American Sabbatical 108: 5/10/97

Blue Ridges

5/10.. Virginia.

We’ve got our road rituals perfected now. The morning assemblage and departure. The daily Owl vetting. Plotting the navigation. Finding roadfood. The tour. The sketch. The hooting at wrong turns or unclear maps and signs. The laughter over another day’s absurdities. The quest for lodging. Waiting for Homer.

Now we are going through the motions with cruise control on. The Virginia Mountains in Spring are especially beautiful, and they are like heroic musak for us. When we open out and hear it, we are moved, but mostly we’re riding the elevator. Going home.

The Ridges

We rode the crest of the mountains from Roanoke to Charlottesville, up on the Blueridge Parkway. Spring is recapitulated top to bottom out here. On the high ridges, above 3000 feet, the trees are barely in bud. Hunched, snarly things, mostly oaks and ash at a guess, judging by the barks and limbs. There appears to be a lot of standing deadwood up here, but that may be a comparative allusion, because the limbs are so bare. We have noticed stretches of Pennsylvania mountainside in late summer where the trees aren’t in leaf, in recent years, however. Is there a niche die-off in progress?

Looking Downslope
Downslope the trees get taller, straighter, and proceed from first leaves to full spread as you descend into the warm moist valleys. By the time you hit bottom the variety of species is overwhelming. The great temperate woods of Eastern North America, one of Nature’s masterworks. I’ve religiously avoided woodyards and such lumbered temptations this trip. Owl is having trouble with the upgrades as is. But in another life I’ll roam these hills in a pickup, with a chainsaw.

Wildflowers are everywhere, at all altitudes, in all shades. Even the windswept and chill crests are carpeted in tiny glories. Acres of pink lady-slippers. Miles of purples and pinks and starred whites. Violets under every tree. The dogwoods are making their white and pink and yellow explosions in the higher woods. Laurel are just opening lower down. Purple-flowered Paulonia are abundant near the river bottoms.


Peggy's Vista

The vistas are compelling. Western in their sweep, if more humid and rounded in contour. Heart-liftingly grand. Blue ridges, indeed. Often seried into the diminishing distance. On the east slopes of the Appalachians the spring leaves are all in shades of green-bronze. The hills have a golden sheen, from almost yellow down to a keylime green. The coloring follows the topography, with the crests outlined in polished bronze against the valley greens. The Parkway often skirts a cliff-edge, and you are looking down on the lesser Appalachia and out to the farthest heights. The sensuous folding and articulation is balletic, and you can understand Copeland’s inspiration to the dance.

Looking down into the fertile valleys west of Charlottesville, not densely settled to this day, you have to wonder at the forces driving Boone and the other Westerers. This country lives up to its name, and the longing to see overhill would have to be fabulously compelling to drive people beyond this Virginia.

Blue Ridgers

On Saturday we came down off the heights to tour Cyrus McCormick’s farm, west of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road dropped 2000 feet in a couple of miles, and was almost as knucklewhite as California mountain descents. At least the Californians respect your intelligence. Everywhere else, where the signs say 20 MPH you can do 30 in comfort. When it says 20 in California, you better. This joyride had us centrifuging at 25.

(Memo #105)

May 10 Cyrus McCormick

Who? inventor of agricultural machinery, industrialist

What? mechanical reaper

When? 1831

Where? western Virginia

How? his own blacksmith / carpentry training + a tinkerer father

Topics: inventors, agricultural history, farm machinery mechanization

Questions: What inventions affect us the most? What was the impact of McCormick’s reaper?

McCormick's Mill

I remember heated discussions in school of the world’s greatest inventions. Fire? The printing press? Penicillin? Cyrus McCormick is credited by some with creating the greatest invention of the 19th century. His reaper made it possible to cut farm labor drastically (specifically in harvesting). He began the mechanical revolution in farm machinery which has reduced the percentage of our population required to raise food from 90% in 1800 to about 3% today.

Mac's Place
Walnut Grove (the McCormick place at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains in west central Virginia) shows the influences behind the invention. The farm is in rolling farmland, rich wheat growing territory in the early 1800s. There is a forge and a grist mill. McCormick’s father Robert made his living as a miller and blacksmith and was a tinkerer, determined to create inventions to increase farm efficiency. He had experimented with reapers, but never made an effective model. Acquiring skill with wood and metal, Cyrus also focused on improving harvesting methods.

Cyrus McCormick first invented a lightened scythe (the tool used for cutting wheat). Then in 1831 he demonstrated the first horse drawn mechanical reaper. It was made almost entirely of wood. A wide horizontal blade towed behind a horse cut the wheat which fell behind the blade on to a low and wide wooden platform. A raker would walk alongside pulling the cut grain off the platform. The McCormicks did two public exhibitions with their new reaper. They showed that two men using the scythe (one driving and one raking) could harvest six acres in one half day (an amount that normally required a full day for five men with scythes)!

McCormick made the first 100 reapers in his blacksmith shop at Walnut Grove and sold them for $12.50 apiece. He then moved to Chicago and started the first farm machinery factory. This was the origin of his company, International Harvester, which became the world’s largest producer of farm machinery. The McCormick machines helped open the Great Plains. McCormick kept improving the reaper (a seat for the raker, then an automatic raker, then a cord binder - a simplified baler). He made a huge fortune and accumulated many honors. He instituted new business practices: machine performance guarantees, easy credit terms for farmers, slick advertising.

Early Reaper

The Walnut Grove site presents the story simply and effectively. The forge and grist mill are preserved, two simple “cabins” with two stories each, down the hill from the large brick farmhouse. The forge is in the basement of one cabin with Cyrus McCormick’s own tools still in place. The upper floor has a replica of the first reaper, a large case with 14 scale models of McCormick machines, and large photos of farmers and McCormick machines at work around the world. One photo shows farmers in India cutting wheat with small hand sickles. Another photo shows the first horse drawn reaper with human raker alongside. Native American and Third World farmers work with different McCormick reapers today.

Another view
Walnut Groves is still a working farm, now called the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and extension Center. Faculty and students work on agricultural improvements here.

As we drove across the Great Plains we would see lines of colorful farm machinery in front of dealerships in every town (huge combines with air conditioned cabs fifteen feet above the ground and gigantic tires, tractors and a gazillion intricate attachments for breaking soil, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, reaping, baling, loading, moving grain). In December in Arkansas we saw huge combines working at night by powerful headlights. In the spring we see the dust plumes behind the huge contraptions that break soil in twenty foot swaths from Louisiana to New York state. All the machines that revolutionized farming are the offspring of McCormick’s mechanical reaper.

5/10.. cont.

We hairpinned our way back onto the ridge and enjoyed sunshowers breaking through the western clouds. Rode the high ground, gawping at the grandeur, until Charlottesville hove over the horizon, then plunged into the populous stews.


Bryce's Blue Ridge

Charlottesville is another kettle of fish. We're in the heartland of Virginia Society here and the noses are eversoslightly elevated. Manses, big and small, dot the swells, with the Blue Ridges behind. Peggy wants to see Jefferson’s buildings at the University of Virginia, so we climb that hill above town, and enter an elite atmosphere. A wedding was in progress, and the institutional signs and traffic cops indicate that this is part of UVa’s social function. The wedding party looked grand, indeed, on the lawn before the chapel.

There was no near parking for us hoi polloi, however. We cruised round and about admiring the NO signs, until we found a way into the inner sanctum of the main quad and parked in some professor’s perkhole. “Do you suppose Sandy is in?” Peggy said loudly as we unfolded. A dozen steps up from the Owl and we were within the hallowed quadrangle.

Tom’s dome-on-a-temple sits at the top of the long sloping lawn, which is completely enclosed by single-story red-brick residences, pierced by brick archways, and punctuated by Greek pillar-and-portico facades every dozen doorways or so. With mature shade trees overshadowing patches of the quad, this is an idyllic enclave, out of the wind and weather. It has all the feeling of cloistered condescension that the BEST colleges strive for, compounded by being a walled courtyard. A cathedral close for the Temple of Learning. Peggy reported the same claustrophobia she gets in Harvard Yard. I though it rather Brit for that old Francophile to have designed.

I know, I know. This is one of our architectural treasures as a civilization, but what’s the message here? Elite faculty and students get to have their brass nameplates on their private rooms opening onto the lawn of exclusivity. The slave quarters are down the hill. Not a person of color visible anywhere. I take it back. There was a black sweeping the street at a lower reach of the University. This is the least integrated part of the South we’ve seen. Keeping up a noble tradition. OLLIE FOR SENATE, read the bumperstickers.

The Owl glided down from the height, and lit in a back alley opening onto a pedestrian mall in the middle of Charlottesville. Eye-easing old brick shops and restaurants, cafes and bookstores. Noticeably more integrated than UVa, but the blacks all in service roles. Maybe a Saturday sample gives a skewed impression. Our veggie meal was toothsome, and our postprandial stretched a tendon or two. The sun had finally decided to stay out, and a westerly was shaking the trees. We found a dosshouse out by the interstate and played tag with Homer.

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