Crops from apples to strawberries flourish in LaVerkin. The more important money crops upon which local farmers relied are discussed below.
Sorghum cane thrives in the long hot Dixie growing season and it was a boon to the region for years prior to LaVerkin’s birth. Sorghum molasses was the sweetener of choice for spreading on bread, for a flavoring and for making candy. It can have gourmet qualities. For example, any cook who has used it for flavoring would choose it over molasses products derived from sugar cane. It is not as intensely sweet as is sugar or even honey and cost and availability were its main attractions. Sugar was prohibitively expensive for most households, and without molasses, meals would have been bland indeed. It was probably LaVerkin’s single most important “money” crop. There were as many as seven sorghum mills in operation at one time. Every fall LaVerkin farmers headed north to peddle sorghum molasses. Sometimes they received cash, Sometimes they traded for potatoes or flour. The term “sorghum lappers” was bestowed on Dixie residents by crass individuals who lived in Iron County and points north.
Gallon and half-gallon cans were the favored molasses container later on, but until they were available, it was put up in wood barrels. Marcellus Wright, a carpenter and blacksmith, was important to the early sorghum producers because he made good barrels. These barrels didn’t bulge in the middle as wood barrels typically do. Instead they were large at the bottom and sloped to a narrower opening at the top. The inside surface was fired with a blow torch to keep the wood from imparting its own flavor to the molasses, or whatever product, such as pickles, that were to be put in the barrel. Metal for hoops was unavailable, they were made of black willow or ash. Barrel makers such as Marcellus and George Campbell of Hurricane had awesome skill. Each barrel stave had to be cut and planed by hand. The sides had to be tapered perfectly to achieve a watertight fit.
The Seglers also made important contributions early on. They brought superior seed with them when they moved from their sorghum-growing home in the Southern States. Joseph Gubler met the Howell Segler family while on his mission and, later, when learning they wanted to move closer to Church headquarters, convinced them that LaVerkin was just the right distance. The Seglers had nursed Joseph and his companion when illness struck them on their mission. Joseph returned the favor by helping the Seglers make the journey from the Lund railhead, and by sharing his home until they found one of their own. Howell, with the help of Morris Wilson and William Hardy, purchased the first copper pan in which to boil molasses. Apparently, both Howell and his wife had expertise in molasses making that they shared with others.
The Seglers were used to mules in their southern home and they soon had a couple of teams in LaVerkin. It became obvious, though, that horses could outperform mules, and they were gradually replaced. Except for “Old Becky” that is. Young Betty Segler practically lived on Old Becky. The patient mule was also harnessed to pull a small rubber-tired wagon in which the family traveled. As years passed, neighbors noted that Old Becky moved slower and slower while pulling the wagon. Finally, she just stopped moving altogether and died in her harness, surrounded by those who loved her.
Making sorghum molasses is both a science and an art that was typically passed on from father to son. Morris Wilson taught Wayne, Wayne taught Dale, and Dale has taught his sons and grandsons. It is now just a family hobby, but one that is keeping a most important tradition alive. Plus, it enables the current Wilsons to enjoy the product.
Producing sorghum molasses is exhaustingly labor-intensive, only farmers with large families would dare attempt it. Ten acres of sorghum cane represented a huge commitment. Lacking modern fertilizers, only land that had previously been in alfalfa was planted to cane. (Legumes such as alfalfa add nitrogen to the soil.) The ground would be plowed and prepared for seeding in the fall. Seeds were hand sown, preferably, one seed about every twelve inches. After seeding, the field was irrigated lightly, and a horse-drawn drag was pulled crossways over the land to cover the seeds. About ten days later, the shoots would be up enough that a cultivator could be used to create furrows for irrigating. Thinning was the next big job that required every lad big enough to wield a hoe. After that came constant weeding. The rows extended forever if you were a boy riding the cultivator horse, but that was the easy part. Next you followed along with a hoe to get the weeds the cultivator missed. By the fifth weeding, the cane had become high enough that its shade killed all the weeds except morning glory. Morning glory grew up the stalks and unless removed before extracting the juice, it ruined the syrup’s flavor.
Harvest time was in October; each acre of cane produced from one hundred fifty to two hundred fifty gallons. First, the stalks were cut off at the ground by use of a hoe and laid in an orderly fashion. Next, the seed tassels were cut off and the seeds stored for use as animal feed. The stalks were then typically loaded onto a sled that was about eight feet long, four feet high, and four feet wide to be taken to the mill. At the mill, the horses were unhitched from the sled, then hooked to an overhead boom to provide power for crushing the stalks between two steel drums. Juice flowed into a barrel and from there into a series of five to seven progressively smaller vats that sat over a primitive wood-fired furnace. Heat caused the moisture to evaporate off and the liquid to gradually turn into the desired product. Applying the proper amount of heat and constant skimming were crucial; as was knowing the exact moment to stop the cooking. Processing the juice when it was still fresh was also essential. Dale worked far into the night when a lot of juice had been extracted. At the end, he would have six gallons of sorghum from each sixty gallons of juice. The crushed stalks, or bagasse, became silage. The skimmings were saved in a barrel, then used as pig feed. It was a nutritious product, and one that developed an alcoholic kick if allowed to sit for just a few days. The pigs never complained.
Dale recalls two ways to enjoy sorghum cane prior to processing it into molasses. The cane’s juice is very sweet. You could cut a stalk, then get the juice by twisting an individual section until the section began splitting open and the juice oozed into your mouth. The other was just before the cooking was completed--dip a ladle into the hot syrup, and you have a treat so good it’s worth provoking the molasses maker’s wrath. There are risks though: twisting the stalks often meant a painfully cut tongue, dipping into the hot syrup often meant a burned one.
Fruit thrives in the LaVerkin sun and soil. Peaches and pears have probably always been the two main commercially grown fruits, with cherries and, then, strawberries also being important. For years, each farmer marketed his crops by peddling. As improved transportation opened up new marketing possibilities that included the sale of fresh, rather than dried fruit, additional orchards were planted. Paved highways made it easier to export fruit and alsoencouraged tourist travel so that people could come to the fruit. Fruit stands were stationed along the highway in LaVerkin, Hurricane and Santa Clara.
Gretchen Stratton, whose husband, Powell, had orchards, ran a fruit stand at the junction of the highway leading to Zion. Two or more Greyhound buses a week, went by in those days and they would stop at her stand. Gretchen was blind but few strangers became aware of her infirmity. She organized her money so that she could instantly make change. She could identify coins by feel but she had to guess at the denominations of paper money. She just assumed that all bills were in the amount of one dollar unless someone told her otherwise.
LaVerkin farmers took the lead in getting growers organized. The Washington County Fruit Growers Association consisting of farmers from Santa Clara, Leeds, Toquerville, LaVerkin and Hurricane was formed about 1936 with Reed Wilson as its first president. The objectives were to help farmers produce a uniformly high quality product and to receive the best possible return. The Association, which lasted probably twelve years, provided guidance for farmers in quality control; worked closely with State inspectors to insure that only Grade A fruit was shipped; provided baskets for packing and transporting the fruit; and contracted with marketing firms to sell it. Fruit was hauled by truck to the railhead in Cedar City or, sometimes, directly to Salt Lake. During its first year of operation, fifty-five carloads were sent north from Cedar.
What the Association couldn’t do was insure profitability. At best there was meager compensation for the labor and cost of pruning, fertilizing, worrying through spring frosts. Countless hours were also spent irrigating, thinning, applying insecticides, and picking and packing fruit. One year there wasn’t enough revenue to pay for the baskets. A grower might lay awake during the year worrying about frosts, moisture, insects and prices. Not at harvest time though. For about ten days and nights he rarely got to bed.
Availability of labor at harvest time wasn’t a serious problem during the thirties when the Depression was in full swing. Junior and senior high school boys and girls and young adults were happy to work for the going orchard wage. In fact, fruit picking and packing was an important element of teen culture. Quinta Neilson and Afton Wilson took pride in how rapidly and artfully they could pack pears and “ring-face” the top layer. Afton Stratton was usually the fastest cherry picker of the crew with which she worked. Being fastest yielded more than prestige; the one who picked the most usually got a little bonus at the end of the day.
Wayne Wilson could usually get enough workers to pick and process his pears. Reed Wilson raised fuzzy peaches, though, and he had to do more hustling. He coached a boys’ baseball team, and somehow, teenagers such as DeLance and Phil Squire found that picking peaches for Reed was part of the baseball conditioning program.
The available local labor pool shrunk as the War progressed, but a new source emerged. War-induced hysteria caused the Federal Government to uproot thousands of loyal Americans of Japanese descent from their homes and send them to internment camps. They were a ready source of high quality labor until the war ended. After the war, local youth found more lucrative pursuits than picking peaches and pears. (Bulldozers were called in.)
LaVerkin was once known for chickens. E.J. Graff of Hurricane developed a huge chicken growing operation that lasted for a number of years, until 1980. For a time he was the largest chicken grower anywhere in the West. A mishap, that befell E.J.’s chickens, also illustrates how LaVerkin and Hurricane have frequently cooperated in services, such as fire fighting. As Hurricane resident, Willard Webb, who was chief of the volunteer fire department at the time recalled:
A call came from LaVerkin one winter night when the north wind was howling. Graff’s chicken coops were ablaze. The coops that housed approximately 100,000 chickens consisted of two long units just a few feet apart oriented in a north-south direction. The fire, probably the result of arson, had started at the north end of the east unit. A single fire hydrant was about 500 feet away, but fortunately close enough for the hoses to reach. Two factors made the situation grim. The wind was whipping the flames toward the south. The other was that when flames entered an individual coop, the hens would all fly up in unison. The flapping of their wings whipped up the flammable chicken dung, which would literally explode. The explosions probably brought a mercifully quick death to the hens, but they also hastened the fire’s progress, and they made the spread of fire to the west wing inevitable. Willard’s crew quickly got one hose over the east wing well down-wind from the fire so they could fight the fire from both sides as well as hose down the west wing. Within minutes they had tamed what had appeared to be the makings of a total disaster. Afterwards, E.J. expressed his gratitude for what they had accomplished. When he first arrived at the scene, he assumed his entire operation was lost and was amazed at the speed and efficiency in which the crew completed its task.
Dairying also had its day. Vernon Church’s meager teaching salary wasn’t enough to support his family. Early on, he discovered he could gain a little extra revenue by selling milk. Almost every family kept at least one milk cow, but Vernon always maintained enough to have a marketable surplus. When he hired Bill Nielson to build a home for him in the 1930’s, he paid Bill partly in milk at a rate of six cents per quart, that Walter or Warren delivered each morning.
In the early 1940’s, LaFell Iverson, principal of the Hurricane Elementary school, asked Vernon to provide milk for the school lunch program. This meant increasing the herd and becoming certified as producing Grade A milk, the first dairy south of Provo to be so designated. Arden Dairy began offering milk in paper cartons, and to compete, the Church dairy purchased similar equipment. By now they were also producing cottage cheese and chocolate milk and they had begun providing dairy products to Zion Lodge and cafes in the east end of the County. There was also a brisk business in selling raw whole milk to walk-in customers. A new blow was dealt by a law requiring that all commercial dairies sell only pasteurized milk. It meant going into debt, and it meant that they had to charge more for the milk they sold. As a result, they lost most of their walk-in customers to dairies in Hurricane that didn’t have to be designated as “commercial”.
Other markets, such as Las Vegas, kept growing, though, and in 1948, Church’s purchased purebred Holsteins and were milking forty cows at a time. In 1958 Hi-Land Dairy began buying up small dairies around the State, including the Church Dairy. Within a year, the cows were gone.
Turkeys were raised, since the 1930’s by the Sanders brothers, Ervil, Moroni and Bill. They began by buying poults and raising them to adults. As they gained experience, they expanded into a fully integrated turkey operation. They acquired incubators for hatching baby turkeys, they sold poults, and they raised turkeys for market. They operated a feed store that purchased raw materials for turkey feed and then they mixed ingredients to create desired products. One was a mix for laying hens, another was for turkeys being prepared for market, and so on. E.J. Graff, Reed and Wayne Wilson, Joe Gubler and his son, Lyman, and possibly others, also became turkey growers.
For a few years, turkeys were LaVerkin’s main business and LaVerkin became one of the West’s leading turkey producers. LaVerkin has a good winter climate for turkeys but it is too hot for them in the summer, so growers would have part of their operations located in Iron County where it is cooler.
Before disastrous turkey diseases struck in the late 1950’s, the growers made enough from year to year to at least keep hope alive, and they provided reasonably steady and diverse employment for many people who otherwise couldn’t have remained in LaVerkin. “Turkey sexer” was one such job. Anna (Stratton) Slack could pick up a turkey chick, peer into its rectum with a special loupe she wore at her eye, determine the sex, and segregate it appropriately, all in a second or two. The males and females went to separate feeding pens.
Mature turkeys were kept as breeding stock by the Sanders Brothers. Owen Sanders, who was the purchasing agent for the feed store, received an order from his brother, Ervil, for 2,000 turkey saddles. As Owen had many times learned, Ervil was a dedicated prankster. Before tossing out the order though, Owen double checked and was surprised to learn that turkey saddles were indeed legitimate. It seems that amorous toms lack both finesse and consideration, and that hens frequently suffer severe wounds during love making. The saddles insure safer sex. Artificial insemination eventually eliminated romance from the coops entirely.
Turkey growing adheres closely to Murphy’s Law: “What can go wrong, will”. Cecil and Delma (Sanders) Dutton were tending about 10,000 of the Sanders turkeys near Cedar City one winter when a violent wind came up late in the night. It overturned most of the coops, killing hundreds of turkeys. While Cecil worked to restore order, Delma drove to summon help from her brothers. No one slept any more that night. Another time, a sudden summer thunderstorm caused a thousand or so deaths simply because the turkeys all decided to run down into a depression that was in the process of being filled with flood waters. Arthur Woodbury declared turkeys to be the “dumbest critters on the farm”.
Disease brought a dramatic end to the turkey business. Within a few months, millions of dollars worth of healthy turkeys were reduced to rotting garbage and their owners were reduced to near penury. The three Sanders brothers salvaged what they could and two of them moved away where opportunities appeared to be less gloomy. Not only was Reed Wilson’s source of income gone, he owed a $50,000.00 feed bill. He was forced to sell a two thousand-acre mountain ranch in order to meet his obligations. He went to work for the state. The Gublers reeled from a similar blow. Lyman launched into the trucking business, making hauls between the Midwest and the West Coast in order to pay off the huge family debt and to support his own wife and children.
The family farm, as a means of family support, was passing into history. In LaVerkin, by the 1960’s, only Horatio and Ovando Gubler were depending on farming and cattle ranching as their main source of income, and they were soon to retire.