As the plowshare peeled back the soil, I fumbled in the syrup pail at my belt for seed potatoes, grasped a handful, some newly cut and slippery wet, and stepped reluctantly into the fresh furrow. The rolling soil stopped moving just before I plunged pieces of potato wrist-deep into the cool earth at the base of the furrow. Roots and stones chafed uncomfortably against the backs of my fingers. I didn’t want to be doing this. I so wanted to play baseball with my friends instead. I felt my mother eyeing me, probably to assure that I wouldn’t bolt.
Dutifully, I stepped, plunged, stepped, plunged, planting each potato a foot farther down the furrow from its fellow, my arm a steady piston. The maw of black soil gobbled up the white pieces until I reached the edge of my planting zone, which was marked with a lath pounded in the ground.
While the gray Fordson tractor paused at the far end of the furrow, snatching its gleaming plowshare out of the dark earth so it bounced like a winded beast heaving breath, I glanced around and examined the long garden. It was dotted with members of my family, 30 feet apart along the ruler-straight furrows, eyes narrowed in concentration, hands hidden inside pails, poised to pounce, for if there was anything we knew how to do well as a family, it was to work.
The soil was burnished bright by the plowshare, indentations in the furrow marked newly planted potatoes, earthworms twisted on the sloped ground, and everything seemed usual on that spring morning when I was 12. Nothing indicated that this would be a morning of mornings. I smelled the sweet musty odor of the earth, of life itself, that connected me to generations of family who had come before. I wondered if they had been as bored with planting potatoes as I was.
The roar of the Fordson brought me out of my reverie. Backing up full-tilt, one tire in the furrow, the tractor leaned drunkenlike when it passed, its fan a blur as it slapped my face with engine-warmed air. Once the tractor reached the start of the furrow out by the sidewalk, it paused as though pondering its role, dropped the plow and lurched forward once again.
Gardening on a giant scale
My brothers and I had been unceremoniously rousted before cockcrow, gulping cereal, slicing potatoes and fingers before we shuffled out into the cold spring morning. We waited interminably at our garden plots for leather-faced old Becker and his Fordson tractor. We shivered and sighed when the old machine’s engine could finally be heard.
Behind our backs, some people in our hamlet might have called us “The Potato Boys.” The Jolly Green Giant Co. had nothing on us. We planted the largest garden in town. This one contained 20,000 square feet of carrots, onions, beets, lettuce, cabbage, peas, beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, watermelons and potatoes.
Mostly potatoes. Acres of potatoes it seemed, a green carpet that stretched to the moon and required tons of summertime toil, including constant weeding and debugging – work that interrupted my singular pursuit of becoming a New York Yankee baseball player. Potatoes forever. A culinary treasure, for if ever a culture worshipped potatoes, it was my culture, the Germans-from-Russia. Potato salad, potato pancakes, potato dumplings, potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes, this spring’s planting chained to next winter’s food supply.
Unknown to me, more treasure lurked in that garden than the plants that would keep us fed. That morning I thrust a potato deep into the furrow’s yielding side, and when I pulled out my hand, I dislodged a small circle of soil. Perfectly round.
Suddenly everything in my world focused on that little circle. I held my breath, leaned down and felt its solidity as I picked it up. I rubbed dirt away with my thumb and forefinger, revealing a gift far beyond my wildest thoughts. It was a coin … an old coin.
The world grew dim around me. I could no longer hear the tractor’s roar, the commands coming from my parents or the chirps of the birds. I could not see the white clouds … not even the impossibly blue North Dakota sky.
My thoughts raced illogically: Maybe this was an ancient coin from the time of Caesar, Eric the Red, or Lewis and Clark. Surely none of them had ever been in this neck of the woods, but that didn’t matter.
I rubbed the coin clean on my shirt. A face wearing a headdress emerged, brown but detailed, gazing off into eternity. It was an Indian Head penny. I rubbed some more, and “1884” appeared.
The tractor nearly plowed me under about then. I barely scrambled out of the furrow in time. “Billy!” my mother said sharply, “Steig oof. Wake up. What’s wrong with you?”
I thrust the penny in my pocket and felt it burning there while I bent back to work. My world was forever altered. I would never think about the garden or planting potatoes in the same way again.
For the rest of that day, I planted my portion of potatoes at super speed so I could spend extra time searching the freshly turned earth for more treasure.
Every time she glanced my way, Mom’s mouth dropped open in surprise.
I didn’t find another coin that year, and my late-season reward included plenty of brotherly hassling about my haphazard planting job. Scrawny and scraggly rows in my work area gave mute testimony to a distinct lack of concentration on my part.
A newfound fascination
Never again was I bored planting potatoes. In fact, in subsequent years, I eagerly anticipated the old Fordson’s clatter as it crossed the curb and entered the garden to begin plowing.
I found at least one coin in our garden each of the next six planting seasons, including three Liberty Head nickels (1898, 1900, 1902), a Standing Liberty quarter (1903), a few more Indian Head pennies, and several others.
I knew my parents and grandparents thought of the garden as a treasure trove. Now I did, too, but I’m not sure they knew why.
Veteran writer Bill Vossler has written about the history of farm tractors and other diverse subjects for 170 magazines and 11 books. He lives with his writer wife in Minnesota.