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Raising Wheat In Anderson Valley

Wheat was one of the main crops raised in Anderson Valley by the first homesteaders. In 1864, John Gschwend built a waterwheel powered grist mill on Mill Creek and in 1881, Mr. Chapman built one on Indian Creek. This allowed the early settlers to easily mill their wheat into flour.

However, most of the grain raised at the time was used for animal feed. The roads were too long, steep and rough to make it profitable for settlers to haul animal feed in a horse drawn wagon. There wasn’t a lot of corn grown at the time, because corn had to be planted in the spring and watered during the summer. [Irrigation was difficult before gasoline engines, electric motors and centrifugal pumps became common.]

But, wheat was planted in the fall, before the rainy season, and it didn’t need to be watered. It was often harvested with a horse drawn binding reaper, which cut the wheat and tied it into bundles. It had to be cut before the wheat was totally dry, or many of the wheat grains would fall off and be lost. The bundles of wheat were threshed when they dried out.

When the threshing crew came to the neighborhood, the neighbors would show up with their wagons, loaded with wheat bundles and there would be a “threshing party”. Six teams of horses would walk around in a circle to power the threshing equipment. The bundles of wheat were placed on the “feeding table” and the man doing the “feeding” would cut the string that held the bundle together, and slide the straw into the threshing cylinder. The cleaned wheat was put in sacks that held a bushel of grain. It took over a dozen men to run the threshing operation. Many of the women would cook a big meal to feed the crew.

Jim Sanders’ threshing machine cuts down oats and barley — powered by six teams of horses which walked in a circle. Ranchers in the area would haul their grain to the thresher and then horses would move the device to another location further down the valley. This method was used in the 1880s and 1890s.

Fast forward to today. The use of the combine has drastically reduced the labor used to process wheat. Now, the wheat is harvested when the plants are dry. The combine cuts, threshes and cleans the wheat in one operation. The Mendocino Grain Project has a relatively small, easily transported combine that is suitable for the wheat fields commonly found in the county. 

And, they do custom harvesting.

The Anderson Valley Museum has a hand cranked seed cleaner/bagger and they have photos of early threshing operations. The museum is open from 1 pm to 4 pm on weekends. 

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