Platte County Harvest: Some Meandering History of Nebraska Agriculture

I make it home about an hour before sunset—well, not home home, but to the field where one of my favorite pieces of home is taking place. My dad is in the combine, raking in soybeans and kicking up dust. My brother, Josh, greets me from his post at the truck. This was my favorite playground when I was a kid—I’d alternate between riding in the combine and playing in the bed of corn in the truck between loads from the grain cart.

Today, I’m playing with my camera instead. To the south, where I’ve driven up from, you can see a line of clouds—but here, at this acreage at the corner of Central Highway and the Lindsay-Genoa Highway, it’s perfectly clear now, and everything is golden.

Sunset over Platte County

I only got a small taste of the harvest this year—I made it back for the last night of the soybean harvest. It turned cold and drizzly on Saturday, which kept most farmers out of the fields.

In honor of my favorite time of the year, though, I thought I’d share an excerpt from an essay I wrote in grad school about harvest, Nebraska, and Platte County.

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In a little pocket of the earth in Platte County, Nebraska, where the gentle slope of a cornfield bows down to meet the steep wall of a grassy road ditch, I wait for my turn to ride in the combine. Platte, French for “flat,” is one of the most commonly used words in the nomenclature of Nebraska.There is Platte Center, a town not quite in the center of Platte County, and Plattsmouth, located just south of the Platte River’s mouth. Most significantly, however, there is the Platte River itself, originally named the Nebraskier, meaning “flat water,” by French explorer Étienne de veniard, sieur de Bourgmont in 1714. The shallow, lazy currents of the braided stream can be traced, through its tributary North and South branches, from the snowmelt of the Rocky Mountains, across the lower half of Nebraska, to the Missouri River. At North Platte, the city, the North and South Platte Rivers meet to form the singular Platte River, which, from there, travels some 200 miles in a loop around Kearney and north again to Columbus, the seat of Platte County, where it greets its largest tributary, the Loup River, before continuing on to the Missouri.

In the 1800s, the Platte River Valley served as a superhighway, where “the Trapper’s Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Road, the Pony Express route, and the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Laramie…all converged” on what is now referred to as the Great Platte River Road [1].

Today, one may follow a large part of this Great Road by driving along Interstate-80. Many travelers who do so are likely to form the opinion that Nebraska is indeed utterly flat, as well as empty and largely featureless, thus confirming the popular opinion that it is a land one should simply fly over. Many a migrant on the Great Platte River Road, peeking out from beneath the covers of their wagons, whose wheels were prone to get stuck in the deep mud of the Platte’s shallow waters, to see an eagle, a sparrow, a sandhill crane soaring above the expansive plain in the even more expansive sky, would likely have agreed with this opinion.

According to the etymology of the noun platte, or plat, meaning “a flat object,” the word was heavily influenced by association with the French noun plate, meaning “a coin, especially a gold or silver one”. I wonder if the French explorers who dubbed Nebraska’s great shallow river platte knew of the origins of this cousin word and saw the agricultural potential in these vast grasslands.  They undoubtedly saw the monetary value of trading with Native Americans in the territory, as did the Spanish colonizers, who went to war with the French in 1719 and sent their decorated Lieutenant-General Villasur to protect the territory they had claimed earlier in the 1700s. Villasur and his army, camping in the tall grasses near present day Columbus, were instead slaughtered by Pawnee warriors, perhaps assisted by the French, at dawn on August 14, 1720. More than likely, though, it wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson, driven by the romance of Manifest Destiny, made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and declared the Great Plains the next Garden of Eden, the “ideal place for yeoman farmers to build an empire of liberty,” that the land itself came to be seen as a source of “coin”.[2]

Standing as I am, rooted in this earth and reveling in the warmth of the early autumn sun on my bare arms, I have no desire for wings.  Harvest in Nebraska comes with an almost tangible energy, a vivacity that runs through land and sky, perceptible in the thrum and purr of distant engines, in the meandering waltz of a crisp breeze among the hills (you see: even in Platte County, Nebraska is anything but flat) and the leaping of grasshoppers, as if man and nature are together celebrating the fruits of a successful companionship—quantified by the bushel in golden kernels of corn.


Sources

[1] Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny To Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969.

[2] Kinbacher, Kurt E. “Imagining Place: Nebraska Territory, 1854-1867.” Regionalism and the Humanities. Ed. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2008. 251-73. Print.

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