Harvesting Wheat in Kansas
Before I left my hometown of Claflin, Kansas in 1959 to pursue a military career at the U.S. Naval Academy, and after that, in the U.S. Marine Corps, I was a farm kid. Our place was a mile east of town and a quarter mile south of Kansas Highway 4, which ran through the south edge of town. If you look at the right edge of the aerial photograph you’ll find the farm about a quarter mile south on the east side of the gravel section road. We farmed the half section of land to the west, across the gravel road from the farmstead, and the quarter section immediately to the north, plus some acreage not visible in the photo.
Claflin, Kansas…Much the same as it was in the ‘50s
The wheat crop was our major source of income, but we also raised cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens and some of the crops needed to feed the livestock. The most critical time of the year was the wheat harvest, which usually occurred in late June or early July. When the weather turned hot and dry and the wheat finally ripened the cutting started. The combines would move to the fields and the harvest began. Since wheat was the main source of our livelihood, when we started cutting we worked 7 days a week until all the crop was in, weather permitting. Moisture content of the wheat determined when you started cutting in the morning, and when you shut down at night. The grain elevators would not take wheat with too much moisture content. The quality of the wheat crop determined how much money the family had for the rest of the year. I can remember some lean years. This tale is about my memories of those wheat harvests. The details may not be agriculturally pure or correct, but remember that I haven’t worked a farm in over 50 years and that I’m reporting from the perspective of an old infantryman.
As a little kid I used to ride to the fields with mom to bring drinks to my grandpa, my dad and my uncle as they cut the wheat. My first memories of harvest were the two tractor-drawn Allis Chalmers All Crop combines with about six foot headers. During later years, when I was probably about 9 or 10 years old, we got an Oliver self-propelled combine. We hired custom cutters some years to help get the crop in sooner. These crews would start with the earlier ripening crops in Texas and proceed north throughout the summer to follow the ripening wheat. They ended up in Canada in the early fall. At about the time that I left home in 1959 we got rid of the Oliver and went strictly with custom cutters. Today the combines that cut the wheat are huge by comparison, and most of them have air conditioned cabs and stereo systems.
I started working the harvest when I was old enough to wield a wheat scoop, as did most farm kids. That was probably around age 11 or 12, maybe a little earlier. In Kansas a kid could get a restricted driver’s license at age 14 which allowed daytime driving only, along with several other restrictions. The idea was get the farm kids behind the wheel a couple of years early. So by my high school years I was driving a wheat truck during harvest. There was the time when a high school buddy and I and our girl friends took that wheat truck, with mattresses in the bed, to a drive-in theater, but that’s another story, not pertinent to this tale.
We had our own granary on the farm where we stored the seed wheat, which we usually filled up before taking the rest of the crop to town to the grain elevator. That elevator can be seen in the picture below. I was usually stuck in the bins of the granary shoveling the wheat to the side to make room for more. That damned wheat dust really ate my lunch in a confined space like a granary bin. My nose ran like a faucet. I was always afraid that having "hay fever" from wheat dust would disqualify me for the military, so I always lied about that during physicals.
Present day Claflin, Kansas. South end of Main Street with grain elevator visible on right of photo.
I recall the first time I drove a load from the field to the elevator in Claflin when I was 14. My dad and uncle told me that the breaks on the truck wouldn’t work the way I was used to with the extra weight of a full load of wheat. Being the smart ass that I was I didn’t pay close enough attention, and as I approach the Missouri Pacific railroad crossing and intersection of Kansas Highway 4, I started breaking a little early to accommodate. The two and a half ton truck just kept right on going and shot across the tracks, across K-4 and about 100 yards up the gravel road to the north. Holy shit! I was lucky nothing was coming on K-4. I quickly learned the art of double clutching, downshifting, standing on the brakes, and yanking the emergency brake, if necessary, to stop with a full load of wheat. On the aerial photograph above you can see the railroad track and Highway 4 about a quarter mile north of the farm. It is labeled “Union Pacific” now, but was the MoPac when I was growing up.
Another incident that exposed my kid lack of common sense and awareness of my surroundings involved sinking a fully loaded wheat truck into a mud hole up to the hubs. After the truck was full and ready to go to the elevator in town, I turned around and drove through a small area of uncut wheat. The truck immediately bogged down in mud. My uncle came running over and hollered, “What in the hell did you think the wheat was uncut in that patch for? It was because it was too wet to get the combine in! Now we’ll have to go get a tractor and pull the truck out of this mud hole! You idiot!”…or words to that effect. As he raved on I sunk deeper and deeper into the driver’s seat and my face turned redder and redder in embarrassment. So the harvest stopped for a half hour as we retrieved the truck. I then headed to the elevator thoroughly cowed…and I never drove into a mud hole again…at least not with a full load of wheat.
And finally, I must relate one more harvest incident. It must have happened during the harvest after I’d graduated from high school, because I was 18 and could legally buy beer. My cousin was in town for some reason, and he was riding with me as I hauled the last load into the elevator for the night. It was probably around 2200 (10PM). We decided to stop at one of the three taverns in town to pick up a couple of beers for the mile ride home. I pulled the truck into a parking spot and went into Hank’s Place and bought a couple of long neck PBRs. I backed the truck out and cut it hard left, making an illegal turn, so we would be headed in the right direction toward home. The city Marshall, Lyle Komark, a Marine veteran of Iwo Jima, stopped us. He walked up to the window and said, “You just made an illegal turn, Dirck. Since it’s late and I know you’re tired from hauling wheat all day, I’ll let it go this time, but not again….and I didn’t see the beer.” Dodged two bullets, and further solidified my desire to be a Marine. Lyle was a good man.
And that is my recollection of helping out on the farm to ensure that we had food on the table during the coming winter. There are other stories about milking cows after football practice, herding sheep, gathering eggs, cleaning out chicken houses (guess who got to drive the manure spreader), working in gardens, and a myriad of other farm chores, but there was always something special about the wheat harvest. Right after I retired from the Marines in San Diego in 1983 we went home before continuing on the east coast and my first job as a civilian. When we arrived at the farm the wheat harvest was just getting underway. My son Mike was 6 years old at the time, and my uncle invited him to ride the combine, which he did for probably half a day. Mike still talks about that, and by taking that ride he continued the legacy that started in 1874 when my great grandfather homesteaded the farm. Thus ends another tale of my wayward youth.
Dirck Praeger sends