Listen: Thanksgiving on the Farm 2nd version

MPR’s Paul Gruchow shares a poignant childhood memory of the sights, sounds and smells on a rural farm during the harvest season.


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[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER: I hardly know what to say about Thanksgiving on the farm except that it occurred after the harvest. The harvest went on all summer, of course. First, the flax whose oily brown seeds stuck to your limbs when you played in the harvest wagon; then the light crunchy oats full of fat grasshoppers whom you caught and tore apart section by section; then in the hotter, drier days of August, the wheat, which you could chew in hands full until it made gum in your mouth; and the vegetable harvest through the long summer, the muggy harvest of the peas and tomatoes and string beans.

Hot sun, sweat, flies, mosquitoes, boring work, first this row and then the next and the next and the next until eternity itself had come. But father's watch said only 10:00 AM and the Eastern sun lied, too. Afterwards is the demeaning shelling and stringing and dicing of the vegetables for the canning jars, unfair work for a boy-- women's work.

But the real harvest didn't come until fall. The atmosphere had to be right-- cold frosty mornings, new ice over the yard puddles, a crackle in the brown grass, sharp brittle air dry and clean, a proper smell. How should I put it? The smell of a good cleaning.

The soybeans came first in the real harvest, the hard little black-eyed, musty-smelling soybeans. And then the golden corn wagonload after wagonload of it coming in from the fields soon after dawn and coming until the last brilliant thread of prairie sunset had faded from the sky. The corn provided a man's work for a boy.

Grandpa drove the loads in from the field. I prided myself at 12 on the heavy work dragging the big steel jack round to the front of the wagon, positioning it just so with one leg on either side of the tongue at the proper angle so that it wouldn't slip or lose its footing, then inserting the big handle and pumping the ton or more of ripe grain up into the air hanging from the handle the last few notches and jumping until my feet could touch the ground. Then up into the wagon to push the ears to the gate at the rear end where they fell out at the steady regulation of grandpa's hands into the elevator and were carried up and into the granary.

All day long, we stored up the golden crop day after day. And all of the air was frosty to our breath. We stayed warm with the work. When the granaries were full, the artistry began.

First, we found a high level of ground. And then we fenced out a circle of it with slatted fencing and then positioned the elevator spout exactly over the center of the circle so that the corn would pile up and spread out evenly to the sides. As the heap of corn grew, we carefully nurtured our crib pushing in the slats here, pulling them out there a little to the left, a bit to the right so that the walls of it grew up straight from the ground.

And when one level was full, we would put another circle of fence on top of it, this circle just a little bit smaller than the first and never sit up straight and level. And then we'd add another layer. And at each layer, the exactness of the structure became more essential until finally we could heap up the last load into a perfect cone at the very top so that the whole structure had a roof to protect the grain from getting wet and moldy. The building of the cribs was craftsman's work, and we devoted to it the studied affection that a work of art demands. It was at this stage of the harvest that grandpa and I became comrades.

Once when we were at work on one of our cribs along a gravel road on the ady, a big city car pulled up. And a hunter inside rolled down his window, put his head out, and said, "Excuse me, can you tell me where the pheasants are?" Grandpa didn't hesitate a moment. "Yes, he said, "go to the first intersection, turn right 2 miles, turn left 3 miles, turn left 6 miles, turn right 4 miles, and you should see them on the corner." "Thank you," the man said.

The car drove off, and we watched until it came to the first intersection and turned right. We laughed until tears came to our cheeks. And we laughed again about it at every harvest for years.

Making the cribs tall and straight was a matter of practical importance. If they burst or toppled, the grain would be spoiled. But it was also a badge of honor. A farmer who couldn't build a straight corn crib was hardly better off than one who couldn't plant a straight row or stack a tight haystack.

When the corn was harvested, there were the apples to pick and wrap in newspaper and pack in tin barrels to be stored in the cellar. And the potatoes had to be dug and sacked in brown gunny sacks and hauled in. And the pumpkins and squashes had to be collected and the honey brought in and the beehives banked for the winter and the cords of wood cut into stove lengths on the big noisy buzz saw which struck terror into my heart. It was on such a saw that old Ed Johnson, the scissors sharpener, had lost two of his fingers years ago.

Near the end of these chores, Thanksgiving came on the farm. In the spring, the cellar would be high with muddy water. And there would be creepy salamanders among the sprouting potatoes. But for the coming season, it was dry and fragrantly full with produce.

The air was nippy enough now so that the space heater already felt good on your back. It had seemed cold too long in May, and only a mile away, it had hailed in July. And it seemed as if the rains would never come in August, but they had.

And the frost hadn't come too early in September. And the snow had waited until the crop was out in November. The battle was won.

The harvest was in. It was time to rest for a season. So we called in our relatives and had a feast and called it Thanksgiving. I thought about that the other day when I came home after dark from the office and saw that the lawn boy had bagged the leaves in anticipation of the garbage pickup.



In 2008, Minnesota's voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution: to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.

Efforts to digitize this initial assortment of thousands of historical audio material was made possible through the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. A wide range of Minnesota subject matter is represented within this collection.

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