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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Travel Trailers

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

They didn’t come with air conditioning, toilets, showers, satellite TV or microwaves, but many an early-day Panhandle farm family lived temporarily in mule-drawn wooden trailers.

These four-wheelers had to do with making a living, not affordable housing or the pursuit of recreation. Early in the 20th century, farmers on the high plains began converting vast acreages of what had been ranch land into wheat-growing operations. By summer, the golden grain stood ready for harvesting.

Bringing in acre after acre of grain amounted to a huge undertaking. The state of the art eventually improved beyond scythes swung by hand to horse-drawn reapers and mechanical threshers. Next came steam-powered machinery and finally equipment driven by gasoline motors.

It not being economically feasible for every farmer to own equipment used only once a year, capitalism filled the void and the business of professional harvesting came into being. Teams and equipment moved from farm to farm during the season, harvesting for hire.

A committee-published history of Carlton, a semi-ghost town in Hamilton County, described the process:

“Most farmers had already cut, bundled and shocked their grain which now stood in row and after row across broad fields. Wagons with their special grain-racks moved about the shocks being loaded into great, towering ricks by men with hay forks who ‘pitched up’ to the wagon drivers. Each loaded wagon proceeding in turn to the huge threshing machine which upon being fed a steady stream of bundles, rattled, shook, whirred and chopped as if devouring each grain-laden sheaf.”

Even with such machinery, the effort required a considerable amount of manpower. Itinerant threshing crew members traveled from county to county across the Panhandle and South Plains and “toiled, sweated and joked and laughed throughout the long hot days.”

The crews had to break for meals, of course.

As one family historian wrote for her clan’s Web site, “Additional to the machinery, there was a cook shack, which was a shack on wheels.”

In 1956, Rosa Lowry told Canyon writer Pollyanna B. Hughes about the trailer her husband Bud acquired for use during the harvest.

“Bud heard of a cook shack that he might buy,” Lowery recalled. “He paid $45 for it, and that was a lot of money for that time and place. But I was so very happy when he went to get it.”

Fourteen feet long and half as wide, the wooden shack with a rounded roof sat on a wagon bed pulled by two mules. It had a door on one end and a sliding window on the other end for food service. Lowry installed a fold-down table on the side of the shack and used a canvas wagon sheet to make a covered porch.

The trailer slept seven. Mrs. Lowery placed a bed on one side that her three daughters shared. The couple’s oldest boy slept on a pallet on the floor of the trailer and Bud and Rosa slept with their infant son on a cot on the other side of the wagon. The hired hands spent their nights under the stars on bedrolls.

Henry O. Howe, who as a young man homesteaded land near Guymon in the Oklahoma Panhandle, had fond memories of cook shack trailers. When harvest time came around, he went to Texas and worked on a threshing crew for an Ochiltree County farmer.

The boss’s daughter ran the rolling cook shack. Howe made enough money at threshing to come back to the same farm the following year. Not only did he earn a good wage, he developed a fondness both for the grub and the pretty cook. Following that second season, Howe decided he could find other ways to earn a living, but married the cook. They went on to have 14 children and stayed married for many years, separated only by death.

When more affordable motor-driven combines (so named because they handled both reaping and separation of grain) came on the market, the traveling threshing business became a thing of the past.

But the notion of a shack on wheels has endured, only now they’re called mobile homes or RVs.


© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
January 9, 2008 column
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