Threshing Machines at the Sycamore Steam Show

Threshing Days: Pair of threshing machine workhorses re-create harvests of the past at the Sycamore Steam Show.

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Teenagers Michelle Stevens and Chad Peterson working with Leslie Peterson to get the last of the wheat into the thresher.

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At an antique farm equipment show, one threshing machine can attract attention just because of its size and array of belts, chains and pulleys. Put two or more side by side, and you're likely to draw a crowd. At the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club's 51st annual Sycamore Steam Show last August, visitors got a good look at a 1928 Minneapolis 40-by-64-inch thresher owned by Maynard Petersen, Hampshire, Ill., and a 22-by-38-inch Oliver Red River Special owned by Bill Karl of Maple Park, Ill.

Bill, one of several people who have owned the Oliver thresher over the years, said he thought the unit dated to the late 1930s or early 1940s. Both it and the Minneapolis thresher, perhaps 10 years older, were quite advanced compared to the earliest threshing machines (those dating to the 1820s) that featured spiked cylinders turned by a large hand crank. "And those were much better than the previous methods," Maynard notes, "'which consisted of spreading it out on the barn floor and walking on it, or having horses walk on it, to separate the grain."

At the Sycamore show, each threshing machine processed two wagon-loads of wheat each day. The threshers were powered by a variety of steam engines and antique tractors owned by area collectors and farmers who wanted to see them in action.

Two teenagers kept the threshers supplied with shocks of wheat during the daily demonstrations. Michelle Stevens and Chad Peterson worked like old hands. Like all show workers, the teens volunteered their time "because it's fun," says Michelle, 16. She and Chad, 15, spoke as one when each said their parents had been taking them to shows since before they could remember.

How the threshing machines work

The two stood on a hay wagon and hand-pitched shocks onto a track that carried them into the thresher. A long belt extending from the steam engine's flywheel turned a flywheel on the thresher that activated other wheels, belts and chains that processed the wheat.

The wheat was crunched as it entered the machine, causing the grain to fall onto a shaker deep within the thresher. A fan blew chaff and wheat straw out a long tube at the rear, stacking it in a large pile. The wheat straw was later fed into a hay baler powered by a steam engine or antique tractor. A  half-bushel of grain at a time is dumped on a belt that carries it to the grain wagon.

Maynard is the fourth owner of the Minneapolis thresher in 50 years. Charles Coon, the original owner, paid $2,400 for the rig, and another $44 to have it shipped from Minneapolis to his home in Illinois. The thresher's early history is recorded in notations Charles wrote inside the blower door. Charles later sold the Minneapolis to John Allen, who displayed it at the steam club's first threshing show in 1957 in northern Kane County. Later, the thresher was sold to Charles Merrill, Sugar Grove, who had it for several years before selling it to Maynard.

"Charlie Merrill came to me one day," Maynard recalls, "and said, 'I have no place to keep the machine. So I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you that threshing machine, because you have a place to house it, and then I can come to the show every year and see it run.' So I took it and have had it running every year at the show since then."

Each harvest season, Maynard made it a point to haul the thresher to Charles Coon's farm, where they'd put the machine through its paces and then have a big dinner. "Charles would write his name and the date on the machine's blower door each year," Maynard recalls. "When he signed it in 1971, he wrote the word 'last' after his name. And that was the last time he saw the Minneapolis, because he died the following winter."

In its heyday, the Minneapolis was used to thresh wheat, oats, rye and barley. "There were some markets for malting barley," Maynard explains, "but most farmers had pigs so they'd let the barley ferment in barrels and use it for pig feed. The pigs would go crazy for it. They'd get half a snoot on from it, because it was fermented."

Maynard, who had three steam engines at the show, has years of experience with the early technology. "There was an old gentleman running a steam engine for a threshing company west of Hampshire," he recalls. "He got tired of running it, so he taught me how and then quit. I offered to do it and they hired me. I was only 14, but I was a big kid so I guess they thought I was 18."

Bill, owner of the Oliver thresher, has more experience with antique tractors than threshing machines, but he enjoys working with the Red River Special, which he's owned for about three years. Given its age, the machine requires comparatively little maintenance. "All I've done is replace a couple of belts and keep it lubricated," he says. "I'll keep running it here until they don't want it anymore. Then I guess I'll sell it."

Bill's friend, Leonard Durham, Madisonville, Texas, occasionally makes the trip to Illinois to help run the thresher at shows. It's given him a different perspective on traditional farming methods. "I ran around with all these farmers years ago and always wished I was one," Leonard says. "Now that I know how much work it is, I'm not so sure anymore!" FC 

Lyle Rolfe has been a newspaper reporter/photographer for more than 40 years. As a freelance writer and photographer, his work has been published in Classic Cars, Cars & Parts and Rural Heritage magazines, among others. Contact him at (630) 896-2992; e-mail: lrerartr@comcast.net