The Last Garber Harvest
picture to see an 800x600 enlargement.
Download for personal use only. Pictures & story are the property of Steve & Peggy Garber.
Contact Peggy@Garbers.com for original quality pictures.
(Click on Map to enlarge)
On Saturday, August 17, 2002, my cousin Jay Garber was harvesting wheat on what we have always called the Carsten Place, 8 miles north of Reardan on the Oehlschlaeger Road. Reardan is 22 miles west of Spokane, the first farm community out of Spokane when heading toward Grand Coulee Dam on US Highway 2. This year is Jay's last harvest before he retires. This harvest will represent the end of 122 years that Garbers have farmed in Reardan. I wanted to be present for at least a part of this signal event. (Garber Farms Homesteaded 1880 Logo) (Garber Farms 2002 Logo)
In the 1950s, my dad Glen Garber and my uncle Harry Garber bought the Carsten Place indirectly from Albert Carstens. Albert and his wife Lucille were an old Reardan family and life long friends with and neighbors of my grandparents, Charlie and Iva Garber. I remember Albert quite clearly from my childhood as a kindly old man who was, I suspose not unsurprisingly, rather like my Grandpa Charlie. I know Albert thought highly of my dad. (Carsten Place, June 2002)
I myself am a fifth generation Garber in Reardan. My great grandfather Gottlieb came north to Reardan from California in 1880. His mother and brothers followed in 1883. There were a number of Garbers in Reardan in the late 1800s, but after about 1912, only my grandfather Charlie and a girl cousin or two were left. So the Garber farmers in our line were Gottlieb, Charlie, Glen and Harry, and finally Jay.
When I was born, we lived in what we called the Moon place, a little house 3 miles north of Reardan, built in the 1880s about 1/4 mile south of the main Garber homestead where my grandparents lived. When I was still a toddler, we moved to a rather larger two story house 5 miles further north on our acreage at the Carsten Place. Neither of these houses, the Moon house nor the Carsten house, exists today. But the enormous ancient pine tree and the old windmill do remain to this day, side by side just a few feet from where the Moon house stood. They have been landmarks the whole family has known for decades. (Moon House, 1940s) (Carsten House, 1950)
We lived on the Carsten Place until 1954 when I was 10 years old. Only the garage remains there now. (The white shed in the Carsten Place picture above.) In 1954, my folks built a new house for $10,000 cash about 100 feet from the old Moon house where Harvey and Carolyn Bergeron were then living. This new home, in the midst of the majority of the Garber farmland, was much closer to town and not nearly so isolated as the Carsten Place. My folks lived there for the rest of Dad's life. (Glen & Florence Garber House, 1954 - 2000)
Dad and Harry farmed the home place, the Carsten place, and sometimes other land as "Garber Brothers" after Charlie retired in the late 1940s. Charlie died in 1960, but Grandma Iva lived a rich and active life until she died in 1989 at the age of 91. Grandma Iva was an important and treasured part of her numerous great grandchildren's and of all our lives. After Grandma Iva died, her children -- Dad, Uncle Harry, Uncle Carl and Auntie Marie -- divided up the Garber land in a way that simplified ownership. As a result of that division, Dad and Mom wound up as sole owners of the approximately 475 acres of the Carsten Place. Although the Carsten Place wasn't part of the 1880 Garber homestead, Garbers have farmed it for over 50 years and owned it for over 40. After Harry retired in 1978, Jay and Dad farmed together for 3 years and "Garber Brothers" became "Garber Farms." Jay took over by himself in 1981 when Dad retired. There are no Garbers around today who want to farm. After this year "Garber Farms" will no longer exist as a family operated farm.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, I had been riding the combine with Jay on the Carsten Place for most of an hour, enjoying the camaraderie of us having both grown up working on the farm, inhaling the old familiar smell of freshly cut wheat and heavy machinery. Suddenly, about 3:30, we noticed smoke rising from a fire a couple of miles southwest across the canyon in what we knew to be our neighbor Bergeron's field. We later learned that a hot oil line had broken on one of the Bergeron combines, igniting the tinder dry ripe wheat. It was a hot and windy Saturday. A fast moving front was pushing out of the Columbia Basin headed through Lincoln County on its way to the distant Rockies. The temperature was a little over 80º with only 10 or 15% humidity. The wind coming from the southwest at 20+ mph blew this fire pretty much straight at us. (3:49pm Fire starting in Bergeron field)
Jay said right away, "If we don't get that fire out quickly, it's going to spread to over here." He brought the combine to a stop in the middle of our field, which was only about a third cut. I asked Jay if he didn't want to drive what is about a $70,000 piece of machinery to the safety of the summer fallow, but his urge to be a good neighbor and the responsibility he felt as a member of the Reardan Volunteer Fire Department prevailed. He shut down the combine where it stood and jumped into the wheat truck with the hired hand, taking off to fight the fire. They dropped me and my 82 year old Uncle Harry, who was also out observing the harvest, at our vehicles on the adjacent gravel Oehlschlaeger Road. There being no such thing as a Lexus fire engine and possessing no measurable skills for the occasion, I proceded to look for a safe vantage point from which to watch the fire. Uncle Harry took off in another direction, and I didn't see him again until hours later. I took out my camera, which I had brought to take a few last shots of harvest, and over the next several minutes, photographed the fire on the other side of the canyon. Clearly the wind was dismayingly strong. Before the fire department could even get out from town about 5 miles away, the wind had blown the fire from the farmland across the field into the timber down the sides of the canyon. (3:54pm Fire reaches timber in canyon)
The fire crossed the canyon in no time. Once across, the fire began consuming the Brooks field where Vernon Williams was harvesting. The Brooks place is adjacent to ours, so the fire was now within a mile of the edge of our land. Jim Nomeyer, another fire fighting farmer/neighbor who lives and farms about a mile further east, soon roared onto the Brooks field on his tracklayer tractor pulling a set of disks. He raced around the perimeter of the Brooks buildings, moving at a speed substantially higher than usual for farm work, disking or breaking the wheat and stubble up and working it into the ground as fast as he could in hopes of depriving the fire of the fuel it needed to reach the nearby buildings. I tried to capture his heroic act with my camera from where I stood about a quarter mile away, but the smoke kept obscuring him from my view, threatening both machinery and operator. But he made it around, and his courageous action surely saved the Brooks house from the flames. (4:03pm Fire threatens the Brooks house)
As the fire moved ever closer, I retreated from a ridge just above the Brooks place eastward to the hard surfaced Crescent road. The fire continued northeast across the Brooks field toward Oehlschlaeger Road and toward where we had just been harvesting not that many minutes ago.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to me, Jay realized that the fire coming our way couldn't be stopped before it reached his combine still in the midst of a field of highly combustible grain. His desire to save his equipment was stronger than his sense of self preservation. He raced from one of our trucks back to his combine as the fire worked its way from the Brooks land onto ours. Then he drove that big lumbering machine as fast as possible, straight through the uncut wheat, north to the summer fallow over a quarter mile away. By the time he got the combine moving, he later told us, the fire was only 10 feet away from the end of his header. It was extremely dangerous. If he had not been able to move in third gear over that steep, hilly terrain, he would not have outrun the fire -- a frightening propect. (4:20pm Fire approaching SW corner of Oehlschlaeger Road with Crescent Road on the left)
Turning a little northward from where I had retreated and zooming my lens, I could still see the telephone poles along the north/south stretch of the Oehlschlaeger Road. Small whirlwinds, common in farm country and often called dust devils, moved across in front of me, creating spires of fire like smokestacks of flames, contorting the smoke as it rose. You can tell what is burning by the color of the smoke: black means that wheat or timber is burning; gray to white means only the stubble left from the harvested crop is burning. (4:24pm Whirlwind creates fire spout)
Two minutes later, the times on my photos tell me, the wind shifted from the southwest to due west, turning the fire east toward Oehlschlaeger Road, but away from the Oehlschlaeger's house another 3/4 mile north, and away from our barley growing on the north third of the Carsten Place beyond the intervening summer fallow. However, the fire was now heading east toward Landreth's and George Ellis' homes and buildings about a mile away at the base of Landreth's Butte. (4:26pm Wind shifts to westerly, turning the fire eastward)
I turned my attention back to the bend in the Oehlschlaeger Road where it turns toward the Crescent Road. This area was now becoming increasingly enveloped in smoke. Again using my zoom, I could see Vernon Williams and his crew through the filtered light driving his combine and vehicles out from the Brooks fields before the wind could change direction again. (4:26pm Vernon Williams drives his combine out of the Brooks fields to safety)
After another five minutes, the fire had crossed Oehlschlaeger Road and was just over the ridge directly north of me in the Rinker field. The fierce dark smoke, rising from the fire glowing beneath, filled the sky. It wasn't long afterward that Peggy, 20+ miles to the east, observed smoke covering the whole north half of the Spokane sky. (4:31pm Smoke fills the sky)
Just minutes later, a long moving line of flames came over the ridge and across the Rinker field toward me. I could now feel the fire's heat, even though I don't think I was ever closer than 1/4 mile from the flames. (4:41pm Feel heat from fire crossing Rinker field)
I retreated further east to the temporary command center that was being set up at Landreth's corner. As I looked back toward where I had just been on the Crescent Road, the smoke gathered into a towering wall, obscuring the sun from my vantage point as the wind changed yet again. The wind now blew equally strong from the north. The rising heat and smoke created its own local weather system, condensing into a light sprinkle, but nowhere enough moisture to do any good against the raging fire. (4:48pm Sun through smoke from Landreth's)
From the safety of the command center at Landreth's, Vernon Williams and his crew watched the fire head back south across Oehlschlaeger Road into the Brooks fields from where they had just rescued their equipment. (5:03pm Vernon Williams crew watch fire from landreth's.)
Meanwhile, farmers had disked fire breaks in Landreth's field along the Crescent Road in anticipation of the fire's continued spread. If the wind doesn't whip and skip the fire across the newly disked ground, these breaks are the most effective fire fighting method a farmer has. This time, the wind change seemed to come just as the fire reached these disked rows, stopping the fire in its tracks, although now several miles beyond the canyon and just a few hundred feet from George Ellis' house and buildings. (5:25pm Disking along Crescent Road)
On our side of the canyon, the north wind blew the fire south across fields that had previously been spared, moving toward the house where Jim and Millie Rinker lived when I was a kid. Firefighters had been concentrating on the fires in the crops. Because of other fires in eastern Washington, there was as of yet no air support to fight this fire. Consequently, the timber fire in the tougher terrain of the canyon was still going strong. The north wind picked these flames out of the canyon and started pushing them back toward the Bergeron's and their neighbors' fields where the fire had started. The battle was not yet over, but I stayed at the Landreth's command center. (5:57pm Command Center at Landreth's)
By 6:30 or so that evening, the front passed and the wind finally died down. The grain fire was mostly out on our side of the canyon. I made my way back toward the Carsten Place to survey the damage. I enountered firefighters now mopping up, dousing the completely black and smoldering brush in the triangle where the Oehlschlaeger Road joins the Crescent Road. (6:04pm Fire fighters at Oehlschlaeger - Crescent Rd corner)
Back at the Carsten Place, I was surprised and relieved to find Jay's combine, which only three hours ago we had hastily abandoned in the middle of the partially harvested wheat field, now parked safe and unburned near the old garage out in our summer fallow. I had not seen or heard about Jay since the fire started. It reminded me that what we in the country think of as next door, or at least the next place over, is in fact often a mile or two away. Especially if there's a barrier as serious as a fire in between, you may well have no idea what's transpiring "next door." To rescue that equipment was not Jay's most prudent decision, but he was lucky as well as skilled. Combines are replaceable; lives are not. That's a hard lesson to adhere to when you see a chance to save equipment that is at the center of your life's work. (6:26pm Garber Farms equipment safe in summer fallow)
Looking up from the equipment, I turned my attention to our fields which had been so lushly green when I last was on the farm in June, and so golden ripe a few hours earlier this afternoon. About 40 acres of our wheat and some additional acres of stubble were now black. The air was filled with the acrid stench of the charred crop. (6:59pm Scorched Carsten wheat field)
Sunday, I returned to the farm with Peggy. She and I both got onto the combine with Jay, who soon took off cross country into the now blackened ground. Out in the back of the Carsten wheat field, looking southeast toward Landreth's Butte, we three could see the tracks in the blackened earth where I had been riding with Jay as he harvested the day before. Just adjacent to his combine tracks lay a wide smooth black trackless swath revealing where unharvested grain had been lost to the flames. (Sunday 01 - Harvest tracks at the back of the Carsten field)
Turning to the west from the same spot, we could see the smoke rising out of the still active fire in the canyon timber. Some number of those trees were ours. A grain fire soon runs out of fuel. Not so a timber fire. Jay says the canyon timber will continue to smolder and flare up until the first good soaking rain sometime this fall.(Sunday 02 - Trees still smoldering in the canyon)
Other casualties of the fire were telephone poles and power lines. In places the fire consumed whole rows of poles. Lines were completely down along the road to the Brooks place, but still suspended although badly sagging between surviving poles along the Oehlschlaeger Road. (Sunday 03 - Burned pole on Oehlschlaeger Road) (Sunday 04 - Chared pole on the ground along Oehlschlaeger Road)
One of the poles along Oehlschlaeger Road remained standing as startling evidence of how capricious fire can be. The pole is singed on onlyone side at the bottom, but about half way up there is another charred area with a hole burned completely through. When I saw the hole, I felt a little uneasy standing too close. I'm not sure this pole will withstand another strong wind. (Sunday 05 - Telephone pole scorched but standing) (Sunday 06 - Close-up of the hole in the same pole)
Our own Carsten field is another example of the fickle combination of fire and wind. Fire skips and swirls and reverses with the wind. That's why some small areas of wheat survived while most of the field didn't. (Sunday 07 - Carsten wheat burned but skipped) Back out on the Crescent Road where the Oehlschlaeger Road turns off, I photographed another small patch of un-burnt wheat surrounded by blacken earth up to the ridge line many yards away. Similar small, irregular patches are scattered here and there through the hundreds of burnt acres. (Sunday 08 - Crescent Oehlschlaeger Road corner skipped wheat)
Jay said that kernels of wheat at the edge of the fire expand like popcorn. The small patches of wheat are not salvageable in part because they are too few and far between to be efficiently havested, but also because the wheat that is left at the edges of the burned areas is deeply singed if not completely black. (Sunday 09 - Scorched Wheat)
Sunday, on the Crescent Road, midway between Oehlschlaeger Road and Highway 231 which heads down into the canyon at Rettkowski's, the Department of Natural Resources had set up a water station for 2 helicopters rigged with buckets. Together with ground crews, they were still fighting the timber fire in the canyon. Blocking the road's eastbound lane as we approached, a Reardan fire truck pumped water to a temporary watering trough that had been set up a couple of hundred feet out in the field. The 2 helicopters with underslung buckets each lifted perhaps 100 gallons of water per trip over the hill to drop into the canyon. To provide a steady flow of water, a series of farm tank trucks blocked the rest of the road as each supplied water from nearby farm sources to the pumper truck. (Sunday 10 - Water from farm truck to fire truck to tank for helicopter) (Sunday 11 - DNR helicopter filling its bucket)
This DNR water station, supported by fire fighting farmers both bringing in the water and manning the fire truck, shortened the distance for the helicopters to and from the fire by many miles and many minutes. Each helicopter could make a round trip in about 6 minutes. It took much less than a minute to pick up a bucket of water. Wherever we drove around the farm Sunday, a helicopter would fly into view every few minutes. This represented a very impressive combination of private farmers, local fire departments and a federal agency getting together with surely some forethought and, presumably, some past experience, but no real notice, no formality, no oversight and, generally speaking, no management. This was pretty much all indians and no chiefs. These were can do farmers just doing their thing.(Sunday 12 - Farmers become Fire Fighters) (Sunday 13 - Helicopter over canyon beyond Carsten Place)
The proof of the success of the farmer's primary fire fighting tactic was graphic. The disked breaks in the Landreth field at both the Crescent Road corner and across from the George Ellis house dramatically show how the fire was stopped cold where it ran out of fuel. (Sunday 14 - Disking stops fire near Landreth Corner) (Sunday 15 -Disking stops fire near George Ellis house)
About 1,200 acres of farmland and 500 acres of timber burned here this Saturday. Some of the timber was ours. We won't know how much until we go to the far back of the fields where fingers run up from the canon into our acreage. To my knowledge, no lives or buildings or domestic animals were lost anywhere along the more than 5 mile fire line. Some equipment in fields was damaged, but not a lot. I fought a handful of farm fires while growing up, but this was the fastest moving fire I have ever witnessed. Fortunately, we have fire insurance on the crop. although not the timber.
By midday Sunday, many farmers, though exhausted from fighting the fire well into
Saturday night, were already back harvesting. Jay, having gotten to bed after
3am, was back on his rescued combine, cutting what wheat was left on the Carsten
Place. Vernon, who had lost all of his uncut wheat on the Brooks Place and who
will farm the Carsten Place after Jay retires, starting with the spring barley
this year, moved his outfit a mile north onto our barley, which he cut Sunday
(Sunday 17 - Jay Garber harvesting what Carsten place wheat is left)
As Peggy and I waited for Jay to pick us up for my final, final combine ride on
the Carsten Place, we stood by the huge, most abnormal looking, combine tire
tracks through the uncut wheat which were Jay's escape route of less than 24
(Sunday 18 - Steve checking Jay's Combine escape route) (Sunday 19 - Jay Garber in combine cab)
There we were: we two middle aged Garber cousins who grew up together on the farm in the 1950s and 60s, but who went very separate ways over the years. Today we are the farmer and the city boy. Jay knows more stuff, and is able to do more things, than I can hardly comprehend. I had enormous respect for what American grain farmers did when I was a kid. My respect certainly isn't any less today. (Sunday 23 - The farmer and the city boy)
And so this August, for a few very memorable hours,
I was able, if only briefly, to go back home again.
(Sunday 24 - You can go home again -- for a little while)