Threshing Bee Acts as Time Machine

Threshing bee recreates harvest of the past

Threshing Day: The crew, feeding the hopper.

Threshing Day: The crew, feeding the hopper.

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I didn't believe in time machines until Sept. 18, 1999. On that day I was transported for a wonderful two hours and twelve minutes more than 60 years back to when I was a young lad living on my father's farm near Idaho Falls, Idaho. 

My time transporter was a threshing machine. It took me to a time when the late summer magic was shattered by the spine-chilling screech of steel wheels on rocks as a huge black tractor bearing the name "OilPull" shrieked its way into our yard, its noisy engine blowing giant blue smoke rings as it dragged a threshing machine. The thresher was unfolded from its travel position and a long, wide belt unrolled from its side and looped over the belt pulley on the tractor. After a few adjustments, the operator moved a lever and the tractor chugged harder as the belt began to move. Knobs, wheels, pulleys, belts, chains, arms, rockers and other things began to turn, wiggle, roll, snap, bounce and whine as that wondrous monster came to life right before my eyes. I watched, open-mouthed, enchanted out of my wits.

That was during the 1930s. Last September, I stood enthralled again as a machine from my past chewed its way through loads of grain separating its golden seeds from the chaff and straw blown in a yellow flurry onto an ever growing stack. The John Deere tractor providing the power belched its exhaust with a different sound from the OilPull, but other than that, things hadn't changed a whit except that it was 1999 and I wasn't a kid any more.

The threshing bee on Sept. 18, jointly sponsored by Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Association and Intermountain Draft Horse and Mule Association, was coordinated by the host, Stan Brighton. I arrived at Stan's place just outside Idaho Falls a few days earlier and took pictures of the fields of stubble with shocks of tied bundles. The oat field had been cut with an old-fashioned binder drawn by a tractor instead of several horses. Even so, the field resembled the ones I remembered on my father's farm.

The show began about 10 a.m. At first, people stood around, unsure of what to do. But as the horse-drawn wagons moved between the shocks of grain, and pitchforks magically appeared, it took just seconds for eager helpers to load bundles of grain, more or less hit-or-miss, onto them. Although the drivers tried to keep order in their loads, it was a far cry from the days I knew, when the pitchers knew where to put the bundles and the driver knew how to load his wagon so he could haul the most with the least chance of it falling off if he hit an uneven spot on the way to the thresher. The drivers in 1999 either hadn't had that experience, or had forgotten it, so some of the loads were pretty haphazard. Nevertheless, the field was cleared in time for the midday meal.

Actually there were two 28-inch threshing machines. One was a Case owned by Stan Brighton; the other, a John Deere, was owned by Lynn McCord. Both were driven by John Deere tractors. The wagons took an empty position at either machine and unloaded onto the feeder leading to the gaping, tooth-filled maw of the thresher.

I talked with a few of the onlookers, one of whom was Craig McBride from Louisville, Idaho. Craig drove a wagon powered by a team of mules named Sam and Jake. It wasn't clear to me if he'd stopped them to rest, or if they just decided it was time to stop, as mules are sometimes prone to do. Two young ladies also agreed to answer my questions above the cacophony created by two threshing machines, at least 250 people milling about, plus an assortment of animals. One of the girls, Jean Brighton, was the host's daughter, and the other, Heidi Christensen, a longtime friend, added a bit of royalty to the event. She was crowned the draft horse queen at a contest held earlier in the year.

A little boy standing beside his parents holding his left forefinger out as if pointing at something, caught my interest. We had a short, one-sided conversation. "What's the matter?" I asked. The finger continued to point but nothing came out of the mouth.

"He was stung by a bee," offered his mother.

"What's your name?" I asked. An inaudible answer came.

"How old are you?" First, two fingers went up on his left hand, then two fingers went up on his right hand, then two more on his left hand. "Oh, you're 6 years old." "No," his mother helped, "He's 4 years old and he's two minutes older than his twin brother."

Once again, I asked, "What's your name?" Again a mumbled response.

"His name is Ethan Everett Curtis," said his mother, "and his brother here is named Keegan."

"Have you ever seen one of these before?" But again neither boy was able to record his answer. Instead, the mother told me they had attended the threshing bee last year. Thank goodness for mothers.

Max Brighton, the host's father, was a little more communicative, offering a history of his family and the farm we were on. He's a pleasant man who, at 77, claimed to be the oldest one there. I had to disappoint him, though. I'd already met a couple of old timers who were 82.

One father told me he brought his boys to the threshing bee last year and all they wanted to do was play in the straw. A teenager answered my query about what he thought of the show. "Awesome!" he said.

Just after the threshing was finished, I found five old-timers sitting side by side on a wagon talking about yesteryears and waiting for the thresher's meal to begin. Judging from their conversations, they'd known each for a long time. Then it was time to eat.

My mother's fondest memory and one she never tired of telling about was what she served to her threshing crews. This crew was fed according to my mother's cardinal rule: Give 'em plenty! Although the meal was organized as potluck, the host and Lynn McCord, a local member of the gas engine and tractor boys and a tractor restorer, offered the main course: a whole smoked hog. A giant basket of hot corn on the cob was also kept full, and the array of salads and main dishes, as well as desserts, rivaled my mother's efforts in taste and quantity. Whole families partook of this wonderful meal served under a large canvas shelter and eaten wherever a flat spot large enough to hold a plate could be found. I had to leave shortly after eating, but reliving that few hours of my childhood was so much fun I just might travel across eight time zones again next year to go back for seconds. FC 

M. V. Hansen was born and grew up on a farm near Idaho Falls. He has worked as a geologist in Idaho and Colorado, and later with the U.N. in Vienna, Austria. He currently lives in an Alpine village in the southern Alps of Austria.