farming

The Rusty Lantern

I wrote this story years ago, long before lanterns became valuable antiques.  The story, or condensed versions, has been picked up and ran by several publications over the years.

A little backstory on Molly the mule.  A “Molly” is a name sometimes used for a female mule.  My older brother was in his mid-teens at the time of this story. He was a cowboy. He had ridden every horse on the place.  But the mule was his nemesis.  The hands mentioned in the story would talk him into trying to ride her and then place bets.  The odds were long but he was game.  They took her into a newly-plowed field close by, so he would have a softer landing.  Molly threw him off several times and then she let him ride clear to the other end of the field.  Once there, she unceremoniously dumped him and made him walk back.  End of game, she was tired of playing.

 
 
 

A story of days gone by.

 
It was rusted in a place or two, covered with grease and dust. The globe was still intact. The auctioneer set it in for a dollar and started begging for a dollar fifty, wanting someone to get him off the hook. He turned it in his hands and I saw the word Dietz embossed across the top. Dietz kerosene lanterns, they must have made a million of them. They were a common item in rural America a generation ago.

Dietz and John Deere, I could spell the words long before first grade.

I nodded my head and I swear he breathed a sigh of relief. I took it home and hung it on the stairwell.

On impulse, I worked the lever and raised the globe. Now, there are sounds and sights that we remember for only a day or a year and there are some we remember for a lifetime. The screak of the lantern took me back to my childhood on the Kansas plains …

 
 

The kitchen is warm, the smell of sausage, biscuits and gravy, and fresh coffee permeate the predawn air. The hands and family all set at the long table and the platters empty quickly.

We pick our corn by hand. One to three corn huskers work at it most of the winter. They are paid a few cents per bushel and board. I think the board is the most important part of their wages.

Breakfast finished, we put on the heavy clothes and step out on the porch to light the lanterns. The frozen ground crunches underfoot as they move to the barn.

The horses are waiting to be grained and Dad moves through the feed way dropping corn in the feed boxes as the hands put the harness on by lantern light.

“Watch that Molly son, she’ll bite.”

He is right, she will bite, unless she sees that you have a club handy. I guess we keep her because she is good to break young horses to harness with.

It is getting light and there is a flurry of activity. The harness creaks and chains jangle as they bring the teams to the wagons. Ned, Jim, Buck, and Shorty, and the others. They dutifully step across the wagon tongue and back in to be hitched. All but Shorty, every morning she balks at stepping over the tongue. Every morning the hands pop her on the rump with the end of the line and she steps over. She seems to think that is a required procedure.

The wagons rattle as they jolt over frozen ruts on the way to the field. Soon the sound of ears hitting the wagon backboards can be heard. The hands shout the horse’s names and few choice words in the clear morning air. Mom doesn’t allow cuss words around the house, but they are given freely in the field!

By this time he is milking and the lantern’s warm glow is lost in the cold morning light. I’m getting cold and start to whimper.

He ignores my pleas to go to the house, until he finishes milking. He rises from the milk stool and takes the lantern down. He raises the globe and blows out the flame.

“Here,” he says. “Take this back to the porch. Go in and warm up while you are at it.”

I grab the smelly lantern and scamper across the barnyard mindful of its warmth in my hands…
 
 
Dusk to dawn security lights, weatherproof lamps, three way switched circuits, and remote controls are a part of my life now. I have no use for an old kerosene lantern, but I’ll leave it hang in the stairwell. When I go by I’ll work the lever and listen to the screak of the globe going up, and remember how it was in the times gone by. 
 

Molly the Mule

The left foreground wagon is a two horse hitch. Oops! That is Molly the mule, and a horse to her left. I have ridden the wagon seat on the front wagon with Granddad Ryan. He would always buy me an ice cream cone after the wagons were unloaded at the grain elevator.
The rationing of gasoline during WW II did not bother my Grandfather Ryan. Even though we had tractors and access to trucks, he hauled his stored grain to market with horse power. The two back wagons are hooked together in tandem. Both the tandem hitch and the right front wagon seem to be three horse hitch.


 

Walt and his Uncle

Here I am (on the left) with my Uncle Art back in the days of rusty lanterns. Art Cole was a funny guy. Everything he said or did was spiced with humor. He was a good guy and my favorite Uncle. He worked in the California Citrus Industry. When he had time off he enjoyed visiting us on the farm.
As Mom prepared to snap the picture, he said, “Quick, stand up on the saddle.” We did, and instead of the “run-of-the-mill” cowboy picture it was forever different and a lasting memory along the Sundown Trail.

Categories: farming, Photography, times gone by | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Harvest 1961

It was the last of May in 1961. Twenty of us were following the harvest to make some money for college. In addition there was the supervisor, a mechanic, a gasoline truck driver, and a man and wife team that cooked our meals. The combine outfit was owned by Norman Hamm of Perry, Kansas. His family started the harvest crew in the 1940’s. It was the largest one-man owned outfit going. They called it Hammtown.

 

Johnson City, Kansas

Lined up and ready to move out near Perryton, Texas. We could be loaded and ready to move in one hours time.

 

The harvest equipment consisted of ten new Massey Ferguson 95 self-propelled combines. They were transported on ten shop-made trailers pulled by ten 1959 Chevrolet two-ton trucks. Other support equipment included bunkhouses made out of truck and bus bodies. The diner was a bus body trailer complete with kitchen and a table that would seat fourteen at a time. It was pulled by a truck equipped with a water tank, generator and freezer and other supplies. The diner was supplied with electricity by the generator. All the equipment with the exception of the combines was painted light blue with white tops.

A shower house on wheels with a gas hot water heater and water supplied through a hose connected to the supply truck water tank kept us cleaned up. When we reached our next stop the hoses and drop cords were placed on the ground between trailers. The cooks had their own private trailer. They put in long days cooking for us right there where we camped in the fields. When on the road we ate in restaurants.

 

Hammtown Sleeper

My bunk house, the Hammtown Sleeper. A converted school bus. Yes, that is me.

 

I was already an experienced and licensed truck driver. This put me behind the steering wheel of a truck pulling a combine at the start. Ten of us with combine and farm equipment experience were selected to operate the combines in the field. The combine operators also drove the truck-trailer rig hauling their assigned combines on the road. The other ten guys were assigned the job of driving the trucks hauling grain between the combine and the bins and commercial grain elevators. It was a different time, and I don’t think many of them held a commercial license. Back then it was called a chauffeur’s license.

We left Perry, Kansas early Memorial Day morning and headed south, first on the Kansas turnpike and then on the Oklahoma turnpike, and turned south toward Texas. We made camp somewhere in Oklahoma and arrived at the Waggoner Estates Ranch near Vernon, Texas late the next day. I had read of Dan Waggoner and the ranch’s place in history. At the time it was said to be the second largest ranch in the nation after the King Ranch. I believe it still holds that distinction.

Waggoner Estates Ranch

The main entrance to the 55,000 acre Waggoner Estates Ranch. The Ranch’s famous Quarter Horse Stallion, Poco Bueno (little good one) is buried near the entrance.

 

The first couple days there we were putting the combines in order. Putting the belts on, lubricating and adjusting took up most of our time. We did not get paid for downtime but we got our bunk and meals furnished. The meals were outstanding.

The farmer in me noticed that the wheat was short and thin and certainly looked to me to be low yielding. I asked a ranch employee about it. He agreed, saying that it had been overgrazed during the winter. But, he explained that the management was not concerned, if it yielded enough to pay the combine bill. “After all,” he said, “The ranch makes its money from oil, horses and cattle.” The wheat got better as we got further into the fields.

We cut the wheat in blocks called a land, with five combines to a land. The largest continual field of wheat consisted of 2,200 acres. The Massey Ferguson model 95 combines were considered to be some of the best machines at the time. They were manufactured at Toronto, Canada. On a good day we could cut 750 acres total. We were told the combines cost around $7,500 each. The Chrysler six-cylinder engine was mounted sideways and located under the operator’s platform. Controls were mounted on the platform in front of the operator. The operator was seated on the platform out in the open. There were no air-conditioned cabs. Hats or caps and shirts were advised. Some of us went shirtless as time went on.

We were on the Wagner Ranch about ten days. It rained several times while we were there. Rain, of course, kept us out of the field for a day or two. The supervisors were good to us. They would load us in a truck and take us to town, to a movie, or in one case a county fair. We were warned that if we got into trouble, we were on our own. I drew $20.00 of my pay. That lasted me the entire trip.

 

 

Of the twenty harvesters, most were in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest harvester was a 29-year-old Englishman. The rumor was that he came over on a work or tourist visa. He wanted to see the real United States and somebody in Topeka sent him to Hammtown. Guiles was his first name. I have forgotten his last.

I mean no disrespect, but Guiles was a bit obtuse and most of the time downright obnoxious. He left us about halfway through the trip. He decided he wanted to see Denver, Colorado. They had sent him to the heartland with a bunch of fun-loving youngsters. He left us with a lot of stories to tell. I will share a few of the most humorous ones before I move on. I imagine he has a lot of harvester stories to tell, also.

Guiles was prematurely bald. His head was slick as an onion. The first day we told him he needed to get a straw hat. He had already told us what he thought of cowboys. He let us know in his customary rough language that he was not going to wear a “#@!% bloody cowboy hat.” Even though several of us wore them.

After a couple days of Texas sun, his old bald pate was as red as the combines we operated. We saw him slip a five dollar bill to the cooks and they brought him a straw hat back from their trip to town. He promptly punched the crease out of it, saying he did not want to look like a bloody cowboy.

In that level country, the roads were wide with shallow ditches on each side. Guiles, lacking experience, was assigned to drive a truck to the grain bins at the railroad. Of course, they drive on the left side of the road in England. Guiles just couldn’t bring himself to drive in the right lane. He would drive his truck down the middle of the road. Barreling down the middle, he yielded to no one.

One morning a deputy sheriff car showed up just after breakfast. A tall Texas lawman with his pants legs tucked into his cowboy boots unfolded himself from the car and stated he wanted to talk to us. We gathered around. He reached into the car and got his ten gallon cowboy hat and placed it squarely on his head. He wore a regular western-style gun belt with a holstered sixshooter, ivory grips and all. He put his eyes on every one of us before he spoke.

“Somebody from this outfit has been running people off the road. All your trucks look alike. They can’t tell which one it is, just yet. If he don’t stop it, he is going to get to see what the inside of my jail looks like.” We all knew who it was, and some were watching Guiles. He had an absolute look of horror on his face.

When Guiles pulled out of the field with his first load of wheat that morning, he had mastered the art of driving on the righthand side. I never heard of another complaint about his driving. I think his opinion of cowboys had changed, also.

 

We loaded up and pulled off the Waggoner Estates Ranch on June 10, turning north up the Texas panhandle at Childress. North of Childress we crossed the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, east of the lower end of the Palo Duro Canyon. On we rolled over the Salt or Middle Fork and then across the North Fork of the Red River. At normal intervals the combines and support equipment took up about a mile of highway.

Perryton, Texas

On the Julius Johns farm at Johnson City, Kansas. The wheat is harvested and we are loaded up, ready to travel on.

 

We went through some country that I vowed I would visit again. The Canadian River area is some of the prettiest country I have seen. Yes, I have been back there to visit. Our destination was Perryton, Texas. We cut wheat southeast of there for several days. We broke camp and crossed into the Oklahoma panhandle. The caravan went through Liberal, Kansas and then west on to Hougoton. At Hougoton we turned north again and crossed the South Fork of the Cimarron River.

We setup camp near Johnson City and cut wheat around there and Ulysses. One of the wheat farmers we worked for at Johnson City had an airplane. We set up camp near the grass airstrip. One day the farmer’s two teenage daughters came out to the plane. It was obvious that they were dressed to go somewhere. A more adventurous youth struck up a conversation by asking them where they were going. They told him that the family was flying to Denver, Colorado to do some shopping. That was the closest big town. Denver would have been approximately 250 air miles.

The early settlers in that part of the country often referred to it as a sea of land. In 1961 it was mostly dry land farming. Now most of the farms are irrigated by sprinklers and ditch.

Having spent my early childhood on the great plains, the area was not entirely foreign to me. My Grandfather Ryan had owned land over the state line in Bent County, Colorado. In 1915 my maternal grandfather purchased a new steam engine and threshing machine in Amarillo, Texas. He moved north, threshing grain virtually over the same route we took almost 50 years later. Of course he threshed bundled and shocked wheat. He took several years to make the trip north. During the offseason he built houses and worked as a blacksmith around Liberal and several other towns. He finally traded his threshing rig for a blacksmith shop in Cheyenne County, Kansas.

On the move again, we crossed the the Arkansas River near Syracuse and stopped at Tribune. The cool weather and the rain had slowed the ripening process. We laid over a week at Tribune to wait for the wheat to ripen. In that dry expansive country each county seat had a park with a community swimming pool. We were allowed to set up our camp at the back of their park and use the swimming pool. The day we pulled in, there were only a few people at the pool. The next day it was swarming with girls. The word had got out that Hammtown was in town!

Tribune, Kansas

Jerry Parnell poses on the fender of his rig, at Tribune, Kansas.

 

Before I leave the subject of girls. I will tell of another humorous guy. His name was Doug Adams. He attended college in Arkansas and was a basketball referee on the side. He was a cut-up, with a gimmick he used. He would approach girls, on a street corner, in a restaurant or store. He would say in his best syrupy Arkansas drawl, “Excuse me ma’am. Do you know Doug Adams?”

Almost always they answered sincerely, “No, I don’t think I do.”

He would stick out his hand and say, “How would you like to meet him?” He always got a laugh and sometimes they actually shook hands.

I have forgotten most of my harvest friend’s names. I wish I had written all of them down. But, I remember the name Doug Adams.

 

We were of many locations and origins. I remember one youngster hired along the way. He was a replacement for a grain-hauler that had quit. He was probably 17 or 18. The young man was of very small stature. He wore a leather jacket with the picture of a wolf’s head painted on the back. He was asked by one prankster about the picture. He explained proudly that it was the symbol of the gang he belonged to. It was called the Wolf Pack. His tormenter said, “You don’t look like a wolf. You look more like a coyote to me. I am just going to call you Coyote!” The nickname stuck. Each time one of them called him Coyote he would get mad and want to fight. The little guy could not fight his way out of the proverbial wet paper sack.

One day I decided to intervene. I stepped in between and told them that it was time to leave him alone. I explained that he was like the rest of us, there because he wanted or needed a job. The same guy that named him piped up, “Listen to Ryan preaching a sermon. I reckon we should just call him Deacon.” For the rest of the tour, some called me Deacon, but they left the little feller alone.

Number 10 Truck and Combine

A shirtless Walt poses with his rig, the number 10 truck and combine, somewhere in Kansas.

 

Next, we continued north across both branches of the Smokey Hill River and cut wheat east of Mt. Sunflower. It is not a mountain. It is just a rise in the prairie. It is the highest elevation in Kansas. We turned east at Goodland and went near Oberlin. After cutting wheat there, we went north into Nebraska. Chappell on the south side of the Platte River was our next harvest stop. We cut on a farm west of Chappell in the Platte River bottoms.

Again, along the Sundown Trail we touch a bit of history: As our combine caravan crossed the main street of Chappell, Nebraska that July day in 1961, furniture store owner Dick Cabela was starting a fishing lure mail-order business just down the street… It is one of those, wish-I-had-thought-of-that moments.

The Sand Hills rose up on the north side of the Platte. Each morning as we sat on our combines waiting to start, we would watch a herd of antelope go to water. They would walk single file down a path out of the hills and proceed to a windmill supplied stock watering tank. They would mill around the tank until we fired up the combines. When the combines roared into action they would run for the hills.

The river bottom area had an abundance of deer and other wild game. To protect their fawns from the coyotes, the does had hidden them out in the wheat. The older fawns would jump up and run, but the very young ones would lay there and let us run over them. We learned to watch for them and jerk the header bar control up as we passed over, to spare them and leave some cover.

From Chappell we went to Lodgepole. When we finished at Lodgepole we traveled through the Nebraska Sand Hills. At Valentine we crossed over into South Dakota. We finished the season cutting wheat on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Normally the outfit would have went on into North Dakota and Montana, but it had been a poor crop year in those areas. We turned Hammtown south and journeyed home a month early.

 

Hammtown no longer exists. They ceased the harvest operation several years ago. Harvest 1961, remains a cherished memory along the Sundown Trail.

 

Group Picture

We pose for a group picture in South Dakota, before heading home. The man and lady on the left kept us fed. The gentleman in overalls was the mechanic. He could repair or make anything for the machines, right in the field. Doug Adams is showing the camera that he wears socks. I am the one wearing the hat. I wish I had all their names.

 

 

Categories: farming, times gone by, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 24 Comments

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