Kansans celebrated in new documentary about Dust Bowl

11/07/2012 4:23 PM

11/08/2012 8:08 AM

For most, the Dust Bowl years conjure up images of dust, buried dreams, blackened clouds and the people who blew away with the wind.

But a new documentary called “Harvesting the High Plains” celebrates the people who stayed, specifically the story of two men: Ray Garvey of Wichita and John Kriss of Colby, and the empire the two built.

The documentary was inspired by Kansas historian Craig Miner’s book of the same name. Miner, Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History and a past chairman of the department of history at Wichita State University, died in 2010. Before his death, Miner contacted Kriss’ grandson, Jay Kriss, a photographer and producer, about doing a film.

“We talked. He thought it would make a great documentary,” said Jay Kriss. “I had reservations. I knew the book. I knew Craig’s work. I knew the story. But Craig said, ‘Did you know Ray Garvey kept all the letters, some 10,000 pages plus of the two men’s conversation over a period of 15 to 16 years?’ ”

In the days before cellphones or for that matter daily use of landline phones, Garvey and Kriss would write each other. Three hundred miles separated them as they came to depend on each other to survive droughts and grasshopper plagues and in building their vast acreages in western Kansas and eastern Colorado into empires.

In the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of Kansas History magazine, Miner wrote of Garvey:

“The average farm operator did not own one hundred thousand acres in two states; coordinate farming with several other businesses (a string of gasoline stations proximately); study the land and grain markets on a large scale; and build two hundred thousand bushels of elevator storage capacity. Garvey did all that while growing wheat between 1918, when as an attorney in Colby, Kansas, he started investing in land, and his death in an auto accident in 1959, by which time he was one of Wichita’s most active millionaires.”

Kriss was one of Garvey’s farm managers.

In the beginning, Garvey paid Kriss a salary of between $100 and $200 a month, which, when he started in 1933, included some off-season work with Service Oil and a 10 percent share of the farm profits.

It was not much of a living during the Depression years. But by 1945, according to Miner’s article, Kriss was earning nearly $100,000 a year and, after a million-bushel wheat crop in 1947, soon had a 25 percent profit share in his ventures with Garvey. By the 1990s, the Kriss family of Thomas County was farming 15,000 acres of their own land. John Kriss died in 1994.

The Garvey-Kriss partnership included some innovative farming at a time when most farm families were struggling to keep their topsoil from blowing away. They introduced custom combining and the large-scale practice of summer fallow farming, keeping some land out of production during a regular growing season.

“We didn’t attempt to take a ‘Woe is me, here we are’ approach,” Jay Kriss said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Our attempt is to look at the pioneers of an agricultural revolution. It is about the ones who stayed — who believed wheat is a form of grass and that this is grassland and wheat can be grown here. They took the approach that if farming is to be a business, they had to learn to partner with the land.”

Kriss partnered with Sydney Duvall in producing the film and provided the screenwriting. It took three years to complete the documentary.

It is narrated by Mike Rowe, host of the television show “Dirty Jobs.”

The documentary is being premiered in Wichita on KPTS. A week later, a four-hour documentary series “The Dust Bowl” by Ken Burns is scheduled to be shown on PBS channels nationally.

“At the time, we didn’t know Ken was doing a film on the Dust Bowl,” Kriss said. “But we ran into his people when we were in Topeka researching ours. The only real similarity between Ken’s and ours is they happen during the Dust Bowl. Ken has a different story. We weren’t looking for people who picked up and left.”

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