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Starks Harvesters: Chapter 9

Chapter 9 was written in 2014 (four years after the book was published) to bring the story up to date and should be read after reading the book.


Chapter 9

Thirty One Years Later Thirty one years after loading my combine for the last time and saying goodbye to Wendy, it was time to return to the North American wheat belt. My travelling companion must, of course, be Charlie Norman. A less obvious addition was Charlie’s eldest son Taig. As a 26 year old Taig has operated a number of brand new Lexion combines; cutting edge technology with 40 foot headers. What would interest him, in a journey that was to retrace our harvest steps from thirty years ago? Charlie and I had agreed that we must limit our “do you remember when comments?” to the absolute minimum. We need not have worried, Taig turned out to be the perfect travelling companion.

The adventure did not start out well. I had emailed Dale’s daughter-in-law, Connie, that we hoped to visit them on Friday June 20th: She replied that sadly they would miss us. Their son Tim, who had been president of the Oklahoma Livestock Marketing Association for some time; was this year’s National president and was due to preside over a conference in Iowa the week we were to visit. Naturally Larry and Connie wanted to be at the conference. They wouldn’t be at home when we were passing through. Saddened by the news, I asked if it would be OK if we could call in their yard in their absence. Charlie and I would want to see and show Taig the farm we spent so many happy hours on, preparing brand new Brantford built Massey Ferguson combines for their epic harvesting journey from Texas to Canada. Connie’s reply was: “Sure, help yourselves.”

1Connie,Taig and Rob discuss sickle repairs with Larry Connie,Taig and Rob discuss sickle repairs with Larry

We flew from Heathrow on the morning of June 16th 2014 and landed in Chicago airport nearly nine hours later. We had one and a half hours to clear customs and passport control to get our connecting flight to Wichita, Kansas, where we were to collect our pre-booked hire car. One and a half hours was not enough time. The people at passport control were swamped with new arrivals. I found them belligerent, unhelpful and unpleasant. Time ran out and we missed our connecting flight. The girl at United Airlines could not have been more helpful. Sandy did absolutely everything she could to get us on the next flight to Wichita. I pointed out that it was not her fault that we had missed our flight to which she replied “No, and it is not your fault either. Those people at passport control have no care whether you catch your flight or not.”

Problem: all flights to Wichita were fully booked, we were on standby. At about 8 pm there was one spare seat on the next flight. We felt compelled to take it, after all there may only be two spare seats on the following flight. Taig boarded the flight into the unknown while Charlie and I waited in hope. Things got worse, not only were there no spare seats on following flights from Chicago to Wichita, all flights were over booked and they were offering incentives ( free hotel and food) to any passengers willing to stand down and fly the next day. It looked like Charlie and I were in Chicago airport for the night and Taig would be on his own in Wichita airport.

Time for action. Terry and Carol’s eldest son Chris lived in Wichita. It had already been decided that we would be too short of time to pay him a visit but, thankfully, I had his phone number. Chris very kindly drove down to the airport, picked up Taig and gave him a bed for the night. After a McDonald’s meal Charlie and I found a quiet corner of Chicago airport where rock hard benches had arm rests far enough apart to give us a sporting chance of getting some sleep. I hadn’t planned on our harvest experience starting so early! Charlie and I spent 20 hours in that airport.

We met up with Taig and Chris in Wichita about 10 o’clock the next morning. Chris and his sister Theresa had spent Christmas of 2005 with me and my family in England so I knew him well. Taig looked like he had had a better night’s sleep than his Dad or his Uncle Rob. We went through the paperwork at the car hire desk and Chris kindly led us out of the airport and onto our road heading south to Oklahoma. I knew once we hit farming country I would be OK with the driving but although Wichita is not a huge city (and we were on the outskirts of the south west corner) I felt like hic farm boy comes to town as we negotiated the short bit of main highway to get us the hell out of Dodge!

Taig joins Larry in the cab Taig joins Larry in the cab

Travelling South-West on Highway 2 we hit Harper, then Anthony, arriving Manchester around 1 pm. What better place to stop for a meal? Manchester café had moved buildings and was a much smaller enterprise than it was thirty odd years ago. To the uninitiated the place looked a bit tired. They now cooked one set meal a day, mainly for the elevator workers and a few visiting farmers. But we were made very welcome; today’s meal was lasagne and very good it tasted too!  At last we began to feel we were in God’s own country and a world away from cities and airports. As we were eating the meal a woman came through the café on her way to the repair shop out back. The name Connie was mentioned and I looked up. Connie Starks was in our presence and I shouted her name. She turned round and was as surprised as we were; not too many English accents are heard in that café.

Larry and Connie were not due to leave for Iowa until Thursday, what luck. Connie had come into town to get a flat tyre fixed (her first visit to town for a month.) Larry was cutting the last of their wheat with his John Deere 9760 STS combine. We hastily changed our plans and instead of driving south to meet up with the Clarke boys near Enid we postponed that journey for three hours to spend time in the harvest field with Larry and Connie. Taig rode with Larry in the combine while Charlie and I caught up with Connie’s news and spoke with Wes, their hired hand who was running the grain cart and trucking the wheat into the elevator with Larry’s Peterbilt and hopper bottom trailer. A broken sickle section brought Larry back to his pick-up for a field repair and we able to catch up with him too. Larry had bought this combine 5 years ago, trading in 3 smaller machines, including Dale’s last combine, a four wheel drive John Deere 9550. Larry’s 9760 had come with a 35 foot John Deere draper header but he had had some trouble with this and had traded it in for a brand new 35 foot MacDon flex header also of the draper type. A draper header has conveyor belts rather than a table auger and a flex header has a floating cutter bar to enable the header to cut very close to the ground when harvesting soy beans.   Just as it was five years previous when we had last seen him, I felt that we had Larry’s respect for what we had done on harvest all those years ago. I was very proud of this, Larry was a man of few words and to have gained his respect meant a lot to me.

Margie’s pick-up, Dale’s in the background Margie’s pick-up, Dale’s in the background

We were already late for our rendezvous with the Clarke boys and their hosts, Delbert and Becky Joyner. Having said goodbye to Larry and Connie we made a decision not to visit their yard until Friday as originally planned but did travel through the local town of Waldron (population about a dozen!) then a quick visit to Dale’s grave. Driving these dirt roads brought it all back, Charlie and I felt completely at home and it was already evident that Taig was having the time of his life.

Our timing for arriving at Delbert’s was immaculate: supper was being served in the Quonset as we arrived and yes, there was plenty of food for all. Becky, with the help of Delbert’s Aunt Laverna, always fed the harvest crew, this year helped by Becky and Delbert’s daughter, Jennifer, who was over from Florida for a family visit. These harvest meals have always meant a lot to me. The camaraderie and bonding between harvesting crew and the farming families are cemented during such events. It is a very special thing to be included in such a gathering. I was to experience this back in England in July when Chris Hodgson ran his four MF 865 combines together for a couple of days. His wife Alison, fed us like Lords, both in the field and in the farmhouse. It takes me back to my childhood on our small farm in Derbyshire when the local threshing contractor Harry Otterwell, trundled into our yard with his threshing machine and stationary baler pulled by his David Brown Industrial tractor. I was eight years old and Mr. Otterwell was my hero. I wanted to be that man, I wanted to do that job. He brought his right hand man, Jimmy Northedge, with him. My Dad was responsible for hiring the other two or three men needed to run the operation. It was the tradition that these men were fed during the day. This task of course fell to my Mother who provided tasty, filling and nutritious meals on a very small budget: there was very little money floating about in those days. With cows to be milked first thing we probably didn’t start threshing till 9.30am, Harry was not an early riser! Wearing an army great coat and flat cap, he presided over his machinery. He did not pitch sheaves, he did not carry corn sacks; to me it looked like he had the perfect job.  Of course I was desperate to be included and in the early days if not at school was in charge of clearing the chaff. This dusty job was not popular with the men, but I loved it. Being so close to all those whirring belts and pulleys, the magical humming of the drum, the rhythmic clanking of the baler and that David Brown tractor purring away, I was in heaven. It was an oft repeated tale that loose change in the sheaf pitcher’s or drum feeder’s pocket might be dropped and find its way into the threshing machine, eventually to come out with the chaff. Harry would conceal a sixpence in the palm of his hand under his thumb, approach me and ask if I had found any money yet. Of course the answer was no. He would put his hand under the outlet and catch a hand full of chaff, sift through it with his fingers, produce the sixpence and give it to me. This was wealth indeed; life could not get any better. I spent hours sifting through chaff on my own and never found a penny!

At 1 pm we would all troop indoors to eat. Jimmy Northedge had stomach ulcers and only ate rice pudding; on a dairy farm that was a cheap and easy meal to produce. We grew potatoes and also swedes for the cattle, so these items would figure highly on the menu for the rest of us. I, of course, at the age of eight classed myself as one of the men! Meat would be included but it wouldn’t be best steak. Apple pie and custard for pudding followed by a cigarette (not for me), then it was back to work. At four o’clock Mother and my sister Margaret would appear in the stack yard with a large enamel jug of hot tea and a shopping bag full of mugs. Never did tea taste so good. Milk and sugar were already added, there were no finicky requests to add or leave out either of these commodities. You drank what was on offer and were glad of it.


Starks’ Harvesters reunite: Charlie, Terry, Rob. Starks’ Harvesters reunite: Charlie, Terry, Rob.

It had been a challenge to time our visit to coincide with Delbert’s harvest if we were to drive MF760s to relive harvests pasts. All we could do before we booked our airline tickets, 10 weeks previous, was to look at his average harvest dates, the state of this year’s crop and hope. We nearly got it wrong; a drought had brought harvest forward and they had started early. They would have been done by the time we got there but heavy rain had stopped them and there were still a few days cutting left.

Replete with food, we journeyed into Enid to find our pre-booked motel and grabbed some desperately needed sleep. I felt slightly guilty to have eaten harvest food when we had contributed nothing to the operation, but I knew we would earn our keep the next day and I was so knackered that the guilt soon gave way to exhausted sleep.

Breakfast at IHOP (pronounced Eye-Hop, - International House of Pancakes) then out to the farm to be greeted by no less than three Brantford built combines. Delbert’s 1976 MF750 (Lady in Red) The Clarke Boys 1977 MF760 (Dale) and their latest acquisition 1971 MF760, number one off the production line (Margie). This combine had stood outside in a Kansas field for 33 years, was acquired by custom cutter Marvin Helland in joint ownership with the Clarkes and had been brought back to life. Marvin went down to Kansas in March 2013 to get the engine going, sort out the transmission and the clutch. Then it was up to combine salvage proprietor Paul Semrad to haul it down to Delbert’s yard so the Clarke boys could spend a hectic three weeks in June 2013 to get her up and running for the imminent harvest. It is a great tribute to their efforts that she has now done 2 harvests with no major breakdowns. That afternoon we all had chance to run her, what a special privilege, the very first 760 cutting wheat on the plains of Oklahoma. I also had the chance to run Kevin’s 760 for several hours alongside Delbert in his 750. We had done this 5 years previous and I felt that we cut well together. Charlie had his eye in with the camera and Taig just loved driving these classics. He also got to run Delbert’s neighbour’s articulated Versatile tractor, disking a prime piece of Oklahoma dirt.  We had a hell of a lot to cram into 10 days so our stay at Delbert’s was short. A trip 30 miles east to Fairmont saw us at the yard of Paul Semrad’s combine salvage yard. Paul had not only hauled 760 No.1 the best part of 300 miles south, he also supplied several parts off donor combines to get her up and running. He had a field full of old Massey, John Deere, International and Gleaner combines: it was like stepping back in time.

Having said goodbye to Delbert, Becky, Steven and Kevin we headed North on 132 for Manchester. Stopping off in Nash we found the gas station (now deserted) that Charlie and I had visited in 1979. It was there we called Dale to announce our arrival and please could he send a pick-up to collect us. On the road again, Taig had expressed a desire to visit Wakita. This was where the movie “Twister” was made. We had all watched it several times over the years and short of time as we were Wakita wasn’t far out of our way. What an enjoyable 2 hours! A museum is dedicated to the movie with lots of photographs and information. We were given undivided attention by its proprietor. Wakita is a typical small wheat town with the grain elevator dominating the landscape; a small store/café caught our attention, we were hungry again! A lady was serving a customer in the store, the adjoining room was the café, empty, and as it was 2pm I thought we might be out of luck. She was however willing to fix us a “sandwich”. Well that was an understatement! With a choice of ham, turkey or beef, salad and tomatoes (all beautifully made and cool) it was a meal fit for kings.

Our English accents prompted conversation and talk of harvest. Our host lamented how harvest had changed over the years and had lost some of its charm. I looked around and realised that this empty room had once been a hive of activity during harvests past. I pictured it in the 1950s when many harvest crews would have eaten here and brought this room alive. The lady said in those days many men spent several weeks bringing in the harvest. Nowadays it was just a handful of people and the whole thing was over in 10 days. She showed us the rear wall of the café, partly hidden by furniture. When redecorating they had discovered a harvest mural from perhaps 50 years ago, and although somewhat deteriorated by age she was determined to keep and perhaps restore it. Well done, Taig! Without your suggestion we would have missed this wonderful experience.

And so to Manchester, first to Dale’s then to Margie’s grave to reflect in silence, followed by some appropriate words spoken by Charlie. We drove to the farm; it was quite emotional to enter the yard and the memories came flooding back. We explored the pasture and found wrecked trucks and pick-ups from our past. Pretty much as I had found it in 2000 except that the cab doors of the Jimmy diesel now reside on my workshop wall back home. Delbert, Steven and Kevin also have truck doors in their workshops. We spent quite a time in what is left of Dale and Margie’s trailer home, now derelict, sorting through mementoes, each bringing a coffee mug home with us. Larry and Connie had of course left by now but Wes was cultivating nearby with Larry’s John Deere 9220 and came over to speak with us. He had done a lot of harvest runs (not with Dale) and had many a story to enthral us and make us laugh. Needing to get to Hutchinson, Kansas, that night we bid Wes a farewell and hit the road. It was on this journey that we saw a large impressive custom crew at work. They were running Case Axial Flow combines, probably six of them, but the field was so big it was impossible to tell. A large Case articulated tractor pulled a huge grain cart to fill waiting semis. A very sharp looking outfit indeed that looked like they knew what they were doing.

A motel in Hutchinson was followed by a visit to local Case and John Deere dealers the next morning before we backtracked to Mount Hope to visit the combine salvage yard of Jerry Howard. “Howards of Mount Hope” trips readily off the tongue. Charlie and I had visited this yard back in 2009, when Jerry had seventy plus 700 and 800 series combines. He still has about fifty of them along with 510s 410s 300s and a few Gleaners. People come from all over for parts. If he comes across a really good machine he will refurbish it and sell it on as a working combine. It was interesting to read the dealers stickers that had supplied the combines new: J.P. Humphrey Kiowa Ks.,   Downings of Medford,    Radke Implement Inc Milberger Ks., and other names that brought memories from the past.

Leaving Mount Hope we headed west on highway 96 for Leoti and our long awaited reunion with Terry and Carol. Somewhere near Rush Center we saw a modern Massey combine at work and stopped to talk with the owners. Ruth, the lady in the pick-up had just brought her grandson Michael, who was running the combine, some food. She was pleased to tell us all about their farming operation and suggested that we might like to ride in the combine when he came over to the truck to dump. This was a great opportunity for Taig and he had several rounds in that 9790. Michael told him that their family had run Massey combines for years. They still had a 760 as a backup machine, though he much preferred driving the newer 9790. His main complaint was the fuel consumption of the 350hp 8.9litre Cummins QSL engine, describing it as a “Diesel Hog”! This combine had an air reel fitted, to be used on very poor yielding crops. A large fan mounted on the back of the header and shaft driven, blew air through ducting to the central tube of the reel. Outlets along the tube enabled the airstream to blow any heads cut by the sickle safely into the header and not be lost on the ground. Charlie took some photos and I carried on our conversation with Ruth. She was a typical wheat farmer: tough, resourceful and friendly, with a host of stories from her past.

Onwards to Leoti, we were finally reunited with Terry and Carol. It was good to see them again. Chris, with wife Robyn and 3 children had made the journey over from Wichita, Theresa (my God-daughter) had come down from Colorado, so the Laws household (and bedrooms) was full of family. The Englishmen slept that night in the large motorhome parked in Terry’s drive; it was like being back on harvest. The next day, after a hearty breakfast, we toured the town. The elevator still stands as large as ever, though no longer operated by Collingwood Grain. Sadly, Millers Café (though not called that these last 20 odd years) had just been pulled down. Everybody climbed into the motorhome and Terry drove us south to our old haunts. With a 454 cubic inch V8 gas (petrol) engine I didn’t dare ask what the fuel mileage was. We saw Carl Downes’ farmyard, now owned by a large pig fattening enterprise. Indeed they had several large units in the area, raising thousands of hogs each year.

I thought back to 1980 when I had made my first big trip alone and had hauled my combine 250 miles from Manchester to this farm. Passing pretty close to where Jeremy and I spent the night in the Jimmy Diesel after we had run out of dirt road in a rain storm, we stopped at a section where a friend of Terry’s was harvesting with his two Axial Flow combines. This was another chance for Taig to see modern kit in action. After a round with its owner Taig took over the controls and ran her like a veteran. Back to town, we dropped the Laws family off and then Terry took us north to see other farms we had cut on and also Caprock feed lot, one of the largest beef fattening units in Kansas. It was magical for the three of us, Terry, Charlie and me to be together again, a very special occasion that I shall not forget.

Time was not on our side and we had to make Sterling, Colorado, that evening. We took a slightly longer route to take in Cheyenne Wells, Limon and Last Chance, all places we had visited while working for Dale. Although we had a rough itinerary, motel rooms were not booked in advance to give us flexibility if we wanted to change plans slightly. Sterling motels were pretty busy that night; the first one we tried was full. They kindly rang round their competitors to try and locate a room for us. I reckon we got the last one in town. Breakfast the next morning was followed by a visit to a couple of machinery dealers. Both were closed as it was Sunday but we did see some interesting machines in their yards.

Today was indulgence day for Rob. I wanted to visit the area fifty miles to the North West where I spent those very special days in August 1983 harvesting for the Canadians. Charlie had heard me speak of this time so often and both he and Taig were keen to share my quest to find the homesteads. North on 113 we arrived in Peetz 45 minutes later. Driving through town we spotted two White articulated tractors of 1970s vintage. One was without engine and neither looked as though they had been run recently. Charlie took some pictures. Talking to a guy in town I asked if he knew of the Thackstons, Canadians who had farmed about 30 miles away about 30 years ago. Yes he did know Rod Thackston and his son Joe. My heart leapt, they were still in the area, and Rod had named his son after his father.

I was very confident that I could find the Thackston homestead and would know it when I had found it: time spent on Google Earth had helped me. What I couldn’t locate was the McKay homestead. I knew the distance and rough direction from the Thackston place but for all the special days that I spent with Wendy that summer I knew that I would need local knowledge to tell me exactly where it was.  We drove west through some pretty rugged country, the gravel road was in much better shape than it was 31 years ago. We came upon the side road quicker than I thought we would, hanging a right turn I knew we were almost there. Brian Thackston’s homestead was reasonably intact, derelict but still standing. Wendy and I had baby sat their three young children one night in that house and had travelled the 7 miles between homesteads on my combine to do it. The prefabricated house, newly erected on site in 1983, was nowhere to be seen and land that had been broken back then to grow wheat was back to its original prairie grass. You couldn’t tell that this place had ever grown a crop of wheat. Charlie took some pictures and I was deep in thought. This was an extremely sparsely populated area but we had passed another homestead to reach this one. That was where I had talked with the rancher all those years ago who bemoaned the fact that Canadians were moving in and destroying virgin prairie to grow wheat. There was a pick-up driving through the pasture back to this place so it seemed a good idea to go and speak to this guy and gain some local knowledge. Clearly the Thackstons no longer farmed here. Driving into the neighbour’s yard we immediately had reservations. A sign said “We Don’t Call 911”. Perhaps I should explain: 911 is their emergency number. The inference being that they do not call the police if there is trouble, they sort it themselves and you could guarantee that they had a goodly selection of firearms at their disposal. The guy eyed us suspiciously, what the hell were three Englishmen doing in his yard? I began to talk rapidly and was name dropping shamelessly to try to establish our credibility before he could tell us to “Get Your Ass Off My Land”. I told him that I had cut wheat for the Thackstons back in ’83, mentioned the missing prefab and (I think this is what clinched it), spoke of Billy Goat Hill. Pete Greener’s expression softened, we had won him over. He told us that the Thackston land had been sold and turned back to pasture several years ago. It was now into CRP (Conservation Reserve Programme.) The prefab had been moved off site and Brian’s old homestead house had been left to go derelict  The youngest son Rod now farmed another holding just a couple of miles away and resided permanently in Colorado. I asked him about the McKay place seven miles away. Yes he knew it, that half section too had reverted back to pasture and the old homestead left to go derelict. “Was it still standing?” was my anxious question. “Yes” came the reply. I asked him if it was his parents I spoke with in that very yard 31 years previous. Again the answer was “Yes”. “Your Dad didn’t think much of the Canadians plowing up native pasture” I said. Pete gave a wry grin. Then, thinking of his surname, I asked if he was related to Dave Greener of Greeners’ Gophers. “Dave is my elder brother; his two boys are my nephews.”

We had struck gold and I was about to be told the exact location of the McKay homestead. First he showed us how to get to Rod’s place. That was easy; a clump of trees on the horizon marked the location. “But no one is there at the moment” said Pete, “Rod is away on a boat trip, he called me this morning, but I’m sure it would be OK for you to drive into his place and have a look round.” Directions to the McKay place were a bit more complicated, it required Pete to pick up a small stick and draw us a map in the dirt. This had turned into a magical moment and Charlie, with the perfect eye for a picture, captured the scene on camera.

We drove to Rod’s place and, given the desolation of the area, what a charming farmstead it was. The approach road curved through a slightly undulating landscape and took us into the yard. A couple of newish and useful buildings housed, I presumed, tractors and farm machinery, while older traditional wooden buildings and a neat, well-kept wooden house completed the scene. What a delightful place, and a great improvement on the Spartan existence he had left just 2 miles away. A great pity he was not there to answer my many questions. Feeling slightly guilty at being there uninvited, I knocked on the door just in case and, as silence prevailed, we left.

With Pete’s dirt road map firmly in our minds we drove on. It did not take long to cover those five miles, a left, and a right and there it was: a derelict homestead and not a trace of wheat to be seen. I would have driven straight past the place with hardly a second glance without Pete’s firm assurance that this was where Wendy and her father had farmed their little bit of Colorado. The track from the dirt road to the house was several hundred yards long and too overgrown and uneven for our hire car: we got out and walked. Disorientated, I entered the house by the broken down door that put us in the lounge. Only when I walked into the kitchen did I see the other door way that we used back in ’83. Things slowly started to fall into place, the bathroom, the kitchen with doorway leading down to the cellar where I slept at night. Down those stairs we went, heavy duty wooden stairs in two stages leading to a basement larger than I remembered it to be. I tried hard to picture where my bed had been but it was no good, there were holes in my memory. Charlie and Taig quietly and respectfully explored with me, they knew what this place had meant to me. Back upstairs to ground level; off the lounge the two bedrooms that Alan and Wendy had slept in and then another jolt to my imperfect memory. I had written in chapter seven “There was no upstairs”. In fact there was one small attic room up a small flight of steps. The entrance area to the kitchen was all but broken down and the whole place in a fair state of dereliction, but as it had been near derelict 31 years ago when Alan had bought it and “chased cattle out of part of it” I felt very lucky to be back in what had survived the ravages of time.

Outside were a few buildings, nothing big enough to get a tractor in. A small workshop still had its wooden bench along one wall. The water supply, well and electric pump, housed in another. The grain bin where I had put Alan’s seed wheat for next season was long gone. The homestead lay in the North West corner of the half section and I pictured parking my combine in the yard at 2am after another long day picking up swaths. Wendy would most likely have spent several hours riding with me. I remember her father bringing her out to the combine in his pick-up that first evening. “Would you mind a passenger for a round or two?” Well that was a very silly question; I hadn’t seen, let alone sat next to, anything as beautiful in three months! After a few days I think Alan sensed that there might be something going on between his daughter and the hired hand. He was very strict and probably didn’t approve, but didn’t outright forbid his daughter to ride in the combine. As we all sat at the breakfast table he might not have been impressed to know that Wendy’s legs and mine were twined tightly together under the table.

I have no idea what happened to Wendy. It is very likely that she is a Grandmother by now. I prefer to remember her as that 19 year old Canadian girl I spent a few precious days with in the summer of 1983.

Time to head north; we planned to stay in Spearfish, South Dakota, that night. We drove back almost to Pete Greener’s place then on gravel roads to Billy Goat Hill. This was just as steep and rugged as I remembered it to be. Charlie and Taig were not disappointed.

Having finished harvesting Alan’s wheat in ’83, Ken had brought me the Jimmy Diesel truck back from Gildford Montana some 750 miles and it was here at the top of Billy Goat Hill that I loaded my combine for the last time to make my last road haul north. Alan and Wendy had come along in their pick-up to wish me farewell. Trying to say goodbye to Wendy (again) was challenging. We would go round the other side of the lowboy on pretence of chaining the combine down to kiss goodbye and Alan would appear, so we went back to the other side to continue and eventually he would reappear! It was like a game of hide and seek!

Our hire car had a good twenty miles of gravel roads to travel before we hit the black top that took us to Kimball, Nebraska, where we stopped for a burger and fries: north on 71 to Scottsbluff then on to Chadron. It was to Chadron that producer Tim Slessor took his wife and two young children back in 1965. He had taken a year out from his TV career to teach at the college there. As I write this chapter 49 years later he is back in Chadron giving a short lecture tour in the area. Full Circle indeed. We hit Spearfish at dusk and got ourselves a room for the night; it had been a big day.

Our next stop was Havre, Montana, the best part of 500 miles to the north. Back in the ‘80s our usual route to Montana with the combines was up through Wyoming on 25 through Cheyenne and Sheridan. When harvest was completed in Montana and Canada the boys would come south on 212 to get back to Nebraska to pick corn. Charlie loved this run back south on “Two-Twelve”, a narrow highway that they called a “Goat Trail”. From Spearfish we headed for Belle Fourche and got on the Goat Trail.

It was good to have three drivers on this adventure; we shared out the driving between us. This was Charlie’s road and he drove the car that day. Stopping off at the historic site of The Little Bighorn Battlefield an informative hour was spent absorbing the wealth of information available on site. A twinge of guilt entered my thoughts: if Dale was looking down on us, what would he be thinking of his old crew?

“Goddam fuckin’ tourists!”

We headed north out of Billings on highway 87. For certain we would have passed the spot where Terry and I replaced the clutch in truck Dermot, just off the highway in a rainstorm back in 1982. But there was no way I could recognise the exact location, it could have been any one of a thousand places on that long and lonely road. I remembered Terry’s determination and ingenuity, fixing that truck with next door to bugger all in the way of tools and equipment. I was so ill that I must have been more of a liability to him than help. Lying underneath that truck I felt so bad that I just wanted to close my eyes and die.

We stopped in Roundup and ate a hearty meal, one of the best burgers I had on that trip. 87 gave way to 19 which in turn gave way to 66. We hit highway 2, The Hi-Line, and pulled into Havre. This really was God’s own country. The motels, as in Sterling, were just about fully booked; again I think we got the last room in town.

Havre is famous for being the home of the Big Bud tractor. Charlie has a great interest in its history, had visited the factory back in his harvest days and was keen to meet its founder, Ron Harmon. The factory closed back in the eighties but Ron now ran “The Big Equipment Company” which specialised in refurbishing old Big Bud tractors. We found their yard and despite the time one of their fitters was still on site. He told us all about the operation and showed us round the yard with instructions to come back the next day to meet Ron.

Time to eat; we could have gone to any one of at least six eating establishments, we chose, quite randomly, “The Duck”. It was 9.30pm, the waitress took our order and we began chatting with her. Her surname meant nothing to us, “What is your Mother’s maiden name?” “McCormack” was the reply. “Do you know a Lou McCormack?” “Yes, she is my mother.” What a small world! Lou was one of the Triple T Girls back in our harvest days. I had danced many a Triple T Shuffle with her: she was one of the girls responsible for my farewell party in 1982. The waitress called her mother on her phone and Lou joined us 15 minutes later.

Joy upon joy, “I always knew that I would see you guys again” said Lou.

A very good but fairly expensive breakfast in town was followed by a trip back to meet Ron Harmon, what a nice man. He showed us lots of archive material and Charlie was in his element. A visit to the Massey and Case dealers followed, then we headed for Norman Dack’s farm south of Kremlin. To be stood on the very spot where Charlie had taken the picture of the six combines in line back in ’79 was emotional for both of us. In the farmyard we met Norman’s granddaughter who brought us up to date with local news. Just a mile away lived Jeannie Bailey whose father Howard is featured in Yellow Trail, describing Dale as “The Cream of the Cutters”. We drove into her yard; sadly Jeannie was out, not a soul in sight.               It is near these two farms that an early shot of Dale’s convoy is seen in “Yellow Trail from Texas” with Tim Slessor’s voice: “Rumbling down from Oklahoma comes a convoy of twenty vehicles, trucks, combines, pick-ups, caravans”. It gives the impression that it is shot in Texas, certainly not Montana! But we can forgive Tim for this; he struggled to get much footage shot on his first of the three trips he made to the wheat belt to film Yellow Trail. The weather (of course) was uncooperative and the film crew spent hours in Wichita Falls killing expensive time waiting for harvest to begin. The Fair was in town and Tim said everybody got pretty good on the dodgems! Eventually everything came good and he managed to get footage of the first days of cutting before the film crew had to leave for another pre-booked assignment.

Next stop Gildford. It was no surprise to see the Triple T Tavern (later to become Gildford Bar and Eatery) closed down and empty. We had been lucky enough to meet up with Dave Toner in Havre that morning. Dave along with elder brother Tom and younger brother Jerry were co-owners of the Triple T back in our harvest days. Seeing the building now was rather sad, no one could have guessed what wild and happy times we had spent in there. Looking across the road to Chris Pappas’s workshop I saw a pick-up hauling a sprayer pull onto site. A man got out that looked very like Chris, bearing in mind that I had not seen him in 31 years. Yes indeed it was him and he remembered the crazy Englishmen that worked for Starks that had cut his wheat in the early eighties. Charlie produced a copy of “Starks’ Harvesters” and showed him the picture of himself, alongside me, Terry and Charlie outside his family’s homestead shack some 15 miles south of town. “I’ve just come from there said Chris, would you like to go back and have a look around?” Again we had struck gold and couldn’t believe our luck. Loading water jugs into Chris’s double cab pickup we headed south. Again, I could not have found this homestead without local knowledge.

First stop was his 1970s Versatile tractor and trailed sprayer. It has become popular in this area to use chemicals to control the weeds in the summer fallow rather than spend the summer disking and cultivating. Then it was on to the homestead and to the shack where we had found old magazines, sale ledgers, family photos and three “Derby” hats in 1980. We posed for a picture outside the shack just as we had 34 years previous, sadly Terry was missing from the 2014 version. We went inside and Taig recreated history by clambering up into the false floor just as I had done all those years ago. This land had been settled by Chris’s father, George, and his uncles, Chris and John around 1905. Their small farm back in Greece was not big enough to support 3 young men all eager to farm, particularly as they had a sister and it was the Greek custom that the daughter inherited the farm when she got married! They decided to make the huge leap and find their fortunes on the Plains of Montana. They all got jobs on the railroad and looked around for a place to homestead. Their first choice was a chunk of prairie at Belt, Montana, near Great Falls but when they arrived this had already been claimed. So they journeyed 100 miles north east and settled south of Gildford. Each brother homesteaded on 160 acres (a quarter section) and soon after, each was allocated another 160 acres when it was found that a family could not survive on a quarter section. All three half sections were in close proximity and each brother built a house to live in on his own piece of land. The particular homestead that we found all those family artefacts in belonged to Chris’s Uncle Chris. He married a girl from Chicago and the frame house that still stands was hauled onto site in the early thirties to replace the old shack and improve living conditions. Apparently when they had an argument she used to walk back to the shack and live in there till tempers cooled down!

Chris’s dad worked hard for 20 years to get himself established with house, crops and livestock, then sent back home to Greece for a bride. They married around 1928 and times were tough. Chris’s mother said “I was told that I was coming to the Promised Land, but when I got here there wasn’t a nickel (5 cents) in the house, and you couldn’t borrow one either!”

The brothers had constructed various wooden buildings, some on concrete bases, including a granary built next to a bank of earth to make scoop shovelling wheat from wagon to store much easier and also to make emptying the granary easier when the time came to haul the wheat to town; there were no grain augers in those days! The granary is still pretty much intact and I marvelled at what those three Greek brothers had created out on this empty prairie.  This place just exuded history. Horse drawn machinery, plough, disks and drill had survived and the old frame house built alongside the original shack was still fairly intact. We could have stayed there all day but needed to visit two more locations, The Hutterite Colony and Kamikaze Coulee, before we left the area.

Driving just north of Gildford I remembered the night when I thought I had seen my first Montana ghost. We were coming into town one night about 10pm, a service truck full of crew just finished for the day. I was driving and finding it difficult to see the dirt road in the dust storm our wheels were creating, it had been a hot dry time. A flash of white appeared ahead. What the hell was that? There were no cattle in the area and I could think of no wild animal that size and colour: Ghost or Space Alien? Neither, it was Dian Hanson out for a run in white shorts and T shirt. She looked stunning, but then Dian would have looked good in a hessian pulp sack. As it was only a mile and a half into town I decided to join her and handed the driving over to whoever was sitting next to me. Dian had probably run five miles that evening and I had been lounging on a combine seat all day, I thought that the jog back to town would be easy. It nearly killed me! And I’m sure Dian had slowed down to give her running partner some chance of keeping up.

We arrived at the Hutterite Colony about 6pm. We could see from the dirt road a huddle of people inspecting some construction project on site. Though we were on a public road maybe we looked a little suspicious hanging around because a pick-up drove out of the colony and came past us. It was time yet again to establish our credibility in as short a time as possible. I explained to the guy that we were from England and that we had cut wheat for their neighbour in 1980. I said I remembered two names: George and Josh Vortz. “Josh is my Dad and George is my Uncle” came the reply. We chatted with Richard for some time and then he produced his mobile phone and spoke some German. Another pick-up arrived, it was George. No, he didn’t remember me, but as I spoke of his neighbour and other people I knew in the area, he began to remember a custom cutter named Starks and that he had had some Englishmen working for him. The atmosphere relaxed and we chatted freely, but it looked like they were going to keep us at arm’s length. They told us they had spent the day erecting form work to pour cement for a new grain bin, I told them that they had welded my pulley and fed me back in August 1980. “We have built a new dining hall and kitchen since then”, said George, “Would you like to see it?” And so we drove into the Colony and were welcomed like old friends. They showed us the construction work on hand; it looked very professional to me. Masses of reinforcing steel rods all wired together intricately ready for cement pouring the next day. Then it was into the new kitchen complex where the 75 colony members ate communally. This was massive, spotlessly clean with facilities that would do justice to a top London Hotel. There was a walk in larder, walk in deep freeze, bread making machinery on an industrial scale, facilities beyond my wildest dreams. There seemed to be very few people about, I guess they had already eaten that evening and gone to their respective houses on site. A face appeared, it was George’s son, Jonathon. “When did you last eat?” he enquired, “I can soon fix you something”. We were so short of time, we had to get to Shelby that night to get a motel room, but couldn’t turn an opportunity like this away. Times have changed and it would have been unheard of thirty years ago for a male resident to prepare and serve food, but I suspect Jonathon’s forte was in the kitchen and not outside on the farm. The best homemade potato and leek soup that I have ever tasted was followed by chicken wraps equally delicious. “What would you like to drink?” Water, tea (iced I guessed) sodas (this was a surprise, I couldn’t see them approving of fizzy drinks) and then the bombshell, beer or wine. I was shocked; I was surprised that alcohol was on site, even if it was just reserved for visitors. I was very keen to drink just water, drinking anything else, even a Cola just did not seem right to me. I could sense that Charlie and Taig were right with me on that one. Gradually people started appearing out of the woodwork. It was explained that Josh had had a long day and was resting. A female elder spoke readily to us and a huddle of younger women appeared but only spoke amongst themselves and not to us. I asked Richard about the farming, he said they had several teenage boys about to come of working age and they were looking at new enterprises to introduce to the colony to utilise this extra labour. “Hard work and Church is what a teenage boy needs to keep him out of trouble” was Richard’s adage. Again, we felt like we had struck gold to have had this wonderful experience.

We simply had to get going if we were to make Shelby that night and Kamikaze Coulee sadly had to be bypassed, much to Taig’s dismay.

After a night in Shelby we headed North on 15 to Sunburst and Sweet Grass. This was Charlie’s day; he had spent many happy weeks in this region, harvesting the last of the wheat before heading back to Nebraska and Kansas to pick corn. I would by this time have flown back to England to resume my fertiliser spreading so this area was new to me and I was anxious to share the experience with Charlie. The Sweet Grass Hills were as beautiful as he had described them; here they had harvested 600 acres of barley on newly broken land where in places the rocks stood taller than the barley. I knew that this place held memories for him as the land back in Colorado had held for me. Then it was back cross country, past Four Corners Café (as seen on the DVD “Custom Cutters”) to Torgersons, the Case dealership in Ethridge. We stopped in Cut Bank for a meal at midday then it was goodbye to wheat country as we headed west to Idaho.

Our last stop was to stay with Dian Hanson in Rathdrum, just outside Coeur d’Alene.

Sadly Levi passed away about five years ago, but the whole family had visited us in England several times over the years and their eldest daughter Kjelsty had stayed with me for ten days in the summer of 2013. Leaving Cut Bank, the sprawling wheat fields soon gave way to mountains and spectacular scenery as we skirted the southern side of the Glacier National Park along Highway 2. With about 380 miles to travel we had our work cut out to get to Dian’s house by nightfall.

Levi and Dian had moved from Gildford and built their new home on a bare ten acre plot about 20 years previous. Levi’s family had homesteaded in this area three generations ago. It was Levi’s goal to establish one hundred different species of trees on their new property and when I visited them in 2000 they were well on the way to achieving that. By now the trees had grown considerably and Dian had warned me that the house was no longer visible from the road. It was good to see Dian again; she has always been a very special person in our hearts. She now has a bionic arm and hand though you would hardly know it; the only reminder of that horrific accident when her hand was torn off in a combine back in 1981.

With partner Jay, younger daughter, Tansy, and a couple of friends we were made to feel at home and sat down to a very welcome chicken supper. With a house big enough for a bed for everybody we slept like tired harvesters!

And so the next afternoon it was time to drive the last 290 miles to Seattle airport and fly home. How could we have packed so much into ten days and been so fortunate to meet so many good people, some of them by pure chance. We had been very, very lucky. It had been a great experience for Taig to share this with his dad. For Charlie and I Harvest has been a life changing experience, it has enriched our lives beyond comprehension.

Copyright 2014

Text:               Robert S. White

Photographs: Charles D.F. Norman

Not to be reproduced without permission.

Thanks to John Chapman for suggestions and corrections to the manuscript.

Some names and locations have been altered slightly to respect privacy.

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