole the seed as soon as it was out of the ground. Jackrabbits were also a problem in the southwestern part of the county near Othello. Other perils included weeds, although not in the early years. By 1900 Russian thistle and Jim Hill mustard were starting to be a threat. These two varieties of weeds became a real menace during the time period between 1910 and 1915, robbing the soil of moisture and other nutrients. It was during that time that mechanical weeders were developed, including the blade type and rod weeder. Neither proved to be very effective until the revolving rod weeder was introduced.
The skeptics were nowhere to be found when the first bumper crop of wheat for Adams County came in 1897. It was now a fact that wheat could be grown in the county successfully and profitably. This coincided with a large influx of new settlers around the turn of the century. Many of these settlers were German Russians who had recently arrived from the Volga region and an area near the Black Sea. Prior to 1897 wheat farming was mediocre at best with yields of only 40 or 50 percent Cattle ranching still showed a greater return, but about 1900 wheat raising started to overshadow cattle ranching for the first time.
In those early years, most farmers relied on stationary threshers to separate the grain after it had been cut and transported by wagons called “header boxes” to the threshing area, although a few farmers still used binders to cut and bind the grain into shocks before being threshed. Many sources indicate that John. C. Gillette, northwest of Ritzville, introduced the first ground-powered combine into Adams County in 1898, however, there is now evidence that Sam Thomas, in the Hatton area, may have used a steam-powered Best combine as early as 1891. By 1906 a small number of additional combines were in use across Adams County, mostly on an experimental basis. Thirteen of them were reportedly in the area of Washtucna, south of Ritzville. The transition from headers and threshers to combines took approximately ten years from 1910 to 1920.
“Combines” combined the functions of the header and the thresher. The combine represented substantial savings in time and manpower. With the advent of the combine, harvest crews were reduced from 15 or 20 men to 6 or 7.
The first ground-powered combines were pulled with anywhere from 26 to 32 head of horses or mules, with many farmers preferring mules, which were able to withstand temperatures often near 100 degrees during harvest. The power to cut the grain and thresh it was supplied through one of the combine wheels that rotated as the machine was pulled. This large wheel was often referred to as a ”bull” wheel. The wheat was then sacked and sewn at the top before being dumped in the field as the noisy, lumbering contraption moved along. Later sack bucks picked up the full sacks and transported them to a nearby warehouse. Some of the larger ground-wheel combines used as many as 32 horses or mules to function properly. The horsepower was the most interesting and often most troublesome aspect of the entire operation. Of course, I am talking about the real, live, four-footed, hay-burning type of horsepower, not the theoretical horsepower rating applied to the drawbar and the pulley strength of a steam engine.
Picture 32 horses or mules in one hitch pulling a machine through the fields which first cut the wheat and then threshed it before leaving filled sacks of wheat ready to be picked up by a sack buck with a wagon and team. The number of mules or horses varied with level land and hillside harvest operations.
The usual team of 32 had two horses in the lead, followed by five rows of six animals each. On curves and corners, the leaders were expected to swing the rest of the harnessed workers around the corner of the field. Some teamsters felt that it was too much work for two animals so they used three in the front line, although this was not as common.
To many observers, the driver had the most glamorous job on the combine. He was perched high on the end of a ladder, often referred to as a “Jacob’s Ladder,” which sat at an angle out over the horses. There were times, just before reaching the top of a rise, that the driver was perched so far up and at a backward slant that he couldn’t see the team in front of him. They had already crested over the top of the hill and had vanished out of sight. Even the most experienced drivers breathed a little easier as the combine pulled over the hill and the team came back into view.
The comparison was the same at the bottom of a hill only in reverse. It was like the trough of the wave. With the horses already starting up the next rise and the combine still coming down the previous hill, the driver was suddenly thrust right down among the draft animals just a few feet above the ground. According to veteran Ritzville farmer, Lawrence Thiel, the mules closest to the combine knew what they had to do. They would automatically move sideways from the center to allow room for the Jacob’s Ladder to nearly touch the ground before returning to its usual position. Although it seldom happened, there was also the danger of straw piling up under the bull wheel on the downside of a hill. Big and heavy as some of the combines were, the drive wheel could actually lose contact with the ground if enough straw built up. As the straw became wedged in under the wheel, it was lifted up, and the mass of straw became a runner, rendering the combine uncontrollable. This would frequently result in an overturned combine or pile-up of some type.
Driving 32 horses or mules was an art in itself. As unbelievable as it may seem, the driver guided the animals with just two lines. If he had an extraordinary jerk-line mule in the front he needed only one line but this was the exception. The usual procedure was to have a line running to each of the two lead animals. The smartest animals were always upfront. When the driver pulled on one of the reins, indicating a turn, the leaders would swing all the horses or mules in the desired direction. It used to be said that a driver had to be at least as smart as the animals he drove or he wouldn’t last long. Equine I. Q. rated high among those animals that had a lazy streak and they looked for ways to get out of pulling. Usually, they would lag back in the traces and would just walk along instead of pulling. Some got so clever they could keep the traces taut and look like they were pulling when they weren’t. Some drivers didn’t use a whip to remind a lazy horse or mule that they had a load to pull. When one member of the team was slacking, the driver resorted to a well-placed rock or clod of dirt. The rocks were kept in a small built-in box next to the driver. The offender snapped to when he felt the sting of a pebble bouncing off his rump. Many drivers developed a very good aim and became excellent marksman, able to hit the offending animal on the first throw.
Some farmers preferred horses, such as Henry Bauer, but many thought that mules were far and away the best performers. Adams County farmer, Hershel Heimbigner, commented to the author one time that “Mules could stand the heat better. You couldn’t heat-founder a mule, like you could a horse. If a mule got too hot, he just stopped.” It is also reported that many mules knew when it was time to stop at 11:00 a.m. to rest and eat. When they were in the field closest to the barn at 11:00 a.m. they would just turn away from the un-cut wheat and head for the barn and nothing could change their mind. Lifelong Ritzville resident Hershel Heimbigner also pointed out that mules were less nervous than horses; they never went into fences as horses sometimes did, and mules usually had the good common sense not to step into badger holes while horses occasionally would.” Interestingly enough, though, the Adams county censuses from 1920 indicated that horses easily outnumbered mules.
One major problem with either mules or horses was the dust. In fact, it was usually extremely hot and dusty during harvest. Harvest was and still is, during the hottest time of the year and the animals would turn the dry ground into very fine dust and you could not escape it. It absolutely encased you. If you had a tailwind you not only got the dust of the mules or horses, but also the chaff from the combine. Mr. Heimbigner, also reported that the steady pull of the reins all day left his arms aching the entire night. “It wore your arms out because once you picked up the reins it was a steady pull from start to finish.”
In outlining the activities of a normal day, lifelong Ritzville resident Lawrence Thiel, commented, “You got up at 4 a.m. to get the mules ready for the day. Next, we fed, curried, and harnessed them.” He emphasized that currying the stock not only made them look better, but it could lead to trouble if you didn’t. The mules or horses were curried down to prevent sores when the harness rubbed on the accumulated dirt. Thiel continued his description of the early morning chores by saying, “Once we fed the mules and curried them, we harnessed them, had our breakfast, hooked up, and were usually in the field by 6 a.m. We worked until 11:00 am. We quit at that time to rest the animals for two hours before starting again at 1:00. We usually quit about 6:00 p.m.”
During harvest, the driver had the company of four other workers who rode on the combine. They were the header-tender or header puncher, combine man (sometimes referred to as the mechanic), sack-sewer, and sack-jig. There was also one or two men picking up sacks in the field. They were called sack bucks. The combine man was generally the foreman of the crew. He rode on the combine platform over the two rear wheels on the right-hand side. Like the separator man, he kept an alert eye on the machine’s smooth operation. It was also up to him to keep the combine level if needed.
Without the leveler a combine on a side hill did a very inefficient job of threshing, not to mention a very real danger of an overturned machine. The wheat jiggled down to the bottom side of the threshing cylinder and piled up there. It came through the concaves in an impenetrable slug. This resulted in most of the wheat kernels not being separated from the stalk and passing out the back end with the straw. The leveler corrected all this by keeping the machines threshing cylinder level. This way the wheat passed through evenly with the kernels going into sacks instead of out the back end onto the ground. The basic principle of this early leveler is still used on today’s combines.
The sacking platform was usually covered with an improvised canvas shade roof. It was commonly referred to as the “doghouse.” The sack-jig’s job at the threshing machine and on the combine was the same. He put sacks on one spout, took them off the other, jounced them, and set them in front of the sewer. The sack-sewer sat next to the chute. As he finished his sewing he gave the sack a flip and slid it down the chute. Originally, the sacking platform sat low on the combine, just a few feet above the ground. The short chute could hold only three sacks. Later developments raised the platform up near the top of the harvester. The chute was then longer and held five sacks. When the chute was full the sacks were dumped in as near a level spot as could be found, minimizing the trouble the pickup team had in loading the sacks from the ground. Once the wheat had been cut, threshed, sacked, and dumped in the field, it was then hauled to town by wagon. Later, wheat was hauled to town in bulk wagons or trucks. Much of the wheat was then ground into flour by one of the local flouring mills to await shipment to markets around the world.
Hard Adams county wheat was preferred by many millers across the nation and garnered many top awards in competition at fairs and expositions. P. R. Clark, of Ritzville, captured a first place with a Bluestem variety at the International Dry Farming Congress at Calgary, Alberta, in 1912. Just three years later Adams County captured the first three prizes with white spring wheat during competition with farmers from all over the nation at the International Wheat Show at Wichita, Kansas. First place went to E. W. Frieze with Early Baart, second place went to P. R. Clark with Early Baart, and Oscar Gaskill, third place, with Bluestem.
Today, modern mechanized farming has taken the place of a 32 horse or mule team pulling a ground-powered combine through the Adams County countryside. There are also new varieties of wheat that are winter hardy, drought-resistant, and produce higher yields. In addition, Adams County farmers are now competing in a global market and the list goes on. In fact, perhaps the only thing that has not changed is the dedication of the man in the field. It is for this very reason that this book has been written and hopefully will serve as a nostalgic reminder of the days when Adams County was known as the Bread Basket of the world.
- Wheat harvests
- Holt combines
- Best combines
- Northwest Harvester combines
- Pride of Washington combines
- Harrington Harvester combines
- Self-propelled combines
- Ground-powered combines
- Ritzville, Washington
- Lind, Washington,
- Washtucna, Washington
- Benge, Washington
- Ralston, Washington
- Cunningham, Washington
- Hatton, Washington
- Tokio, Washington
- Schrag, Washington