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Published May 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Column: Farming sights of days past were 'awesome'

WORTHINGTON — There are very many people who can tell this story better than I can. It is something like the military — there are many who could do a job better than you, but you have the duty watch.

By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — There are very many people who can tell this story better than I can. It is something like the military — there are many who could do a job better than you, but you have the duty watch.

Half-a-century ago (oh, maybe even longer) I turned off 10th Avenue and started north on Diagonal Road. A sun-and-blue-sky summer morning. This was a time before Marion Farrington built the Super Valu store on Diagonal that became Gordy’s and then Worthington Municipal Liquor through the passing of years.

Walt and Gary Febus farmed the land north of the Oxford-Diagonal intersection that today is occupied by Sanford Clinic and Solid Rock Assembly of God church. 

As that intersection — that spread of farmland — came in view, I actually did know what I was seeing. Still, for at least an instant or two, I was Alex in Wonderland. Before me was the most stunning, gleaming, shimmering blue lake I had ever seen. 

How could a lake appear suddenly? What happened? Some dam broke on Okabena Creek? There was a gullywasher north of town through the night that sent flood waters down the stream?

What I saw was a field of flax in bloom. It was blooming flax fields (I believe) that caused the word “awesome” to be added to the language.

Now one of the things I don’t know: To have a memory of flax in bloom you have to be what? Fifty years old? Fifty-five? For a period of years — and I can’t explain this, except that the price was right — for a brief period, flax was a big crop in Minnesota’s southwest corner.

I found an old account. In 1950, there were 60,000 acres of flax planted in Cottonwood County alone. Windom billed itself as, “Flax Capital of the World.” The whole world. 

As you approached Windom on Highway 60 you could see dark stacks of flax straw in fields along the way. Farmers were selling not only the flax but also the straw that was being used, among other things, for the manufacture of fine paper. The story was that cigarette papers were made from flax straw.

Well — I wish everyone today could see 80 acres of flax in bloom. There is scarcely another blue in nature which matches it. 

Now I am wandering off into “I’m not sure,” once again. Another time — maybe 30 years ago by, or 35 — sunflowers became, briefly, a notable crop in southwest Minnesota.

If the word awesome had not been coined for flax fields, it would have been coined for sunflower fields. Awesome and wonderful. 

There is no comparison between sunflowers and flax, of course. Each in its way affords a beauty that you want to talk about and tell about. Both are exciting.

There still are fields of sunflowers to be seen, but you must be somewhere around Fargo or Bismarck. I believe it is true there is no county in North Dakota where sunflower fields cannot be found.

Flax and sunflowers set me to thinking about oats and barley. Oats and barley stir a different kind of excitement. They don’t break into flowery bloom, but when the sun is lifting over a field of ripe oats there is a glow of gold that is not matched anywhere (save by a field of barley).

You might have to be 50 years old to have a memory of flax in bloom or a field of oats turned ripe. I believe you must be older still to have a memory of men threshing. Watching a demonstration of old threshing machines is not the same. 

A field of oats gives an opportunity for an unmatched sense of touch as well as an unmatched sight. The old binders were pulled into the oats fields to cut the grain and tie it into bundles. Kids, women — everybody available — followed along, building the bundles into shocks.

Now: you’re a kid. You are barefoot. You start walking into a stubble field that was a field of oats before the binder came along.

Suddenly you are walking on 10,000 needles. You may forget how a field of barley, looked but you will never forget how it felt to walk barefoot in a stubble field.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.