Learning the Ropes

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Steam-traction engines provided power for threshing machines

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What's more exquisite and beautiful than a sea of golden wheat waving in the wind just before harvest? I was raised to love the grain harvest - the hustle and bustle, the excitement of driving different farm machines, and the way each farm machine handled intrigued me. As a young lad, I ran barefoot behind the binder, treading in the path of the wide bull wheel that provided power to the machine. The binder flattened the straw stubble in the direction that it traveled, so it didn't hurt my bare feet as I chased it from behind. Before too long, Dad could see that I needed something constructive to fill my time and converted my energy to a better use ... shocking the grain.

Almost all big threshing outfits were operated by steam in the early 1900s, but sometimes Dad was forced to use a tractor-operated thresher if the steam outfit was down, and that always disappointed me. The steam outfits never ceased to fascinate me: Their steady puffing noise was music to my ears when compared to the clatter of early-day gasoline tractors. The steam engine's whistle was the best sound of all. That familiar shriek was the signal to start work, it told us when the engine needed water, and when it was time to quit. One particular sound that no one wanted to hear, however, was the signal for fire: five short toots in rapid succession. Luckily that never happened at our place, but it did happen elsewhere.

A steamer drinks plenty of water, so a water wagon was pulled by two stout horses or by four horses if there were more than one steam engine. The water came from creeks if the farmer's well couldn't supply enough. The water was delivered to the steamer's tank by a hand pump, operated by the water wagon teamster. An engineer was required at all times to operate the steamer, watch the water glass and keep a good, roaring fire lit so the engine had plenty of power to operate the huge grain separators. He also took care of the lubrication.

A massive leather belt transmitted the steam engine's power to the grain separator. Steady power from the steamer turned the cylinder, which powered the separator's innards at the right speed for proper threshing. A separator man was on hand at all times. He was the outfit's boss and usually stood on top of the machine so he could direct the bundle pitchers. Four to 12 men were necessarily employed when threshing shocks, according to the size of the outfit. Oftentimes, a horse or mule was spooked from the racket and activity as they sidled up to the separator as the bundles were unloaded. Horse and mule runaways occurred, and a blast from the steam whistle often sent them running.

Pranks and shenanigans

Large outfits were seldom without a prankster who played tricks and pulled jokes at the expense of other guys in the outfit. These tricks were not always innocent fun, and hard feelings sometimes resulted. One cold morning, for example, a fellow in the outfit hung his jacket on a fence post when he became hot from working. Carefully sneaking up on the man, the prankster stapled the jacket to the post and hid the evidence with the sleeves. At day's end, the farmer was in a hurry to get home, so he innocuously grabbed the jacket as he passed the post. A great rip could be heard even from some distance away, and those that heard it had a good laugh much to the chagrin of the poor victim.

Another serious prank was to slip the drawbar pin out of the doubletree, separating horses from the driver. As the driver finished unloading his bundle rack, he pulled away from the threshing machine so that another wagon could pull in. 'Giddyup!' the driver would shout. The horses moved out, but the driver and the wagon stood still. Once the horses realized that they were on their own, they usually ran away without restraint.

As a large threshing outfit proceeded from farm to farm, the farmer was expected to feed the entire crew, and this responsibility most always fell to his wife. Every outfit knew who set the best table, but all wives who cooked deserved praise, and seldom did a crew go hungry.

The water debacle

Not many people were hired for threshing work since the farmers helped each other out. A threshing ring usually consisted of 10 to 15 neighbors, while one farmer retained ownership of the outfit. Sometimes the ring was too large, and if the weather turned bad, the grain was stacked. We threshed both from the shocks and the stacks. I always liked shock threshing the best, so much so that I once went to observe the neighbor's threshing ring. While watching this outfit, though it wasn't my intention, I brought the threshing to a screeching halt in a split second. Did I get in trouble? No, because no one in the outfit suspected or knew except the neighbor's son, Hermann, (a pal of mine in my early years) and who was beside me at this terrifying moment.

How did a 10-year-old boy, without intent or trickery - in broad daylight -bring a huge steam-threshing rig to a halt while remaining undetected? Hermann and I weren't content to watch the threshing from afar, so we were invited by the engineer to sit up on the throbbing steam engine's seat box, where we could soak up the activity first-hand. In front of us, the big, wide leather belt sailed around the huge flywheel on the engine, and it slapped and stretched out some 75 feet before it connected to the pulley on the grain separator. This belt seemingly traveled with the speed of light and was respected by all who worked around it.

Hermann and I were in seventh heaven as we sat on the wood box of this wonderful steam engine, but we became thirsty. With a crew of this size, a 10-gallon cream can of cold drinking water was set on the shady side of the steamer with a dipper, for the convenience of all. In due time, the men came to slake their thirst, raising the dipper until they felt they'd had enough, but they always threw the last portion to the ground. Since no field hand was at the water can, we took a risky chance and clamored off of the steamer to get ourselves a drink. Hermann quenched his fill first, and then it was my turn. Now, may I remind you again that all men throw the last sip from a public drinking cup on the grass. Hermann did likewise, but I didn't ... why, I don't know. I threw the remaining water from my cup on the speeding belt. Wham! In a flash, the belt flew off the whirling pulley, falling to the ground like a writhing snake, twisting its way toward to the separator. The big threshing machine stopped instantly as the steam engine roared on. For a brief second, the crew looked on speechless, and then the curses could be heard above the din of the engine. I was petrified at what I had done, but I remained still.

It took the crew 15 minutes or more to get the belt back on and to resume the threshing. No one ever suspected me for what I had done, otherwise a severe whipping would've been in store for me. I couldn't have known that less than half a cup of water between a steel pulley and a moving belt could dislodge it and cause so much trouble and confusion. To this day, no one knows but Hermann and me.

Growing up

All too soon, my childhood came to an end. I was now 14 years of age, and my parents decided to move west to far-off California. We left in January 1927 in a new 1926 Chevrolet sedan. Though only 14 and small for my age, I was the only one who could operate the car. Suddenly, I had a man's responsibility with Mom, Dad and little brother, Carl, age 5, as passengers. We took a southern route, and the adventures were many, fording the rivers, climbing mountain passes, cutting across the endless desert and getting lost, but that's another chapter in my life I'll recount next time.

Godfrey Humann is retired from 67 years as a grain thresher in Gerber, Calif. Now, he maintains the South Shasta Model Railroad, a miniature replica of the Southern Pacific line from Gerber to Dunsmuir, Calif., which includes 1/4-inch-to-the-foot reproductions of the trains, track, buildings, bridges and actual terrain of the original line.

Editor's note: This article is the first of a three-part series chronicling the 67-year career of a California thresherman, beginning with his earliest experiences in rural Nebraska.

A Place of Great Danger

Shortly after the belt incident, Hermann's father, Henry Hoblitz, a good farmer and a man of great strength, was pitching bundles into the grain separator on the belt side. Someone spoke to him from the side of the wagon, and as he turned to see who it was, he allowed his pitchfork to drop onto the belt. The speeding belt caught the fork's tines and drove the fork handle into Mr. Hoblitz's stomach. The crew rushed him to his house where he rested that day and the next. Due to his firm grip and great strength on the handle of the fork, the impact wasn't as strong as it could have been. He didn't suffer permanent damage, but it took only a moment of carelessness to bring him great pain.