By Mildred Searcey
Trails, Vol 6 No. 3 Spring 1982
by the Umatilla County
to use this story granted by the Umatilla County
Society, Inc. Back issues of Pioneer Trails are
for purchase from the historical society.
On the agriculture scene
pea production is a fairly new crop in Eastern Oregon, and one that
has had an interesting history during its development.
In 1928 Frank Sloan, who worked for
the Washington-Idaho Seed Company, came into the Athena area, and
talked some of the farmers in the foothills into planting dry peas
Four years later Sloan encouraged
Barney Foster to raise a few green peas to see if the land and
weather conditions were agreeable for a pea crop. When the peas were
nearly ready for harvest, W.S. Miller, Lowden Jones and P.J. Burke
of the Walla Walla Canning Company came out to the Foster ranch
where they inspected the field. Mrs. A.J. Wernsing, daughter of Mr.
Foster, remembers that when the peas were ready for harvest, she,
along with several other young people went to the field on top of
the hill and in the early morning hand-picked the peas and put then
Loaders picking up peas
from windrows -- Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Bank, Athena
The peas were then taken to the Walla Walla Cannery where
they were hand shelled and processed, the results later determining
the success of Mr. Foster's venture. The rest of the crop was left
in the field to dry to become seed peas for the next year.
The peas that were canned made 80
cases, and these cases were broken up and sent to various
agriculture brokers throughout the United States. The reaction was
enthusiastic about the grade and tenderness of the Eastern Oregon
Swathing peas into windrows -- Photo courtesy of
the U.S. Bank, Athena Branch
In 1933, Harold Barnett planted
40 acres of green peas and used the first viners. Here again Frank
Sloan was instrumental in helping out in this venture. He suggested
that P.J. Burke, through his connections at the Walla Walla Cannery,
secure some viners from a machinery company in Wisconsin.
These viners were a far cry from
present equipment. There were 8 viners, and they came by railroad
car and had to be put on carts to be transported to the Barnett and
Foster ranches. Don Weber of Athena remembers that Mr. Foster had
two horses, Pat and Milt, which they hitched up to the hay mowing
machine to cut the peas in windrows. Don and Barney Foster took
turns driving the team, neither very sure of what they were doing.
Trucks were then brought into the fields where the peas were hand
pitched on the trucks, hauled to the viners and hand pitched off the
trucks into the viners and then hauled to the
Rogers Canning Company,
formerly P.J. Burke Canning Co.
-- Photo courtesy of the
U.S. Bank, Athena Branch
P.J. Burke, with more courage than
money and impressed by the results of the Barnett and Foster
venture, promoted a cannery at Athena with the following men as
directors: Harold Barnett, P.J. Burke, E.C. Rogers, Barney Foster
and L.L. Rogers. The date was January 12, 1935, and the name of the
cannery was the P.J. Burke Canning Company.
vegetable, the pea must
be harvested at the peak of
perfection to produce any profit for the farmer. Before the farmer
plants the pea crop, the canneries in the area must know how many
peas they need for processing the next year. Based on this
information, men from the canneries contract the number of acres a
farmer can produce, the type of peas, the date of the planting and
the price based on the grade of the pea. The contract is also based
on the capacity of the cannery per day.
Forking pea vines into stationary
--Photo courtesy of the U.S. Bank, Athena
After the peas
are planted and have matured and are ready for harvest, the swathers
move into the fields cutting windrows. In some fields the loader
then goes down the windrows, loading the vines into trucks which
haul the peas to the viner station where the peas are hulled and
then trucked to the cannery.
fields, a combine picks up the windrows made by the swathers, vines
the peas which are then trucked to the processing plant. This is a
faster and newer method of harvesting.
There is an old
cliche "alike as two peas in
a pod," and with this thought in mind it is interesting to note
how one farmers' crop is kept separate from another's.
processing plant the farmers have dumping stations. When a given
number of pounds have been dumped into a container, the container
automatically empties and the amount is registered on an
overhead dial. In addition, a tenderometer grades the peas for
tenderness which determines the quality of the pea
Modern pea combine which has replaced the loaders and
stationary viners used in
the beginning of the pea production
industry. -- Photo courtesy of B.L. (Pat)
Peas are planted in
the lower elevations and then staggered by calendar weeks on up the
foothills. In some places the elevation can vary as much as 3,000
feet. Cared for by Mother Nature, the green pea has put many a
furrow in a farmer's brow. If the weather turns hot suddenly, if a
warm wind continues for a twenty‑four hour period, or there is too
much rain, the calendar planting is thrown out of balance.
Pea harvest is
a day and night operation, and many young people in the area have
acquired college educations by working in the harvest, either
in the field, driving the trucks or working in the canneries or
War 11, German prisoners of war were used to help the labor
shortage. They were housed at the former C.C.C. Camp at Squaw Creek.
Also during this time and following the war, the labor problem was
relieved by Mexican Nationals who were given work permits to enter
the United States. These workers were contracted for by the Pea
Growers Association, and in addition to equitable wages, they were
provided food and housing with shower and laundry facilities. Most of the
very little English, and most Americans knew little Spanish, which
made pay day most interesting.
workers arrived in the Athena area, they were issued a button with a
number on it. This number was recorded opposite the worker's name on
the payroll books. On pay day the workers would line up outside the
back door of the bank and were allowed to enter in groups of. five
at a time. An interpreter was present who explained to the Mexicans
bow to endorse their checks. The interpreter also explained to the
bank employees what to do with the Mexican's
percent sent their checks home. The bank employees then made out a
Bank Money Order instead of a cashier's check because the Mexican
banks honored a money order more readily because it had the word
bank printed on it. Cashier's checks were often questioned. The
money was usually sent to wives, mothers or sisters. One
transaction required three bank employees and the interpreter
for each Mexican worker, who then left the bank by the front door.
All transactions were recorded, which is a customary procedure of
banks, but proved a wise move in handling the Mexican payroll
More than once the bank was
the Mexican government asking if a Mexican worker had sent money
home to his family. The Mexican postal department often pilfered the
mail, and the bank's verification of the transaction was the only
record of the Mexican National providing for his family. At a time
when there was an acute labor shortage, the Mexican worker was life
blood to the pea industry. The worker was available, dependable, and
the present pea farmer owes much to this program.
side light on one of the workers concerns a young Mexican laborer
who came from a remote part of Mexico where bicycles were the only
mode of transportation. Each year that the young man came to the
United States, he spent all his spare time around bicycle shops,
haunting repair and parts departments and learning about the
maintenance of a twowheeler.
Near the end of
the period when the farmers no longer contracted for the Mexican
labor, the young Mexican lad stopped coming to work in the pea
harvest. Upon inquiry it was learned that he had saved enough money
to set up a bicycle repair shop in his own community and by Mexican
standard was considered a well-to-do man.
interesting fact is that the swathers and loaders used in pea
harvest were developed by J.E. Love of Garfield, Washington from
innovations suggested by men from the Pacific
Workers inside Rogers
--Photo Courtesy of B.L.
In the pioneer
days of Umatilla County, the cattle business ranked as the number
one agriculture industry. When the bunch grass was plowed up and
people began to dry-land farm, wheat farming became the backbone for
the economy of the area. Strangely enough, a by-product of the
pea business has again made the cattle business a
vines are baled in the field and later used as hay for cattle.
Other vines are hauled to feed mills where they are mixed with other
ingredients for proper nutrition and then used for cattle
feeding. This type of feeding is operations now dotting the
landscape of Umatilla County.
earliest group of men who had the venturesome spirit to try
something new, to the men and women who have worked in the pea
industry from the pea fields to the processing plant, and to the
boys and girls who work night and day, the lights of their equipment
gleaming through the night in all sincerity we say, "BLESS YOUR
LITTLE PEA-PICKEN HEARTS".