The Fanning Mill

A fanning mill turned threshed grain into clean grain

FC_V5_I2_Sep_2002_11-1.jpg

Many early fanning mills, like this Clipper, sold by Gurney Seed and Nursery Co., had such furniture-like details as pinstriping or stenciling.

Content Tools

Let us start this story with another story, a true story that my dad liked to tell. Spring was coming one year back in the 1920s and oats in the overhead bin needed cleaning so they could be used for seed.

Before breakfast one morning, Granddad went out to 'check' the bin. Arriving in the kitchen for his bacon and eggs, he remarked loudly enough to be heard by his sons, Ed (my dad) and Charles, that he must have lost his $20 gold piece in the oats bin. Granddad then finished his breakfast and headed off to his real estate office.

Buoyed by the prospect of finding real money, the boys spent most of the day hand-cranking oats through a small Clipper fanning mill, constantly on watch for the coin, which never appeared. Granddad came home that night and remarked to Grandma at the dinner table that he'd 'found' his coin, in his desk drawer at work.

In earliest times, grain was harvested, stalks and all, and brought in from the fields to be threshed, either by animals such as horses systematically trodding on it, or by sledges dragged over it. Cleaning the threshed grain then was accomplished with winnowing pans: the grain and chaff were placed in a pan and tossed into the air. When all went well, the wind blew the chaff away and the clean grain fell back into the pan. This was a fairly slow, labor-intensive system though.

Early threshing machines just stripped grain and chaff from the straw, leaving a still-unfinished product that needed further cleaning before it could be used for making bread.

Then about 1880, along came fanning mills. They were simple affairs that cleaned coarse grains (mostly wheat, oats and barley) of such weed seeds as creeping jenny and bindweed. Several such mills, representing early, middle and late styles, are in the collection at Little Village Farm, near Trent, S.D. They have come over the years from friends, auctions and demolition sites, and collectively they show that the later fanning mills were not necessarily as well made as the earlier ones.

One of the oldest brands in the collection is Owens, made before 1900 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It employed a single top screen that could be changed, a fan that blew away the lighter 'trash' and a rather unusual slatted canvas positioned above an inclined screen through which the weed seeds would pass, leaving behind the clean grain. The wooden slats were attached at regular intervals along the canvas and acted as brakes for the plant materials, giving the weed seeds a chance to fall through the screen while the bigger grain moved on to the bottom, where it was scooped into bags or onto a wagon.

Of the two Owens fanning mills at Little Village Farm, one belongs to a neighbor, Reginald Crisp, whose family came to the area 100 years ago. They bought the mill new and always allowed neighbors to use it to clean their oats. The second Owens was bought for a couple of bucks at an auction and restored using the Crisp mill as a pattern.

As fanning mills advanced, they acquired several layers of screens, which produced cleaner grain. Adjustable wind boards were installed after the fan to direct the air blast up or down and outside the fan to change the amount of air moved. Controls in the hopper were introduced to better regulate the flow of grain onto the screens, and baggers and wagon elevators also appeared, eliminating to some degree the dusty work of shoveling. Like the first mills introduced, these also were hand powered, because most farms did not have the luxury of electricity until the middle 1940s.

When electricity did come to rural America, fanning mills got motors, mostly 1/4- or 1/3-hp machines, which kept the speed constant, allowing for better adjustment of the mill and a better cleaning job in the end. They also eliminated much of the labor-intensive aspect of cleaning grain.

Among this later group of electrified mills is the One Minute, made by One Minute Manufacturing Co. in Newton, Iowa, which also made wooden washing machines. The One Minute mill at Little Village Farm came out of a South Dakota barn that was about to be demolished. Seeking directions on how to restore it, we contacted the Newton Chamber of Commerce, where a woman on the staff put us in contact with her father, who had worked most of his life at the One Minute factory.

This mill employs three sieves or screens in the first section, and measures about 2-feet wide by 5-feet tall, which is about a foot taller than most on-farm fanning mills. Some people kept grain in overhead bins, for which such a mill might have been more functional. Other later-model mills included the electric-powered Clipper grain and seed cleaner, made by A.T. Farrell & Co., Saginaw, Mich. Naturally, in time, many of the earlier mills were adapted to motorized use as well.

Early fanning mills were usually made of furniture-quality hardwood and nicely finished with joints similar to those used in furniture. They often had rounded corners and pinstriping or stenciling too. Twin City Manufacturing, out of Minneapolis and Winnipeg, Canada, made mills of both high and low quality. The company's Competition model was cheaply constructed out of pine; the New No. 1, constructed by Twin City for Deere & Company, had an all-oak frame, mortised joints, a threaded feed adjustment and an adjustable damper on the fan. Examples of both the Competition and the New No. 1 are in the Little Village Farm collection; both came off the auction block.

The same contrast can be seen in the popular Clipper mills, depending on whether they were made early or late in the company's history. Most every farm had a Clipper. The older Clippers sold by Gurney show rounded corners and touches of pinstriping for decoration; the large, older Clipper here - it measures 7 by 7 by 8 feet - came out of a Blue Earth, Minn., elevator and it features furniture-quality construction materials and techniques. It was adapted for use with a 7 1/2-hp electric motor. Later Clippers, which came equipped with electric motors, usually were more crudely and cheaply fashioned of square-cut soft woods.

A Canadian-made, double-fan mill at Little Village Farm called the Viking was manufactured by Hart-Emerson Co., Ltd., out of Winnipeg. A friend, Ken Frank, of Rimbey, Alberta, drove it down here to add to the collection. The Viking is set up for hand power but also has an 'add-on' modification for either electric or gas operation. We run this one on a 3/4-hp 'Iron Horse' gas engine, which Ken brought along too.

The Viking mill employed the usual screens for initial cleaning, but finish cleaning was handled by an unusual set of rotary screens of different mesh sizes. These screens were set on a slight incline and material would tumble down them to the collector pan as a consequence of a rocking motion. Then, the clean seeds would fall into a small-cup elevator for bagging. This mill has been indoors all its life and is of fine, furniture-quality construction.

In time, seed cleaning was taken over by local elevators, and on-farm fanning mills like those described in this story became obsolete. Some were relegated to barn storage, but most were left outdoors to rot away. FC

Jim Lacey and his wife, Joan, operate Little Village Farm near Trent, S.D. The farm is open by chance or appointment for a small admission fee from April through October. Contact the Laceys at 47582 240th St., Dell Rapids, SD 57022, (605) 428-5979.