By Karl Terry: Freedom New Mexico
Relics from another era in Roosevelt County agriculture were stopping lots of people and causing many to reminisce about peanut harvests gone by Tuesday at the 16th annual Ag Expo.
Dennis Harper of Portales is displaying antique peanut diggers and threshers at this year’s Expo. The display is a coordinating event with the Smithsonian Institute’s traveling exhibit about food and its connection to people, currently on display at the Golden Library.
Along with the display, Harper is giving lectures again at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today on how implements for harvesting peanuts developed over the years.
Harper says in the 1920s and 1930s, a big farm in eastern New Mexico was 80 acres and some weren’t even that large.
“They had a few acres of everything back then because you never knew what would be worth anything,” Harper said.
Harper said in the early years of growing peanuts in the area, farmers would run an implement called a knife under the peanuts when they were ready to harvest. Hand labor was used to pull the plants and large waist-high shocks were created with the nuts turned inside the shock.
Harper said they were shocked in that way to protect the peanuts longer because there were very few threshers in the valley. He said dug peanuts might be in the field for quite awhile before the thresher made its rounds.
Threshers were mostly stationary and made by Keystone in the early days. The peanut shocks were loaded onto a trailer by two men using rods stuck underneath the shock and transported to the thresher.
Threshing usually involved up to 15 people, Harper said. Because the threshers were moving from farm to farm, the labor was taken care of by neighbor helping neighbor. School would be canceled until harvest was over so even the young people could help.
By the early 1940s, with the onset of World War II, labor had become a problem and innovation was required. Farmers began to adapt.
Portales farmer Glynn Wilhoit said that another local farmer, Bob Terry, adapted a Keystone thresher to be pulled through the field with a bin that peanuts were caught in, requiring even less labor.
“That ended the community harvest when that caught on,” Harper said of the mobile thresher.
Harper said the farmer who now leases his land has a four-row self-propelled thresher that will harvest 80 acres of peanuts a day, whereas the earliest drag threshers were a single row and would cover 15 acres on a good day.
Diggers in the late 1950s used for Spanish peanut varieties in the east wouldn’t work on the red variety in eastern New Mexico. Again a local farmer figured out a design that would work. The first machine made here was the Brown digger, which was sold by local Massey Ferguson dealer Eddie White.
That design was modified again by Portales machinist Wilbur Wallace and eventually that design became the most used in the area.
Phyllis Wallace-Jones, daughter of Wilbur Wallace, said her father was a bit of a perfectionist, and local farmers always joked that when they saw his work they knew it was his because all the details were taken care of.
“My mom has the plans (for the digger) still, and they’re very fragile now,” Jones said. “He was quite an inventor.”