Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

wheat and sky


Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken a few drives into the country looking for combines. And I’ve found them chugging through fields of gold, their shapes nearly obscured by self-created clouds of dust.

The combines eat their fill, separate wheat from chaff, then discharge the grain into waiting trucks. Harvest is man and machine, a season of agricultural glory.

This is a huge Kansas event and harvest has its own culture. Although we get to eat the fruits of labor of these Kansas farmers, most of us who live in the city miss out entirely on the harvest experience. The farmer has his rewards, like the pleasure to see his wheat field sporting a brand new crew cut. And he surely feels the relief that comes when his crop has been safely deposited at the elevator.

My grandparents were farmers. As a 4-year-old, I was handed up the rungs of a combine’s metal ladder where I joined my grandfather on his open-to-the-sky driver’s seat. Wearing a straw hat for shade, Grandpa wrapped his left arm around me, his right hand grabbed the steering wheel, and we took a couple of spins through the field on that red dinosaur.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power that childhood moments have on us as adults. Those feel-good times are things that we long to experience again.

Grandpa died when I was in first grade. Uncle Laramie took over the planting, but the harvest was outsourced to the Hawkins family, a custom-cutting crew from Oklahoma who followed the North Star every summer.

Each year when the Hawkins crew returned, my dad took my brother and me out to Grandma’s farm to check on the harvest. At dusk, Dad visited with the cutters, pleasant men with faded shirts and sun-worn faces. In the creases of their necks were lines of paste, a mixture of dust and sweat.

After Grandpa died, I was a step removed from the harvest. My brother and cousins and I no longer helped Grandma pack her fried chicken to take to the fields like we did when Grandpa and my uncles ran the show.

But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, harvest brought life to our sleepy town of Pawnee Rock. The streets, normally as empty as a yawn, were suddenly busy with grain trucks which parked along Pawnee Avenue, in line to be weighed at the Farmers Elevator.

Willard Wilson, a welder who had a shop near the post office, was always in demand during harvest. Equipment tends to break under stress and Willard kept long hours in June and July, mending metal.

When the grain trucks lumbered into town, the most exciting thing for me and my teenage girlfriends were the cute boys that drove for the custom cutting crews.

My friends and I idled on the lumberyard bench and waved at “the wheaties” when they drove past. Marilyn and Sarah were lucky enough to live across the street from the elevator. We should’ve opened a lemonade stand in their front yard.

Occasionally, on a dare, my friends and I sidled up to a truck and spoke with one of the teen drivers. He likely told us that he was from a faraway state such as Texas or South Dakota, an exotic place that we could only imagine.

I went off to college, eventually landing here in Emporia, and I still miss that long-ago connection with the wheat harvest. One year, however, in the late ‘80s, my dad made arrangements for me to ride on a combine. I don’t remember for sure, but the driver was probably part of the Hawkins team. A cloud of dust settled when he stopped the machine, waiting for me to cross the stubble in the half-cut field.

This combine even had a stereo system in its air-conditioned cab. As the header gnawed through the wheat, a familiar Kansas song played on the combine’s radio: “Dust in the Wind.”

So that has been my harvest song ever since. Whenever I hear that tune, my mind creates images of picnics at the edge of a wheat field, and I see myself climbing aboard that red combine to sit in the shade of my Grandpa and his old straw hat.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh




  1. Another great story of life on the Plains of Kansas!!! Brought back a few memories of my own with my grand parents on their farm. Keep up the great work as your stories are quite moving.

  2. Just clicked on Pandora and the first song that came up was “Dust in the Wind!” Thanks for your harvest memories. It was always a special time and there are things I miss about going to the field but both Jim and I are relieved to not try and keep a dozen balls in the air! I’ve always wanted to write a book or some essays about harvest. You may just provide the inspiration I need!

  3. Loved it Cheryl— brought back many many memories of living on the farm & helping with Wheat harvest & driving a grain truck–long before I had a driver’s lic. etc- etc -etc– my wish would be that we still had the same kind of wheat that I’m sure your Grandfather planted & so did my grandfather & my Dad— wheat with out all the chemicals– wheat– that could be stored & used for seed wheat the next year– etc etc etc– that was a different kind of wheat then is raised now!!!

  4. Great piece Cheryl, a few years ago I have had my lunchbreak on a collection of these large square bales, took my lunchbox, coffee and paper and climbed on top.
    Just to lie there in the open landscape and to take in the “warm” smell of the straw was an unforgettable experience.

  5. Another wonderful story Cheryl. It brought back many memories of my life growing up on the farm….. including the cute boys. Thanks for the memories!

  6. Thank you, Larry & Carolyn, Connie, Roger, Flips, J.P., Tracy and Ginger for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate the feedback and your kindness. Cheryl

Leave a Reply