Past thoughts from the peanut mill
Published 5:44 pm Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Each year around this time, I write a column about the peanut harvest. I can’t help it; it is part of my DNA. Though it has been over 30 years since Beall Peanut Company was sold, my early life around peanuts remains part of the very core of who I am.
There are certain recollections that pop into my head the minute I smell freshly plowed peanuts. I am totally helpless to stop the memories, though some don’t really have anything to do with the harvest.
The counter near the scale at the peanut mill in Cottonwood was tall enough that people sat on stools. My grandfather would take out his knife and carve into the top of the counter. When the carvings became so deep it interfered with paperwork a second layer of wood was placed atop the counter. Later a third layer was applied.
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I learned a lot at this counter. My father would talk for hours to the farmers as they came in weary from the day’s harvest. Back then, the peanuts were brought from the fields to be dried. The farmer’s day was done, but our work was just beginning.
One of my earliest jobs was to unhook the trailer from the farmer’s vehicle. The goal was to be ready to unhitch it before the farmer got out of his truck. A tractor would then back up to haul the wagon away from the scale that was topped with wooden beams.
There were no drying wagons coming in from the fields, certainly not the semi-trailers you see today. Green peanuts were brought to the mill in anything that would run, if only briefly. I learned to crank vehicles and drive trucks that were decades older than me.
At some point we started applying numbers on the various trailers and wagons. We did this by attaching a paper that matched a number on the paperwork. It is a sign of my advancing age that one of the great inventions of that time was the handheld stapler that would easily secure this paper number to the side of the wooden trailers.
A wooden trailer that brought the peanuts to market might only hold a thousand pounds. Some of the poorer sharecroppers would go back through their fields and pick by hand the peanuts left in the soil by the machines. Their partially filled trailer may have only had a few hundred pounds with half dirt and foreign material.
One of the first lessons I learned from my father was to respect and value another man’s effort. He never turned down these meager amounts brought to market because he understood how hard that farmer had worked for just those few hundred pounds. From a market standpoint, it may have been all trash, but to that family it was treasure.
Long before computers, the sound of the rotary calculators could be heard over the din of the office. No one much younger than me will even know about that early machine that clanged and banged as it made routine calculations. A check was made for every single load. The checks and the associated paperwork were all filled out by hand.
At the end of each day after everyone was gone, my Dad and I would sit on the steps of the office and talk about what had occurred that day. I remember the first day we ever bought 400 tons, the first load that graded out at more than $300 a ton, and the first farmer to average more than 3,000 per acre.
I became a man under my father’s watchful eye while shoveling peanuts in old warehouses, driving 50 year old trucks and breathing the dust from the harvest. I was so proud of him. No matter how advanced the technology of today, one whiff of a freshly plowed field and my Dad and I are back on those steps talking again. What treasured memories.