Taking a tour of far Western Kansas with the Godfather of Wheat.
I’m sitting in the back seat of my FJ Cruiser, seeing for the third time today the wheat fields between Goodland and St. Francis, Kansas. We’re in Cheyenne County, the extreme northwest corner of the state. My husband Ron is behind the wheel. Directing our route is my girlhood friend’s father, Al Rueb. That’s pronounced Reeb, which rhymes with wheat, but with a “b.” Al is a retired dentist from Kansas City who grew up on a farm outside of St. Francis.
Closing in on our 19th mile of the same 30-mile stretch of road with nary a bathroom break, I’ve taken to referring to him as the Godfather of Wheat.
We’re being followed in a second vehicle driven by Al’s “lady friend” Charlotte, my friend Suzy, and her brother Steve, also a dentist from Kansas City. Steve and Suzy didn’t grow up in St. Francis but have made this summer wheat tour with their dad since they were young.
Up Highway 27 to see this quarter section. Over onto a county road to see that quarter section. A quick scamper across Highway 24 over into eastern Colorado to see another quarter section. Al has made enough money from the wheat harvest over the years that he’s been able to buy a little farmland for his two kids. Now the kids have made enough money selling their wheat that they can help their own kids with college.
This year’s weather has them less than confident about the crop. First, the spring and early summer were cool and wet. Wheat likes it hot, so the longer it takes to ripen the longer it must remain in the field, a sitting duck for any passing hail storm. The high plains of western Kansas are a fine spot for storms, as weather events get themselves together over Texas and Oklahoma and rumble north. While we’ve seen custom cutter crews working all around us, most of the Rueb’s wheat is a day or two away from ripe.
This is the Fourth of July weekend and we’re seeing it through the eyes of someone who has marked more than a few such holidays. Al is an inexhaustible tour guide, not inclined to let the rest of us forget why we are here. As Ron drives, Al tells us about the 1936 Republican River flood, which killed 100 people. He points out farmsteads owned by families he grew up with. Many of the houses sit deserted surrounded by golden wheat. Al explains that the families have moved into town but are able to keep the farming operation going from a distance. For much of the year, wheat can fend for itself.
Al knows who owns just about every quarter section or small cattle operation from Little Beaver Creek to the Arikaree Breaks. He is close to 90 now, and many of his childhood friends have passed away. With each visit he learns he must add more names to that list. But he still has plenty of family in this area. His brother Marlin, also a dentist, retired early to work the Rueb family farm. Marlin and his wife Annabelle live in St. Francis, population 1300, during the farming half of the year and in suburban Kansas City the other half. Marlin is taking stock of some of his acreage when we arrive. Marlin points out where hail has hit the crop, “shattering” it. The family’s crop insurance will take away the sting of losing the wheat they’ll have to plow under. But farmers seem to take it personally when a hail storm seeks them out, ruining the tangible result of their work and leaving them with nothing but the abstract.
At the farm there is no longer a house or a bathroom, so we all drift away behind trees (in short supply at a wheat farm). Then Al points out a foliage-covered square where the house he was born in once stood. That house was sold and moved just a few miles away, where it was useful for another family.
We take our leave of Marlin and get back on the road. Al directs Ron to speed up, slow down, or pull over, in turn. Any time Al sees a farmer on a tractor or puttering around at the top of a long distant driveway, our convoy pulls in. It doesn’t matter whether Al and the farmer are acquainted. They engage in long thoughtful dialog about the wheat or the weather. Eventually one or two of the party return with casual purpose to the cars, and Al has no choice but to load back up. We didn’t want to run out of time before visiting Marie, the wife of one of Al’s old friends, now deceased. She was out in the barn chatting with a handyman about some broken equipment when we arrived. She lived for 50 years in this now-stuccoed sod house built in this snug little valley, a few miles down a gravel road off the main highway. She leaves most of the farm work these days to others. She has a house in town, right next door to Marlin and Annabelle.
That’s where we spend that evening, at a Fourth of July party attended by dozens of Rueb relatives who’ve come from as far away as Kansas City and central Colorado for harvest. We gather in the backyard landscaped with warmth and moisture-loving flowers. Steve is the barbecue chef. Annabelle has organized a complex photo shoot, grouping the family by first cousins, second cousins once removed, and so on. She’s also created a signup sheet so people can read aloud passages from the Declaration of Independence between the appetizers and the main course.
To start us off, Marlin reads a few paragraphs from a biography of Declaration signer John Adams. Adams died on Independence Day, 1826. As Marlin reads about Adams’ last moments, a rumbling comes past the house, from the direction of the Arikaree Breaks. It is a convoy of combines and grain trucks, headed south to get in position for the next morning’s cutting.
For just an instant I hear Marlin’s voice tighten up. I’m not sure if it was the pollen from the flowers or the wheat dust off the combines. But I don’t think most of us could have found our voices in that moment which reminded me how fortunate we are to travel this country with those who know it best, taking in, mile after mile, the promise of harvest.