NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
August 6, 1998
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1998 Plains Folk
I don't see how anyone can say college isn't a good educational experience. Why, I learn things from the students every day.
A good part of my life has been spent researching and writing about wheat culture on the Great Plains, particularly wheat harvesting, something I claim to know a good deal about. I have followed combine crews from the Llano Estacado to the Regina Plains. I have shocked bundles in central Kansas and pitched into a separator in the Red River Valley of the North.
Still, someone else can bring new lenses to a subject you thought you knew, and the look of it changes.
What this student scholar, Peter Lanois, sees in the history of the harvest is "gendered space." He's writing about bonanza farms in the Red River Valley during the 1880s and particularly the cook car"a combination kitchen and living space on wheels, used to feed harvest and threshing crews." The cook car, he says, "was a moving gendered space with clearly marked boundaries...a female work space in the midst of the wide open male space of the plains."
The women who worked on the bonanza farms were mostly young and single or widowed. Sleeping in the car, they rose before dawn, before even the engineers, because they had to feed the engineers before they fired up and then feed the hands breakfast at 5 a.m. By that time the two or three women in the cook car had put away their personal effects, folded up their bunks, and drawn curtains across, so that all was business at the cook car.
The work day was long for both men and women, although somewhat longer for the women. After the men had eaten their fill for supper, they rested. The women cleaned up, and then they laid out the makings of breakfast.
The interesting thing, Peter points out, is the sharp line between women's space and men's space. If you think about it, this was important. Among hundreds of men were a handful of women. Harvest and threshing crews generally were well behaved, but that was a lot of men, and the rules had to be clear.
Simply put, men stayed the heck out of the cook car. Basins and towels for washing up were placed outside, generally on the back step. The men received their food passed through a serving window. At meal times, when large numbers of men were around, they did not come in, and the women did not come out.
There were only a few exceptions to the rules, and these had to do with what the women called their "good boys." Good boys were, as the term implies, younger fellows, perhaps scholars working for the summer, and not the seasoned blackbirds of migrant labor. The good boys were regarded as good and safe company and, on a rainy day or of an evening, might be allowed to sit in the cook car and visit.
The social rules characteristic of the bonanza farms carried over more or less into wheat country wherever large-scale custom threshing was the rule. Custom threshing, with cook cars staffed by hired women, was common through the 1920s. I've run across reminiscences written by such women, which of course dwell at length on the hard work, but they also record a certain excitement or exhilaration.
In particular, such accounts recall what a pleasure it was to take lunch in dishpans out to the threshing set. This sounds like a burdensome task, but considering Peter's idea of gendered space, the pleasure in it makes more sense than it did before. The women who took lunch to the set were crossing the line, going into male space. They write of this as if it were liberating, thrilling, and now I get it. They were going into male space, but when they returned to the cook car, they closed the line behind them, not allowing men into the women's space. If they allowed good boys to visit, it was their choice.
The rules of the cook car were no feminist ideal, but they worked.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Dean Hulse (701) 231-6136