• Mike Matson

Self-Propelled

This column was published June 25, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.


 

Six months after my grandfather married the farmer’s daughter in 1932, the farmer struck oil. The Bemis Pool in Ellis and Rooks Counties would become among the largest producing oil fields in North America.


The farmer built a brand-new Baptist church in Hays, endowed scholarships at Fort Hays State College, bought each of his three children a farm within driving distance, and divided the oil proceeds evenly among them.


Because he could, my grandfather, Victor Ordway, hired out the work on his farm. He made all the business decisions, negotiated the sale of the cattle and crops, but eschewed the daily chores. The lone exception was the wheat harvest. Each summer, when the grain ripened to amber bordering on grey and the wind blew hot from the south, Victor would mount the combine and thresh his way through field after field of grain kernel-chaff separation.


Part of it was the culmination of an investment. In the fall, he would supervise the wheat planting, “drilling” the sodbusters called it, shorthand for the action produced by a mechanical implement pulled behind a tractor that literally drilled the seed into the ground.

Elizabeth (Bemis) and Victor Ordway, ca. 1941.

High Plains winters were traditionally good for at least one snowstorm, blowing in off the Rockies or down from Canada. The prevailing Kansas south winds made for an efficient distribution of the snow across the wheat fields. The wheat would lie dormant in the winter, beneath a thick layer of snow. In the spring, the crop would shoot to life.


Tillering, stem extension, heading, and flowering. Sunshine and hot wind in the summer finished the growth cycle. It’s no wonder Kansas was called the “Breadbasket of the World.” The geography and the climate were perfectly tailored to raise a hard red winter wheat crop. Victor would say if his wheat harvest was not completed by his daughter’s (my mother) birthday on June 30, he was behind.


His combine piloting was mostly just showing off. The bright red and yellow Model 21 Massey-Harris was among the first self-propelled grain combines on the market and Victor wasted no time securing one. He had absolutely no objection to allowing it to be known at the implement dealership that ol’ Vic Ordway was state-of-the-art.


My grandfather’s hands-on wheat harvest efforts allowed him to reminisce, reflect on his good fortune, and generally just feel good. Slicing through his wheat crop with ease reminded Victor of the years when it took a tractor pulling a combine, or worse, a team of horses. He took pleasure in new, shiny, and efficient. He often pondered what his life would be like without the Bemis Pool. Every time he did, he smiled.


His neighbors lived and died on rainfall amounts, moisture content,and bushels-per-acre yields. Their success and self-worth were wrapped up in those vital agricultural statistics. The God’s honest truth for Victor was that lightning could strike every one of his wheat fields, burn his crops to the ground and it would matter not a lick in terms of his ability to provide for his family.


Victor Ordway was not a particularly devout or religious man. By 40, he had reached the point where he had begun to view life not as a random series of happy accidents, but as an enterprise where you get out of it what you put into it. Increasingly, his actions reflected that belief.


Often during Sunday dinner, his father-in-law would look him in the eye and quote the Gospel according to Luke, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him, shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”


At first, Victor chalked it up to Fred Bemis’ Baptist bible thumping, but as the years slipped by and he began to live a life defined by opportunities that simply would not exist absent his father-in-law’s oil, he came to regard himself not only as lucky, not only fortunate, but here for a purpose.


He also possessed this pesky, annoying personality flaw that got in the way of a life of leisure: A growing sense of responsibility and a work ethic that got stronger when applied to his own ideas and creativity. When the work ethic joined with his increasingly expanded view of purpose, Victor Ordway was at his best.


The farm was his father-in-law’s idea. The self-propelled Model 21 Massey-Harris was his.

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