A Most Beautiful Implement

Have you seen the stone bas-relief roundel in Ritzville?

Use of agrarian folksayings, recounting tales of Old and New World seasonal farm labors, and harvest work songs are now the domain of cultural historians and ethnologists, but burgeoning interest in such topics is evident in sustainability and food sovereignty movements throughout the world. Recent “Grain Gathering” convocations sponsored by Washington State University draw participants from across the country while others hail from Europe and Australia. At a recent session, groups toured test plots of White and Red Lammas wheats, Scots Bere barley, Lincoln oats, and other heritage grains as well as stands of modern hybrids. They also learned about methods and marketability of artisan breads, craft brews, and other specialty food and beverage products.

Even names of event sponsors suggest Old World associations—the Bread Baking Guild, King Arthur Flour, and Wood Stone, a custom builder of stone hearth ovens. Conference presenters shared lines by the sixteenth century agrarian poet Thomas Tusser, and showcased a “Harvest Heritage” exhibit of art based on rural themes by plein air French Impressionists, American Realists, the Russian Itinerants. American folk art was represented in the once familiar Harvest Star quilt design and nineteenth century steel engravings of field workers wielding sickles. A notable modern depiction of this ancient tool is the sculpted stone bas-relief roundel carved by an unidentified New Deal era sculptor in 1941 for the Adams County Courthouse in Ritzville, Washington. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle in all its variations over time to be the most beautiful implement ever crafted.

Grain Sheaf Bas-relief (1941) Adams County Courthouse; Ritzville, Washington
Grain Sheaf Bas-relief (1941)
Adams County Courthouse; Ritzville, Washington

Simple ancient depictions of sickle-bearing field workers gave way in a blended gradualism to medieval and early modern images of scythe-swinging harvesters. The social contract that had long governed and guided enduring social systems changed little until the nineteenth century. Inventions sparked by the Industrial Revolution led to the gradual replacement of sickles and scythes with mechanical reapers. This advancement in agricultural technology greatly relieved the arduous labor of harvest fields, but also compounded pressures of urban growth throughout the great grain growing nations of Europe and the America. The horse-powered reaper developed by American Cyrus McCormick in the 1830s featured a moveable bar of small sickle sections that effectively cut grain stalks which fell onto a platform for binding.