Heritage Harvest: Community effort comes together to produce old-time threshing bee
Many things have changed in the past century, but not this: If you're going to put on a threshing bee, you're going to need a lot of help.
As Dean and Bonita Davison worked with their Percheron teams and got acquainted with other draft horse enthusiasts in their area, they began to consider the idea of organizing a threshing bee near their home southeast of Le Mars, Iowa.
Today that's evolved into an event held in conjunction with Pioneer Days in Merrill, Iowa, about 15 miles north of Sioux City - and purchase of an antique thresher.
'We started planting corn with our team and just loved doing that,' Bonita says. 'Seven or eight years ago, we used machinery owned by a local club to set up a threshing demonstration during our county fair. We had difficulty coordinating everything when we didn't own the equipment, so we decided to start looking for our own thresher.'
Tracking down a thresher
The Davisons' search led them to Minnesota, where they found a John Deere 28x46 thresher that had been parked in a machine shed for 10 years. 'The man who owned it used it once since he bought it,' Dean says. 'It was in real good condition and all the belts were good. I brought it home, power washed it and used it that afternoon for threshing at our neighbor's field.'
As he searched for a threshing machine, Dean found that machines with wooden parts were often in very poor condition. If the threshing machine hadn't been stored under a roof and protected from wildlife, it deteriorated quickly.
'A lot of the machines I looked at had become a home for raccoons,' he says. 'They do a lot of damage in a hurry. This machine has metal sieves and, as far as I could tell, there hadn't been any coons in it.' The Davisons don't know the model number of their thresher, which they believe dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s.
Well-maintained vintage threshing machines are not easy to find. Because of their size, the machines weren't always stored inside. Many threshing machines in the Midwest have been sold for scrap metal or, in the 1960s and '70s, were auctioned and taken to Mexico, where they were put to work in the field.
Community pitches in
Finding equipment was just the beginning of the labor the Davisons invested in organizing a threshing bee. Two local landowners allowed them to sow oats in small fields. They used their team to drill the oats and spent the summer finalizing plans for their event.
'When it came time to cut and shock the grain, we had a lot of help,' Bonita says. 'We relied on some of the elderly farmers here to tell us what they had done when they were kids.' Every farmer had his own way of setting shocks in the field. Many would take six bundles of oats and set them up in a north-south orientation, she says, allowing breezes to dry the grain more quickly.
Proper placement of the threshing machine was another challenge. The machine must be on level ground and the surrounding space must be ample enough to accommodate working horses and wagons, and creation of a straw pile.
To aid the movement of grain and straw through the threshing machine, the thresher is set up to be as level as possible width-wise. That helps distribute the grain and straw evenly across racks and screens inside the machine so it doesn't collect on one side. The back of the machine is set slightly lower than the front end. That way, gravity and fans help move straw through the machine and into the blower where it is discharged. When straw collects in the back of the machine, it can easily plug the blower. If that happens, someone must crawl into the thresher and dig out the straw, which can become very tightly packed. Depending on the site's slope, it's not unusual to remove dirt from underneath the back end of the machine so it sits in a small hollow.
'The second time we did it, it wasn't nearly as hard,' Bonita says. 'We use live tractor power to run the belts. The machines were often run with horse power in the old days, but we knew that wasn't a good option for us.'
Local collectors with vintage tractors are more than happy to be part of the threshing event. 'My nephew brought his tractor one year,' Dean says. 'Our neighbor supplied a tractor one year, and a young man from Sioux City just begs to be able to do that for us. He loves bringing his John Deere Model D.'
A number of teamsters bring draft horses and hayracks to haul bundles to the machine. Dean says the teamsters appreciate the opportunity to take part in the event. 'They can show off their teams and use them a little to do something different,' he says. 'They like being able to expose their teams to the noise and motion of the machine. It's a good thing for the horses to learn.'
A simple concept
Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle is credited with inventing the first thresher in about 1786. The machine was considered one of the key developments in the British Agricultural Revolution. In The Correspondence of the Right Honourable Sir John Sinclair, published in 1831, Sinclair described the threshing machine as 'unquestionably the most valuable implement that has been introduced into the practice of husbandry in the course of the last century. The saving of manual labour which it occasioned, and that of a very severe kind, is beyond calculation.'
Early threshing machines were small and made of wood. Grain was fed into the machine by hand. Grain fell into a bin or bag and straw fell out the rear or was stacked by a small conveyor.
All threshing machines operate in essentially the same manner. A steel cylinder rotates quickly, separating the grain from the oat stalk. Teeth on the cylinder strike the grain, separating the kernels from the stalk. The straw is carried by straw racks to the end of the machine, where it is blown out onto a stack next to the machine.
Grain falls through openings in the sieves just large enough to allow it to pass through. A fan blows air under the sieves and removes the tiny shells (or chaff) surrounding each kernel. The grain can be used for feed or seed, or can be milled for flour. Threshing machines were also used to separate corn, soybeans, barley, clover and more.
Technology drives improvements
By 1900, threshing machines still contained many wooden parts but numerous improvements had been made. A conveyor, or feeder, in the front of the machine allowed bundles of grain to be pitched in with a fork. As the grain bundle entered the machine, knives cut the twine holding the bundle together.
Once the grain settled to the bottom of the machine, it was brought up to a weigher by an elevator. The weigher consisted of a small, bushel-sized hopper that floated on a pivot and balanced against a counterweight. Once the hopper was filled with grain, the counterweight allowed the hopper to tip and dump the grain into a pipe leading to a wagon or burlap bag on the ground. That allowed the farmer to record the amount of grain harvested.
The blower, a common feature on most vintage machines, was also introduced in the early 1900s. High-speed power blades put the straw through a round duct and into the air, making it possible to stack the straw next to the machine. The blower can (and must) be moved as the straw pile accumulates. If the blower is not moved so it can freely discharge the straw, the machine will plug with straw and will have to be stopped and manually cleaned out.
A typical early 1900s threshing machine was powered by 15-16 horses. Farmers could thresh 500 to 1,000 bushels of wheat per day and twice that many bushels of oats. By the 1920s, wooden threshers were replaced by galvanized steel machines. Steam threshing continued into the 1930s, when gasoline tractors became a more economical source of power.
Machine capacity is indicated by two numbers, for instance, 22x38. The first number indicates the cylinder's width (in inches). The second number is the width of the threshing machine's interior.
Bringing people together
The Davisons' annual threshing bee isn't just for seniors and collectors. People of all ages attend. 'A lot of people bring their grandkids,' Bonita says. 'The kids like to go out on the hayracks and pitch bundles. Sometimes I think they're surprised at how much work their grandparents did on the farm. People talk about how the work brings people together. Everybody seems to enjoy that.'
'I just enjoy seeing people have fun when they come,' Dean says. 'I'm not the only one who likes to listen to the old stories and talk about how things used to be done. It's a lot of work, but it's still a fun thing to do.' FC
For more information: Merrill Pioneer Days: July 18-19, 2008. Draft horse show, 6:30 p.m. July 18; threshing bee set-up, 10 a.m. July 19 (threshing from 1-3 p.m.). Bonita and Dean Davison, (712) 546-6785 (home); (712) 540-3442 (cell); e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at email@example.com