Remembering Threshing Days

The work of threshing days brought communities together.

Threshing days on the family farm

The McCormick-Deering 8-foot grain binder was a marvelous and complex machine for its time. All moving parts got their marching orders from the big bull wheel. A team of three horses was needed to pull it in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin.

Illustration by Fred Weiner

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The 238-acre Scheckel family farm lies smack dab in the heart of Crawford County, near Seneca in southwestern Wisconsin. This is hill country, untouched by glaciers. The roads are so crooked, the local saying goes, that they could run for Congress.

Threshing crews operated there in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Our Oak Grove Ridge had about 15 farmers on a threshing circuit. Frank Fradette owned the threshing machine. The sole purpose of a thresher was to separate the golden kernels of oats from their stalks. The stalks went out a big pipe by a powerful blower and those stalks built a straw stack. The oat kernels were hauled to a granary for storage. Frank pulled the threshing machine with a big orange Minneapolis-Moline tractor. His father, Louis Fradette, lived over on Shortcut Road. He owned the blower (or elevator) that took the grain and put it in the granary. 

Earliest memory of farm life

The most exciting day of the whole year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day, was the day the threshing machine and crew came to the Scheckel farm. As little kids, 4 to 6 years old, our main job was to “stay out of the way.”

That threshing machine was a behemoth. Threshing machines of that era were about 30 feet long, 8 to 10 feet tall and about 5 feet wide. No other machine on the farm was that big. When you’re a kid, everything is big!

Phillip, Bob and I watched it come up the road from the Bernier farm. It couldn’t have been moving faster than 5 mph. Threshing machines had steel wheels and the roadway was gravel. The feeder apron, where the grain bundles were fed, was hinged and tucked under to shorten its length.

I was 4 years old. This is one of my earliest memories of life on the farm: The belching Minneapolis-Moline tractor pulled the huge thresher. My dad walked between the tractor and thresher talking to Frank, who was turned sideways in the tractor seat, alternately looking at my dad and the path ahead.

Settling in

Frank maneuvered the thresher to the spot designated by my dad. The direction of the wind determined the orientation of the thresher. The crew did not want the wind blowing straw, chaff and debris back onto the thresher. A farmer unhooked the tongue from the tractor. The wheels were dug in and blocked. The thresher had to be leveled and staked down. One man went around the machine carrying the grease gun, filling all the zerks. Others got all the belts out of the cavernous rear compartment where the straw was blown out of the pipe.

The McCormick-Deering had steps along the side, built into one of the side elevators, so a person could climb atop the machine. The big straw pipe was stored and transported lying lengthwise across the top of thresher; the end was nestled in a cradle. A strap held it in place. Gears with handles operated the long straw chute.

The big pipe (1 foot in diameter) was cranked around. Another gear would extend the pipe, making it longer. Frank’s machine could be set so that during operation the big chute pipe would slowly oscillate back and forth to provide a semicircular pile of straw, rather than a single mound.

A smaller auger pipe, about 4 inches in diameter, was used to carry threshed grain to a wagon or pickup truck. Oats could be loaded from the thresher to a pickup truck from either side (though the direction was dictated by the wind). The grain wagon was placed upwind, of course, so chaff would not blow back onto the wagon.

The grain bundle feeder chute, tucked in during transport, was unlatched, hinged up and fastened into place. The feed chain was inspected, ensuring the chain was firmly positioned on the cog gears that drove it. Frank drove the big Minneapolis-Moline around to face the thresher and the hammer mill belt went on. It seems like it took well over a half hour to get that big piece of equipment ready.

Horses and tractors

Other men arrived at the farm with horses, tractors and wagons. An early start meant a farmer’s grain could all be threshed in one day. Some farmers got their instructions from Dad, who directed them to a field to start loading shocks onto wagons.

I recall the men: Berneir, Kozelka, Ingham, Sutton, Larsen, Sales, Mahan, Rosenbaum, Payne, Aspenson and MacAvery. Bib overalls, straw hats, some smoking roll-your-own cigarettes. A few smoked a pipe clenched in their teeth. They were of German, Norwegian and English ancestry. I could detect a bit of accent in a few voices.

On toward 10 a.m., with the dew burned off by the blazing sun, loads of bundles started arriving from the fields. There were six or seven teams of wagons and horses. Some farmers brought a tractor and wagon. These were small tractors, typical for the time: a Farmall H, a Ford 8N, an Allis-Chalmers C and the John Deere “Johnny Poppers.”

A half dozen “rigs” (wagons with a team of horses) could keep the hungry threshing machine busy. Shutting it down was wasted time, and time was everything. That machine kept going, stopped only between loads for a quick greasing of all the zerks and at lunchtime, usually around 12:30 p.m.

Three cents a bushel

Frank opened the throttle of the big Minneapolis-Moline, smoke belching out the 3-foot exhaust pipe atop the machine. The thresher came to life. The big claw teeth at the end of the grain bundle tray chute started to move, as if gulping bundles. The tray chain moved and all the belts and pulleys turned.

A farmer had already driven his team and wagon into position, just inches from the feed apron. The thresher was up to speed, and Frank signaled for the first bundles to start down the feeder.

Bundles were thrown in grain heads first, stalk end last and lengthwise. Feeder knives attached beneath the claws cut the binder twine. Uncut twine is bad news: Grain was not separated from the stalk and it could clog the thresher, which meant shutting down, a waste of valuable time. In addition, twine could get wrapped around shaft bearings and would then have to be cut by hand with a jack-knife.

Frank was paid by the bushel (typically 3 to 5 cents/bushel) to thresh grain. Threshed oats went up an elevator on the side of the big machine and the oats dumped in a receiver cup. This receiver was counterbalanced by a weight. When full, the buckle opened and dumped the grain into an auger that took it to a waiting wagon or pickup. At the same time, the dumping buckle operated a geared counter that counted threshed bushels. Two dumping trips of the bucket was one bushel of oats.

Annual inspection

Every farmer wanted to be well-thought of by his neighbors, but at threshing time, he could not hide his operation from his fellow farmers. The threshing crew walked the fields and witnessed the gullies, sand dunes and reddish or yellowish soil where the topsoil had washed away. Other farmers observed his corn fields, with the corn about 3 feet high at threshing time, and saw how weedy his crops were. They noticed the hay seedlings growing in fields from which shocks were being removed. The whole operation was open for casual inspection: barns and silos, livestock, harness, machinery, fences, buildings, house, lawn and gardens.

You could judge a man and his farm. Nobody ever said anything, at least not out in the open, certainly not around threshing time. Those conversations might be made later over a beer at Sullivan’s tavern in Seneca or Caya’s in Lynxville or Slama’s in Eastman.

The threshers’ feast

The host farmer was expected to provide dinner for the threshing crew. And those men could eat! It was an impossible task for one woman, so several farm women showed up to help. It was expected. All of the preparation was done on wood-burning stoves, indoors, with no air conditioning and few fans. Although there were no electric stoves or microwave ovens, a few farm families had propane-fed gas ovens.

Like the men in the field, the women worked as a team. Pies and cakes were prepared ahead of time by the host housewife. Neighbor women brought food, and they arrived early, just like the men. It was a chance for housewives to swap stories, exchange gossip, commiserate and socialize, while frantically preparing an enormous meal.

And what a feast it was! Chicken was a staple; perhaps roast beef, maybe ham. The buffet line would include heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, carrots, peas, homemade bread and rolls. Cole slaw, pickles and beets were set out. Milk, coffee, lemonade and water for drinks. For dessert, pie was top dog: apple, chocolate, peach and mincemeat. These pies were cut in big pieces, too, not those dinky slices you see in restaurants today. There would also be cake, pastries and cookies; ice cream was a rarity.

Simple surroundings

There might be as many as 30 men to feed. Usually the food was laid out on tables in the front yard, close to the house. The threshing machine was shut down. Horses were tethered to fence posts, bridles removed and replaced by halters. Before joining the lunch line, owners secured buckets of water, a pail of grain and hay for the horses.

A table was set up outside with a washbasin, soap and towel where the crew could “clean up” before the meal. As little kids, it was our job to set up the washbasin and carry buckets of clean water, stacks of towels and bars of soap.

A few chairs were provided; most of the crew sat on the grass to eat. Some farmers set out planks supported by two large pieces of firewood. Eat and talk, swap stories, tell tall tales, share a joke. What great fellowship! Some would go back for more food. No one went hungry.

There were no rented port-a-pots on these farms. And threshing crews were not about to go into the clean farmhouse in their dirty, sweaty, grease-smeared clothes to use the bathroom. Many farms, especially in the early years, did not have indoor plumbing. An outhouse was the “port of call”; the Sears catalog served as toilet paper.

Building camaraderie

Farmers took advantage of the time together to learn from each other. They gathered information on new crop varieties, cost of new machinery and equipment repairs. That camaraderie and the social aspect of the gathering bound neighbors together.

After the meal, the men rested on the grass or sat up against a tree in the farmyard for awhile. Smoke a cigarette, sip coffee, discuss farming, reminisce about the past. Talk of politics was rare (too divisive) and no talk of religion unless it was about a past minister or priest. There was certainly no discussion of religious doctrine. Someone would tell a story, half a dozen people listened. 

Larsen: “Dem’s mighty good vittles.”

Jack Ingham (speaking with a lisp, the result of being kicking in the face by a horse when he was a kid): “Surz is.”

John Payne: “I hear the Hardin place is for sale.”

Frank Fradette: “How much?”

Floyd Sutton: “I heard 15,000.”

Bob Ingham: “Ain’t no way he’s goin’ get 15,000. Lucky if he gets 9,000.”

Work until it’s finished

Noon dinner might take 45 minutes, tops. No hour-long lunches for threshing crews. Then it was back to work, all afternoon, in the hot summer sun. Along about 4 p.m., the last load of bundles would come in. Other teams attached to the fence line, reins hanging on the hames or looped around the front stanchion on the wagon.

The host farmer often kept a few cases of beer in the milk cooler or on ice in a barrel or water tank. At the end of threshing day, farmers were offered a beer or two. Each man would soon head home, his own chores to do.

Threshing ended when all the grain shocks were run through the machine. Most often, that would be about 4 or 5 p.m., but it could run until 6 or 7 p.m. if they figured they could finish a farm and go to a new one the next day.

Finally the threshing machine was “put to bed.” The big straw pipe was telescoped to its shortest length. The big gear was turned so the straw pipe was atop and parallel with the thresher, then gently lowered by gearing it to its cradle.

Belts were removed and stored in the back of the thresher, where a hinged door was unlatched and chained up to keep it open. Threshers of this size had about 10 belts. The long hammer mill belt was removed from the pulleys, laid out and rolled up for storage in the threshing machine.

If it was a big farm, threshing might resume the next day on the same place. If the work was finished, the thresher’s front feeder gate was hinged and tucked under. The tractor was attached to the tongue. The threshing machine was pulled away from the huge new straw stack, pulled from the field and taken out on the Oak Grove Ridge gravel road and on to the next farm.

Honor of the threshing ring

If you had a small farm with little grain in production, you were expected to be on the threshing crew for several days, but not the entire season. If, on the other hand, you were a farmer with lots of acres in oats, you were expected to be on the road most every day.

Farmers keep track of such stuff. There was no paper record or written ledger; it was all mental calculation with little verbalized communication. But no farmer wanted to be known as a shirker.

As my brothers and I got a little older, we gained responsibilities. We took jars of ice water to the workers. One of the farmers might let us hold the horse’s reins or put us up on the grain bundle wagons for a short ride from field to thresher. We fetched things and served as “go-fers.”

The threshing crew was unique in American agriculture. Perhaps at no time before nor any time since have farmers banded together to accomplish a goal. Farmers are notoriously independent, but a threshing machine was much too expensive for any one farmer to buy and own. So banding together made sense.

Threshing season was a time of hard work for men, women and horses. It was an exciting time to be a kid in the hill country of southwest Wisconsin. FC


Larry Scheckel grew up on a family farm in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin. He and his wife, Ann, are retired teachers; they live in Tomah, Wis. Contact him at 1113 Parkview Dr., Tomah, WI 54660 or at Lscheckel@charter.net; and visit him online.