Color in the Wheat

The nation wasn’t known for its amber waves of grain when the Ellicott brothers first started their mill in 1772.

When the Quaker brothers arrived in the Hollow, there were few farmers scattered around the wilderness. And if they were farming, most landowners raised tobacco, since it was so profitable.
But tobacco, the Ellicotts knew, depleted the dirt. Theytried to convince the local farmers to plant wheat instead, andto use fertilizers to help enrich their soil. The brothers imported blocks of gypsum from Novia Scotia, ground up the calcium-rich mineral, and sold it to farmers. The Ellicotts advised the farmers to mix the chalky substance with manure to augment theirdirt. For their troubles, the farmers called the Quaker brothers “dreamers and half-hearted fools.”

The farmers called them names only until the plan began to work. The Ellicotts demonstrated the power of wheat on their own farms first, and paid fair prices to anyone who brought their grain to mill. Benjamin Banneker, a frequent curious visitor to their mechanized mills, converted some of his Oella tobacco farmland to wheatfields.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, who lived a few miles from Ellicott City on his plantation Doughoregan, made the switch from cultivating tobacco to planting wheat. Tenant farmers began arriving, hearing news of successful harvests. More farmers followed suit, and soon the Ellicotts were milling thousands of pounds of grain that bakers dumped by the pound-full into bread and cakes.

Poet Hamlin Garland wrote short stories and essays, as well as poems, mostly about the bread box of America as it was going through settlement, and won a Pulitzer in 1922 for his biography, A Daughter of the Middle Border. In this poem, he describes the beauty of wheat fields he remembered from his childhood.

The Ellicott City wheat fields weren’t as flat, and certainly not as large as the ones Garland describes, but that wheat was well-fertilized.

Color in the Wheat
by Hamlin Garland

Like liquid gold the wheat field lies,
A marvel of yellow and green,
That ripples and runs, that floats and flies,
With the subtle shadows, the change, the sheen
That play in the golden hair of a girl,—
A ripple of amber—a flare
Of light sweeping after—a curl
In the hollows like swirling feet
Of fairy waltzes, the colors run
To the western sun,
Through the deeps of the ripening wheat.

An excerpt from “Color in the Wheat,” published in Prairie Songs, 1893. This poem is in the public domain.

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