Digging Treasures at the East Linn Museum: In consideration of the lowly bean

By Roberta McKern
For The New Era/Lebanon Local

While wandering through aged relics at the East Linn Museum, some attention-attracting items may set off thought-trains in diverse directions.

For example, a large brown ceramic bean pot sits atop the table in the museum’s kitchen display.

Long ago its lid parted company with the pot, which looks big enough to hold about a gallon of baking beans. According to a label, it once belonged to “Aunt Maggie Green” and was purchased at a 1940 auction.

In conjunction with a nearby display of washing gear that includes early washers as well as tubs and scrub boards, the bean pot may remind us of the traditional pot on the back of a cast-iron stove, like the failsafe every wash day for our elders. A custom from generation to generation, the pot called for two strips of bacon, no more and no less.

And what kind of beans were they? Most likely what we call navy beans, small white pea beans. This brings to mind the half-remembered lines of a song: “I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines / I feed my horse on navy beans.”

Well, some military outfits seemed to have subsisted on beans, so how about some legume history? They’ve been around long enough to be stuck in the vernacular with such phrases as “He’s not worth a hill of beans,” suggesting they’re a cheap commodity. We can also be “bean-brained,” or simple-minded and ignorant.

But is it all that bad? Let’s “spill the beans.” The ones we usually use, at least, are all American, one of those garden gifts from the early agriculturalists in South and Meso-America. We say “lima beans” with a long “i” and don’t think of Lima, Peru. In this country, beans traveled east and north from Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico, into the southeast and up the northern seaboard. They also spread along the Mississippi drainage system and through the Midwest, likely following trade routes.

For some Indian tribes, like the Cherokee and Creek in the southeast and the Iroquois up north, they were part of a sister act of beans, corn and squash. And in fact, they’re called the “three sisters” by the tribes that grow them. They lent themselves to a healthy, nutritious diet. As we now know, beans and corn together synergize to provide amino acids – which neither would have done alone – while a little meat helps by providing essential B vitamins.

When we look at William Bradford’s history of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, however, Squanto, the friendly and helpful Indian, abetted the colony’s survival by teaching inhabitants to plant corn with a freshly caught little shad to provide fertilizer in each hill. And beans are not mentioned. This has to have been an oversight, because beans led to Boston’s nickname, “Beantown,” and the rhyme, “Massachusetts, the land of the bean and the cod / Where the Cabots speak to the Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God.”

Even among Native Americans, the bean has been overshadowed. The southeastern Indians still celebrate the Green Corn Dance, a religious festival in praise of corn. The southwestern people of some groups make beautiful jewelry replicating squash blossoms. Still, as far as is known, there’s no green bean dance, nor any bean blossom necklaces.

As far as our vicinity goes, the Indian bands here did not grow corn, beans or squash. They had plenty of local eatables upon which to rely, like camas bulbs, acorns, tar weed seeds and assorted wild berries. Introduction of the “three sisters” came with the settlers, if not with fur traders and missionaries.

Beans, such as this assortment, have played a significant role in the history of civilization, including locally. Photo courtesy of Keith Weller, USDA

In this respect, we could possibly call beans the legume that won the West. When we think of frontier fare, bacon, beans and biscuits often come to mind. There’s likely some truth to this for prospectors, loggers and cowboys, as sacks of dried beans were easily transportable. Which leads to the derogatory accusation, “You don’t know beans when the sack is open.”

Which brings us to another aspect of beans. Some of us museum volunteers certainly learned to recognize them when a sack was open, particularly Blue Lake green beans, for decades a principal crop in the East Linn area. As adolescents in the 1950s, we picked Blue Lake pole beans at various bean fields along the Calapooia and Santiam rivers.

This meant rising early in the morning and riding in a “bean bus,” usually a flatbed truck with rails, to arrive at the bean field when the 7 a.m. dew still pearled the vines. Often a mother who’d been a child of the Depression propelled us from the rear and went along to take advantage of the money-making opportunity. Pickers were generally women with children and high-school girls. The latter hoped to choose their own school clothes with their own money.

Older boys could find jobs elsewhere or in the bean fields where they worked to weigh up the picking crews’ bean-filled bags. Generally, these beans were picked into five-gallon paint buckets, and it took several to fill a white muslin bag capable of holding 50-some pounds. We pickers could work at our own speed.

Of course, the more we picked, the better money we made. It’s engraved in our memories: At two and a half cents a pound, 10 pounds equaled 25 cents; 20 pounds, 50 cents; 40 pounds, $1; 200 pounds, $5; 400 pounds, $10 and 600 pounds, $15. That was a lot of beans to pick in one day. The 600-pound level always seemed to be reached by someone in another bean field. Then, after a day of picking beans, it wasn’t unusual to go home and eat canned pork and beans

This was the time of America’s golden age, we should remember. World War II had ended and the Korean War didn’t attract too much attention. Families bought second cars so mother could drive kids to the fields while father drove a clunker to work. Unions meant better jobs and better pay. And programs were being established to allow more of us from small-town, working-class families to attend college.

With the Depression and Second World War over, people could feel more optimistic. And working in the bean and berry fields gave children an opportunity to learn the value of hard work. Also, 2.5 cents bought five Milky Way candy bars.

At one bean field, we could eat lunches in the shade of an old hop dryer, and we occasionally spied runners of hop plants in the bushes and weeds. This was a sign of transition, for many of the bean fields occupied areas once given to hops.

You might wonder how we got from one to the other. Actually, many people in this area had picked hops. In the 1880s, two Templetons, Samuel and Joseph, were among the first to grow them between Crawfordsville and Brownsville. They also invited Indians from the Warm Springs Reservation to help harvest them. These Indians enlivened the scene with horses to race and ponies to trade. The women and children seem to have been the ones picking.

At the same time, locals also picked hops. Going to these fields and camping out for harvest season was a godsend for many during the Depression. There were some similarities to bean-picking: Sacks were weighed, then workers received tickets with that weight and cashed them in at the end of the harvest.

The museum does have a tall, funnel-shaped hop basket. The five-gallon paint cans bean pickers used could in contrast provide a seat. Sometimes, down among the bean rows, a mother’s irate tones could be heard yelling “Ernie-e-e, you get off that bucket and go to work” at a reluctant child.

Hops may be making a comeback. They were once doomed by a blight and declining market, plus the costs of production. Blue Lake pole beans have, we heard some time ago, been replaced by Blue Lake bush beans and mechanical pickers. In the meantime, the lowly little pea bean has held steady in the bean pot. Most are grown elsewhere. They might need a less humid area in which to develop the pods’ dried seeds.

An old cookbook remarks that dried beans are good for people who spend time outdoors, which reminds us of a favorite bean rhyme: “Beans, beans, that musical fruit / the more you eat, the more you toot / The more you toot, the better you feel / so let’s have beans for every meal.”

(All things considered, maybe not every meal.) Still, whether we eat red, black, kidney, navy, lima or pinto beans, we don’t need to slight that all-American legume, and we can certainly give thanks to the Native American agriculturists who developed the three sisters.

When it comes to our own neck of the woods, while we fix ham and beans – the latter now coming cooked from a can, leaving the bean pot as decor – we might reflect on how things were when hops grew at Pleasant Valley and were succeeded by bean fields as a major crop. Maybe we can enjoy our bean soup and wander outside to feed the wild birds, sometimes quail and turkeys.

We apologize for getting James William Field’s name wrong in the last article, especially as we are very appreciative of the World War I bugle donated as the one he carried in Europe during that conflict.

The museum opens again in February.