June 1989

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Of Beans and Beaneries


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

What does the term "beanery" mean to you? In these days, when hamburgers and fried chicken race each other to your plate, in the Great Fast-Food Industry, maybe it means nothing. To those who pre-date that era, it generally meant a certain kind of restaurant. Usually of "hole-in-the-wall" design and predominantly found in the low-rent districts, they were places to get filling food cheap. To supply such, they relied heavily on Phaseolus Vulgaris, the lowly bean, in their menus. They were heavily patronized by those with limited funds, including such workmen as didn't tote "lunch buckets" or "dinner pails." The atmosphere was logging-camp dining-table; eat up, talk little, and move on.

Out in the countryside of Western and Central New York, however, very definitely including the Crooked Lake area, the term had a different meaning. A "beanery" there was not a restaurant, but a center for the collection, purchase, preparation for market, storage and distribution of dry beans grown on the surrounding farms. This was bean country then, far more than it is now. Typically, a beanery was a grouping of tall, elevator-like buildings, with a small office and a large room where "the pick" took place and where beans could be measured and packaged. There was once one such on the railroad tracks, just east of the D. L. and W. R. R. station in Bath, belonging to the Haxton firm based in Genesee County, New York. There was another in Prattsburg, Clark's, and a very large one, Rowe & Kennedy, in Canaseraga, near the Steuben-Allegany County line. There were several other scattered throughout the region whose names do not come quickly to my mind.

In recent years you find only an occasional field of red kidney beans in the Southern Tier Counties, but in years past dry beans were a much more widely-grown crop. The 1930 census, for example, lists 4301 acres of "field beans" in 1929, in Steuben County alone. The well-drained valley soils and the best of the upland soils found in this region are well suited to beans. An autumn relatively free of rain in its early part is favorable to bean harvest, and that climatic pattern occurs with some frequency in this area. Damp soils and rains in harvest time are damaging to beans, staining them, promoting growth of molds and generally making them unmarketable. A substantial portion of the bean acreage here in Steuben County used to be White Marrows, with some White Kidneys and Yellow Eyes, besides the most common Red Kidney.

The operations part of the bean-growing year began with the farmers picking up at the beanery their supply of Western-grown seed. When beans were an important money crop, it was too risky to plant locally-grown seed, which might harbor diseases. Seed grown in the dry areas like California would be certified free of these hazards.

By way of formally promising to pay for this seed and any fertilizer the beanery might supply, the farmer usually signed a Bean Contract. This was a recordable legal instrument giving the beanery a lien on the crop to secure the debt. It typically contained a provision whereby, in the event of crop failure, payment for the seed might be forgiven, but the provisos and restrictions surrounding this made it rarely of much practical benefit to the grower. This to the farmer was not a main reason for making these contracts. The most compelling reason from his standpoint was that in times of little demand for beans the beanery would take beans from which it might collect money owed. If you didn't owe them money, it was feared, they might refuse to take your beans at all. The contract was viewed as a form of insurance of a market.

Wide and violent swings in supply, demand and price are characteristic of highly perishable produce. Beans are not highly perishable, but the exact opposite—they can be stored for years. Still and nevertheless, they too were characterized, from year to year and within a single season, by wide and abrupt variations in demand and price. These could be triggered by global weather conditions reflected in supply and demand. Beans could sulk along for months at a few cents per pound; then within days after the transaction of some large export orders they could double or triple in price in response. They could drop back again to low levels just as abruptly. It could make an enormous difference to a farmer's return according to just when he elected to sell, from storage either on his farm or in the buyer's facilities. Through it all it was good to have all the reassurance obtainable that the beanery would at least accept your crop.

When insecticides were less commonly used, farmers would customarily wait to plant their beans until a date designated as safe from damage by the seed-corn maggot. The Extension Service would monitor this date, which varied a little from year to year, and announce it when known. This usually meant that planting took place from early to mid-June, not before. When the proper time came, the seed beans would go into the hoppers of grain drills and corn planters and into the ground.

Usually, but not always, they came up to a "good stand." Sometimes the soil would crust over from heavy rains and many beans would "break their necks" and die as the cotyledons attempted to emerge. Once started, the young bean plants were attractive to both woodchucks and deer, either of which could seriously damage yields. Not until the mid or late 1930's did the Mexican Bean Beetle multiply into a threat which sometimes required an insecticide spray or dusting. Other times, as in a moist, growth-prolonging season, a light infestation of beetles might be more helpful than otherwise by defoliating the plants and thus hastening the timely ripening of the crop.

With good enough growing conditions and no early frosts, eventually a crop would be matured and the plants would start shedding their leaves. Harvest then proceeded thus: first, the bean plants would be separated from the soil by a bean puller—a device with two blades mounted on two wheels, which lifted free two rows of beans by cutting just under the soil surface and rolling the two into a single windrow. After this windrow had dried a while, men with pitchforks bunched the beans into small piles to dry further, flipping out meanwhile any giant weeds there might be among them.

If all went just perfectly, as soon as these piles were dry enough, a bean thresher, teams and wagons and a crew of help appeared. The piles were hauled to the thresher and the beans secured in a clean, dry, salable condition. However, this is farming we're talking about. Things do not always go that well. If, before the beans were dry enough, rains came, then followed an anxious time of turning the piles whenever there were drying conditions and hoping for the chance to thresh. With every rain the beans would deteriorate more, acquiring sprouts, stains, moldy pockets, slipped skins and other unsalable characteristics. Sometimes, after repeated turnings, there would be so few salable beans left that the crop would have to be considered a total loss and abandoned, because the "pick" would be too heavy to sustain. Other times, unthreshed beans would be stored in a barn until the thresher came, which worked all right if they were dry enough when first stored.

The "pick"—that was a threat that hung over the bean grower. It referred to the portion of unsalable beans that had to be removed—literally, "picked" out—before the remainder could be sold. This was done in the beanery, where nimble fingered women sat at a well-lighted moving belt carrying beans, and picked out all unsuitable ones as they went by with a tumbling motion that exposed all their facets to view. Not only could the farmer not sell the beans picked out—they were "culls", used sometimes for livestock feed—but he had to pay the cost of the picking line that removed them, deducted from the crop proceeds. Thus it was at least conceivable that a "pick" percentage could be so heavy that the grower could end up owing more for its removal than the remaining beans would bring. It was important to stop trying to salvage a crop before too closely approaching that point.

Incidentally, there was in existence a cute little, foot-treadle powered, device consisting of a short belt in front of a seat that helped one person "pick" beans in quantities sufficient for home use, since it was too limited in capacity for anything more than that. Some farmers had those and used them occasionally.

The availability of a bean thresher when needed was very important. This was a special machine, generally made like a grain separator, but with two cylinders instead of one. The first cylinder encountered by the bean vines passing through was a very gentle one with few teeth, run at a slow speed.

This softly pressed out that part of the crop that was driest, most mature and ready to shell out at a touch, without cracking or otherwise damaging the beans as a harsher cylinder would do. Then the vines, still carrying the greener, tougher, more resistant pods would move to the second cylinder, where they got rougher treatment at a higher speed, sufficient to beat out all the beans that were ready and finish the job.

Beans did indeed thresh easily when they were fully dry. I have seen a field, following several hot days in a time of early fall drought, look as if it were covered with snow. It wasn't. The ground was actually covered with white beans that had popped out by themselves in the dry heat—a complete and total loss to the grower.

Breathing dust, as from dry soil, overly dry or moldy crops, or various other sources, was one of the hardships farmers have always had to endure. Threshing beans was one of the richest and most punishing sources of this curse. After a few hours of tending a bean thresher workers would resemble the typical coal miner engaged in his trade.

Before the local bean acreage dwindled to its present state some modernized procedures had appeared. Combines, likewise specially designed for beans, replaced the old threshers. The old pulling and curing practice was eliminated; beans were windrowed by machine and combined practically from the standing row. Defoliant sprays were used to control uniformity or ripening. Picking was accomplished with much less human labor by advanced scientific means I can't even comprehend, let alone explain. ("Black light," I understand, is involved.) Bean growing became much more sophisticated than it had been in decades past, but that did not prevent the bean acreage from shrinking drastically in New York as centers of production developed elsewhere.

Without a record of such recollections as these a current observer would never know, for example, that a local beanery ever existed. Once the buildings, go, there is nothing left to raise the question of what once went on there.

Nor would he gain any idea of what the bean crop once meant to the area's farmers. The proceeds of a bean crop paid many a mortgage, bought many a tractor, automobile or year of college, for when beans hit the combination of good yield and good price at the same time, they could be highly remunerative. As we have seen, however, there were many ways they could and did fall short of that, to the point of not even recovering growing costs. They were variable, a gamble, and as such best suited to being a supplemental, rather than primary, source of farm income. Back when bean fields covered more of the valleys and hilltops of the region, that's mostly what they were.

© 1989, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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