Stacking wheat and things of that kind

In chapters  XIII-XV of Hamlin Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie (Nebraska, 1961) the stacking of wheat is explained in enough detail for the book to be usable as an instruction manual, and he also describes the various technical changes wheat harvesting went through during his lifetime.  (From when I was about six I just barely remember the kind of crew-operated threshing machine that left a big pile of chaff; it had replaced hand stacking and would soon be replaced by the combine). Stacking wheat was a difficult and critical job, and good stackers were in high demand during the harvest season, though not really afterwards, since they were just farmworkers after all.

Things were about the same in Bretagne:

My father would contract to cut certain fields of rye or oats, the only grains grown in our area at that time. When the grain was brought in, my father was much in demand for that particular job, setting the sheaves up in rounded stacks  called groac’hel. He was a past master in the art of constructing such stacks. Stacks had to be very well built; because the winnowing was done entirely by flail, it took a long time, and if during that time it should rain heavily on poorly constructed stacks,  the water would get inside and everything would be ruined, grain and straw.

Memoirs of a Breton Peasant, Jean-Marie DeGuignet, Seven Stories Press, 2004 (more…)

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 5:26 pm  Comments (2)  

My Fossil Railroad

(Update Below: June 1, 2010)

During my bicycle-barhopping expeditions in the Wobegon area I keep running into the Soo Line, often in little country towns that barely exist (Miltona + Carlos +  Forada, combined population 805, 5 or 6 taverns). This freight line, which kept chugging  along when the famous passenger railroads dwindled and almost died*, was founded by a Minneapolis milling group in 1883, during the era when the milling and railroad monopolies were competing to screw the farmers and each other. Its original purpose was to bypass Chicago and ship flour from Sault St. Marie to the East by boat. (“Soo” comes from “Sault”.) (more…)

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:05 pm  Comments (6)  

Terrorism in Lake Wobegon

“The Minnesota Patriots Council (1991)”,  Jonathan B. Tucker and Jason Pate:  Chapter 10 in Toxic Terror, ed. Jonathan B. Tucker, MIT Press, 2000.

Powerline, Paul Wellstone and Barry Casper, U. Massachusetts Press, 1981

As it happens, in 1991 Wobegonians Leroy Wheeler, Douglas Baker, Richard Oelrich, and Dennis Bret Henderson became the first persons convicted under U. S. Code 18 U.S.C. § 175, which forbids the civilian production of chemical and biological weapons. The Monterey Institute of International Studies included the “Minnesota Militia”ricin terrorists as one of only a dozen case histories worldwide discussed in their book on the terrorist use of chemical and biological warfare 1946-1991.

Furthermore, during the period 1976-8 a different terrorist group in the area brought down down fourteen 175-foot powerline towers and shot out nearly 10,000 electrical insulators.

The experts from the BCSIA Studies in International Security from the Monterey Institute of International Studies (Tucker and Pate, p. 28) have concluded that

….living in an isolated economic backwater [Lake Wobegon] probably contributed to [the Minnesota Militia ricin terrorists’] chronic frustration. Given this lifestyle, coupled with the influence of living in a state with a strong history of grassroots political activism that sometimes included violence, it should come as no surprise that they began to seek people and institutions to blame for their problems.

Don’t mess with Wobegon.

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 2:29 am  Leave a Comment  

America: an alcoholic history

The Alcoholic Republic
W. J. Rorabaugh
Oxford 1979

Rorabaugh’s theory, reminiscent of the theory that civilization can be traced back to communal beer-drinking festivals,  is that the United States was founded on drunkenness, but that around 1830 the country sobered up, got religion, forgot about drunken republican brotherhood,  and devoted itself thereafter to property accumulation.

Rorabaugh has done his homework and tells us pretty much everything we want to know about the history of America’s drinking habits. During the early colonial period spirits were regarded as a healthful gift of God and drinking started at breakfast. During the the revolutionary and early republican periods communal bingeing became widespread, but after about 1830 or so, when the republican ideals had proven hard to maintain,  the norm became individualistic evangelical Christianity, sobriety, and self-improvement in the pursuit of wealth —  or else solo binge drinking.

For the first settlers west of the Appalachians, whiskey was the only cash crop and served as a form of currency in a cash-poor region. (Rorabaugh compares American frontier life in the early 19th century to that of the similar impoverished rural cultures in developing but still underdeveloped Sweden and Scotland). Most of the American groups especially noted for drunkenness are about what you’d expect  (laborers, sailors, Irish immigrants),  but few would have guessed that schoolteachers and ministers would be among them. It’s also surprising to find that the Primitive (Hardshell) Baptists forbade members to join  temperance societies.

Still later, when the existence of a permanent working class with little hope of rising any higher became evident, desperate forms of escapist drinking became most prevalent. The temperance movement rose as early as 1750, but only when it took a religious form around 1830 did it become effective. Drinking by immigrants and the lower classes was always regarded as more harmful than drinking by “real Americans”, and the prohibition movement tended also to be middle class and nativist.

The beverages of choice were fruit brandy, rum and hard cider in the beginning, whiskey and cider during the period of early independence, and finally whiskey and beer. Tea and wine were generally regarded as unpatriotic, and after a certain point, so was rum. During the early days milk and clean water  were hard to get and were even regarded as unhealthful, and few adults drank either if they could help it. The American taste was for distilled spirits mixed strong, and some early temperance advocates even promoted beer as a temperance drink. (But beer only became important relatively late, with the German immigration after 1850.)

Rorabaugh speculates that whiskey helped people endure a horrendous diet consisting almost entirely of pork and corn meal. Beyond that, “Americans had psychological needs that were met better  by alcohol than by food” (p. 122). American drinking culture, as distinguished from Italian drinking culture for example, helped men deal with their disappointments, anxiety, and high but probably  unattainable goals. He also notes that both abstinence and the characteristic alternation of abstinence and bingeing are conducive to a strong work ethic, contrasting both patterns to the use of opium in that respect.

Drunk or sober, students of American history  should all find  Rorabaugh’s book to  be of great interest.

[Links, further reading, and my  ancestor the frontier brewer are at “more”].


Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm  Comments (1)