Making Connections

Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee links past to present

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Left: Mert Toelle drives the corn-picking wagon with the help of Mick and Mike, his team of Belgian geldings.

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"It takes teamwork," Ron Lange says with a wink as he hitches Kate and Susan, a couple of Belgian horses, to a vintage McCormick-Deering ground-driven corn binder. Within minutes, the trio has cut and tied a row of corn stalks and dropped them in the field, ready for shocking. This Hoskins, Neb., man has farmed with horse power for more than 65 years, and enjoys demonstrating his team's versatility at the threshing bee held each September in Pierce, Neb.

Pierce's Old Time Threshing Bee has it roots firmly planted in the 200th birthday of this country. When Governor J. James Exon put out the call to small towns across the state to commemorate the bicentennial, folks from Pierce got really steamed up, and fired the boiler for a celebration that is ongoing. "The Threshing Bee wasn't official until 1977, but it came out of the bicentennial activities," explains Marilyn Meier. "In 1976, the town had a machinery parade and museum (Pierce Historical Society) dedication, and that got things moving."

The Pierce event is all about family fun and education. "Our goal is to bring forward the past to better see the future," says Sophie Eldhart, 28-year show veteran and threshing bee matriarch. The show, which began principally as a steam threshing bee on local enthusiast Jute Hoffman's farm, now offers something for just about everyone's old-time interests. "Our program usually includes horse, steam, petroleum and human-powered demonstrations," says board member Ellwood Meier.

The 2004 event, held Sept. 18-19, featured Cockshutt and Case equipment, antique vehicle parades, horse demonstrations, power threshing and shelling, yarn spinning, rug weaving, quilting and corn shuck doll making, to name but a few of the old-time delights.

Burning a little hay

At the Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee, horses were hitched to wagons, ground-driven implements and even stationary machines in powerful demonstrations of their versatility. Kate and Susan, Ron Lange's mother-daughter team of Belgians, pulled a single-bottom John Deere riding plow in addition to the corn binder, and later powered a grain elevator through an ingenious device called a "sweep power." The sweep power converts a horse's easy, circular pace to PTO power though a planetary gearbox.

In another demonstration, Dale Duncan hitched Bob, a Haflinger gelding, to a sweep gristmill. In this case, the horse circled the mill, directly turning the grindstone as he walked. According to Ron Lange, the sweep method of powering stationary devices was very common compared to the more expensive treadmill. With the sweep, operators also had flexibility in the number of horses that could be called upon to do the work. Sweep powers were even used to run threshing machines before the ready availability of tractors with belt pulleys.

Mert Toelle and his son Trevor brought Mick and Mike, a team of Belgian geldings, to the show along with many pieces of horse-drawn equipment, buggies and wagons of all kinds. "We've only had Mick and Mike for a few months," Mert says. "They are 4 and 5 years old though, so they know how to work together." Trevor, who attends high school in Pierce, put the team through its paces, alternately pulling a John Deere sulky plow and 8-foot riding disk. Mert drove a high-board wagon with the team to support the hand corn-picking demonstrations.

Several folks tried their hand at picking corn the old-fashioned way. Hans Burmester, Nebraska's 2002 champion picker, was on hand to provide a few tips and a fine demonstration. "The number of pounds I can pick in a contest depends on the size of the ears and the quality of the planting," Hans explains. "The bigger and closer the ears, the more pounds I can pick." Hans demonstrated how to break the ear from the stalk, cleanly husk it and toss it against the backboard on the wagon in one easy motion. "Do you think he's been doing that for a few years?" Mert Toelle asked with a wink, acknowledging Hans' skill.

It wasn't only about horses and hand picking though. The Pierce Threshing Bee had more than enough mechanical power to go around.

Horse-free horsepower

Kernels of corn were stripped from Hans Burmester's hand-picked ears with a Minneapolis-Moline Model E sheller mounted on a 1939 Ford 1 1/2 ton truck owned by Lyndon Bierman of Battle Creek, Neb. The sheller, powered by the old Ford's PTO, made short work of the ear corn, neatly depositing cobs into one wagon and grain into another. Shellers such as Lyndon's went the way of threshing machines with the advent of affordable combines.

Although horses can be used to power threshing machines, Keith Huwaldt prefers tractor power. This Randolph, Neb., man started his own threshing run in the 1950s and kept at it long after combines were available. "I continued to do custom threshing up into the 1970s using the 1947 Farmall M on the belt," Keith explains. "I donated the threshing machine to the (Pierce) Historical Society, but me and the boys still run it." The 28-inch McCormick-Deering threshing machine easily hums through loads of bundled oats, receiving power from either Keith's Farmall M, or from the Historical Society's 1916 Case 65 steam engine.

"We got the steam engine in 1985," Donavon Koehler explains as he lovingly stokes the aged beast's boiler. Donavon is responsible for maintaining and operating the big Case as a volunteer, but he enjoys every minute of time he spends with the machine. "I enjoy running the tractor in parades," he says, "but it is really fun to belt it to the threshing machine and watch the straw pile up." Judging from the crowds gathered around that combination this past September, Donavon isn't the only one who enjoys steam-powered threshing.

As the freshly-threshed oats were elevated into wagons and hauled off, Keith and his crew pulled an Oliver stationary baler up to the straw stack and belted it to his 1936 International Harvester F-20 tractor. "Straw is much easier to handle in bales than loose," Keith says. "Especially if you need to haul it some distance." Baling with the Oliver required at least four hands. One person monitored the tractor, one pitched the straw and two others threaded and twisted the bale wires in an intermeshing series of well-choreographed motions.

Bernard Voborny of Neligh, Neb., trailered his 1860-vintage sawmill to the Pierce Threshing Bee for the 28th consecutive year. Bernard and his brother DeWayne made the old stationary saw portable by mounting its undercarriage on wheels, and installing a gearbox drive. "The gearbox is fabricated from two final drives we took off an old Allis-Chalmers WD tractor," Bernard explains. The mill now receives power through a 100 hp John Deere tractor PTO, which keeps the 48-inch blade turning at a consistent 550 rpm. "The blade gets distorted and makes an uneven cut if it gets hot or slows down," Bernard says. "The canopy keeps the sun from heating it, and with 100 hp behind it, the blade doesn't get bogged down."

While Bernard converted logs to lumber with his sawmill, Walt Klein converted wonderfully aromatic cedar billets into shingles with a 1902 Simpson shingle mill owned by the Ray Valley Heritage Association of Petersburg, Neb. This particular mill consists of a large saw blade mounted horizontally on the end of a mandrel with an indexing vise mounted on sliding rails. As Walt pushed the vise across the top of the blade, a slightly-tapered, shingle-shaped slice of cedar was obtained. Pulling the vise back repositioned the billet for the next pass. Walt powered the mill with his own 1945 Farmall B tractor. "I really enjoy demonstrating the Society's mill," Walt says. "It gives me a chance to meet people, and to give the (Farmall) B a workout."

Hand and foot work

Inside one of the permanent buildings at the Pierce Threshing Bee, visitors were treated to the quiet concentration of dedicated volunteers who tirelessly answered questions and demonstrated their crafts. In one corner of the building, DiAnn Boehm of Ames, Neb., demonstrated the art of treadle-wheel spinning, deftly working a clump of Angora rabbit hair into fine and uniform yarn. "I particularly enjoy spinning rabbit and alpaca," DiAnn explains about her passion for making fiber from fur. DiAnn spins the age-old way, but her spinning wheel is made of modern polymers and alloys, an ironic connection of past and present.

Master quilters Sandra Kinney and Virginia Huwaldt were on hand to answer questions about their age-old art form. Although both artists employ modern tools in their quilting, they offered all comers a chance to understand the history and role of the craft in this country. Likewise, Wanetta Walker of Norfolk, Neb., demonstrated the lost art of wagon-wheel rug making. "In this process, pioneer women used a wagon wheel's metal tire as a rug-weaving frame," Wanetta explains. "They typically used scrap materials such as feed sacks, but I usually buy new material for my designs."

Corn shucks left by the hand-picking demonstration weren't just cast to the breeze at Pierce. Susan Wattier and Jean Biershenk collected the husks, soaked them in water and delighted hundreds of folks with a hands-on corn shuck doll-tying demonstration. "It's fun to watch the (people's) smiles as the dolls take shape," Jean says. Other traditional art forms on display at the threshing bee included whittling, and the ancient art of Pysanky, a form of egg decoration brought to Nebraska by Ukrainian immigrants.

Lasting links

Born from a call to commemorate the country's bicentennial, the Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee is now a celebration of people, practices and roots. The organization is as committed to maintaining a grounded connection to things of the past as it is to preserving educational links to ways of the past. And judging from the crowds that attended the 28th annual two-day event, the little town of Pierce is onto something big. "We especially want to interest the young people," Sophie explains. "If they don't learn about this, it will be lost forever."

The 29th annual Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee will be held at the Pierce County Fairgrounds Sept. 10-11, 2005. For more information, contact Elwood Meier at (402) 329-4245, or csham@ptcnet.net; Donavon Koehler at (402) 329-4221, or visit the Pierce Historical Society's website at www.ptcnet.net/museum

- Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Penn., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; or call (717) 337-6068; or e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu