Oct 25, 2012

Sun, Oct 11, 1942: plenty of work

"...I plan to start 'spring-toothing' the wheat ground on King tomorrow, I was over there this afternoon and I think the ground is about dry enough.
“Augusta won their football game Friday night, I guess I'll have to quit betting with Lee Lenz.  I see Southwestern won their game Friday night.
"If you want to to [sic] come home next Saturday and stay till Tues, it will be O.K. there is always plenty of work to be done...."
--Letter from my grandfather, Leonard Reeves Brown, on the farm in Bloomington, Kans., Sunday, October 11, 1942 to my father, Sidney DeVere Brown, at college in Winfield, Kans. 
          That Monday, my grandfather was planning to use a spring-tooth harrow to prepare the ground for planting.  (There are youtube videos of spring-toothing, if you're interested).  Farmers in my grandfather’s community planted winter wheat in late October.  It sprouted soon after and then turned brown and dormant with the first frost.  It came back to life in the spring, was golden by late May and the harvest began in June. Wheat helped my grandparents pay for my father's college education and as a college student, my father occasionally took long weekends at home to help with farm work on wheat and other crops.  
          In planting wheat in the ground of his Bloomington farm, my grandfather was relying on the work of two peoples, without whose work there would have been no “wheat ground” in Kansas, at least not in the form it took.  He was relying on the efforts of the people of the Middle East who first domesticated wheat millennia ago.  And he was relying on the efforts of the Osage people and other indigenous people who had maintained the tallgrass prairie free from trees for centuries using fire.  Like all of us, he was indebted to distant people and not-so-distant people in order to make his livelihood in the world -- people who likely rarely crossed his mind.
Transforming Kansas prairies to wheat fields cultivated by whites was only possible, because whites had taken that land from the Osage people in the late nineteenth century.  On their lands in a large region where Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma meet today, Osage cultivated corn, beans, and squash.  They also hunted deer and buffalo.  Like other indigenous groups on the plains, the Osage burned the prairies for a variety of reasons: to create environments that attracted herbivores, to drive animals, to signal other groups, to prepare land for planting.  Thereby, they helped to create and maintain the tallgrass prairies, altering the prevalence of grass species and preventing the encroachment of trees.  In the 1860s, just a few decades before my great-grandfather arrived in Bloomington with my grandfather, his older sister, and younger brother (in 1906), whites had dispossessed Osage people and confined them to a much smaller reservation in Oklahoma, some 45 miles south of my grandparents’ farm.
 People in the Middle East began eating wheat they collected from the wild long before domesticating it and transforming its genome through human selection.  Early archeological evidence of gathering Triticum turgidum (durum wheat) exists near the Sea of Galilee around 17,000 B.C.E.  Early evidence of domesticating these plants comes from near Damascus, around 7800 B.C.E.  Triticum aestivuna (bread wheat) -- the species of wheat making up 90% of wheat cultivated today including the winter wheat my grandfather grew -- evolved from the already domesticated durum wheat.  There is evidence of bread wheat as early as 7,000 B.C.E. near the Caspian Sea.
            As people chose to plant seeds with certain traits, the size of wheat seeds increased.  It also developed a rachis that held its seeds once they were ripe, allowing humans to harvest the grains, rather than having them scatter on the ground.  One factor that made wheat especially suited to domestication is that, unlike most flowering plants, it is self-pollinating.  This allowed farmers to keep their crops genetically separated from their wild cousins and maintain changes in its DNA.  In plants cross-pollinated by bees or other animals, there is no way to keep genes from moving from wild plants to nearby domesticated plants.  The properties of wheat helped shape Middle Eastern and European cooking practices: gluten proteins in wheat allow it to rise when leavened, allowing baking of the leavened bread that is central to Middle Eastern and European diets.
            Spreading from the Middle East into Europe, wheat came to dominate the diet of the Europeans.  Europeans, in turn, brought it with them when they resettled the lands of North America (already settled by American Indians) in the seventeenth century.  Wheat was introduced in Kansas as early as 1839.  Winter wheat specifically was brought there in the 1870s.  It proved to be especially suited to that state, since it could take advantage of the months when Kansas receives most of its precipitation, winter and early spring.
Relying on the work of Middle Easterners and Osage, and their own hard work most days of the year, farmers transformed a fifth of Kansas into wheat fields.   Kansas soon became one of the nation’s leading producers of wheat, as it remains today.  Its license plates proudly proclaimed it the “Wheat State” in the 1940s and 1950s.  More recently, the plates have prominently featured a stalk of wheat.  Kansas land in wheat went from 68,000 acres in 1866, to 4.2 million acres in 1900 to 10.3 million in 1942 – the year described in this letter.  That means that in 1942 about 20% of all the land in the state was planted in wheat, a plant had never grown there before the 1830s.
            (Sources: Sidney DeVere Brown, Kansas Farmboy: A Memoir of Boyhood and Youth [2008], 104-5; Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe and the Nile Valley (Oxford University Press, 2000); Julie Courtwright, Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011), 20-31; Garrick A. Bailey, "Osage," in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 13, Part I, Plains, ed. Raymond J. DeMallie, 476-96; USDA, "Kansas Wheat History," 2011, available at http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Kansas/Publications/Crops/whthist.pdf); Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, 1922; "Wheat" in Kansapedia, available at http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/wheat/12235)

Oct 18, 2012

Sun, Oct 11, 1942: to the pastures

"...Mother & I went to the pastures this afternoon, the pasture season is about up, so will have to take the cattle out of the Fox pasture this week.  I think I will feed the steers this fall. I took hogs to Wichita on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, got $14.60 on Tues., $15.05 on Thurs. and don't know yet what the ones brought on Friday as I didn't stay to see them sell.  I took six hogs each trip.
"I haven't bought you a cow yet.  I'll try and watch out for one between now and spring...."
--Letter from my grandfather, on the farm in Bloomington, Kans., Sunday, October 11, 1942 to my father, a college student in Winfield, Kans.  (These hog prices were per hundred pounds of live weight.  Steers are castrated male cattle.) 
Hardly any of the plants and animals that provided my grandparents’ livelihood on the Kansas prairies were indigenous to that place.  Some of the prairie grasses in the pastures and meadow were likely the only exceptions.  Osage (and earlier Caddoan) farmers and hunters had maintained those prairie grasses for centuries by burning them, while most of the other farm plants and animals had a long history of coevolution and domestication by humans far from the Great Plains.
Cattle were the largest animals that newcomers brought with them to Kansas in the nineteenth century.  Millions of bison had once inhabited those prairies.  Bison populations were affected by the development of bison-hunting cultures among Plains Indians after Europeans introduced horses, by competition with those horses that grazed wild, and by increased pressures on Plains Indians as whites forced Eastern Indians off their land and toward the Plains.  Whites then pushed bison to the brink of extinction through hunting in the late nineteenth century.  Cattle, like those of my grandfather,
took the ecological niche that bison had held just a few decades earlier, both as consumers of grass and as a source of meat for the ecosystem’s top predator, humans.
According to archeologists and biologists, most of the world’s domestic cattle (Bos taurus) descend from the now-extinct wild ox or aurochs (Bos primigenius) that once lived throughout Eurasia and Africa north of the equator. It was these aurochs that artists painted on the walls of Lascaux Cave in France some seventeen millennia ago.  Humans began to tame these fierce creatures at least as early as the seventh millennium B.C.E., as evidence from Turkey attests.  They began to use cows for milk production by the fourth millennium B.C.E. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ultimately, cattle fared much better than their wild cousins. By most accounts, the last aurochs died in Poland in 1627.  Thus, cattle -- an animal that had once roamed Europe wild and been replaced by its domestic cousins there -- had an unwitting role in displacing bison from the Plains and nearly leading to their extinction. 
(Source: Dan Flores, "Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy: The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850" Journal of American History 78:2 (1991): 465-85; Frederick L. Brown, “Cows in the Commons, Dogs on the Lawn: A History of Animals in Seattle,” [Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 2010], 71-72).

Oct 11, 2012

Sun, Oct 11, 1942: pitch fork

“...Stanley is nursing a sore knee this evening.  Keith & Kenneth came home with him & they were in the hay loft and he stuck it with a pitch fork....”
--Letter from my grandfather, Leonard Reeves Brown, on the farm in Bloomington, Kans., to my father, Sidney DeVere Brown, at college in Winfield, Kans., Sunday, October 11, 1942.  Stanley was my father’s 9-year-old brother.

Oct 7, 2012

Wed, Oct 7, 1942: Leavenworth

“Aunt Edith has heard from Wayne and he seems to think he is going to be moved to Florida right away.
“To-morrow is Max's last day as a civilian. He leaves for Leavenworth to-morrow evening at 5:00."
-- Excerpt of a letter from my grandmother on the farm in Bloomington, Kans., to my father, at college in Winfield, Kans., Wednesday, October 7, 1942.  Max, my Dad’s cousin, was 20 years old.  Wayne, another cousin, was 27.  My father, by contrast, was only 17 and settling into his sophomore year of college.  Fort Leavenworth, Kans., 180 miles northeast of Bloomington, near Kansas City, served as a reception center and training post for soldiers during World War II.  (Source: Kenneth M. LaMaster, Fort Leavenworth [Arcadia Publishing, 2010], 121).

Oct 6, 2012

Wed, Oct 7, 1942: 6 hogs

“Daddy took 6 hogs to Wichita Tues and plans to take six more to-morrow.  He got $14.60 for those he took over.  Don't know what the market did to-day.”
-- Letter from my grandmother, Bloomington, Kans., to my father, Winfield, Kans., Wednesday, October 7,1942.  My grandfather slaughtered some hogs on the farm for the family’s consumption, but sold others on the market.  The price ($14.60) is per hundred pounds of weight.  The closest stockyards was at Wichita, 33 miles northwest of their farm.  (On the stockyards, see my earlier post “Tues, Jul 21, 1942: new suit.”)

Oct 5, 2012

Wed, Oct 7, 1942: busy as can be

“We missed you last week-end.  Kept thinking I would hear you come in but never did.  How are you getting along this week?
“As usual I'm busy as can be and hardly have time enough to sleep.  Last Friday finished my first month of school.”
-- Letter from my grandmother, Jessie Maybelle (Berger) Brown, Bloomington, Kans., to my father, Sidney DeVere Brown, Winfield, Kans., Wednesday, October 7, 1942.  Both my grandmother and my father were starting back to school in the fall of 1942, he as a college student, she as a schoolteacher.  My father was starting his sophomore year of college at Southwestern College, a Methodist school thirty miles south of my grandparents’ farm.  My grandmother was teaching grade school in Bloomington, near the farm.  Before marrying, my grandmother had been a schoolteacher for nine years, starting at age 17.   She married my grandfather in 1923 at age 26, and quit teaching to help with farmwork and raise their three children: my father born in 1925, my aunt in 1928, and my uncle in 1933.  My grandmother began teaching again in 1940.