From terra to table
Patrick Ranch threshing bee re-creates pioneer-days agriculture and community
One hundred years ago, a sea of wheat lay across the North Valley and around Patrick Ranch in Durham. Every summer, grain from more than 10,000 acres made its way down the Sacramento River and over land by rail to distant mills.
But how this lucrative commodity made its way to the shipping cart is another story. It is one that began with the bonds of community, the sweat off a farmer’s brow, the strength of a horse team, and the mechanical ingenuity that forever changed the face of agriculture in California.
In the early 1900s, farming crews and teams of more than 100 mules and draft horses traveled among family farms in working festivals known as threshing bees.
“It was a social event the entire farming community took part in,” explained Jan Holman, curator of Patrick Ranch Museum. “It was similar to a barn-raising; a threshing bee took the help of your neighbors, and everyone got together to make a celebration of the event.”
To honor and retell part of Butte County’s agricultural heritage, the Patrick Ranch is hosting its eighth annual Threshing Bee and Country Faire this weekend.
Located at the junction of the old Oroville-Chico stagecoach road and the Northern Electric Railroad line, historic Patrick Ranch was at the center of activity for transportation and commerce. From a wrap-around porch, residents from Chico founder John Bidwell’s era were able to watch trains and horse-drawn buggies pass from the Sierras and Central Valley into Chico and beyond.
The ranch once boasted more than 600 acres, but between sales of parcels and exchanges occasioned by marriages and deaths, the property has dwindled to 28 acres.
Hester Patrick bequeathed the ranch to the Chico Museum in 2001. The Far West Heritage Association—the umbrella organization for the Chico and Patrick Ranch museums—renamed the property “Patrick Ranch Museum,” and established a goal to “preserve and interpret the agricultural history of the Sacramento Valley, including social, cultural and economic aspects.”
The focal point of the property is the 19th-century ranch house, Glennwood Mansion, which is hard to miss beyond a white fence lining the Midway, about halfway between Durham and Chico. The land is dotted with palm and pistachio trees, old valley oaks, almond trees and, this time of year, a crop of wheat that is annually rotated for the threshing bee.
During the threshing bee, part of the home is opened to the public, its walls draped with a display of hand-knitted quilts from the last 150 years. Each piece tells the evolving story of life in the North Valley, from the early days of harvest to the introduction of electric rail and steam-powered machines.
The Far West Heritage Association produces the threshing bee—the organization’s biggest celebration of the year—to join the Durham and Chico communities in an immersion of history and family.
“It’s a true living history of life in the valley,” explained Jim Lynch, the foundation’s executive director. “This event gives visitors the experience and appreciation of a life that was much slower and more family-focused.”
Harvest events of the early 1900s included teams of draft horses and sputtering steam-driven threshers working side by side, harvesting the crop and then separating the wheat from the stalk and grinding it into flour for baking. During the upcoming celebration, visitors will get a glimpse of this bygone process.
“We will have a team of Remington draft horses alongside pristine and fully functional restorations of some very unique antique tractors,” Lynch said.
Local organizers from the Golden State Draft Horse Mule Club and Vintage Iron Club are bringing their teams of horses and tractors to re-create traditional farm life.
“The tractors have a rhythm all their own,” added Holman. “They all pop and sputter. Last year my 2-year-old grandson was here dancing beside them.”
As was custom during threshing bees of the olden days, much time and care will go into the meals and the celebration for those visiting and helping with the labor. Breads, pies and country biscuits will be created from the flour. Pulled-pork and tri-tip sandwiches, as well as veggie burgers, will also be on hand.
“The food is the real magic of what’s happening during a threshing bee,” Lynch said, smiling. “We will begin with the stalk, grind it down to flour, and bake it up into cookies for the children to decorate. It’s a complete terra-to-table experience.”
Children are especially impressed by the process, Lynch said.
“One hour from field to oven to mouth; the children can learn and understand where their food comes from,” added Holman.
Looking over the field of drying wheat and the lush grounds shaded by oak and palm trees, Holman recalled how during the last threshing bee she watched three generations of a family walking side by side along the meandering driveway leading to the ranch.
“It’s a place to find our heritage,” she said, nostalgically. “We need to see the living roots of our place, and that’s what we are creating at Patrick Ranch.”