Column: We've reaped what we've sewn, which is plentyWORTHINGTON — As another harvest is completed from the fields of southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, as another Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded of farmers I have talked to from an earlier time who remember — oh, when corn was not even grown in this northern reach of the continent, when flax and wheat and barley were major crops.
WORTHINGTON — As another harvest is completed from the fields of southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, as another Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded of farmers I have talked to from an earlier time who remember — oh, when corn was not even grown in this northern reach of the continent, when flax and wheat and barley were major crops.
The soil of our region has never failed to produce whatever was asked of it, save for sugar beets. In the 1920s, sugar beets were grown on farms in the Reading area and in the empty bed of East Lake Okabena. The beets were spectacular, but the sugar content was low. Beets were the only crop I ever learned of that were tested in Nobles County and abandoned.
Subtract 1912 from 2012. That’s 80. One hundred years. The late Jake Fath of Wilmont remembered his father, his family, introducing corn in the Wilmont-Reading-Adrian area in 1912.
“I guess we got the corn business started around here,” Jake said. The Faths moved to Nobles County from Alton, Iowa. “Everybody had maybe 20 or 30 acres of corn. For livestock. But mostly they had oats and wheat and barley. Corn was just a sideline. Everybody was afraid it would freeze this far north.”
“We planted 250 acres of corn that first year. All by walking. Then we had to pick it all by hand. The old timers said we were crazy.”
By 1920, corn was an established crop. Schools closed in the harvest season so kids could join the numbing chore of picking corn by hand, ear by ear.
Gene Stower is a legendary Nobles County extension agent. The street along the south edge of the Nobles County fairgrounds is named Stower Drive in his honor.
In 1939, Gene wrote a paper. “In this year of 1939, when we have some 60 to 70 percent of the corn land in the county planted with hybrid seed, which is the very latest in corn developments, I am reminded of a story told me by a farmer at Adrian. He and a neighbor had moved in the county from the corn country (Iowa and Illinois) and, on arriving … started raising corn. He told me that farmers on the streets of Adrian laughed at him and made sarcastic comments as he walked by them, because he was so foolish as to raise corn.”
Martin Luinstra, who farmed near Rock Rapids, and then Sibley and Worthington, was an interim county agent for Lyon County, Iowa. Martin said, “I was the first hybrid corn salesman in Lyon County. You see, that was something all-new then. That was 1933.”
Martin also remembered, “I was the first farmer in Lyon County to grow soybeans. That first year I planted three-and-a-half acres. We got a yield of 105 bushels. That was 1932.”
In that time when farmers recalled the coming of corn, many also told stories of the fields of flax. In 1941, Windom was calling itself the Flax Capital, or the Flax Straw Capital, of the World. Flax straw stacks were part of the Windom landscape.
In January 1941, the Daily Globe reported on the flax straw harvest: “A crew working through the night near Worthington turned out 338 bales of flax straw in one shift. The day crew met this challenge by turning out 342 bales.”
Flax straw came to be used for making cigarette papers. In an earlier time, for centuries, flax straw was used for making tow. Tow was coarse flax fiber prepared for spinning, for twine and ropes and the manufacture of linen.
In that time when the local region was flax country, J.F. Smith of Heron Lake watched as his tow machine spit aside the woody refuse of the flax straw. He wondered if this flax chaff might be put to use. Smith contrived a machine which mixed flax refuse with crude oil and produced “magic pills” which could be used in place of coal for half the cost. His “magic pills” were giant, compressed tablets, all of uniform weight and size.
The end of J.F. Smith’s story is lost. Some said he sold his patents. His vision of an economic fuel produced from flax never came to realized.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.