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Wheat People - Part 1

Aerial view of a Kansas wheat field. Photo courtesy of the  Kansas Industrial Development Commission.Celebrating Kansas Harvest

Wheat History

"All parts of Kansas grow good corn
but in wheat Kansas can beat the world."
Topeka Daily Capital, 1888

Today's Kansans may be surprised to learn that wheat has not always been the state's dominant crop. Farmers who settled here just after the Civil War (1861-1865) planted corn, a familiar crop that thrived in the humid eastern areas they called home.

It would take many years for wheat to dethrone corn in Kansas. The first major blow was delivered in 1874 by swarms of grasshoppers that devoured the corn crop well after the wheat was harvested. A series of summer droughts made matters even worse.

Railroads also played an important role. Anxious to sell land to farmers who would ship grain on their lines, they mounted huge advertising campaigns and even sent agents to recruit emigrants among Germans living in Russia. These people--none of whom grew corn in Russia--quickly settled in what would become the state's major wheat-producing regions. Their great success with winter wheat convinced other farmers to try it (winter wheat--planted in the fall and harvested in the spring--is suited to Kansas where most moisture arrives in winter and early spring).

Threshing crew and cookshack wagons, ca. 
1900.At the same time wheat was overtaking corn in Kansas fields, new technology was dramatically changing the face of farming. Mechanical threshing (separating kernels from straw) appeared in the mid-19th century. The nostalgia older farmers sometimes express for the threshing era has much to do with socializing and community, because crews often were made up of large groups of friends and neighbors. In central and eastern Kansas, farmers usually formed threshing rings of neighbors helping each other. In western Kansas, farmers hired custom threshers on a contractual basis because the region's large, flat wheat farms required tremendous amounts of machinery and labor.

Combining Havesting & Threshing

"I didn't cry when we got a combine."
Virl Moeckel, Plevna, 1998

Threshing machines and their large crews were a common fixture on the plains for more than 50 years, but the tradition could not withstand the onslaught of the combine. So named because it combined the work of all other harvest equipment (cutting and threshing) in just one machine, the combine began appearing in Kansas fields during World War I, and by 1930 Kansas farmers owned nearly one third of all combines in the United States.

Tractor-pulled
 combine, Barton County. Combines dropped less grain in the field and drastically cut labor costs, but wheat cut by a combine had to be dead ripe. Timing was critical because the longer wheat stood in the field the greater the risk from hail, diseases, and pests. Farmers bought their own machines rather than share with neighbors.

The amount of work one farmer could do exploded in the 20th century due to power machinery, but technology has been both a blessing and a curse. New machines and plant varieties yield more wheat through less work. Farms grow larger because farmers can handle more land, but this often leads to greater debt.

Partially harvested wheat field near Marion, Kansas.As equipment has become larger and more efficient, the need for farmers to come together to share work has declined. All the same, today's farmers have found other ways of maintaining community. Threshing crews have disappeared but in their place is the unique Plains tradition of custom combining. Harvest meals continue to be social gatherings, but for families rather than large groups of friends. Farmers may not share work as often as they used to, but when neighbors are struck down by injury or illness they rally together to bring in the harvest.

This online exhibit is the story of 20 farm families at the turn of the 21st century, embracing new technology even as they practice old customs. Wheat has become a shared symbol of their success at feeding the populations of the world as well as their neighbors at home. These sentiments were distilled into a single remark made by Marie Moeckel, a farmer from Plevna, Kansas, whose declaration prompted the title for this project:

"We're just wheat people!"

 

Wheat People: Celebrating Kansas Harvest is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.

  1. Wheat History - Corn used to be "King" in Kansas
  2. Gearing Up - Getting ready for harvest
  3. On the Run - Everybody moves quickly
  4. Family - Coming together in the fields
  5. Fast Food - Meals are a social event
  6. Nature - June is a stormy month
  7. To Market, To Market - The local grain elevator
  8. The Season's End - Harvest festivals
  9. Business or Way of Life? - Farming is both

Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org