Bean producers faced challenges of drought and war, Part 2

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:12 PM
A lonely sentinel from an earlier time.

Part II

By Bob Bernhart and Dale Davidson

The first installment of this article explored the beginnings of the bean industry on the Great Sage Plain. We discussed the period from the late 1800s through the end of the First World War. We mentioned that, with the end of the war, markets for commodities, including beans, declined worldwide and how Colorado farmers would struggle to adapt.

To meet the increased demand for beans, and other farm products, to support the European war effort, many farmers had taken out loans to buy additional land and equipment. With the end of the First World War, that demand ended. Our troops came home, and European farmers were able to meet their needs for foodstuffs. Beginning in the 1920s, demand for Colorado beans plummeted as did the prices. Also affected were the cattle, mining, fruit and vegetable producers. Shipping costs became an issue in selling products from the Great Sage Plain into national markets. To make things worse, the 1920s saw the Great Sage Plain slipping into a prolonged period of drought. The soil itself was to become part of the problem.

Bean production, in the years preceding the First World War, was minimally mechanized. The crop may have been cut by hand with sickles and shocked in the field until dry. Once dry, the shocks were transported to an area where a large canvas tarp was laid out. A horse team drawing a set of discs crossed and re-crossed the shocks. This separated the beans from the hulls and stems. Everything was then run through a screen. The hulls and stems were separated for fodder and mulch. The beans were sacked and transported to an elevator. As mechanization progressed, sleds drawn by horses were rigged with blades, often made from old saw blades, on each side which cut two rows at a time. As before, the rows were shocked in the field. Once dry, a slip drawn by horses came through the field and the shocks were forked onto the slip for transport to the threshing machine. The threshing machine separated the hulls and stems from the beans. These machines had been developed in the 1910s and were great labor savers. The field cleaned beans were put into wagons or trucks to be transported to the elevator where they were graded, cleaned, and put into 100-pound sacks suitable for transport. David Allen of Dove Creek, whose family homesteaded east of Dove Creek in 1915, recalls two threshing machines working in the area in the mid-1920s. The machines were owned by Phillip Mellott and Wade Redford. One of the machines was a Pioneer Threshing Machine. Once threshed, Allen’s beans were usually taken to the elevator owned by Fendal (F.A.) Sitton (who also formed the first bank in Dove Creek). This elevator was one of the first in Dove Creek and was located in the vicinity of Fourth and Dove streets. It subsequently burned, producing a great smell in the community. Threshing machines where often individually owned but were taken from farm to farm at harvest time. The machines were pulled by a team of horses or a tractor between locations. Once in place, the machine was usually powered by a long canvas belt connecting the threshing machine to either a steam traction engine or the PTO of a tractor. Threshing time also provided an opportunity for the farmers, who usually worked the thresher together, to socialize. This socializing was mainly lost once mechanical combines were introduced and threshing machines became less important.

The 1920s and 1930s were, generally, years of decline on the Great Sage Plain with the number of farms declining by almost 20 percent in the period. Tractor production, nationally, declined 90 percent from 1929 through 1932. Even with the declines in production, the International Harvester Farmall Regular tractor began to appear on the Great Sage Plain. The G.D. Taylor Store in Dolores was an early IH dealer. Later, when the Deere GP “A” tractor arrived on the Great Sage Plain, it was sold by C.C. McAfee in Lewis and by the Romer Mercantile & Grain Co. in Dove Creek. Numerous labor saving implements including plows, cultivators, and seeders, and combines were developed – even though the acres in production and prices received were in free-fall.

As the drought, decline in productivity of the soil, and poor markets for farm products continued through the Depression years, which had been exacerbated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, some farmers, who were already on the edge financially, either lost or sold their farms. The Depression led to further reduced prices, tightening of bank credit, rationing, water shortages, and many farmers were hardly able to feed their farm animals, let alone themselves. These were truly the Great Depression years.

The pain of the Depression was eased by the initiation of numerous Federal projects in Montezuma and Dolores counties in the 1930s. These projects included work at Mesa Verde, water control projects, and road building including the Cortez-Dove Creek Highway. Several Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established in the area. These projects brought jobs and an upturn in the local economy. Sadly, 1939 saw the beginning of another land war in Europe. As happened prior to World War I, commodity production, in support of Europe and to prepare for the possible entry of the U.S. into the conflict, increased. Once again, the farmers of the Great Sage Plain would adjust to world events.

Presented by the Montezuma County Historical Society.