Navy Bean Farming in Huron County, Michigan (Part II)
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the March/April issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
As noted earlier, the lower peninsula of Michigan is shaped in the form of a winter mitton. Huron County, Michigan lies at the tip of what is called “the Thumb” of the State of Michigan. (See the article on called “Navy Bean Harvesting in Huron County Michigan [Part I]” in the January/February 2005 issue of Belt Pulley.) Although navy beans had been raised in in Huron County and the Thumb since 1900, the production of navy beans in really became a major crop in Michigan only in 1915. Spurring that growth in production was the high prices that all edible beans were fetching in the market starting in 1914 due to the war in Europe. Additionally, in 1915 the Michigan State University released its newly researched and developed “Robust” variety of navy bean. The Robust variety had been bred to have genetic features which made this variety of navy bean adapted for commercial growing in Michigan. By the 1920s, production of navy beans on the Thumb and in the neighboring Saginaw River Valley, located at the base of the Thumb, was sufficient to push Michigan into first place among all states in the United States in the production of field beans. (Willis F. Dunbar, Michigan:A History of the Wolverine State [Eerdmans Pub. Co.: Grand Rapids, Mich., 1980] p. 578.). Within the State of Michigan, Huron County became the leading county in the state for the production of field beans. Indeed Bad Axe, Michigan, the county seat of Huron County, began to identify itself as the “Navy Bean Capital of the World.”
Following the First World War, the map of Europe changed following the disintegration of four empires—the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A series of newly independent nations sprang up Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Czechslovakia and Poland. The economic dislocations caused by this new order set off another wave immigration to the United States. In 1920, George Prich immigrated from the newly formed nation of Czechslovkia to Detroit. His parents, George and Marie (Sliacky) Prich remained in Czechslovakia. However, the family did have relatives living in Detroit. However, George did not remain long in Detroit. He moved out of the city and up to the Thumb. Settling in the western part of Huron County on the Thumb, he rented a farm and commenced farming winter wheat, corn, hay, sugar beets and navy beans and raising some hogs and beef cows. In August of 1924, he married a local German girl by the name of Martha Haag. They began were blessed by the birth of a son—George Jr. (really the third George) born in June of 1925. On March 1, 1926, they purchased an 80-acre farm in a low-lying area of Brookfield Township in western Huron County. However, the farm was on the county line road between Huron County and Tuscola County. Consequently, the Prich family still had strong contacts with western Huron County. The Prich family farm was located in a low liying area called the “Columbia swamp.” On their new farm they had three more children—John born in 1926, Florence born in 1929 and Albert born in 1933. The main crops raised on the farm were hay, oats and corn. However, each year about 10 acres were planted to sugar beets and about 10 to 15 acres were planted to navy beans.
During the same time another family was living on a farm in southwestern Seigel Township located east of Bad Axe and north west of the settlement of Parisville. Even before the sun rose, one morning in October of 1935, activity was brewing on this 160 acre farm. Our Siegel Township farmer was taking a team of horses to the field towing a one-row “Albion Bean Harvester.” The bean harvester or “puller” that he was towing behind the team of Percheron horses—Pete and Moll—was really a horse-drawn a cultivator with the shovels removed and horizontal long knives bolted onto the cultivator frame. The Albion line of bean harvesters were made by the Gale Manufacturing Company of Albion, Michigan.
Our Siegel Township farmer arrived in the field were the navy beans were stood. Although planted in rows, the 18” yellow/brown vines had grown out along the ground and blurred the 30” pathways between the rows. Our Siegel Township farmer “drew up” the horses to a halt with the reins at the start of the first row in the field of navy beans that he and his father had grown during the summer.
He and his father raised navy beans as part of a diversified farming operation that included oats and wheat on their farm. However, the summer of 1935 had been a difficult growing season. Indeed the past couple of years had seen drought conditions all across the United States. Nationwide the dry condition, which was coming to called the “dust bowl” on radio, had begun in 1932. (William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal [Harper and Rowe Pub.: New York, 1963] p. 172.) In Huron County the dry conditions had started in June 1933, when only 1.91 inches of rain fell during the whole month. (From the monthly average historic rainfall for Saginaw Michigan on the web page for Saginaw, at the NOAA weather web site on the Internet.) A normal June would have seen 2.9 inches of rainfall. (From the Bad Axe average rainfall page of the Worldclimate.com web site.) July and August of 1933 had followed with only 1.13 inches of rain in each month. 2.9 and 3.3 inches of rain was normal for those months.
Last year’s growing season had continued to be extremely dry. May of 1934 had yielded only 0.76 inches of rain for the whole month, whereas 3.3 inches would have been normal. June, July and August of 1934 all continued to be dry with rainfall amounts of 1.7 inches, 1.29 inches and 1.43 inches of rain falling in those months, respectively. Although normal rains had returned in September of 1934, this was too late to help the crops and the rains only succeeded in making harvesting of the crops difficult. As a result of the drought conditions in 1934, only 1,461,000 acres or only 75% of all the acreage planted to edible beans nationally were actually harvested. Generally, 90% of all acres planted were harvested in a normal year.
The drought conditions returned last April with only 0.86 inches of rainfall for the entire month of April 1935. However, suddenly in May, the weather reversed itself. Last May (1935) had been the coolest month of May on record since 1925. This was largely due to the 4.5 inches of snow had fallen in May. (Ibid. on the historic monthly snowfall page.) Snow in May! It was not a good beginning to the growing season. Spring planting had been delayed because of the cold spring in 1935. Once June did arrive, the rains would not abate. The radio reported that the Thumb had had 5.09 inches of rain in month of June whereas only 2.9 was average for June. (From the Bad Axe average rainfall page of the Worldclimate.com web site.)
As a result, spring planting development of all the crops were delayed. Only the winter wheat which had been planted in September of the prior year (1934) was growing according to schedule. Following the heavy rains of June, the drought conditions returned throughout July and August with only half the usual amount of rainfall for those months. (Ibid.) Usually, our Siegel Township farmer began pulling the navy beans in mid-September. However, the beans were still growing and maturing in September. Now here he was in October just getting started with the task of pulling the beans.
Across Huron County to the west and indeed, just across the county line in Elmwood Township of Tuscola County township the George Prich family was also struggling to get the navy bean crop harvested. George had planted the navy beans in rows with his 7½ foot Van Brunt grain drill. This grain drill had 13 planting units. However, by closing off the proper amount of holes in the bottom of the seeder box of his Van Brunt grain drill he could use the old grain drill to plant navy beans on his farm also in 30 inch rows.
The 30-inch rows meant that there was room for a horse to walk down the pathway between the rows without stepping on the rows of growing beans. This would allow the navy beans to be cultivated. However as the navy bean plants grew, they began to “vine” along the ground and to tended to cover over pathway between the rows. Thus, the navy beans could only be cultivated a couple of times before the bean plants became too viney and covered too much of the 30 inch pathway. By harvest time in the fall, the beans had become a tangled mass of plants in the field.
Now in October of 1935, our Siegel Township farmer lowered the cultivator on the first row of navy beans the newly sharpened knives lay horizontally on top of the ground over the hilled up row of beans. As he urged the Pete and Moll forward with a shake on the reins and uttering a “giddap” the knives slid under the ground and moved along through the hill of beans, cutting off the beans from their roots just below the surface of the hilled up row of beans.
Our young Siegel Township farmer regreted loss of navy beans that he knew was occurring during this harvesting process. All he needed to do is to look down on the ground and see the naked white beans laying on the ground to know that some loss was occurring because of the cracking of bean pods under Pete and Moll’s feet. Although Pete and Moll walked down pathways between the rows, they could not help treading on the vines.which tended to cover over the 30 inch pathways. This caused a loss of some of the navy beans on the ground as the horses’ feet cracked open the pods of the beans. Indeed the mere manipulation of the bean plants by the cultivator tended to crack open the dry pods on the vines spilling the pearly white navy beans onto the ground. To avoid this type of cracking of dry pods, our young Siegel Township farmer had begun pulling beans with the team early in the morning while the dew was still heavy on the plants. In this way it was hoped that they would complete a great deal of the bean pulling while the dew lasted. The dew tended to moisten the dry pods and to prevent cracking. Once the dew had lifted under the sun of the mid-morning, our young Siegel Township farmer would cease his work in the navy bean field. This meant that work in the navy bean field was limited to early morning work.
Looking down at the little white beans that lay on the ground, our young Siegel Township farmer was struck by a feeling of digust. He had always felt that way. Ever since he was a child he had felt a repugnance against waste that had caused him remorse over the loss of even a single good bean. As a child, his father had attempted to assure him that the losses were usually of “cull beans” which were too discolored or too immature to pass inspection at the grain elevator anyway. However, out in the field he could see that these beans, lying on the ground, were pearly white and were certainly good beans. While reading some articles in the Michigan Farmer, he was gratified to find that his feelings about waste were reflective of the modern trend in scientific farming.
In addition to noting the waste on the ground, our Siegel Township farmer was beginning to doubt the value of having navy beans in the crop rotation on his farm. Despite the passing of the worst part of the depression, prices of all edible beans last year (1934) had averaged only $3.52 per 100 pounds. (From the National Agricultural Statistics Service page of the United Sates Department of Agriculture website.) This was only 52% of the average price of 1929, the year before the depression. (Ibid.) Continue reading Navy Bean Farming in Michigan (Part II): The All-Crop Harvester