Water is Life...Modeling Historical MemoryA while back ago I came across a post from the Smithsonian Museum of National History Agriculture Inovation and Heritage Archive that is collecting stories about farming practices in the past 70 years. I wrote about it in my post "Preserving Our Memories." Below is my entry that I am submitting to the website. I hope it gets accepted, but even if it doesn't I hope to use it as a model to share with my students on recording our memories. This has been a fun process for me to go through and I look forward to sharing this with my students. For any of my rural followers, I would encourage you to think about doing something similar with your own memories or with your students.
Water is life to farmers on the Great Plains. My family which migrated to South Central Nebraska at the end of the 19th Century learned this fact very quickly. Water is life and water here is very different than the more reliable water fall in the Ohio River Valley where my family came from. My ancestors struggled with the unreliability of rain as cycles of droughts swept across this region of the country with the worst being for my Great Grandfather and Grandfather during the Dust Bowl years during the Great Depression. Not being able to rely on rains from the sky above, required new creativity and ingenuity to keep the crops growing during the hot dry summers. Luckily a large massive underground water reserve called the Ogallala Aquifer was quickly tapped as the life source to keep crops watered and able to grow in the hot Nebraska summers. My ancestors use of windmill technology switched by my father’s time to using old diesel tractor motors connected to water wells to help pull the water from below to the crops. Stories from my parents describe their youths being spent in the 1950‘s and 1960‘s setting up irrigation ditches and syphon tubes to water the corn crops quenching for water. The urgency to get the water to the crops passed onto my father who took over the family farm in the late 1970’s.
As a kid of a family farm growing up in the 1980’s and 1990‘s the urgency in my father’s voice to get the water to the crops occurred as soon as the corn was tilled and reached a certain height. It was time to lay out the irrigation pipe and we only seem to have a short window to get all of this work done. Every early summer morning at first sunlight, my father, mother, brothers and I would load up the truck and begin our day of laying out 6 inch or 8 inch aluminum pipe to the recently tilled corn. Going to the piles of irrigation pipe that had been stacked from the previous fall, we would begin to lift and place pipe after pipe onto the trailer. After bouts with skunks and rabbits living among the pipes we learned very quickly to check the pipes before we began working on them first. Nobody wanted to get sprayed. Plastic irrigation pipe gates were checked to insure that they worked, and broken and cracked gates were quickly replaced. As a 6 and 7 year old I always struggled getting the gasket and plastic piece snapped together with the plastic hooks that were supposed to slide into the slot. I always seemed to drop something down the pipe that would have to be later fished out.
Once the trailer was full of pipe, we would than drive out to the corn field and begin the process of setting out the pipe amongst the rows of corn. When I was young, I was usually given the responsibility of driving down the corn rows with very simple directions; drive slow, straight and listen to dad’s instructions. Sometimes I would be driving a tractor, other times an old truck but I always relished this very important job in contributing to my parents farming enterprise. As I got older and was able to lift the pipe off the trailer, I was given the task of helping pull the pipe off the trailer and hooking the long pipes together making sure that pipes were properly placed so the gates would point down the long corn rows. It always required tremendous team work that often times worked well when working with my older brother, and other times ended in blaming the other for problems in this process. The majority of the morning was spent repeating this process stopping only occasionally for water breaks. As the sun reached higher into the sky and the day became warmer and warmer, it was time to switch chores for the day.
We would go with my dad to another corn field that had already been watered with the pipe that we had already set out. We would shut off some gates and open up others. My dad would carry around a small notebook that would note times and fields that water was running. In his little book, he would note how much water was coming out of the well, what time the well was started, and when that water should reach the end of the field. For a young kid, it was always an amazing process seeing him at work organizing several fields spread out all around the county. Dad had his system and he had it down to a science. By evening after it had cooled off, we were quickly put back into action to continue the laying of pipe in the race to get water to the crops.
This process would repeat throughout most of the summer. We would sometimes need to pull the pipes apart so we could switch sides that needed watering. We would help my father set up elbows or T-Joints to direct the water to needed areas around the corn fields. Fixing gates, setting rows, using shovels to fix where the water needed to go, wallowing knee deep out into the muddy fields, were all part of our summer routines to make sure that the crops were watered. Our only respite would occur when thunderstorms would roll through the area quenching the dry land and giving us a break from our irrigation duties.
I have since move away from the farm for a more urban life style, but as I drive home to visit my family in the summer and see the center irrigation pivots now running. It seems that technology is continuing to change farming practices making things more efficient. But one thing remains. Water is life, and farmers in South Central Nebraska remember this fact the start of each summer.