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An Honest Day's Work

by Leslie McManus


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When I look at 100-year-old photos of threshing crews I am almost ashamed to call what I do “work.” My most brutal day in the office (Election Day, 1984) holds that title simply on the merit of continuous hours on the job (17). But it wasn’t like I was firing an engine or pitching grain or hauling bundles. One hundred years ago, the concept of work was altogether different.

“Allow me to say that the most dreadful days of my life have been spent in connection with threshing machinery,” wrote a crew member in an account published in the Threshermen’s Review in 1898. “I have slept beneath the canopy of heaven with a Randolph header for a couch and have arose at three o’clock in the morning, tore out the side of a sod house for kindling, walked three miles and started a fire in the dearest engine this side of the Mississippi. The boys would bring me my breakfast of soda biscuit and sow belly. I have walked majestic and solemn at midnight and drank water that would make an engine foam in 15 minutes. I have burned tons upon tons of Leavenworth coal and tore loose enough cinders to pave the state of Kansas and have shouted, ‘Come on boys, help us tighten the belt,’ until I have about lost faith in mankind and fell in love with the hired girl because she had on a clean apron …”

Threshing scenes are captured in a surprising number of photos. The equipment’s immense cost made it worthy of a photo preserving it for posterity. Crew members clearly wanted in on the action, posing proudly alongside engines and separators. Look close at the old photos; you won’t need a magnifying glass to see what those men knew of work and toil and respect.

In this issue we revisit the tradition of the threshing ring and drop in on an exhibit showcasing steam power on the farm. Quite likely it was an antique tractor or a gas engine or a century old steam engine that brought you to this hobby in the first place. But with this issue, take a step back from the collectibles and consider the people for whom work was not so much a vocation as a matter of survival. It was a different time and a different world. But the lessons learned endure. FC