We had just left a rather bizarre conversation with a policeman in Cashion and were headed back home when we spied the “Navina” sign.
The central Oklahoma town, if one can call it that, sets just off Seward Road, between May and Pennsylvania Avenues, basically in the middle of pastureland. The elongated rectangle of road, measuring about three-quarters of a mile at the most, is home to only a few houses.
And one shiny grain elevator.
It seemed weird to me…a grain elevator in the middle of basically nothing. I’m just enough greenhorn to wonder whether elevators are commonly dotted across random spots in Oklahoma, or whether a privately owned operation like this one is rare. And, I didn’t ask that question of Larry Stinchcomb when he agreed to visit with us for the project. Mainly, because I was trying my best not to vomit.
A foul odor of decaying grain permeated every square inch of the wind-swept air swirling around the spaces where Rachel and I stood. The putrid concentrate of ammonia-urea essence was singeing the membranes in my nose. I swear I heard them sizzling while I talked with Stinchcomb, watching he and his partner eradicate the problem, bucket by bucket. I swear I felt my eyebrows sliding down my face. I looked at Rachel; she was clad in the only breathing protection she could muster. She was gagging, trying not to show her physical reaction to what we were inhaling.
The timing for our request to speak with him couldn’t have been worse, but something akin to loyalty – either to OSU agriculture, KOSU, or the general mission of our project, influenced his reluctant, “Okay.” That was also accompanied, several times, with these qualifiers:
This isn’t a typical day.
This is probably one of the worst jobs we do.
This isn’t normal.
That’s fair, Larry. And it takes a pretty cool person to allow us to be here, much less document our interaction.
It took two men to conduct the cleaning project, and it had commenced long before we arrived. Larry was on the concrete slab where the grain trucks park. He was lifting 5-gallon buckets full of sopping, rotting grain that had been shoveled by his partner who was below ground level, face to face with the problem. Loud steel-to-conrete scrrraape, (pause) scrrrape (pause) (pause), scrraappppe, pause, slop sequences were rising to our ears. Then, another bucket was full, and Larry once again hoisted it up, his forearm muscles twitching under the weight and distribution of his load.
Evidently, some grain had fallen down into the elevator portion, it had rained, then rotted over time. I’m still not sure if this is a common occurrence or was a one-time issue.
Between the filling and dumping sequence, Larry shared a little bit of what he does, what he knew about Navina, and about how the river in Tulsa serves as a transportation system for Oklahoma grain trade.
He hesitantly mused about the former town of Navina, how it sprung up with the installation of a railroad through this area. How there used to be a high school here. And, how he really wasn’t sure about the town history. (Scrraape, pause, hoist, dump…and he’s back).
Stinchcomb is the next generation of a family farm operation. He said he chose to stay in the business, basically, because of the independence. Of getting in your tractor, doing a days’ work, and going home to your family.
What struck me about this man to whom I was speaking was the ease at which he flowed, one minute from hoisting buckets of heavy stink, to the next minute discussing grain trade and the port in Tulsa, to the next wondering about the township in which we were standing. He presented as a man comfortable in his own skin, managing an additional task (us) while he carried out his work.
Mike Rowe’s got nothing over this guy. What I mean by that is that Mike Rowe has made famous the issue of grossing himself and his audience out doing dirty jobs. He plays up the “ick.” Larry Stinchcomb subjugated the “ick” because it was something that needed to be managed, and was probably wasting energy if he took time to process how nasty that particular task was on that particular day. It didn’t matter…the work needed to be done so they could move on to other things.
Months later, I was sitting at my kitchen table. It was midnight and I was researching Navina, Oklahoma. I found cemetery records and read them with interest until I found an entry eluding to the story of a baby boy, born in September, who died on Christmas Day three months later. Misty-eyed, I moved to the Oklahoma History Center archives and began pulling any entries I could find, trying to understand what Navina had been “back in the day.”
What I found were records of casting businesses, at least three churches, and of postcards inviting people to visit the “jolly bunch of merrymakers” who resided there.
After about an hour (I admit, I became a little obsessed about Navina) I discovered a gift for Larry Stinchcomb: the articles of incorporation for a grain elevator operation entitled “Navina Elevator Company,” est. Aprill 22, 1907. I leaned back, grinned, and took a screen shot for the man. I wanted him to know we were grateful for the discussion in a unique way…
Photos by: Rachel J. Apple
Note: Here is a very short clip of our discussion and time with Larry. It was extremely windy that day, and we evidently didn’t use enough “fuzzy” on our microphone to cut the wind noise. Thanks to April Kirby for taking my terrible video files and salvaging a tiny bit for us. And, April, welcome to the team…can’t wait to see the moving pictures you create of our work together.