The blue bus is still going.
During wheat harvest in Lane County, the bus rumbles down dusty county roads.
In an earlier life it had been a school bus, but it was transformed long ago into a makeshift kitchen that often was filled with the sweet aroma of freshly baked oatmeal cookies.
For more than 40 years, Wilma Heath used the bus as her harvest dining room feeding her hungry crew. She drove the 1951 relic filled with steaming pot roasts and ham dinners complete with scalloped potatoes and homemade pies out to the field. The bus was gifted to the Heath family from a custom harvester and was broken down at the time.
Wilma became a farmer’s wife when she married Francis Heath on the Fourth of July in 1948. Many an anniversary was celebrated around harvest.
Back before the blue bus, Wilma drove the meals to the wheat field in a Chrysler. She would set up card tables, and the men would stop the combines and enjoy a picnic.
Over the years, the harvest tradition continued as the family swelled with eight children. The past decades brought a bigger extended family helping during harvest. From daughters-in-law to grandchildren to great-nephews, they were always ready when the call came over the radio that the blue bus was on its way.
Breakdowns were not uncommon. There were times when the old school bus would overheat. But Steve Heath had a new radiator manufactured especially for the ancient bus, and it no longer overheats. Last harvest, Steve’s wife, Mary, said the only slowdown they had was a flat tire.
Sad news came when we learned Wilma, who was 85, had died on May 15. Seven years ago, Hutchinson News reporter Amy Bickel and photographer Lindsey Bauman rode the blue bus out to the wheat field when Wilma and her team were delivering dinner. I knew her from my years as a farm wife in Lane County.
Back in the day I even had a stint at taking meals to the field, but never living up to the standard of Wilma.
Anymore, hot meals delivered to the wheat field have become a fading tradition. Many farmers are too rushed to stop their combines and would rather fill coolers and eat on the go. Plus, many wives work off the farm.
I learned it had been about two years since Wilma was able to help her family with preparing the meals.
Mary remembers the first harvest with her new mother-in-law.
“Wilma was the type of person who could fly by the seat of her pants,” Mary said. “I was a planner.”
But Mary quickly learned when working in the wheat fields that there are plenty of things out of one’s control, such as the weather and breakdowns. Whatever she planned could change because of a thunderstorm or the bus overheating.
Whatever happened, Wilma would make the best of everything.
“I could not,” Mary said.
Through the sadness of their loss, the tradition of the blue bus lives on. Mary and her sister-in-law, Trudy Heath, plan the meals. Because both women work full time, they're only able to bring out the evening meals. Plus, the menu has evolved from the more traditional meat and potatoes to dishes of lasagna and enchiladas.
Oatmeal cookies were one staple Wilma always included, and they remain on the harvest menu because they are craved by multi-generations of family members.
“The guys stipulate there must be cookies,” Mary said. “She made the best oatmeal raisin cookies.”
For the yearly harvest ritual, the battery is placed back in the bus and its interior is wiped down. Fingers are crossed that the refrigerator will kick on.
And Wilma is remembered as the blue bus arrives in the field.