Columbia River Basin

Following the Muse: A Water Journey
By Dorrie Brown, All Rights Reserved

Based on the memoirs of her father, Nick Friesen, as dictated to his wife.

Note from NWNL Director Alison Jones: Dorrie Brown now lives in New Brunswick, Canada. She has spent the last year reading, studying and editing her father’s memoir. As she told me of his life choices, dictated by water, she and I decided this would be a unique contribution to the growing NWNL “Voices of the River” collection of interviews from our case-study watersheds. The watersheds covered by the Friesen family begin in the Mississippi River Basin’s Red River Valley and end up in British Columbia’s Upper Columbia River Basin.

All italicized passages below are Ralph Friesen’s words.

Map of Ralph Friesen’s journey

Water was my father’s muse. Or, his haunt. Maybe his oracle. Or, his nemesis. Probably all of the above.

It determined his geography, his work, his leisure (or not), his anxiety level (constant), his income (low-to-modest), his life style (pressured).

Water formed my father’s earliest memory. In 1909, the Nick Friesen family had a homestead near Binger, Oklahoma in Medicine Canyon. A spring, thought to have medicinal properties, fed a creek that offered good soft water for domestic use. Ralph was a toddler at the time, the sixth of eight children. He was lying on his parents’ bed, looking out the window. He remembers a muddy, foaming river roaring suddenly down the steep road leading into the canyon, straight towards the house. A cloudburst: what locals would describe as “a real Oklahoma gully-washer and frog strangler” was pouring a torrent of water into the canyon from hills to the north.

“Maybe I didn’t know just what it was,” he wrote in his journal in 1986, “But to me it was a monster that could destroy us. I screamed and Mom came to pick me up. She didn’t know what was wrong with me, and of course, I could not tell her but pointed at the water which was about to reach the house.”

My father’s fear was that he might be forgotten and left on that bed in the mélée as the family raced to evacuate. So his first memory of water was one of terror. Water is powerful. In so many ways.

The Nick Friesen Family: Grampa Nick, Gramma Maria and all of my Dad’s siblings.  My father is standing between his parents.  This was taken circa 1917 when Dad was about 10 years old.

Dad spent his growing-up years working with his family in various farming ventures. Many times when they had harvested all of their own crops, they would pick cotton for others, to earn a few extra dollars for clothes and school books. He finished his grade eight year, having spent only five weeks in class and completing the rest by home-study. The remainder of his education would be through experience — an excellent teacher — but often a hard, costly and exacting one.

Farming in Oklahoma is quite a battle. You win some and lose some and sometimes all you have left is experience. There are so many hazards and hurdles to test what you are made of. Now I know we are all made of the dust of the earth but it seems that some are made of “finer clay”, and when God made farmers for that area, the mixture was intensified. He had to include a lot of grit with all the droughts, floods, hailstorms, tornadoes, worms, etc. No chemical pesticides then, and weed control was by cultivator or hoe. Cotton was a Santa Claus crop: Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!

In 1928, at the age of 21, tenacious, determined and believing that there must be better farming opportunity elsewhere, Dad left Oklahoma and, with his brother, rented a place in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The worst of the Dust Bowl exodus (1930–37) was yet to happen.

Time marches on and soon I was… beginning to think of leaving the nest and getting out into that big world on my own. I really didn’t have much that I could call “mine” to start with but I could not see staying with the sinking ship either! With droughts, grasshoppers, hailstorms and low prices for farm products, we were just not making it. We were living but never able to pay much on that mortgage and foreclosure would surely come if things didn’t get better.

Dad began to think about going to Colorado and irrigated farms. He and his brother loaded an immigrant rail car with machinery, four horses, a cow, two heifers, and their father’s best team of mules. Although my Grampa Nick knew it was only a matter of time before he would lose the family farm in Oklahoma, he would stay behind for another two years, eking out what he could.

The San Luis Valley was the Land of Promise for these parched and dusty Okies. High (7,777 feet) and dry (7-inch annual rainfall) with a short growing season — but, with irrigation. Nirvana!

A new country, a different climate and different crops to be grown, and I had never farmed where the crops depended on irrigation alone…. I had thought that with irrigation there would be plenty of water for the crops and just when it was needed — but not always so. Our water was only what was stored in a reservoir from the melting snow runoff — usually enough to deliver an acre-foot, (twelve inches to each crop acre); sufficient for three irrigations. Four inches were required for each time over.

Normally, by the first of May, the runoff was nearly over and we would know what we had for the summer. This, my first year to learn to irrigate, there were only four acre-inches, enough for one irrigation. It looked like Oklahoma drought had followed me, and the farmers there were worried almost crazy. They said if we would hold off long enough to start, we might get half a crop. Peas were our main crop and they will stand a lot of drought at first but once you water them and growth really gets going, they have to have more in a couple of weeks.

A neighbor kept telling me to wait but the peas were getting awfully thirsty and turning blue and finally quite growing. I told him I was going to start watering and when I had used up all the water, I was going fishing and God could take over. He said, “It just don”t rain here in the summer.” I called the ditch-rider and asked for water the next day and I began to water the crop. 

After one day, clouds began to appear and the next day, it started to snow so I called and had the water turned off. We got sixteen inches of the heaviest, wettest snow I’ve ever seen which made the first irrigation, and the same storm put another four inches in the reservoir; enough for two more irrigations… and we had a good crop! I told that neighbor that all his worrying was wasted and he said, “Yeah, but you didn’t know that snow was coming.” I said, “No, and you didn’t know it wasn’t and I’m never going to worry over things that I can’t change.”

And Dad may have said that he wouldn’t worry because he couldn’t change things. That’s the bravado, or faith, or fatalism that pulses through the veins of a farmer. Timothy Egan, in The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), relates his account of the disastrous Dust Bowl. Egan speaks of the “tomorrow people.” Farmers. And in the dedication to that book he mentions the skill most crucial to these tenacious, willful people: “never let the kids see you sweat.”

But Dad did sweat. Sweat poured over his faith, never washing it away completely, but certainly diluting it from time to time.

So in this second major encounter, water was Dad’s Muse….; a siren whose fickle, come-hither finger would continue to draw my father in lifelong pursuit.

After trying for two years to make a go of that little farm in Colorado, a seeming better opportunity opened up. Keep in mind what my father was told: “It just don’t rain here in the summer!” Not anything to be counted on, at least. Fickle. Remember?

In 1929, another of Dad’s brothers learned of some “Carey Act” land in Wyoming. Senator Carey was responsible for getting a bill approved by Congress for groups of farmers who formed an irrigation district and built canals to tracts of desert land. This “government land” was then granted to farmers who still had to purchase water rights from the irrigation district to help pay construction costs for canals, reservoirs and dams. Dad’s brother preceded him to Wyoming. The following year Dad filed on a 120-acre tract — the last one available.

The water right would be $8/acre but I could pay $1 per year per acre — $120 per year. The filing fee for the homestead was $80. That doesn’t sound like very much money now, but in 1930 the Depression made cash pretty hard to come by. I had borrowed $600 to pay for a tractor and $400 more for harvesting expenses and what-have-you. My share of the [Colorado] crop would barely pay the bank and what I would need for the move. The only way I could get the money for the filing fee and the $120 for the first year’s water right, was to cancel a little insurance policy… but I would have practically nothing left to live on…. But I did have blind faith….

And so, Dad moved to Wyoming… driving 750 miles on a tractor.

The wheels were iron with spade-type lugs, about fifty on each wheel. Lugs were not allowed on the highways even though they were only gravel roads at that time…. As I was taking the lugs off, a neighbor came by and said, “You’ll be two weeks on the road — and going through Denver! Wow! Just sixteen miles right down Broadway.” My top speed was 5.75 mph. I replied, “Herb, you drive your tractor two weeks round and round in one little place; at least I’ll have changing scenery as I go.” I travelled about 60 miles a day, taking sandwiches with me so I wouldn’t have to stop. There were no lights on the tractor and wherever I was when the sun went down was home sweet home to me.

Wyoming. Homestead. Where to start? The irrigation district needed to do some repair work on Boulder Dam (the reservoir), so initially Dad took a job hauling large rocks for riprap at $3/day: better-than-average wages in the fall of 1930. (Invest in the Muse — maybe she will be good to you).

New land at 7,000 feet. Sagebrush undisturbed as it had been for thousands of years. Dad would have to make an irrigation ditch two miles long to get the water from a canal.

The reason this particular piece of land was left until I came along was because it lay on a hillside and would be harder to irrigate than the nice flat land down below. It was not a really steep grade but enough to require a lot of attention and work to get it sodded down so it would not wash deep gullies. I would have to put a ditch along the upper edge and cut notches in the ditch bank every ten feet to let the very small stream trickle down the slope. But in the loose dirt, in that new ditch bank, how would I keep those little notches from becoming big ones real fast, letting all the water rush down in one place and most assuredly cut a deep gully which would ruin the field?

Well, I went to the garages in Pinedale [Wyoming] and got several hundred, used quart-size oil cans, cut the tops and bottoms out, ripped the sides with a tin-snip, and flattened them to a rectangle about 3 ? by 9 inches. Then I wrapped that piece of flattened tin around an iron bar to form a little pipe about ? inch in diameter, and planted it in the ditch bank. Leaves and weeds or any other trash that might come floating down the ditch would plug one of these small pipes quite easily and I would have to patrol the ditch several times a day to see that they all kept running. After two months of that, I had a nice hayfield started.

Establishing a new farm is one thing. Learning to farm using a new method and technology is another. To do both, while suffocating in an economy as withered and worried as the faces of those whose bravado willed things to get better, presented impossible odds.

That fall, after the summer’s work was finished, I went down to Nebraska and shucked corn for six weeks. The Great Depression had really hit bottom — everyone was just existing and living on hope for things to get better. Banks were going broke by the hundreds and farms were foreclosed by the thousands because farmers could not pay back their loans with corn at twelve cents a bushel. I was paid one cent per bushel for my work. I’m not the world champion cornhusker but by starting in the morning when there was not enough light to hardly see the ears on the stalk and working until dark, I averaged eighty-five cents a day. Once or twice I made it to a hundred bushels for a full dollar.

Dad persevered over the next few years, and was joined by his father & mother, two more brothers, two more sisters and their families. Sharing labor, equipment, livestock, land, and yes — hope — was the only way to proceed. Dad eventually built a barn, which would house 15 cows and he put in hayfields to feed them. Early on, he decided to let some of his grass mature to seed which he was able to sell to add to his income. A small house was also built and my mother came from Newton, Kansas in 1942 to make it home. A year later, my sister was born and Dad began to think differently about his Wyoming sojourn.

There was quite a lot I liked about that little farm that I worked so hard to build from a chunk of sagebrush in the wilderness, but there might be opportunity somewhere else that would better suit our needs. This area was not the best place to raise a family. Schooling would be quite a problem. We were over two miles from school and there was no school bus. It was every family’s responsibility to get their youngsters to school and for most of the school year. That meant by sled in far-below-zero weather — twice a day. I would spend one-third of my time on the road and with 15 or 20 cows to milk twice a day, hay-hauling and feeding, and other chores, I could see a very busy time ahead. And as for high school, the children would have to go to Pinedale, 14 miles away….

Dad packed up his little family, along with ten Brown Swiss cows and his horses, and ventured into southwest Idaho near Caldwell. That stay lasted only four months.

We just never liked it there. We didn’t know why, but it just didn’t feel right. For one thing the improved places were far too high-priced for my pocketbook and the raw land on the new irrigation projects was rough, requiring a lot of leveling. Weather was hot, dry and windy. Some days, there were dust storms from newly-leveled fields and we could not even see the mountains. Once a hillbilly, always a hillbilly.

Then we heard of a new irrigation project over in Central Oregon… Many of the best Idaho farmers were selling their places for $400 an acre and buying land on the new project in Oregon for $25–$50 per acre. It was almost perfect land for irrigation: it had been dry-farmed with wheat for some time; no sagebrush to clear and so level. Most of it needed no work at all except to put in a few ditches and start farming. It would be a year and a half before the main canal would be finished. They had to make two tunnels through some big hills (or small mountains) and install a siphon through the Crooked River Canyon, and then build 40 miles of canals big enough to carry water for 50,000 acres.

Map of Oregon. Source: US Geological Service, public domain.

The government was spending quite a few million, to build this infrastructure, and Congress would only appropriate money for the project in order to make more “family units.” Eighty acres of this good land with irrigation would be enough for one family. The present owners had to sign an agreement to sell all but 80 acres of their land at its appraised dry-land value, set at $25 per acre. If the land was sold for a higher price, the owner had to return half of the extra amount to the government to apply towards construction costs. Owners were not required to sell any surplus land until the system was finished and ready to deliver the water. Because that was still two years away, few were willing to sell, especially at that ridiculously low price.

We drove out to Oregon to look for land that might be for sale. We discovered that these dry-land wheat farms were all over 500 acres — half, cropped one year, and the other half, summer-fallowed for the next year because of the very low rainfall, less than 10 inches per year. Soil-depth was very good. We found a 40-acre tract [near Culver] that we could buy at the $25/acre rate and we would watch for more later.

About five o’clock that afternoon as we were driving, still wondering if this was really what we wanted, suddenly the clouds lifted and there was Mt. Jefferson shining in the bright sunlight. Soon the Three Sisters and a long stretch of the Cascade Range came into view. We knew what we had been missing in Idaho: the mountains. And we instantly decided that this would be our new home.

Dad did find and purchase an additional 40 acres; but since the irrigation system would not be ready for another two years, he hired on with another rancher. In the meantime, policy changed, and instead of the 80-acre limit, one family could now obtain 160 acres. He became interested in an additional 80-acre plot…

… mainly because it had a nice little house on it. We still did not have a building on our place and lumber was still very hard to get. [1945] I knew the man who had this place did not intend to keep it to farm it himself. He was one who had come from the Idaho area where we had been, and I knew what his game was. He had played it several times before and won. He would take a piece of land on a new irrigation project, perhaps clean off the sagebrush, build a neat little house — nothing big or expensive — make a small beginning at leveling and improving the land, and then sell it to some young ambitious fellow who had next-to-nothing, for a small down payment and a good-sized mortgage. The young fellow would work hard to finish improving the place, spending a lot for machinery and everything else a beginner needs to make his living, and then he would be short on his mortgage payment. Mr. B. was not known for leniency or mercy. He would get the improved place back and sell it for a big price the next time.

With some careful financial finagling and a large dose of faith and bravado, Dad acquired not only this 80-acre addition, but a lease and option on another 70-acre tract for his parents. By now, all the relatives who had been farming beside him in Wyoming were following him to Oregon, the new land of promise.

In that first year, barley, peas, onions and strawberries — both expensive and labor-intensive crops — were planted. Onions had to be weeded continually, and when they had reached two inches high, cutworms mowed them down. When they grew again to six inches, hail trimmed them down again. Hail also entirely wiped out the peas and badly damaged the barley. Strawberries required daily picking and transport to the farmers’ market in Portland, 120 miles away.

However, ladino clover and alfalfa would come into production the following year, and strawberries continued for three years; but between intensive labor-costs and eventually crinkle virus (Cytorhabdoviru), the berries were discontinued.

Jefferson County was experiencing severe growing pains. In two years’ time, farm families increased from 50 to 600; schools and businesses were expanding at breakneck speed. Planning and organizing for this fast-growing new agricultural expansion needed to keep pace. Soon Dad found himself on the Creamery Board, Irrigation Board, County Seed Growers Association, County Co-op, and several other committees. Meetings were taking up six nights of his time each week.

I had opportunities thrown at me from every direction. Some of the pioneers who did not want to farm under the new high-speed type of irrigated farming wanted me to rent their farms but I didn’t want to. I could have expanded but the stress was getting to me and I just couldn’t take it anymore. All I ever wanted was a respectable living for my family and the security of owning my own farm and home…. I remembered how my father had lost everything and had to start over at 65 under very hard conditions. I knew the game could get rough. We had the lead at half-time. All we had to do was keep the opposition from scoring in the second half.

By the time three more children had joined the family, Dad determined that a change was in order. It was time to shift to other crops. Bluegrass seed had been good for a few years, but, as often happens with crop choices, it soon became overproduced like ladino clover. Potatoes were good some years but the price fluctuated a good deal, often causing a loss. If wheat followed where potatoes had been a year earlier, results were very good. Lose. Win. Gamble. Alfalfa had to stay in the rotation, too, to replenish the soil. Balance.

Finally, peppermint became the main crop for the last seven years of farming in Oregon [1956–1963]. It, too, had its problems. A high-cost, high-labor project, a crew of transient farm-laborers was hired to keep the field weed-free, as weeds would flavor the oil. A few concentrated areas in Oregon and Washington produced two-thirds of the world’s mint oil, and three or four buyer companies controlled the price. A good price was $5 or $5.50 per pound of oil. When it plummeted to $3.50, one might as well have played marbles all summer.

Irrigation had now become more sophisticated. Dad was the first in the area to introduce a sprinkler system to water the fields (1956). This also required labor, timing, and specific measurement. If, in placing pipe, a swath of the field was missed, an entire strip could burn in a single eight-hour watering.

Besides 100 acres in mint, some grain and hay crops, I had 50 acres still in potatoes. Getting the potato fields ready for the first irrigation was always one of the hardest jobs we had. Usually, it was a real rush job. The weather was usually fairly cool and some showers came until mid-June. Suddenly it turned hot and dry and we had to hurry to provide final cultivation so we could get the water going….now! not tomorrow!

We had to dig a little furrow from the ditch to each spud row, across the ten-foot headland or turn-row that was packed hard by the tractor after several cultivations. This particular time [1962], I could not find an extra man to run the cultivator or help with the irrigating. Always before, I could turn on a reserve tank of energy for a few days in a crisis but this time it just wasn’t there. I just had to sit down on the ditch bank and watch those potato vines shrivel from the heat and drought. I knew I was losing $100 a day but I could not do anything more about it.

It was mid-afternoon and I had to rest for two hours before I could go on. It was while I was sitting there I decided, “There has to be a better way; something’s got to give and it’s not always going to be me!”

Dad decided to sell the irrigated farm and go back to dry farming, where he could do everything with machines and minimal hard hand labor. He searched in the Pendleton area of Oregon, but little was available — and what was for sale went for $400/acre.

In the spring of 1963, Dad saw an advertisement in the Oregon Farm Magazine: a 2,700-acre wheat ranch at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Within the year, he had bought a half-section of land, rented 300 additional acres, and moved the family north. He was now 55 years old, and starting on yet another new farming venture, under different conditions, different soil types and different climate.

After 35 year of irrigating, how would I feel when the crop needed water and day after day no clouds appeared in the sky? Well, I was soon to be tested.

A few showers fell on some of the fields during that first year, but there was a 100-acre area that received no rain. And yet, even that field brought 35 bushels per acre. The ground had been properly prepared, plowed & deeply seeded; a harrow had dragged a fine powdery mulch over the seedbed; temperatures had averaged about 65 degrees; and wind had been minimal.

The fourth year brought contrasting conditions…

… then we got a wet one, and I do mean wet!  The crop was good but the harvest was a nightmare. There was water ankle-deep in the low spots and combines could get stuck even on the higher ground. A neighbor would come and pull my combine out of the mud and half an hour later I would do the same for him. There was never a day that we did not get stuck four or five times. We could not get the truck into the field but would leave it on the road and drive the combine to the truck — and we dared not fill the combine bin more than half-full, or we would be stuck before we got there!

The last of that crop came off in late October when low spots were frozen solid and two to three inches of snow were bending the wheat-heads close to the ground. The short season and weather were the hardest to beat. Some years, two-thirds of the grain had to be dried to get the moisture content down to a safe level of 14.5%.

Eventually, Dad bought an additional half-section, bringing 960 acres under cultivation with 300 always in summer-fallow. He continued to farm in the Peace River country until 1972. Then he “retired” to the garden of “Eatin” — his description of the Creston Valley in southern British Columbia, Canada. Its productivity ranged from grain to orchards and everything in-between. “Retired” in the sense that he no longer struggled with soil, wind, water and temperatures to make a living from the land. Rather, he could indulge in what he loved about growing things: experimenting with varieties and conditions and sharing the enormous fruits of his labors with an extended community of willing and happy takers.

Full circle. From dry farming to irrigation — first with shovel and then with sprinkler-pipes — and then back to dry.

Water, present or absent, too much or too little, pursued, coaxed, begged for. Water, that ever-present god-of-the-farmer. His muse, his haunt, his oracle, his nemesis, his torment, his master.

Did my father, and those of his generation, have any idea what damage their pursuit of water for agriculture would cause? No. Theirs was a generation of power; of bigger-is-better; of all things are possible through technological might. And resources are endless. Aren’t they?

And now, we know. We know that water reserves are not infinite. We know that when we tamper with one element of our environment, other elements suffer. It’s called balance. Not a new word, or concept… but one we listen to selectively. Balance is fine, as long as it doesn’t impede what I want or need. And we still believe that somehow technology — even bigger and better and now smarter — will solve a natural problem we have created… through technology!

We understand… don’t we? But what are we doing about it?

Without water, there is no food. Without water, there is no life. It’s pretty simple.

[Posted by NWNL on Feb. 23, 2015]