Memories of harvests past

Tony Vagneur
Aspen, CO Colorado

Yeah, you see some fresh snow on the peaks and the adrenaline pumps a little, thoughts of the coming winter in your head. And I feel the same way, but I also get a sense about it being harvest time, a season of the year that used to be incredibly busy on the ranch, or farm, if you choose.

It seems like the year’s work culminates in the autumn, just because that’s the way it is. Nowadays, the remaining big crop in the valley is beef (real estate doesn’t count) and it takes an incredible amount of time and work to get the cows sorted and to market. And then, there’s a letdown, like there is after every big push to get something accomplished.

When I was a kid, we had the cows to deal with, of course, but there was no time to slap ourselves on our backs. We generally raised a lot of oats, and in early September, the process of getting them cut, threshed and put safely away in the granaries began. Accomplishing the harvest itself was greater than any one rancher could achieve on his own, so the folks out in Woody Creek and other neighborhoods in the valley pooled their local labor and capital, going from one ranch to another until the oat harvest was done. Teams of horses pulling large wagons could be seen traveling up and down the road each morning and evening, the ranchers coming and going to work on their neighbors’ spreads. The women, as well, pooled their resources and provided lunch, or dinner as it was commonly referred to, at the host ranch each day. Those were some meals, as no one wanted to be outdone by anyone else.

Once the oats were up, it was time to start on the potatoes, a labor intensive crop if there ever was one. Like clockwork, the illegal labor force would find its way up the Woody Creek canyon, providing help wherever needed, but there were never enough of them so the local high schools would dismiss class for those students willing to work in the potato fields. It was tough, cold October work, picking the tubers up off the ground and putting them in gunny sacks, awaiting pickup from the fields. The spuds were then taken to a potato cellar, some of which still exist, to be sorted into uniform sizes and packaged up in 100-pound burlap bags. Next, they were loaded onto railroad cars headed for market. Don’t you know, a man’s crop was easily counted by the railroad car, the number of which was visible to everyone.

Everybody knew what a car of potatoes was worth ” there were no secrets ” and more than one ranch in the valley was bought and paid for with one year’s crop.

These times were hard work for each and every person involved, but as I recall, they were days of adventure for kids like me. Many of the ranchers would let me drive their teams of horses as we worked the fields, a thrill as big as being allowed to drive the family car. Oh, sure, the old man would occasionally send me, on foot, to fetch water for the crews, but I managed to survive. Also, I got to know a lot of older kids in the fall, a perquisite that was usually beneficial as the school year advanced.

As I got older, working the ranch for days at a time in the autumn became part of the regular routine, a practice that was understood and condoned by the school district.

Now, I don’t need permission for working cattle in the fall, or putting up late hay, and I have to admit, neither do I miss school. But no matter, ’cause before we get down to some serious skiing, I’m gonna do my part in getting in the harvest.