Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Early Kennewick Crop Set Off a Juvenile Search

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, November 6, 1960, page 16.

When the first irrigation water reached Kennewick through the new ditch, the “early day” farmers experimented with many kinds of crops. They tried to find which crops would grow best and produce the most revenue.

One of the best farmers in the neighborhood was J. L. Smith. He was at this time in his late sixties. Born in the middle west, he had farmed up and down the entire Mississippi Valley. He had grown orchards under irrigation in California. He was a self-educated man. A great student of agriculture and horticulture. He was the Luther Burbank of the Tri-City region. He was successful without irrigation in developing a bearing orchard of early Crawford peaches. Situated at the foot of the benchland, two and a half miles west of Kennewick, his land was above the Kennewick ditch. He interested C.E. Lum in planting three acres of sorghum on a sandy tract of land near the old Northern Pacific Kennewick depot. He gave instructions where to purchase the seed. How to prepare the soil. When to plant the seed. What cultivation and irrigation was necessary. The sorphum grew to an enormous size both in height and circumference. The white seed clusters formed on top of the canes. These when ripe were cut off and tied in bundles to be fed to horses, hogs and chickens.

Following the topping of the seed, the leaves of the sorghum were knocked off by hand with a wooden lath. These leaves were raked by hand and harvested for cow fodder. The canes of sorghum with the seeds and leaves removed now were ready for cutting. The cutting was done by hand with a large knife called a machete. Much care was taken when harvesting to keep the cut end of the canes out of the sand which would cause the sirup(sic) to be gritty. The canes were placed on a horse drawn sled and taken to the sorghum mill.

The mill consisted of two iron rollers or cylinders set vertical and geared to the horsepower sweep. The cane was fed into the rollers by hand. The juice flowed down the rollers into a trough that led to the boiling vat. The boiling vat was wood fired. Cattle and hogs were fond of the pulp. Clean whisky barrels were placed on their sides and filled with raw juice and water to make vinegar. A whisky bottle was put in the bung-hole of the barrel to allow the contents to ferment. Before the vinegar stage arrived one could by sucking a wheat straw thrust into the bung-hole on the barrel, secure a good swig of cider. As time passed it became quite potent.

The boiling down and stirring of the juice into a sirup without scorching and to just the right consistency required much experience. No thermometers or other instruments were available at this date to aid in the processing of the sirup.

The sirup was put up in quart and gallon cans or crockery jugs. The vinegar was bottled and jugged.

The crop having been harvested, the sorghum roots were plowed up, raked in piles and burned. The sorghum roots would not mold and rot like corn roots.

Quite an excitement occurred one evening. Three neighborhood boys were lost. The milk cows they were to find and drive home were not in. It being in late fall, the days were short. The entire community had been notified. The searchers looked everywhere. Darkness came. One of the searchers, a bachelor, returned to his home.

There were the three boys sitting on the ground with their backs against his sorghum cider barrel, sleeping soundly with the tell-tale wheat straws still clutched in their hands. He built a sagebrush bonfire back of his place to attract the attention of the searchers. (There were no telephones in these early days.) The searchers came rushing to his place. The bonfire lighted up the situation. The boys slept on. Their parents arrived and took them home still sound asleep.

Sorghum became the subject of a very lively community debate. The men folks liked both the sorghum sirup and the sorghum cider. They thought that the sorghum cider barrels could be kept where children could not reach them. Thus there would be no repetition of the unfortunate episode. The women folks took the position that there were other vinegars that they could use. The were against the sorghum cider vinegar. They were for the sorghum sirup only. Due to lack of suitable machinery, the cost of producing the sorghum products by so much hand labor was prohibitive. A sweet project had gone sour.

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