Carolyn Morrill picking sagebrush for Flower Arrangement

Carolyn Morrill standing in a gully, picking sagebrush for flower arrangement

The land around New Plymouth today is beautiful farm ground.  It was not always this way.  The proof of what the Plymouth Bench looked like is still with us today, although a tad altered.  The drain ditches which have been re-routed, filled in, covered over, straightened up, and “prettied up with all the “tailings” removed.

Drain ditches were originally dug in each place there was a gully like these shown clearly here in this photo.  My sister, Carolyn Morrill, wanted to pick sagebrush for some flower arrangement.  She is standing in one gully.  Off behind her you can see another.  This was the identical structure of the entire Plymouth Bench when the settlers first arrived.Oh, sure, there were the occasional flats here and there.  However they were not big and not many.  Mostly it was rolling hills, some flatter, some bigger.  In fact, you can look all over Idaho today, and see hundreds of scenes just like New Plymouth looked before it was settled. They are simply all over the place.

drain ditch prettied up, tailings removed, and realigned

drain ditch prettied up, tailings removed, and realigned

What was different with New Plymouth was simply the river provided the water for canals to irrigate it.  And people came, used the water, and their labor and ingenuity to make the desert over into a fertile farm valley.  But, they simply had to level out the land first.  Small streams/gullies went first, then bigger and bigger.  However low hills like in this photo are not really farm-able irrigation-wise. Although you can go to the Palouse country and see identical rolling hills farmed by wheat farmers without irrigation.  The difference, of course is water and irrigation. Palouse does no irrigation, rain does it all for them.

Sagebrush habitat tends to certain areas.  In those areas it predominates and literally crowds out grasses – simply out-competes other plants that do not have the ability for roots to go down dozens of feet to find reliable water. So sagebrush has the deep water all to itself.  But, it also has surface roots that quickly sop up any surface water – denying it to grasses.  In typical sagebrush ecosystem you will see exactly what is shown in this happenstance photo.  A sage is alone for its definitive area using all the rainwater that may fall. Where rain run off takes soil and dumps it, like in the bottom of this gully, then grasses can spring up – but limited to that run-off soil.  But up on any slope, no grass because it has no chance to get started. Sagebrush, by preventing grass growth, means the ground is sandy or light gravel – no sediment.  Again, this favors sage but not grasses.  And, it literally forces the formation of gullies.  You see sage? Well then you will also see gullies – the more rainfall the deeper the gullies.

Early New Plymouth would bring the canals, and they would have to follow a gradient.  When encountering a ridge of any size they had a choice of going around it in winding canal, or making a “cut” thru the obstacle. By looking out over the bench you can see many ridges where the canal made such a cut – but this “orphaned” the land above it, and sometimes the remainder of the ridge cut as it would be too high to use water from the canal, below it, in the cut.   If you drive along I-84 south of New Plymouth, then you can readily see this winding canal system in the Black Canyon Canal up next to the freeway.  This winding nature was repeated by both the other canals as they came onto Plymouth Bench from the lower Emmett Valley.  The winding nature means the ridges are too steep for farming without massive leveling – which none of earlier settlers could manage.  For the time stretching back to the 1895 opening of the canals, much of the “orphaned” land would be waterless – until it was leveled, or until water was lifted via water wheels or pumps.  It has taken a century for this process to play out to date. The lands served by Black Canyon Canal would always be 30-55 years behind the other two canals because it was originated much later and serviced even more hilly terrain, and its soil was not bench land, but instead mostly very sandy desert soils. Black Canyon Canal land was only settled because it could be homesteaded.

Fields below the canals could be watered from the canals by leading ditches down each ridge or hogback.  However to farm in any meaningful manner, the gullies must be filled in by dirt taken from the ridges – leveled.  The only means the early New Plymouth settlers had were Fresno Scrapers or other “slip-bucket” contrivances.  This was super laborious.  A man and team could do only so much.  There were many attempts at scraping ground from here and dragging it over there with implements made of wood planks dragged by horses.  But horsepower was not up to this, and the wooden planks wore out quickly.  My father’s Cat pulled this kind of contraption – but, not until 1937.  Prior to that it was all up to men and horses and mostly Fresno Scrapers.

JH Limbaugh with sons, Ross & Ron, and their Fresno Scrapper 1943

JH Limbaugh with sons, Ross & Ron, and their Fresno Scrapper 1943

In this photo you see “Hat” Limbaugh with his team and a Fresno Scraper out dragging his field to shift some soil so it will better irrigate.  It is like moving a mountain with a teaspoon.  However, it was all they had to work with.

Apples and other tree crops were a boon to these farmers, because tree crops did not require the “fine tuning” leveling that row crops demanded with their many small furrows.  Instead tree crops could have ditches, not furrows, thru uneven ground merely getting water close enough to trees – where the tree roots could got get the water rather than the water coming to them.  Using this method, farmers could do much rougher leveling, raise tree crops, and gradually, bit by bit, improve the farm’s leveling status each year.

Paul Chandler's "Float"

Paul Chandler’s “Float”

To level the land it would take levelers like this “float” Paul Chandler built ~1937 to begin to move the humps and hogback’s dirt into the gullies and level out the land.  (we called a modified gully a “swale”)

This float would go thru modification after modifications, weekly, monthly, changing and morphing from moving at best a quarter a yard of dirt, to three and four yards – an increase of sixteen times. This contraption began life as only wooden planks dragged. Then he invented the “rollers” front and back that lessened the drag, then the blade plank was replaced by a metal edge (an old sickle bar from a mower), so it did not wear out weekly. Then he invented a raising/lowering device using old auto transmission gears (coupled to a wheel off a buck rake) to raise and lower the blade, so you could “cut” and then “drop” the dirt where needed.  Then the 2x4s, that made up the rollers (and which wore out), were exchanged for Model T frame parts becoming entirely metal with old car wheels for bearings. The length was extended ten feet and width another six feet, the blade was made all metal. Then hydraulics were added.  At the end you would see a machine that would move sixteen times as much as in this photo – with the same Cat and a single man to operate it all.

And, which began the transformation of the New Plymouth bench, from broken up, chopped up irregular fields, into today’s modern square large leveled fields themselves multiples better for farming.  Farmers in 1930s and 40s were pretty much limited to “make-do” with parts scavenged from car junk yards, that was furher hindered by WWII. WWII  could really slow things down.

After WWII the massive restructuring of America’s farms began, shifting away from horse drawn  equipment to tractors. Then invention after invention of evolving farm equipment gave farmers, not only the ability to farm double the size in the fifties, but kept on multiplying.  Significantly for Plymouth Bench farms, the ability to level their ground into first class and hugely efficient farms went on a tear! A farmer could manage his dream of leveling his entire acreage into a single field within a single growing season instead of over his lifetime, and perhaps his successor’s lifespan as had been the case.

The leveling of the bench only began the leveling battle with the earliest settlers fighting the rolling terrain.  All the farmers dreamed of making their land better and better.  It would evolve again and again as machinery was invented, became available, and the ingenuity and work ethic of the individual farmer strove to improve his land, but do it within his budget. Little by little.   Anyone would love to hire big machinery to come and do it with one fell swoop.  But reality was more like a little bit here today, a little more there tomorrow, and another next year. A very gradual thing taking an entire life span of many of the farmers to morph into what they dreamed it could become – and with what you see today.

The local farmers learned by watching each other.  At first with only horses, small fields could be tolerated.  Also tolerated were dairy farming type things; tree lines, fence lines, ditches going random directions.  None of these things hindered dairies much.  However, when farmers saw a neighbor make a much more efficient big field, then he got the idea to do likewise. When a farmer saw a neighbor get 10 and 20% more production from his acreage they were convinced and began the same on their own land.  When it was  brought to their attention that tree lines always sapped the crops near them of sunlight, nutrition, water, and production, then they began removing the tree lines and fences.  When they began to see that row crops could double and even triple their profits over dairy, then reliance on dairy and movement away began in earnest.

However the crowning achievement was getting the entire owned acreage into a single level field which did away with the inefficiencies of small tractors, small cut up fields, so that the same farmer, with almost the same equipment could farm multiples of what he had before and earn 2-3 times as much.  Gone would be all the farm-able land under tree lines, under fence rows. Gone were the “turn-a-round” wasted land at the ends of rows when the tractor could do a single field instead of many multiples.  Wasted acreage could be a large percentage like 20, even 30%.  Farmers were astounded when the assessor began fly over assessments from planes which showed graphically how much wasted acreage went to road, ditches, and such.  Now they began to look at the wasted area given to turn tractors around at end of rows – that produced nothing.  Today we see big farmers with GPS guided tractors that claim 16% increased profit when they have razor sharp rows and none of the induced wiggle room of a man sighting a tractor down a row and wandering even a tad.

Leveling with Fresno Scrapers had to be done at the first, when the sage was first grubbed off exposing the ground.  And to get some beginning idea of where the flow of first water could be enticed.  And of course directing it toward the drains so as not to simply make great puddles with which nothing could be done.  It took digging ditches here and there to get a sense where the water wanted to go to get a sense as to how to fresno the soil to help it go there.  Many of these people had no irrigation experience, so there was much to learn.  But shortly every farmer would know what generally had to be done to turn his land into a productive acreage.  Fresnoing began in earnest everywhere.  The topography changed in front of farmers’ eyes.  However, as much as was done, it was apparent this would be a very long hard fought campaign.  It became apparent very early that much more would need to be done than possible with the fresno.

The wave of leveling began just west of New Plymouth in late 30s.  It spread like ripples on a pond, gradually washing up against Fruitand on the west, the edge of the bench on the north, the hills of Black Canyon land on the south, and the broken hills and steeper fields south and east of New Plymouth.  However, over the years leveling would go in fits and spurts.  It would be halted for a time with sprinkler and center pivot irrigation. Then as bigger and much cheaper leveling, backed by deeper capital, became available, leveling would re-emerge again.  However, in the meantime, many farms would be broken up into smaller and smaller units – these relied upon different sources of income and economies, and would effectively not be leveled.  Anyone today, can drive around New Plymouth, and by the size and level condition of the ground see how the leveling phenomenon came and went, and came again, and also where it will never come.sagebrush3