Back in the old days, some farmers thought that all threshermen were dishonest, and a few of them undoubtedly were. On the other hand, some threshermen seriously doubted the honesty of the farmers for whom they worked, and I’m sure this was true in some cases as well. In 1926, the American Thresherman published a few letters to the editor from some of its readers about the subject.
One thresherman from Iowa wrote: “If you ever threshed grain by the wagon box measure, you would have little faith in the honesty of farmers.” He went on to complain that “Four out of five grain haulers will try to beat you.” Apparently, the rule was that a wagon box was to be considered full when it was level with the side boards. According to the writer, these miscreants did everything they could to heap up the grain and get a few more bushels for the same price. He concluded by saying, “Of course there are some farmers who wouldn’t beat you out of a kernel; but they are not numerous.”
Another complaint was against landlords who held liens against the grain of their tenants. The tenant farmer arranged for the threshing and then couldn’t get the money to pay for it from his landlord. The writer said, “Now it seems to me that, in a case like this, the man who holds the lien on the grain ought to pay the bill. But he won’t; the thresherman who has done the work can go whistle for his pay.”
A few letter writers complained about the threshermen. An Iowa farmer told of the custom operator who would cut the price a penny or two per bushel from the going rate for a farmer who had a big crop. Since the thresherman’s employees were doing the tallying, they would then add enough bushels to the count to make up for the lower price.
Threshermen who padded the tally seem to have been in the minority, however. One Minnesota thresherman wrote: “I have never seen a farmer yet, who did not expect to pay for the work. I have threshed in several different states and I always made it a rule to give 34 pounds of oats, 62 of wheat, and 50 of barley as a bushel; but I always demand the full price for my work. You can’t fool a good farmer on the number of bushels you thresh; get the price, I say, and give him five or ten bushels per hundred extra. That’s my motto: Good work, clean work, (and) quick work. Get your money and move to the next job.”
Other comments were: “If all threshermen were decent and honest and did their work as they should, there would be a world of difference in this threshing game.” And: “The farmers come after the good threshermen. The rig owner who goes driving around looking for customers is generally a scab or a price cutter.” Finally: “I think farmers are honest as a rule. In my neighborhood are some farmers who don’t know when they hire a thresherman where they will get the money to pay him. But the first money they get they will use to hustle off and pay him. I wish all my competitors were as square and honest as my customers”
An Iowa thresherman said that if a prospective customer said to him, “I can get so-and-so to thresh my oats cheaper than you will,” his reply was “...to go buy threshing service where (you) can get the most for (your) money.” He said that a customer would sometimes do just that, but that most figured he was worth the higher prices he charged.
Along another line, a thresherman asked: “How should a thresherman conduct himself while running his machine in regard to swearing in the presence of farmers? I have run a custom thresher for a good many years and have done lots of swearing.”
He goes on to say that he knows swearing does no good, but he can’t seem to break the habit and besides, “...I never began to operate machinery for the purpose of bettering the morals of farmers or for entertaining a crew with ... Sunday School lessons.”
Besides being allowed to indulge his habit of swearing, this man asked that his customers “...do some Christian acts such as these: Give the crew plenty of wholesome food and don’t ask unreasonable things. Don’t ask a thresherman to set his machine in an old stack bottom or on a hillside of rock where one end ... has to be blocked up four feet to get it level.”
He ended by saying: “It is immaterial to most threshermen whether the farmer swears or goes to church, or not. I have had farmers object to my washing out boilers on Sunday, or making some repair to put the rig in shape for work the next day. That doesn’t seem like the right kind of religion to me.”
Another thresherman wrote: “My motto is to keep (the threshing machine’s) weigher dumping at least nine hours every day.” He complained about the farmer who wanted to lay off at four in the afternoon because he (or his wife) didn’t want to get supper for the crew. The thresherman felt that a seven-hour day “...cuts the output of 15 or more men a whole lot on a 20-day run.”
At the end of the story the editor sums up all the letters thus:
“By a ten-to-one vote, at least, our readers are of the opinion that a thresherman can be honest and that it will pay him to be honest. The same ... goes for decency. All the swearing and horseplay that can be eliminated will help to keep customers on the list. A square price, the same to all customers, will keep farmers well satisfied.”
In these days of huge corporate financial scandals and wide open Sundays, the concerns of those threshermen and farmers seem almost quaint.