The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 4, Number 4, Pages 28-33
Fall, 1978

Wilbur, Washington Wheat Farming

1927-1932: A Recollection

By Alexander Joss

ALEXANDER JOSS was born on his father's homestead some 20 miles southwest of Wilbur, Washington, August 3, 1910. When he was 3 years old, the family moved to the small town of Forest Grove, Oregon where he went to grade school and high school. Following his graduation in 1927, his mother moved the family to Wilbur. His father had died in 1921.

From July 1927 to September 1930, he worked as a hired man on various farms in the Wilbur area, before deciding to go to what was then Washington State College. While in college, he returned to Wilbur for summer work.

Following his graduation from Washington State, he went to Cornell University where he earned both his master's and doctor's degrees in the field of Agricultural Economics. His professional career includes 5 years of college teaching, 3 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 28 years with the Cooperative Farm Credit System. When he retired November 1, 1974, he was Vice President and Secretary of The Federal Land Bank of Spokane.

In the late 1920's and early 1930's, the area south of Wilbur, Washington was primarily a spring wheat area. The first operation, generally early in March, was to break up the ground that had been summer-fallowed the previous year. A spike-tooth harrow was used and each field was covered two or three times to prepare a good seed bed. Drilling followed and then another harrowing to cover the seed. Plowing was next and was the longest single job. Most farmers spent from six weeks to two months completing this operation. Usually there was a break of about a month to six weeks between the end of plowing and the beginning of weeding. The Cheney 12 foot rotary rod weeder was used by most farmers. The operator stood on a ten-foot plank. By moving back and forth on this plank, he could control the depth of the rod. The right depth was important: if too deep, the smaller weeds were left undisturbed and kept on growing; if too shallow, the rod would slide over the top of some of the weeds.

All farmers cut wheat hay around each field to provide a swath for the combine on its first round. A binder was generally used. The bundles were then shocked to permit the hay to cure. Occasionally, rattlesnakes would crawl in from adjoining scab-rock areas. One farmer I worked for had the misfortune to pitch two snakes on to his wagon. After the second one, he walked the nearly two miles to the bam with each load of hay.

 

Eight horses with a 30 foot spike-tooth harrow.

 

Harvesting is, of course, the most important operation. I got my first job as header puncher in 1927 in a rather unusual way. An older man, who had worked previously for the farmers for whom I was driving weeder team, had been hired as header puncher. It is this man's job to raise and lower the header depending on the height of the grain and the contour of the ground. On the first day of harvest it was discovered this old man had lost the sight in one eye since his previous employment and his depth perception was almost nil. The farmers, Charley and Henry Kuchenbuch, decided to let the older man tend the separator and try the 17 year old "City kid" as header puncher. Incidentally, their combine had a 24-foot cut, making it one of the largest in use. With a lot of help from Henry who took over the job of driving the tractor, I made out O.K. Charley Kuchenbuch started hauling wheat. This meant that his wife and the hired girl had a crew of six men to feed three times a day. There were also the three small Kuchenbuch daughters to care for.

The harvest of 1928, I punched header on a self-propelled combine. Unlike today's machines, which are operated by one man, this machine required a crew of four.

The harvest of 1929, I did some of the driving while the boss hauled wheat to town. His 14-year-old son took over my header-punching duties. This was a ground-power machine with a 12 foot cut. We used 26 horses and mules to pull the combine and also to provide the power to run the separator. When the animals stopped, the machinery stopped also.

The harvest of 1930, I became a sack sewer. The boss punched header and also took care of the machine. The driver and I shared the job of taking care of the 20 horses used to pull the combine. A gasoline engine provided the power to run the separator

The harvest of 1931 was a very unusual one for me. I worked for a farmer a few miles south of Govan, Washington. The Russian thistles were coming very fast. He decided that it would be better to cut his crop with a header several weeks early and let it cure in the stack. His regular hired man quit, and I ended up driving the header for most of the harvest. It was quite an experience. This method of harvesting had been quite standard before combines took over around 1910-1914. When the wheat was ready to thresh, we took the reel off the combine, and built an extension to carry the chaff away from the back of the machine. I was the most experienced sack-sewer so I ended up with that job. The machine was positioned to give any wind advantage to the fellows who were pitching the wheat onto the header platform. This meant that I always had the side with the most dust and chaff blowing in my face. Also, by this time the thistles in the wheat had dried and were like so many little needles. It was a long summer!

My last two harvests, 1932 and 1933, I drove a Caterpillar tractor. Tractors were becoming more and more the principal source of power.

One of the hardest jobs, in my estimation, was picking up chaff after harvest. Usually it was stacked in the field and had to be pitched both on and off the wagon.

 

Eight horses pulling a 10 foot drill with harrow behind. Some farmers separated the drilling and harrowing operations.

 

All of the farmers I worked for sacked their grain. Some wheat would be hauled during harvest, dumped at the elevator and the sacks re-used one or two times. Usually the truck driver picked up the sacks directly from the field. Trucks had generally replaced horses for wheat hauling by the late 1920's. I did work for one farmer in 1928, who used an eight-horse team with two wagons.

We put 25 sacks on each wagon. The 20 mile round trip was a long day. I helped load at night and took care of the horses. During the day I fixed fence, burned weeds, and did other chores.

Looking back, this was a very interesting part of my life. I was particularly fortunate that my first employers, Charles and Henry Kuchenbuck, treated me as a man, paid me a man's wages, and taught me a great deal about farming that was to prove useful later on.

Alexander Joss' photographs of the Wilbur farming follow:

Putting hay in the barn. The slings cut down the work of unloading.

The author's first team, 1927. The implement is a Cheney 12 foot rotary rod weeder.
The farmer had built a platform that got the driver up above some of the dust.

Two rotary rod weeders.

Sometimes hay was stacked in the field.

Cutting wheat hay with a binder.

The author's first combine experience, 1927. This machine cut a 24 foot swath.

Self-propelled combine, 1928.

Twenty-six horses (and mules) on a ground-powered combine.

This was the "ROOM" part of "BOARD AND ROOM" for part of the summer of 1928.

Hauling chaff for winter feed for horses.

THE END!

A hot summer shower really felt good. The sun's heat warmed the water in an old oil barrel.