Harvesting Oats the Old-Fashioned Way

The traditional way of harvesting oats was a strenuous, labor-intensive process.

oat harvest

Charles Buckner driving mules Sarah and Sally with Kalyn and Curtis Jackson on the bundle wagon, trying to get the oats stacked and in the dry before it rains.

Photo by Ron McGinnis

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Today’s healthy-sounding slogan about a breakfast cereal made out of oats would have had a different connotation 100 years ago, when harvesting oats meant hard, sweaty and itchy work. Folks back then were more likely to start their day with oatmeal than dry cereal. According to what was printed on the cylindrical box oats were packaged in, “There’s nothing better for thee, than me.” That claim could be argued by someone who still remembers the hot cereal’s bland taste and sticky texture reminiscent of wallpaper paste.

The process of harvesting oats a century ago was an equally grim prospect. Many improved versions of Cyrus McCormick’s original reaping machine were being manufactured by the turn of the 20th century. Those horse-drawn (and, later, tractor-pulled) binders were only able to cut stalks of wheat, barley, rye and oats and form them into bundles before they were tied together with twine.

It was then that the hard work began. Shockers gathered bundles by hand and jammed their stem-ends down into the stubble (cut-off stalks) to keep the bundles from toppling over in windy weather. The bundles’ head-ends were pointed upward, allowing good air circulation, which was crucial to the drying process. The shock was complete when 10 bundles were placed upright (with one or two fanned out on top as a cap to shed rain).

Gathering bundles for the thresher

A week or so later, depending on weather conditions, the grain would have dried enough to be gathered. Pitchers forked the bundles onto wagons where stackers laid them flat with stem-ends sticking out. If done correctly, none of the bundles slid off the wagon. If they did, each would have to be pitched up again, and the stacker would be harassed for failing to do his job correctly.

Some farmers built tall stacks of bundles in the field, taking care to make the stack rainproof. Grain was sometimes stored in a barn or shed to keep it dry until threshing. Several days might pass before the threshing machine was available to separate chaff (weed seed, dust, husks and straw) from the grain kernels.

Eventually the steam-powered traction engine or gasoline tractor arrived, pulling the threshing machine, water wagon and cook shack into the field to complete the harvest. It wasn’t long until another planting season started, and the growing process would begin again with the good Lord’s help.

During the 1920s, much of the hard labor in the field began to fade away as binders were replaced by combines. What had been a time-consuming, labor-intensive process of shocking grain by hand, loading wagons or making stacks in the field, and pitching bundles into the threshing machine was, for the first time, performed by one machine.

Traditional practices fading away

When members of the Fair Grove, Missouri, Historical & Preservation Society harvested oats in June 2016, it was likely the final time the group would harvest grain the old-fashioned way.

“We’re getting too old to do it anymore,” says Mike Rookstool, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Korean War and past chairman of the Fair Grove board. Mike is concerned that young people no longer learn how to work hard in the field from people who still know how to make a shock and toss bundles with a pitchfork.

Mary Terry was the only woman working on both the shocking and loading crews last summer. “I never did any of this myself until now,” she says, “but I remember seeing it done when I was a little kid.” Mary out-worked the menfolk, and she didn’t take as many water breaks either. After surveying the field from beneath the brim of her straw hat, she just grinned and grabbed another bundle of oats.

Putting vintage equipment to work

Larry Eagleburger had charge of pulling a 1940s-vintage John Deere binder with a 1963 Allis-Chalmers D-15 on loan from his brother, Lloyd. “We used a binder until Dad (Orval Eagleburger) bought one of the first tractor-pulled combines around here,” Larry says. “Then we had it made because that meant less work shocking and pitching bundles into the threshing machine.”

The 2-acre field tackled by historical society volunteers was admittedly a small undertaking compared to the fields Larry’s family once harvested. “This would have just warmed us up in the morning for the rest of the day’s work,” he says.

Several harvest re-enactors helped remove the binder’s road wheels, crank down its operating wheel and hook the PTO shaft from the tractor to the 10-foot binder Rick McKinnis inherited from his dad, Harold McKinnis.

“This machine came out with steel wheels because rubber was hard to find during the war, but Dad replaced them with rubber-tired wheels later,” Rick says. “It takes a couple of times going around the field to get everything lined out right. The canvas belts might need to be tightened or loosened some to make them run even.”

The last piece of equipment to be installed is the bundle carrier. The carrier dropped several bundles at one place when the operator (usually Rick) stomped on a pedal. That made shocking somewhat easier, because the bundles were grouped together instead of being left one at a time where they fell from the binder. Within an hour, Rick and the Eagleburger brothers had the tractor running at the right speed and the binder harvested the oats with ease.

Oats safely in the barn

After the oat shocks had cured for a week in the field, it was time to get them under cover. With the weatherman predicting rain, several historical society members grabbed their pitchforks and loaded bundles onto two mule-drawn wagons driven by Charles Buckner and Orville Jackson. A few sprinkles fell as a warning that the crew wasn’t very far ahead of a good downpour.

With the oats safely stored, members of the historical society began to make plans for threshing. That demonstration was scheduled for Fair Grove’s 39th annual Heritage Reunion in late September.

Warning from an old-timer

At 88, Bill Brown was the oldest member of Fair Grove’s shocking crew. He remembers shocking for the first time in 1940 at age 12 on his father’s farm near Sterling, Oklahoma.

“We always cut oats first,” he says. “When the straw was blown out of the thresher, it made a big pile. Wheat was thrashed next, and its straw covered up the oat straw. In winter, when the cows were turned in to eat the stack, they discovered the better-tasting oat straw in the center, and burrowed a hole into it. A cow could suffocate if the stack collapsed on it.” FC


Which Fork to Use?

Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co. offered a full line of forks, designed for the job at hand. The company shipped inventory from its warehouses to hardware stores nationwide. Shoppers could choose from six hay forks, six header forks, one baler press fork, one barley fork, two ensilage forks, 12 manure forks, four spading forks, one potato-digging fork, one potato scoop fork, one beet fork, one shaving fork, one cotton seed fork, a fork for cinders, ore or stone, one coke fork and one coal fork. Each was designed for a specific purpose.

Most farmers needed more than one fork, but on page 229 of the “Hib-Spe-Bar” catalog they could order No. 698, the “Farmer’s Fork” with the D-handle, strap ferrule and eight 15-inch, blunt-ended oval tines. Most often, instead of selecting the most appropriate fork from the tool shed, a farmer would grab whatever fork was close at hand, using it for pitching, digging, stabbing, prying, hefting or poking.

Dan R. Manning


Freelance writer Dan Manning is the son, grandson and great-grandson of Kansas hardware men. The 1925 photograph shown below (taken by his Grandpa Roy) shows the first combine – a 12-16 Case – used in Saline County, Kansas. Purchased from Manning’s Hardware in Gypsum, it marked the beginning of the end of the labor-intensive harvest of the past. Dan collaborates with photographer Ron McGinnis, whose work can be seen at www.RonMcGinnis.com.