Farmers are harvesting pinto beans in this early 1930s photograph taken east of Flagstaff. The dried plants are being unloaded from the horse-drawn wagon at right and fed into the Case threshing machine to separate the stalks from the beans.
You can see the chaff spewing out of the belt-driven thresher onto a pile behind the flat-bed truck. Men are sacking and loading the separated beans onto the truck.
The dirty and tiresome work was the last stage in harvesting one of the largest cash crops grown in Coconino County in the 1930s. The pinto bean harvest produced as many as 30,000 bags of beans in a good season.
By 1939, bean crops were being grown on nearly 5,400 acres east and north of Flagstaff, with a total cash value at market each year of $100,000.
Local farmers, especially in the Black Bill Park and Doney Park areas, formed a co-op and sold their crops from a warehouse on East Santa Fe Avenue. The two-story warehouse building had been moved stone by stone from Clemenceau, a mining town near Cottonwood, after the smelter shut down there.
The co-op bought a state-of-the-art bean-cleaning machine and set it up in the warehouse to prepare the crop for market. The new machine allowed the co-op to assure buyers that Flagstaff’s pinto beans were free of gravel and rocks, a common hazard of the harvesting process with all bean products.
Still, production was risky. Flagstaff farmers had to contend with the shifting conditions of high altitude weather, making each year’s crop a gamble with the elements.
Either the soil was too dry in the spring and summer, or it was eroded by sudden thunderstorms that could wash away seeds or plants in a single afternoon.
When the harvest was successful, however, Flagstaff produced some of the best beans in the West.
In the mid-1930s, the governor of Arizona challenged the governor of Idaho to a “best beans in the West showdown.” Bags of Coconino County pintos were exchanged for some from Idaho. After the judging, Idaho conceded a slight edge to Arizona.
High altitude pinto bean crops no longer are grown in quantity in Coconino County. As with many agricultural areas, the only crop growing now is new housing developments.
Pinto beans still are a big crop in the Four Corners area near Cortez, Colorado, and are sold as gourmet items in many stores.
Farm machines like the ones in this photograph can be seen at the Arizona Historical Society, Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff.
Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Pioneer Museum; research by Joan Brundige-Baker. ©Arizona Capitol Times.