Chapter XIII. To All that Sow the Time of Harvest Should be Given
In all but savage countries, wheat is the most important product of the soil, A large proportion of human beings living on the earth to-day are so poverty-stricken as to make the question of food a matter of anxiety for every day. The prayer for bread unites more voices than any other.
The padres who settled California understood this well. A number of bushels of wheat, snugly incased in leather sacks, formed a precious part of the cargo of the San Carlos, that stout Spanish vessel which in 1769 brought the first settlers to California. This seed-wheat was divided among the early missions and as soon as possible was planted - not with success at first. For a time the padres made little progress in crop raising. They had to learn by their failures. In San Diego the first wheat planted was sown in the river bottom and the seed was carried entirely away by the rising of the stream in the winter; and the next year, which proved to be a dry one, it was planted so far from the water that it was almost all destroyed by drought. At San Gabriel the first crop was drowned out, but the second, planted on the plain where it could be irrigated, was a success. San Gabriel was chief among the missions for wheat raising, and was called the "mother of agriculture."
Grain planting and harvesting, in the days of the padres, differed widely from the methods which prevail to-day. Then the ground was plowed once or twice, but in what manner? A yoke of oxen, guided by an Indian, dragged a plow with an iron point made by an Indian blacksmith. If iron could not be obtained, the point was of oak. Seed, which had been first soaked in lye, was sown by hand, broadcast, and harrowed in with branches of trees. The grain was cut by the Indians with knives and sickles. It was afterward placed on the hardened floor of a circular corral made for the purpose, and into it was turned a band of horses which were urged to a run by the shouts and whips of the Indian vaqueros. After running one way they were frightened into turning and going the other. In this manner the grain was trampled out of the husks. It was freed from the chaff by being thrown high in the air by the shovelful, when the wind was blowing hard enough to carry away the light straw.
Next, the grain was washed and dried, then ground, generally between two stones bolted together. A pole for a handle was also fastened by the bolt, and the stone was turned, sometimes by mules, sometimes by Indians. La Perouse, the French scientist who visited the coast in 1786 and gave to the padres of San Carlos a handmill for grinding grain, said that it would enable four Indian women to do the work of a hundred by the old way. Before many years the padres at San Gabriel built a water mill of stone and adobe which ground grain in large quantities, but not with entire success, until Chapman, the first American in that region, gave them his assistance to perfect the machinery. This interesting building has been restored by Mr. H. E. Huntington and is an object of interest to those who visit San Gabriel.
In 1815 the missions raised enough wheat to supply the whole population, and there was even an attempt to ship grain to Mexico. This was a failure, but a little grain was sold to the Russians at Fort Ross. At the time of the change in the mission settlements, when the padres were sent away, all agriculture declined. During the Mexican War and when the crowd of gold seekers came, there was very little grain or flour to be had. Some of the gold hunters, who had been farmers in the East, failing to find a fortune in the river sands, and seeing the lack of food stuffs, went back to their old occupation. They put in crops of wheat and barley along the waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and were amazed at the fertility of the soil and the success of their venture.
From this time the cultivation of wheat increased rapidly. In 1899 was harvested the largest crop recorded. After that there was a decline in wheat raising, because many farmers planted much of their grain lands to fruit for canning and drying. To California inventors is due the credit of substituting steam for hand labor in planting and harvesting grain.
Let us look at the busy scene on a grain field in the California of to-day. It is fall or early winter, and the time for planting has arrived. Into the field, which is several thousands of acres in extent, comes a great engine, one that does not need a track to run upon. Over the ground it rolls. With strength equal to fifty horses it draws behind it sixteen ten-inch plows, four six-foot harrows, and a press drill to match. It takes only a few men to manage it, and in a short time it has plowed, harrowed, and sown the broad acres; nothing is left to do until the harvest time arrives.
When the grain is ripe, there comes another great machine. This is the harvester, whose knives or cutters may be as much as twenty-six feet wide. This one machine cuts off the heads of wheat, thrashes them, cleans the grain, and sacks it, clearing seventy-five acres in a day, leaving on the fields the piles of sacked wheat ready for market. It is most interesting to watch one of these giants of steel and iron traveling over the uneven ground, crossing ditches, crawling along side hills, without any trouble or change of pace, gathering in the ripe grain, turning it out snugly tucked away in the brown gunny-sacks waiting for its long journey by ship or car. How the padres would wonder if they could see it working!