Contributing citizens

Several years ago my mother gave me a family picture that is unlike most family pictures; in fact, without the identifying information on the back, it doesn’t seem to be a family picture at all. Thank goodness for the label, which gives a ton of information, not only about the location, date, and people, but also about farming practices at the time.

“Harvest at M. C. Kortge ranch, Jap Hollow,[1] 9 miles south of The Dalles, Oregon. Photo taken August, 1938 by Carroll Mundy of St. Joseph, Missouri. Crew: Skinner, High (sic) Marsh; Sewer, J. Ray Kortge; Jigger, “Hack” Haskin; Header Tender, Bill Kortge; Straw Dumper, “Shorty” Caldwell; Machine Man, M. C. Kortge.” But that’s not all! The label also lists all of the horses: “Leaders: Daisy, Fox, Dan; Pointers: Bird, Dick, Baldy, Jerry, Kit, Ginger; Swingers: Tulip, Tom, Bell, Flax, May, Danny; Wheelers: Nuts, Lela, Bonney, Buster.”

Bingo! A relative of some sort.

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about this picture for some time, but now became “the time” when a huge fire erupted in this region, which is (as I write this) our nation’s top priority wildfire. In reading about the death of a farmer who was plowing a firebreak to protect his neighbor’s fields, I found a quote from Cynthia Kortge, a friend of the deceased. Bingo! A relative of some sort.[2]

“M. C. Kortge” was my great-grandfather, Mathias Cleveland Kortge, a beloved patriarch whose funeral was the first I ever attended. I was twelve at the time, and I still recall the spray of wheat embroidered on the lining of his coffin, and how there was standing room only in the funeral chapel on that frigid January day. “Pa” (and “Ma”) had been staying at my grandparents’ house in Portland for Christmas when a medical condition suddenly required surgery; sadly, a blood clot went to his heart and he never left the hospital.

Dying at the age of eighty-eight, having lived a productive life and leaving a large family, is probably the least tragic death one can imagine, however much we missed Pa. It was entirely different from the death of his father, which occurred at the age of fifty-two when a horse kicked him in the head. What made even this death in middle age particularly sad was that Friedrich Heinrich Körtge/Koertge left a widow (his fourth wife) who was not quite thirty-six, plus eight children under the age of twelve.[3] My great-grandfather was suddenly “the man of the house” at age eleven.

Dying at the age of eighty-eight, having lived a productive life and leaving a large family, is probably the least tragic death one can imagine…

Pa and all of his siblings were born in Edwards County, Illinois, and his father was my most recent immigrant ancestor, having arrived with his parents and siblings in December 1868 when he was twenty-four. Thankfully the gravestone of his father, Karl Körtge/Koertge, lists the town, Letzlingen in Saxony, where they came from. However, family historians who didn’t speak German believed for many years that the word appearing immediately afterwards, Entschlief, was the region of Germany where Letzlingen is located. It actually means “died,” and is followed by his death date … but one still finds genealogical records with that misinformation. Of course translating foreign words is so much easier in the digital age, but it’s a good lesson in not assuming anything when doing genealogy.

Pa’s closest age brother, Walter, moved to Oregon around 1909. He liked The Dalles so well that he convinced almost all of his siblings to join him; only two sisters died in their native Illinois. In most of my past Vita Brevis posts, I’ve enjoyed sharing discoveries about family connections to exotic places and interesting people. Pa and his family didn’t do fancy things or rub elbows with famous folks. Instead, they represent the bedrock of American society: yeoman farmers – often of immigrant stock – feeding the country and raising their children to be contributing citizens. Not infrequently, like my third cousin’s friend in the news, they are even willing to lay down their lives for a neighbor.


[1] The name of the location is explained in Lewis A. McArthur’s Oregon Geographic Names: “Japanese Hollow, Wasco County. In 1908 three Japanese, S. Nishizasi, H. Okita and M. Yasui incorporated the Columbia Land and Produce Company. They purchased a sizeable tract of land in what soon became know as Jap Hollow where they raised produce for shipment to The Dalles. In the early 1970s as the United States became more sensitive about the feelings of our minorities, the form was changed to Japanese Hollow.”

[2] I’ve deduced that she is the wife of my third cousin, Jeffrey Michael Kortge, whose existence was unknown to me until now. Ironically, I corresponded with his uncle, Walter Robert Kortge, earlier this year when we got a DNA match through … the first match through that source that I could figure out!

[3] One son from his second marriage turned eighteen a few days after his death.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

12 thoughts on “Contributing citizens

  1. What a wonderful photo … 19 horses?! But it makes sense when you think about it. Sharing the load of a long day and miles of walking/harvesting, because the ‘spreads’ out west were larger than the 80 acres my farmer ancestors worked with two horses in Michigan.
    Thanks for sharing this – and many other – fascinating stories of your family and your research.

  2. Long before the issue of migrant labor: There were also seasonal itinerant crews of men call “Threshers” who worked from farm to farm. Usually hired through an agent by a group of local farmers, they’d bring in their heavy equipment, take off the harvest in one area, then move onto another.
    The farmer’s wives were expected to provide all the meals, and thus a term “Cooking for threshers” came to mean cooking and setting out a huge amount of food, prepared for feeding a massive amount of men.

  3. Pamela,

    We already know we’ve got Athearn connections, but I didn’t know we had this connection too! It’s not one of relationship so much as one of location. I recognize the region that picture’s from. My Moultrie, Macon, and Clay County, Illinois ancestors came to the area around Pendleton, Oregon as early as 1880 because a great great uncle, William Waggoner, wanted to perform in the Pendleton Roundup, a Cowboy Rodeo. We’ve got pictures of him winning prizes. He later moved to Walla Walla County, Washington, where he made a fortune in the wheat business. His descendants still live there, with a family business. He kept in touch with his family back in Illinois,touting the wonders of the West. Shortly after the 1900 census, my g grandparents, John Alvin Waggoner and Eunice Jewett Bastion, along with their 5 children, came to Walla Walla. Virgil, one of them, was my grandfather, though he died before my birth. Eunice Jewett Bastion’s middle name, not her maiden name, was Jewett. Her grandfather Moses Jewett’s second wife was Adaline Athearn. So in that round-about way, we have not just the Athearn connection, but the Eastern OR/WA connection as well.

    1. It’s definitely a very small world, Doris! I’ve never been to the Pendleton Roundup, but I’ve definitely heard of it. How fun that you have a relative who competed in it way back when.

  4. That is an absolutely immense “hitch” of horses. I have never seen anything like it. Just having such a large trained group of horses to handle that machinery shows this is a professional crew.

    1. Alicia,

      I’ve seen several pictures of threshing teams that size, in the prairies of eastern Oregon and Washington, where the rolling hills seem to go on forever. The threshing often took place on the sides of the hills, as is somewhat apparent from this picture. So there had to be a huge “hitch” to keep the threshing machine upright, among other things. As Lynn notes, the farms were very large, compared to those in the Midwest, to say nothing of those in the East. My grandparents homesteaded in South Dakota, along with some of her family members, in 1907. Each person, or couple, had 180 acres, a quarter of a section. Only one of five couples stayed long enough to have the entire plot under the plow, and their land was much flatter than the land shown in this picture. But when it came time to thresh the wheat, it was a communal effort. Probably not 19 horses, but the threshing team went from one farm to the next. One way of visualizing this is to look at a map of the counties in the US. As you go west, they get much bigger. Therefore, the size of each person’s property gets larger too. That’s one reason why, from the beginning of the Homestead Act in 1862, single/widowed/divorced women were allowed to have their own homestead. The government just wanted that empty land filled up. One of my great aunts, who was unmarried, had her own claim, which came as a pleasant surprise to me when I found the official certificate.


    2. I’m not sure that they actually were a “professional” crew. It was composed of my great-grandfather, two of his three sons, and a guy named Hiram “Hi” Marsh born in 1907, who later worked in the timber industry. Based on census records from 1940, I strongly suspect that “Hack” and “Shorty” were Gaylord Haskins (b. 1919 and listed as a “ranch hand” on private farms) and Vaughnon W. Caldwell (b. 1920 and listed as a “pin setter”). They would have been the same age as the youngest Kortge son in the crew, Bill (b. 1920), and with given names like that are definitely candidates for some good nicknames!

  5. Recently watched an episode of “Gentle Giants” (on RFD-TV), where they had a 24 horse hitch. Had to find an old timer to figure out how to handle the reins and guide 24 horses but they did it. Just thinking about hitching and unhitching 19 to 24 horses makes me tired!!! But a wonderful photo.

  6. My grandparents owned a farm near Dixie, a small area about 10 miles from Walla Walla. My grandfather and his brother owned one of those combines, which was essentually a threshing machine with a cutter bar. By the time I was old enough to remember, they were no longer using it, but were using more modern combines, pulled by tractors, but I have several photographs taken in the 1920s which show as many horses as in this article. I remember as a 6 year old using the shute on the side of the machine as a sliding board. When harvesting wheat the shute would be filled with gunny sacks of harvested wheat.

  7. Pamela, I enjoyed your article and photo very much. I live in Edwards County, Illinois and know some descendants of your Kortge family.

    1. How fun! My mom just recently got a DNA match to a Walter Koertge whose family stayed in Illinois. I manage her results and the strand didn’t get passed on to me, but the Illinois Walter is my 4th cousin. Ironic that he shares the same name as the guy referenced in my footnote.

  8. Stunning photo! Gives new meaning to “amber waves of grain”. How lucky you are to have the details of that photo.

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