The Fanning Mill
A fanning mill turned threshed grain into clean grain
Many early fanning mills, like this Clipper, sold by Gurney Seed and Nursery Co., had such furniture-like details as pinstriping or stenciling.
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.
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