Aug 19, 2013

Thurs, Aug 19, 1943: alfalfa baled

"Got the alfalfa baled and have baled prairie hay yesterday and today.  Plan to put in another day baling and then quit it for awhile.  John Mack, Mr. Mack, Chas Coons, Harold Easterling, David Jackson Chas King are some of the crew that have been helping....
"Well be good and dont let the navy get you down.
-- Letter from my grandfather, Bloomington, Kans., to my father, Cape Girardeau, Mo., Thursday, August 19, 1943.
Bluestem grass (prairie hay) and alfalfa were two primary sources of hay on my grandfather’s farm.  On this day, he was working on baling both.  The work of baling hay and putting it up in the barn, as this letter shows, required assembling a good-sized crew.  The process involved cutting the hay, letting it cure in the sun a couple days, raking the hay into windrows, running a buckrake (go-devil) to bring the hay to the baler, pitchforking the hay into the baler, tying baling wire by hand, lifting the bales onto a wagon, then stacking the hay in the barn.  The process was quite a bit mechanized by the 1970s when I helped out as a teenager, but was still hard work – fun work, as I remember in it on my week-long visits.
These two grasses – bluestem and alfalfa -- had very different histories.  The bluestem had grown in the area for millennia, while alfalfa had recently followed a circuitous route from southwest Asia to Kansas.  Together, these two grasses kept the cattle on my grandfather’s farm fed through the winter.
I have vivid memories of alfalfa waving in the wind with its beautiful purple flowers, when I’d visit my grandfather’s farm, as a child.  Alfalfa could be harvested several times a year.  My grandfather cut alfalfa from May to August, and perhaps in other months.  The plant was first domesticated by 8,000 B.C.E. somewhere in central or southwest Asia, perhaps first in Iran.  It provided fodder for horses and other livestock and helped feed the horses of the ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman cavalries.  Like many of the al- words in English (alkali, algebra, alcohol, albatross, alchemy, etc.), “alfalfa” derives from the Arabic, meaning "fresh fodder.”  It appears to be the only one of my grandfather’s crops connected with the Spanish colonization of the Americas.  It spread through Arab North Africa, to Arab Spain, then to Spanish colonies in the Americas, then to California in the 1850s and then elsewhere in the American West.
The meadow with its bluestem grass provided the other source of hay.  My grandfather would cut and bale the meadow’s prairie hay in July, August, September, and October.   According to my father, “The tallgrass prairie had never been plowed, and no trees or bushes were to be seen, for Leonard did not allow the pasturing of cattle that might drop seeds with their manure.  The meadow was a remnant of the tallgrass prairies – the vast sea of grass that had once covered the eastern plains in a belt from Texas to Iowa to North Dakota.
The Flint Hills near my grandfather’s old farm now has the largest tallgrass prairie left in the world.   Ten thousand years ago, the area had interspersed forest and grass.  Both a drying climate and human-set fire helped shape the tall-grass prairies that emerged.  Fire was crucial in shaping the ecosystem, by keeping out trees, by eliminating accumulated biomass, and by favoring some grasses over others.  Early written accounts of prairie fires suggest that the vast majority of fires were set by indigenous people, not by lightning.  In many cases, white newcomers observed Indians setting fires.  In general, those fires occurred in the spring and the fall, not in the summer when lightning could set them.  Indians set fire for a wide variety of reasons, to drive animals, especially bison, and to grow new grass that would attract animals, for communication, and for warfare.  In the words of historian Julie Courtwright (like my father, a native of Butler County), “In the hands of the Indians, fire helped keep the prairies free of brush and woody intruders, thus maintaining the Plains’ unique treeless appearance.”
I do not know the specific fire history of my grandfather’s farm.  However, the land that became my grandfather’s farm had been the land of Wichita people in the early 1700s and for centuries before. Then in the late eighteenth century, Osage people moved into Wichita territory, as part of the rippling consequences of whites dispossessing indigenous people in the eastern United States.  According to early written accounts, the Osage were the heaviest users of fire in the Central Plains.
The arrival of Euro-Americans on the plains brought suppression of fire and the growth of trees and shrubs.  Settlers noted that trees came to dominate the prairies more through the late nineteenth century.  However, settlers also recognized the important role of fire and continued to use it, to some extent.  My father, born in 1925, said one of his early memories was of prairie fire: “Vague memories of [my uncle] Orville linger in my mind, especially the time that he and [my father] Leonard came in, faces soot-covered after burning off the meadow one night.  This was an annual ritual then, to eliminate weeds and small bushes, and make ashes of the dead grass to fertilize next year's hay crop on the tall grass blue stem prairie.  I had seen the fires glowing southwest of the house in the meadow, and observed my blackened father and uncle who had worked to contain the fire as they came to the house to wash up.” 
Not surprisingly, these fires could not always be contained.  “Leonard remembered another pasture fire,” my father wrote, “which had gotten out of control in 1923 and burned off a section or two of a neighbor's land including some haystacks.  He and Orville had to pay about $500 in damages, a considerable sum; and Jessie recalled that their honeymoon trip had to be cancelled owing to this expense.”  The letters I have from the 1940s have no references to burning pastures or the meadow.
(Sources: F. D. Coburn, The Book of Alfalfa: History, Cultivation and Merits.  Its Uses as a Forage and Fertilizer (New York: Orange Judd Company, 1912), 1-3; Ernest Small, Alfalfa and Relatives: Evolution and Classification of Medicago (NRC Research Press, 2011), 160-62; Brown, Kansas Farmboy, 15, 140; Courtwright, Prairie Fire, 28-48).

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