Plains Folk

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Farming on Film

Things are usually pretty up-to-date on the plains, and so motion pictures arrived in these parts right on time early in the last century. Not just as a matter of entertainment; I mean, people here commenced making their own movies for their own amusement and out of a sense of history.

Druggists and doctors tended to be pioneers of home movie-making. From the beginning the druggists were conduits for film processing, which led them to promote camera purchasing. Their physician friends had disposable income and took to tinkering with movie cameras.

Most of the films of the 1920s and 1930s were 16mm, often on highly unstable nitrate film stock. The 8mm format came along in the late 1930s and 1940s. Untold quantities of such heritage home movies exist across the region, still in family hands. They are priceless, and deserving of preservation.

Which brings me around to the Farm & Ranch Museum, of Gering, Nebraska. It’s in the shadow of Scott’s Bluff, if it’s late in the day, and well worth a visit for its remarkable collection of implements and contraptions characteristic of the Nebraska Panhandle. We stopped by en route home from a family gathering in Wyoming and were greeted by our old friend at the museum, Jack Preston.

Jack, bless his heart, not only gave us the cook’s tour but also pressed us to buy the museum’s DVD entitled “Farming in Western Nebraska, 1938-1945.” It seems these two farmers, Glen and Leo Kellett, not only were progressive practitioners of potato, bean, and sugarbeet culture but also filmed their operations with a hand-wound 8mm movie camera. The museum compiled its DVD from their footage and added narration drawing on oral history.

The Halletts were handy guys with tools and inventive as to technology. They had irrigation rights to North Platte River water, which they deployed to raise a rich rotation of crops. The DVD in particular captures the day-to-day operations of raising beets, beans, and seed spuds, along with the Halletts’ handling of irrigation. It is a fascinating compilation.

The sugarbeet footage is of high historical interest. It depicts the manuring and plowing of fields with Fordson tractors on steel; leveling and packing with horses and mules; planting and cultivating with a John Deere B; the stoop work of thinning; and hand topping and piling of the beets. The most spectacular footage is that of trucks and wagons ascending a high, spindly ramp to dump beets directly into boxcars.

The potato and been footage is great, too, but I have to admit, I’m most intrigued by the irrigation operations. These guys irrigated from ditches blocked by lath boxes and canvas dams. One of them slept in the field at night so as to be ready to move water promptly. The Halletts constructed these amazingly jerrybuilt troughs to drop water down steep grades and dispense it through holes in the bottoms, and they actually worked.

Most of all, what the moving images convey is the deep complexity of farming in the middle of the twentieth century. Rotations, technologies, adaptations—it was hands-on work, but it also was intellectual work of a high order. The agricultural past was not a simple life.

 

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