For my father the pain once caused by these firm, orange-fleshed storage roots would come back to him like the incessant whirring of cicadas, rising and falling in endless rhythm throughout a late summer evening. Sweet potatoes once filled, and ultimately ruined, a summer during those years he was trying to hang on as a farmer in the Missouri River bottomlands of Carroll County, Missouri. This was a time when wildness stalked the Bottoms, before construction of the six main-stem flood-control dams across the upper Missouri River in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana.
It is common knowledge that sweet potatoes are both low in calories and sodium, and a good source of fiber and vitamins A and C, plus other vitamins and minerals. I always have enjoyed them at table, but during the spring of 1941, my sister and I (grades 3 and 4, respectively) neither knew nor cared that sweet potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse food. This low-growing, vine-forming member of the morning-glory family got in the way of after-school playtime, especially favorite radio programs and fishing trips to nearby Grand River.
We were not afraid of work, having on most days done the farm chores assigned to us without much hesitation or complaining, but that spring, sweet potatoes about drove us “round the twist.” Our parents, quite naturally, were going industriously about the business of getting crops in the ground, of wresting a living from the soil. Day after day they would wait for us to arrive home from the one-room school a mile up US Highway 24. We had come to dread the end of the school day, because the agenda would be for the four of us to spend the rest of daylight setting out young sweet potato plants (“starts”) in long, neat rows over the three-acre field. Both my sisters and my moods quickly would become dark and heavy, matching the thick, rich soil on which we knelt to work.
The soil was deep and rock-free, the result of millennia of flood-time silt deposition by the nearby Missouri and Grand Rivers. My parents had rented the field for a season, but in geologic time, the flood-prone rivers owned the land.
The Missouri River flowed toward the southeast just a mile south of our field, and Grand River, a half-mile to the north, curved eastward to empty into the Missouri just two miles to the southeast. Tall, brushy river-bottom forest hovered over the east and north sides of the field. The brush-filled bank of the Wabash Railway roadbed bordered the south, and the western edge of the field fronted on Highway 24. Just across Highway 24 lay the southern end of our pasture and the two-acre woodlot in which I occasionally hid to watch the private lives of wildlife.
Birds flitted and sang in the trees or hunted for worms in the upturned earth across which we were stringing our endless rows. We realized that, later in the summer, skunks and raccoons might notice and sample potatoes growing near the surface, then really exploit the treasure maturing just inches below. Unlike now, because of their rarity, white-tailed deer were not a concern.
Although not aware of it at the time, my sister and I, farm children and regular churchgoers, were learning to think of the soil as another source of life—a second alter. Each of us enjoyed the small corner of the large family garden given us in which we could plant and tend just about anything that interested us at the moment. I don’t imagine marijuana or opium poppies would have been options. Each time I, as an adult, feel relaxation while tending either garden or flower beds, I think of how, early on, the grain of Mother Earth worked its way into my psyche.
I suppose everyone at some point dreams of a get-rich scheme. My father liked to try growing new things—a patch of peanuts one year; a row of tobacco plants another; a different type of melon, squash, or onion another; or he raised, butchered, and cured his own hams. But the sweet potato patch, near the end of the deep and difficult depression of the 1930s, was a cash-crop, money-making scheme.
Early in the spring he had made a larger than usual hothouse in which to plant thousands of sweet-potato seeds, in addition to the usual tomato, bell pepper, onion, and cabbage seeds, hoping to have healthy growing plants when the first frost-free date arrived. I seem to recall that the goal for the sweet potato patch was 7,000 starts in and growing.
The sweet-potato crop grew well, and when digging time came, he enlisted two or three neighbor men to help. But when the weather turned rainy and humid, and the soil too moist, the sweet potatoes came out of the ground too wet. Huge piles of potatoes began to mold and rot before he could get them to market. My absolutely most poignant memory of him is scooping wagonload after wagonload of rotting sweet potatoes into the big ditch in our pasture. Two or three times during the summer, he had remarked to me, “Now I’ll be able to buy that new rifle I have always wanted.” That rifle lay buried in that ditch for many years.
But he was not done yet, having decided that a certain 1937 Chevrolet truck would make a good, cheap tractor. He also rented an additional 25 acres of cropland in a bend of the Grand River a mile from our farm. After all, I would be eleven next May (1942) and old enough to be a big help. He spent the winter, with nothing but handtools, converting truck to tractor and modifying plow, disc, harrow, and cornplanter to mount behind the tractor. He and I worked eagerly at preparing and planting fields, including “my” ten-acre cornfield in that rented acreage. And that is how, when, and where I learned to drive.
The crops looked good and we “laid by” corn which was “knee high by the Fourth of July.” But two weeks later we stood on the levee cursing four feet of swirling, brown floodwaters. The Missouri and the Grand were everywhere. After the floodwaters receded, mud and dead vegetation were everywhere. And I remember the sad goodbyes a few days later when my father, realizing that, again, there would be little income from the farm, climbed late one afternoon into the cab of a friend’s livestock-loaded semitrailer truck headed for Kansas City. In the city, he “walked a hundred yards” and landed a job as bridge gang carpenter on the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific Railroad. We would, the next summer, move to a small town in the Flint Hills of NE Kansas, our farm life over, and a long way from Missouri River bottomland floods.
My new home was a “railroad” town surrounded by farms and real ranches. One of the common part-time summer jobs for boys growing up in that environment was helping some rancher or farmer put up hay, combine wheat, or string fence. Such jobs seemed natural to me. But even in my teens, I had seen enough of floods, droughts, dried-up corn, and rotting potatoes to know that farming is a stressful, risky enterprise. Ultimately, I would look elsewhere for a life’s work.
My father loved farming and The River, but could, as a farmer, trace heartbreak to the droughts of 1934 and 1936, and the great Missouri Valley floods of 1935, 1941, and 1942, in addition to crops damaged by too much or too little rain at the wrong time for the growing season.
He would retire from the railroad at age 63, discouraged, destined to live only two more years. Much later, mother would say that he had hated the railroad job, but “it was a living.” In Kansas my father had continued his pastimes of hunting and fishing. He came to love the Flint Hills and the small, clear streams which flowed through the valley forests between and around the bluestem-covered prairie hills. Occasionally he would talk of wishing to fish “big water” again, but I do not recall any mention of raising sweet potatoes.
He did grow large vegetable gardens and patches of white potatoes. The two cherry trees, by his account, produced “just about enough for the robins.” He eventually did buy a new rifle from Gurtler’s Hardware. And years later, he was delighted to receive his late father’s shotgun as a gift from his younger half-brother who lived in Wichita. Away serving in the Naval Air Force during those Korean Conflict years, I have little memory of the new rifle. I do remember his using the shotgun during the years after I returned from the military. “Although your father’s gun was a joy,” I thought, but never verbalized, “I’ll bet the rifle was bitter to the touch.”
© Nathan J. Bolls