Swales

1940s New Plymouth

1940s New Plymouth

This photo, early1940s (note the 1940 Ford and 1937-38 Chev), is typical of many farms on “marginal” land around New Plymouth up into the mid 40s, even 50s.  The hilly nature of the land is evident – too hilly for normal farming -however very representative of lots of the land south of New Plymouth, and much of the Black Canyon Canal serviced area – not a part of the actual “bench.”  This farm was SE about two miles from New Plymouth and “above” the Farmers Canal – so it did not have irrigation water until long after the rest of New Plymouth had it.  Not until the Black Canyon Canal (BCC) was done around this time period.

We would not have called this a gully, instead it would have been termed a “swale.” Swales can be big or little, flatter or wider, but usually are rounded and not having a stream eroding the bottom. Had this particular farm been part of the area serviced by Noble or Farmer’s Canals, there would have been a huge drain ditch dredged down the bottom of this swale!

The hills are at the upper end of size we termed “hogbacks.”  After the Black Canyon Canal was done, beginning at end of 30s and continuing into the 40s, some of these farms would be irrigated.  However it took a while because all the better land came first, and only after all the better land was taken up would people “stretch” resources to include such land.  However, they could “ranch it.”  Meaning, they could still have a farm raising cattle or hogs. This land was all homesteaded. So cash poor, or resource poor, farmers could begin their farm life here cheaply.  But, this cheapness was an irresistible siren call that would trap them into a long slog before they could catch up to others.

This produces a very “gritty” living – very harsh conditions, very labor intensive and very, very slim profits, mainly living off the land growing everything one eats and depending upon stock grown yourself.  (I don’t see a garden in this photo – and hand pumped water may not be feasible to do any gardening.) Lots of homesteaded land went this route.  I knew many folks homesteading the Black Canyon Canal, what we called the “new land.” Some were in my class in high school. Raising hogs lends itself to these circumstances.  However, the grain to feed them must be obtained elsewhere and hauled in.  The farm cannot raise the feed necessary to feed the hogs.  However, once the hogs are raised then their sale, might support the next iteration. Many of the Appalachian subsistence farming follows this model and done by generations who can never rise above it.

The farm in this photo was very representative – I have seen dozens of them – and, more than likely, this very one. Gladys Capps gave me this photo, taken by her family which was renting the closer house (you can see that they are, in effect, living outdoors in “front yard”.)  Tthe Capps family were pretty nomadic and depended upon music gigs in Payette Valley and Treasure Valley. This housing, way out of town, no electricity, nor running water, no indoor plumbing, provided a roof over their heads and was enough for a large family.

Look at the photo and you can see a number of defining items.  This owner makes his living raising hogs – and you see the hog pen the farthest small building up the hill.  Why hogs?  Because there was no running water (creek or drain ditch) this farmer had to hand pump his water (no electricity).  (This is a real chore, I know, we had to do this until I was five).   He most likely ran a few head of cattle and you can see one horse (probably part of his team) used to pull wagons, etc.  The hillside is completely grazed off by hogs or maybe cattle, and in close proximity – they are bound to the swale because of the pumped water. Cattle could wander over all his acres, but hogs would stick close by – probably fed supplemental grain plus what grass they could forage.

The nearest building – typical housing of the period – if you look close, has been added onto, or extended, twice.  This usually represents a growing family expanding as more and more children come along, or relatives coming to live with.

Also there is another dwelling at far left (see chimney) with another car parked by it (see the car tracks angling up the hill from it).  Probably the owner.

There is another, bigger building, in the center.  This latter may be a barn.  Often marginal farmers like this one would supplement their income by supporting other families. Example: many came from Nebraska where they had homesteaded, but driven out by harsh winters and summer droughts.  Often a relative would be living on a place like this and said, you can stay here awhile.  Always willing for someone who can help pump water for livestock.  Houses were very simple, and they would simply build an additional when circumstance allowed.  I have seen it so many times. Over the years, such a visiting family would move on, and the house would be rented to someone – or could be converted into barn, granary, chicken coop, etc.  You can bet that there is a chicken coop somewhere amongst the buildings – probably the small building next to the farthest house. Chickens can subsist upon specks of grain the hogs leave or miss.

Understand that this photo is 40-50 years after New Plymouth was begun.  Many of early New Plymouth settlers lived a very similar way until crops began to pay.  Many of the farms on the bench probably looked very similar to this – especially if they had hog backs – just smaller hogbacks – with very similar vegetation.  The bench farms would, everyone, have irrigated first the swales, then later the lower hogbacks, and leveled as possible, again and again, until the hogbacks simply disappeared producing the flat fields of today.  To me this is so impressive, to begin with rolling hills, and end up, with immeasurable effort, in beautiful fields.

This photo also illustrates the early habit of simply driving any direction at will, not being limited to any road system, which, of course, was not there yet.

Hills or hogbacks like this one could only be irrigated by sprinklers – like center pivots or the large wheeled variety.  Not that someone wouldn’t try furrow irrigation when water could be obtained on the top.  But trying furrow irrigation would cause erosion on an unsustainable scale – although controlled to some degree by pasture or hay crops where the roots would hold the soil.  So if and when these hills received any water, you can bet they grew pasture or alfalfa.  My dad’s rented ground had about 20 acres  that “sloped.”  The furrows could erode a foot deeper with a single irrigation!  All that soil, your best, would end up at bottom of the slope or in the drain ditch.

You can see the results of farming such land SE of New Plymouth.  Some have been leveled in a heroic measure – done by very big, very expensive, heavy land leveling equipment.  Leveling such land also produces problems with adjacent road and drainage –

which are not leveled.  A flat field plunked down in the middle of hills means the edges of such field are out of synch with surroundings, producing an abrupt and easily eroded edge of the field that is difficult to maintain.  So leveling land such as this example eventually has to be melded into what can be done on surrounding land or matching it in some measure.

SW of Hamilton Corner you can see many farms that began similar to this one – but had canal water.  They used the canal water to irrigate only the bottoms of the swale – leaving the hills until later on.  Some of these “bottoms” could grow excellent apples.  But the small ratio of farmable land to the total acreage was burdensome.  Make-do use of marginal land requires enormously more labor than nice square flat fields. Make-do use means such farmers will spend a lot longer as poor overworked farmers before being able to climb out of the hole!  Some would spend their entire life.

The same scene could have been an early ranch up Big or Little Willow in the beginning.  However, such ranchers had the benefit of scale so would have quickly gained the ability to rise above the early “gritty” stage.  And all had access to water without pumping it.

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