Why Jessie Small is the 'Soul of American Agriculture'

October 10, 2016 02:02 PM

Blood on dirt and bone over iron. Jessie Small is the soul of American agriculture.

A giant in his own time, Small is stepping down from the box after 92 years and has etched his tale into countless grain fields from the Gulf of Mexico to Montana. Simply, if there was no Jessie Small, fiction would create him.

When farming opportunity arrives, it often knocks only once. Miss the window and rest assured, the chance will be snatched away by competitors. When combine technology screamed forward as pullers became pushers, Small scooted to the blade’s edge and rode a wave of transformational change in U.S. agriculture. In 1950, he scrambled aboard a 12’ John Deere combine, never looked back, and drove into the pages of farming history.

Beyond the Timber

True character can’t be hidden, and Small is testament to the maxim. With a heat index pushing 112 degrees on a July afternoon, he is moving with the ease of a man 20 years his junior, performing surgery on a combine parked under a pecan tree to help with repairs for a harvest he won’t cut. Besides a baseball cap, jean shorts, t-shirt and tennis shoes, Small wears a permanent tan from years in the outdoors, once combining with no cab or even the simple protection of an umbrella. Yet, his skin is remarkably smooth, indicative of a freakish ability to dodge time.

Small backs away from the headers, sits down in a yellow recliner pushed between the combine and pecan tree, and wipes his brow with four fingers of his right hand, the thumb lost to a combine fan years before. With a wide grin, he reaches in his pocket and pulls out a bent 4” cigar. When the brown Roi-Tan hits his mouth, Small’s pale blue eyes jump and he winds up a gravely southern drawl.

“This ain’t about age, and there ain’t no secrets.”

Born in southeast Missouri in 1923, in a one-room log cabin between the St. Francis and Varney rivers, Small was raised with a mouthful of dirt on 160 acres of dense forest. Mosquito plagues, panther screams, and no electricity were daily fare. A single wood stove provided warmth and a wick dipped in kerosene offered a dim, black glow. Daylight for work; darkness for sleep.

“I didn’t even know what a radio was,” Small says. “We didn’t have a vehicle and when somebody got an ax in the foot, the doctor would come by horse and buggy.”

It was a primal environment, anchored by the 10’-diameter trunks of majestic bald cypress trees rising 120’ in the air, almost limbless, to punch holes in the sky. Small walked a six-mile trip to school each day until the fifth grade and worked alongside five brothers and one sister. He loved the insular world contained in the cypress canopy, but couldn’t shake inborn curiosity and read insatiably, a near physical craving to consume whatever literature he could find.

“I read anything I could put my hands on,” he remembers. “Storybook, dictionary, or Bible. If it had words inside, I was desperate to read it and learn.”

His father initially worked timber, intent on clearing the homestead acreage to later farm. A single 12’ cypress cut required an eight-wheel wagon and four stout mules to move. The five brothers hauled the logs to the banks of the St. Francis, lashed them into 10-piece rafts, and roped the sections together in a massive chain. Small rode on the pilot raft, armed with a long pole to push off the bank on windy bends during the three day journey downriver to a saw mill.

Gradually, 10 acres at a time, the family cleared enough land to scratch out a few rows and farmed cotton. Small picked white fiber and cut timber until he could no longer fight the urge to see beyond the cypress woods.

“I was born with a non-stop desire to learn something new, some kind of incurable urge toward curiosity. It was almost like a burden, but it sure helped me later in life,” he says.

JESSIE_1At 16, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and built trails for a dollar a day. Within several months, he saved enough money to buy a $75 Model B Roadster with a rumble seat. Fortune forever around the corner, young Small fired down the open road and drove to New Orleans, working small jobs and soaking up a slick world far from his cloistered cypress bottom.

“At 17, I met and married my wife, Mary," he says. "At 18, I was drafted and sent to Pearl Harbor just after the attack in 1941. I reckon life had sped up.”

When World War ll ended, Small returned to the Missouri farm, now entirely cleared of timber, and farmed cotton and soybeans. In 1950, with a pod-heavy soybean crop sitting in his fields, Small looked at his two-row puller combine and made a bold choice for a 27-year-old: $3,500 for a 12’ self-propelled John Deere combine. The age of puller combines was over. He was paying a steep price, but pushers were dramatically altering agriculture and Small was going to be part of the change.

Rolling With the Wheaties

West of Missouri, from Texas to Canada, a sea of wheat waited and Small smelled opportunity when he heard $2,000 could be made cutting grain in a single season. He rented his combine to a brother cutting in Oklahoma, and then purchased a second machine. In 1951, he went west with his combines and Small’s Harvesting company was born. Two more combines doubled the fleet in 1952, and Small transformed a school bus into a living quarters and kitchen.

“This was a real chance for farmers and all you had to do was work hard," he says. "The new combines didn’t just bring new technology. They brought opportunity if you moved fast."

Small’s family outfit grew larger, a caravan of combines and grain trucks moving north from Texas each year. With sideboards pulled off of flatbeds and combines hoisted aboard with the 12’ headers stuck over the cab, they headed for endless wheat fields at a crawling 25 mph. At night, the crew often crawled up the grain trucks and slept atop the wheat piles. It was a buccaneering life that captured a unique moment in agricultural history, the start of the wheatie combining wave.

“Rolling north with the wheaties was my life," Small recalls. "Everyone called us wheaties and I was proud of the name. So often, farmers didn’t own combines, so it’s difficult to describe the wave of wheaties that cleared the fields. We were a combining army.”

JESSIE_SMILE_1Small’s Harvesting continued to grow in size and reputation as more family joined the operation. Four combines became nine, then 15, and later 20, all running in the fields together. During the 1980s, across the entire family outfit, 30 Small combines were churning over grain ground. They cut for the same farming operations for 30 and 40 years. Each May, like clockwork, the caravan swung down out of the Missouri Bootheel and cut across Arkansas for Texas.

“People in small towns would gather and wave from the roadside,” he remembers. “They grew up watching us come through and expected us each season.”

By September, the convoy would return from Montana and head for the Mississippi Delta for cutting until December. Drive south from Sikeston, Mo., to south Mississippi, or cross the Mississippi River and drive back up the Arkansas side, and there is barely a field along the highways that hasn’t been cut at some point in time by Small’s Harvesting.

“We were the best of the best and that’s no joke," Small says. "Farmers called us from all over the country because we loved what we did and they knew it.”

As his reputation spread and farmers sought his services, Time approached Small in 1978 and he was slated for the Sept. 4 cover - until he was bumped to the second page by the election of Pope John Paul l.

“The old pope died or something and they stuck me inside, but that ain’t bad,” he laughs.

Like Father, Like Son

Small’s son, Joe, 65, is a mirror of his father and has no plans to slow down. He says the lifestyle was unique to the period, comparing the family combining days to a traveling band on the road.

“Sure it was a job, but it was also about family and we were so close-knit. It was a tremendously great way for a child to grow up,” he says. “We were the biggest outfit of the day, but didn’t care. We were always obsessed with seeing what was over the next hill. It’s inborn and pushes you to find out what’s on the other side.”

Blessed with the grinding genes of his father, Joe intends to work in some facet of agriculture into his nineties and there’s no reason to doubt him.

“I’ll be doing this as long as the Lord lets me," he says. "Despite words, most people don’t really like the outdoors. Me and my daddy? We love it.”

Sleeping in the field, cutting all night and watching the sun come up, or building fires under combines to melt ice, the Smalls embraced it all and thrived through 65 years of continuous operation. Even at 92, if it weren’t for Jessie’s dimming eyesight, he’d still be cutting in the box. And how much acreage has he rolled across? He refuses to speculate, but often eclipsed 50,000 acres in a single season. Extrapolated over the decades, the numbers reach phenomenal levels, particularly considering the capacity of equipment during his initial years of operation.

When Jessie turned 75, most of the old guard was dwindling. Fifteen years later, at 90, he was the last of the old boys, yet still going strong. No health secrets and no medicine. When cutting season ended, Jessie headed for Florida for five straight months of bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee; six days a week, standing up in the boat.

“Of course I stood up to fish because I had to hit the back of every hole,” he says. “Anyhow, I got plenty of sitting time in a combine for the other half of the year.”

Well into his eighties, Jessie stayed in the box over 15 hours a day, chewing his cigar and rolling over one more slope.

“I worked on an ocean," he says. "I’m talking about driving onto a hill and staring across five straight miles of wheat. Very few people know the awe of driving through a gate and cutting 10,000 acres of wheat with no roads.”

Keith Rapp grows wheat in western Nebraska and has rich memories of the Small’s barnstorming operation.

“They took extra special care and worked first for me and not themselves,” he says.

Rapp says Jessie’s performance and personality were outstanding.

“He was a phenomenal worker and there were days he made the young guys look terrible," Rapp says. "But along with his work ethic, he had such a rich sense of humor. Jessie has true character and I wish I could see him every year.”

As a classic wheatie from 1958 to 1984, Arnie Johnson combined each season from Texas to the Canadian border. After returning full-time to his own Chappell, Neb., farm, Johnson hired Small’s Harvesting to cut his crops for over 20 years.

“They were an excellent outfit and fine people,” he says. “It’s just amazing because across the entire farming country, in the middle of nowhere, there are plenty of people that know and love Jessie and Joe Small.”

The Frozen Man

From a log cabin to the pages of Time, Joe says his father’s journey is a roadmap for young producers. “We were on the front end of something brand new. My daddy rode a technology wave to success and there are more of those waves coming. If a young farmer keeps his eyes open and gets in early, he can get hold of opportunity.”

At 92, Jessie is a frozen man from another age. From 1951 to 2015, he was a king in the box, never missing a single custom combining season. Jessie raises his mangled cigar stub and points toward the combine cab, nodding his head in affirmation.

“I’d do it all again,” heh says.

He slowly places the unlit cigar back into the corner of his mouth and smiles as his eyes flash to fields gone by.

“And I really wish I could do it all again.”

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Spell Check

Mitchell Bly
Holyoke, CO
12/4/2016 02:03 PM

  I worked for Scott Small who was Gale's son in the 88/89 season, we worked from Tunica Ms. out to Holyoke Colorado where I live now and then down to El Campo Tx. and you couldn't ask for better people to be associated with and did get the chance to meet Joe, Byron and Susie.

Scott fisher
Searcy , AR
10/12/2017 07:17 PM

  I worked for Jessie Small in 1976. Jessie and Joe were great to work for and with. Jessie was always great to be around. They had a great bunch working for them at that time also. Paul young , Mike Mcelwrath, Robert Hopper, and others. I laugh every time I think of the time when I loaded up Jessie's cigar with 3 cigarette loads and he kept letting it go out . Scott Small followed him in the John Deere place to keep it lit for him. When it finally blew the end of cigar off he chased Scott all over the place because he was laughing so hard and didn't believe it was me for several weeks.

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