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Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Oct. 4, 2023

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‘Sweat and tears.’ Heartfelt memoir tells grit of ‘50s farm pioneers of E. Washington


KENNEWICK — The Lingscheit family had little money but an abundance of grit when they moved to the desert just north of Pasco in 1954 to take advantage of water flowing from the Grand Coulee Dam into Columbia Basin canals.

But at times it seemed like the Lingscheit family was watering the sand of the Columbia Basin project with sweat and tears.

That’s how Helen Lingscheit Heavirland describes the family’s struggle to wrest crops from the desert just north of Pasco in the 1950s in her new book “Surviving the Sand.” It is published by Washington State University Press.

The book is one of the few published accounts of the early years of the Columbia Basin reclamation project, which turned the dry land of east central Washington into highly productive crop land.

And it may be the best told of any of those, said former Idaho State Historian Keith C. Petersen, after reviewing the book’s manuscript. The memoir reads like a novel, said another reviewer.

Heavirland shares her memories from the age of 7 of leaving their white house in the lush woods beside a waterfall in Western Oregon so her logger father could try his hand at farming.

It would be kind of like “pioneering,” Heavirland’s father told his family.

“Dad’s eyes danced. His grin held happiness …. hope. ‘We’re home!,’” he said when they arrived.

But all Heavirland saw was an 8-by-16-foot wooden shack with a roofless outhouse.

To the south was the all-important irrigation canal.

E. Washington sandstorms

“To the east, north and west, sagebrush and cheat grass seemed to stretch to the end of the world,” Heavirland wrote. “Occasional tumbleweeds danced across the desert in the breeze. Not a tree in sight in any direction.”

The 80 acres they would farm included a paved airstrip used for the World War II Navy pilot training and the occasional practice bomb in its sandy soil.

They found sagebrush, sandburs, horned toads, scorpions, rattlesnakes — and ferocious sandstorms at the land they would start irrigating near Mathews Corner about 20 miles north of Pasco in Franklin County.

With no room for beds in the shack used for cooking, the family put up an Army-surplus tent. At night they would fall asleep listening to the howls of coyotes.

But the tent was no match for Eastern Washington winds. One night the wind shredded the canvas tent, leaving the family’s beds and dressers sitting under the morning sun.

With no harvest to pay for the supplies needed to build a house, the beds for the parents and four children were arranged outdoors around three sides of the shack. They would stay there through the coming winter.

But even worse was what the wind did to the family’s first oat crop. The wind-whipped sand sheared off the blades of oat grass nearly to the sand.

It would not be the only crop the wind would destroy. One alfalfa planting lasted only a day before the wind blew away the top layer of sandy soil and the seed along with it.

‘Someone knew. Someone cared.’

Without crops the family had barely enough money for grocery and gas.

For Christmas the next year, the children cut out pictures from a Sears catalog of the gifts they would give each other if there were any money for them.

“We can give fancy things we can’t afford to buy,” Heavirland’s mother told the children.

The holidays were looking bleak until one day just before Christmas when the family drove home anticipating another dinner of the staples they had left — beans, potatoes and carrots — when they spotted a large box sitting outside.

They never learned who left the box packed with a ham, oranges, cranberries, popcorn, hot chocolate mix and Christmas candy.

“It was common knowledge in the area that the wind had ruined crops and that many of the farmers were struggling just to eat,” Heavirland wrote. “Someone knew. Someone cared. And they reached out to us.”

Heavirland started driving a tractor when she was 9, standing her full weight on the brake to keep the tractor under control.

She entertained herself learning to imitate the meadowlarks.

One of Heaverland’s best memories was spotting a cluster of three deep blue blossoms just inches above the desert floor.

“The flowers were the most beautiful thing I’d seen since we moved away from our woods,” Heavirland wrote. “I squatted there drinking in the rich color.”

She would often think of those flowers throughout her life as a reminder that there is beauty everywhere. Sometimes you just have to look harder for it.

Heavirland’s mother told the family that one day they would look back on those days and say “We overcame — together!” And that turned out to be true.

Tri-Cities, Northwest history

Heaverland wrote the book knowing that Eastern Washington is losing the generation that settled its farmland.

“I just thought the values, the persistence, the willingness to struggle for a dream, the way of life that they endured and made it through — those values need to be passed on,” she said.

Even today she marvels as she drives through Franklin County at “miles and miles of crop land, vineyards and orchards” where once there was desert, she said.

“I wanted to document a true history that could keep alive an awareness of the struggles and joys that grew the roots of Columbia Basin agriculture,” she said.

The book also includes glimpses of Tri-Cities and Northwest history.

The family watched tribal fishing at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River before the construction of The Dalles Dam submerged it, watched the blue bridge between Kennewick and Pasco being built and eagerly scanned the rural dark skies for Russian satellites.

Heavirland believes her book will appeal to those who share her memories of the early years of the reclamation project, but she also had young people in mind when she wrote the book.

“My first instinct is to write for teens,” she said. She has previously published four books with Pacific Press and Remnant Publications and teaches writing classes and mentors beginning writers.

WSU Press says “Surviving the Sand,” with line-drawing illustrations, is suitable for ages 10 and up.

Return to Pasco farm

Heavirland writes about the daily joys of of being a child in the 50s, from entertaining herself rolling a hoop along the asphalt air strip to earning money by “sanding” the eggs her mother sold.

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She managed to escape the job she dreaded most on the farm — milking the cow twice a day that the family could eventually afford. That was her older sister’s job and she sometimes left for a date with her boyfriend smelling of cow.

One early morning as Heavirland drove the family tractor, raking hay before the dew could damage the crop, she watched “as color tinted the eastern sky” and then saw “the first curve of golden sun peek above the horizon.”

“Above the hum of the tractor, I heard pheasants crow and meadowlarks flute their shrill, marvelous melody,” she wrote.

She surprised herself with what she thought next: “And this is feeling like home.”

Heavirland continued to spend summers at that family farm during college, with the family having cleared land by then for another farm closer to Pasco near Alder Road.

But for decades she never returned for longer than a visit with family that still lived there. Now she’s moving back to the farm that started to feel like home when she was a girl.

“Surviving the Sand” is old at bookstores and at basaltbooks.wsu.edu. Its list price is $18.95.