Wednesday, April 27, 2016


by Linda Farmer Harris

In my March 27, 2014, HH&H Blog "Wind Up the Automatons" I mentioned the 200-year-old clockwork boy—"Draughtsman-Writer" by Henri Maillardet.  

An Update: I found a 240-year-old Writer Automaton created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a 50 year old Swiss watchmaker. The boy doll can write any custom text up to 40 letters long. He inks his goose feather pen from time to time and shakes his wrist to preventing ink from spilling. He follows the writing with his eyes and moves his head when he dips his pen. He is on display at the  Musée d'Art et d'Histoire of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Watch the amazing video by BBC and lesterfontayne.

Courtesy of 
He's programmable by removing and reordering the cams that control his writing. He's called the forerunner of the modern computer. It's a shame he doesn't take dictation. Wouldn't you just love to delegate some of your writing to a cute little secretary like him?

So, what does that have to do with tumbleweeds? Nothing. I thought you might enjoy a past Blog update.

You've seen tumbleweeds in the movie shoot-out scenes rolling across the dirt street between the gunslingers and probably read passages describing them in western novels. You may have sung the 1940's Sons of the Pioneers, "Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds." They're even cast in bronze.
Tumbleweed, cast bronze, artist—Bale Creek Allen
 Seeing one rolling across the highway is interesting. Seeing a few against a ranch fence is noteworthy.
Tumbleweeds in Arizona—Photo by McDonald
 Coming home to your home covered puts a different slant on their novelty.
courtesy of The Pueblo West View newspaper
umbleweeds are not always small or at least knee high, some are Volkswagen size.

Tumbleweeds along the Santa Ana River—photo by Douglas McCulloh
 I grew up in Lovington, New Mexico. High winds, sand storms, and tumbleweeds were the norm. Some creative souls turn them into decorations such as pumpkins with pinecones, and hanging lamps. Cities get in on the act, too. Albuquerque, NM, builds a giant tumbleweed snowman on Interstate 40. Not to be outdone, Chandler, AZ, erects a tumbleweed Christmas tree.

courtesy of Marilynn Andreasen's save on

Tumbleweed Lamp—courtesy of
A farm in Garden City, KS, grows the variety Salsola as a crop, advertising them as "quality tested" tumbleweeds, and shipping them as a decorative item. I wonder if they sell them to movie makers, storefront window designers, and/or Western-themed weddings. A man in Utah will send you a pack of tumbleweed seeds for $14.99.
According to history, the Prickly Russian Thistle seeds accidentally hitchhiked from Russia to South Dakota in an 1870's flaxseed shipment. One report cited 1877 as the year the seeds arrived in Bon Homme County, South Dakota. By 1900, it had reached the Pacific Coast. Once a tumbleweed, one of about eleven plant groups, matures and dries, it detaches from its root/stem and blows away in the wind. As it tumbles, it deposits seeds or spores that germinate in wet soil.

Whether you call it a Tumbleweed, Russian Thistle, or Wind Witch-another common name in the West, this skeleton of a shrub can disperse typically 250,000 seeds per plant. The seeds don't have protective coatings or stored food reserves. Each seed is a coiled, embryonic plant surrounded by a thin membrane and doesn't germinate until temperatures reach between 28 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tumbleweeds live up to their name and as weeds are destructive to native ecosystems. However, some good has come from them. Canadian farmers used tumbleweeds as hay and silage for livestock during a severe drought in the 1930's.

Do you have tumbleweeds where you live?

Linda "Lin" Farmer Harris

Lin and her husband, Jerry, live on a ranch in Chimney Rock, Colorado. She writes historical fiction for adults and children. Her novella The Lye Water Bride is included in the California Gold Rush Romance Collection (Barbour Publishing, August 1, 2016.

Turning Tidbits of History into Unforgettable Stories


  1. No tumbleweeds here in Redding, CA. At least none that I've seen...I must say that I love that lamp!

    1. Hi Debbie, thanks for dropping by. I liked the lamp, too. If I'd known they could be so valuable, I'd gone into that business as a kid. Instead, we sold horned toads and cockleburs to our cousins in Arkansas. I saw "a rustic lamp made of a tumbleweed picked straight from the Great Plains..." selling online for $3,000, complete with 5 Edison bulb sockets and "reclaimed lighting's roped cord." If that's too much, buy three smaller ones for $300.00. Wow!

  2. We don't have tumbleweeds in Northeastern OK, but on a trip to the OK panhandle, I saw my first one. You'll laugh at this, but I started squealing, "A tumbleweed! A tumbleweed!" I made my husband stop and let me get one so I could take it home. Seriously. I grew up watching westerns with my dad, so I was familiar with them but had never seen one. Those dudes are prickly. That video about the automaton was very interesting. It's hard to imagine that it stills works after so long.

    1. Hi, Vickie. I still get excited by them, too, even after years of pulling them off fences and carrying those prickly things to the burn pile. Hope you got home with yours intact. I've been fascinated by automatons and how intricate they were made "back then" since I saw my first dancing doll on a music box.

  3. I kept my tumbleweed for years. I finally tossed it when we had a crawling baby. I didn't want him to get stuck.

  4. I kept my tumbleweed for years. I finally tossed it when we had a crawling baby. I didn't want him to get stuck.