Only a few days before the 63rd Montana Seed Show and a nearly palpable excitement shimmers in the Harlem air. It’s contagious. As I make my rounds in town, to the post office to pick up my mail, then to city hall to pay my water bill and on around the corner to Albertson’s for buttermilk because I have a yen for biscuits in the morning and across the street to the Senior Center to say hello to Katie and whoever is hanging around, I hear, over and over, “See you at the Seed Show!”
My Uncle Jim was one of the founders of the Seed Show. He was the family member who encouraged my dad to transplant us from southern Indiana, from a small farm near the Ohio River to a much larger farm on the much smaller Milk River. I was in seventh grade when I went to the Civic Center with my dad for my first Seed Show.
The Civic Center, an imposing two-story building complete with a basement, occupied the block where the bank now sits. It housed the city office, the police station and jail, the telephone office, the library and a gymnasium with a balcony above and a stage to one side. This venerable building was the heart of our community. The school, city government, and business, professional and civic groups used the Civic Center. Our Harlem Wildcats played basketball there. We high school students strung the gym with crepe paper streamers for the school carnival. Every year old-time fiddlers from all around took to the stage, tapped their feet and plied their bows to ancient melodies. And until the building burned to the ground in January 1968, it was the home of the Montana Seed Show.
I close my eyes and memory takes over. I walk through the doors of the auditorium. Rows of planks across sawhorses. Trays of seed potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, oats, and barley. Sheaves of baled hay or gently tied bunches of loose hay, and trays of stinky (to my nose) silage. Colorful ribbons designate rank of achievement. In my mind, I walk beside Dad, up and down each row and inspect every agricultural offering. None hold the least interest to me. I poke at mounds of sheep’s wool with their distinctive odor and feel of lanolin. I cast a cursory glance at the commercial displays ringing the perimeter of the gym. I linger over the pie display. I imagine the anticipation as the few chosen women assemble ingredients for the bake-off under the watchful eyes of the judges.
Soon Dad is deep in conversation with other valley farmers or perhaps with one of the town merchants. I slip away to find school mates, shed my heavy winter coat and head scarf and toss them in a pile on the bleachers. Arm-in-arm, we girls walk ’round and ’round the gym. I imagine that a certain boy might look at me with a special twinkle in his eye because I certainly am looking at him. I would be mortified if that boy spoke to me. That wasn’t done. How times have changed.
Most of the farmers and ranchers wore heavy, plaid wool coats and hats with ear flaps. My dad’s coat was red and black. Town men wore dressier coats, longer and most often of a solid color. All the men sported black rubber buckled galoshes, an item of dress necessary for both farmyard and Harlem’s dirt streets. Women wore either cotton house dresses or rayon “Sunday” dresses with hats and gloves and handbag. If she were a farm wife (an excruciatingly apt term), a woman might wear humiliating black galoshes. Town women wore clear plastic overshoes that fastened with a snap on a flap, designed to fit over high heels. I may have been only 12, but I noticed the difference.
Though there is no sugar beet industry in our area and few potato growers, the Seed Show still stresses the value of “good seed, good fellowship and good neighbors” (page 524, “Thunderstorms and Tumbleweeds”). Today’s Seed Show, now located at Harlem High School, has changed vastly. Tables have replaced planks over sawhorses. A canvas covering protects the finish of the gym floor. In addition to the traditional baked goods, the pies and breads, this year the committee has added cupcakes. An entire area is devoted to needlework and quilts. The school’s old gym houses an art gallery with an auction Friday night. Out in the Industrial Arts building one can ooh and ah over restored tractors and cars of yesteryear. Wool displays now include demonstrations of carding and spinning. Add woodworking, the health fair, the educational and commercial exhibits, and one of my favorites, the chili cook-off.
Today, men are not excluded from baking or women from woodworking. Today, you cannot distinguish farmer from townsperson by dress. The black overshoes disappeared long ago. One thing I must mention is the homemade pies served in the cafeteria. In my well-fed opinion, Harlem ought to be designated the pie capital of the world. See you at the Seed Show.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)