Steam Threshing Rings

At the turn of the last century, steam threshing rings brought steam engines to communities

A Russell steam engine with thresher

A Russell steam engine with thresher.

Photo courtesy John F. Spalding, www.spaldingscorner.com

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The big steam-powered threshing rigs that came on the scene at the turn of the last century were critical to expansion of agriculture in America. But the price of such rigs put them out of the average farmer’s reach. When groups of farmers banded together to buy the equipment and form neighborhood threshing rings, it represented an asterisk on the history of industrialization. 

“The threshing ring was a significant phenomenon because it was one of the rare times when modern technology actually preserved cooperative patterns,” notes Lennis Moore, Chief Executive Officer, Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Assn., Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Before steam engines became widely available, threshing was handled on an individual basis by small separators and treadmills. Later, gas tractors helped farmers operate independently. “You didn’t need to rely on your neighbors,” Lennis says. Tractors ran smaller separators with smaller crews. “One single man could do what used to be done by a bunch of men.” But for a golden time in the early 1900s, neighbors worked cooperatively.

Substantial investment

Up to the late 1800s, most grain was harvested by small threshing outfits and processed by small barn threshers and groundhog threshers. In many areas, the average day’s output when harvesting wheat seldom exceeded a hundred bushels. In the 1860s, small portable steam engines sold for about $1,000 ($26,300 today). Just a decade later, larger self-propelled engines came on to the market. More versatile but also more costly, the engines were only economically feasible when used in custom applications.

After 1900, the price of large threshing outfits topped the $4,000 mark ($102,500 today). That figure was so far beyond the resources of the average farmer that the threshing business was almost entirely turned over to a group of professional custom threshermen.

Even then, owning a threshing rig was no safe bet. “There was no easy money to be made,” Lennis says. “Ownership represented a substantial investment. It’d be the same money as you’d spend now to buy a huge, new combine. People today ask how can the modern farmer enjoy economic success when equipment costs so much. I believe people said the same thing in 1910 when they looked at steam engines, separators and water wagons.”

Equipment wasn’t the only challenge. A big custom operator might employ a workforce of up to 30, a particularly daunting challenge in the less populated West. There, itinerant workers filled the ranks. Others were pressed into service at gunpoint. “Occasionally the demands for migratory labor became so great that attempts were made to force men to leave the trains and accept jobs in the fields,” writes Reynold M. Wik in Steam Power on the American Farm.

Working for the common good

More than a few farmers were happy to hire custom threshers to handle the work, even if it meant living by others’ schedules and boarding large groups of laborers for days at a time. But some objected to the expense, and delays caused by weather and breakdowns became unacceptable. By World War I, when custom operators began increasing rates to cover increasing operating expenses, many farmers were ready to try something new.

Pooling their resources, small groups of farmers bought threshing outfits on a cooperative basis. Each family paid its share of purchase price and operation and maintenance costs. In the years immediately proceeding 1920, such arrangements were referred to as “company” machines.

The most basic tenet of the threshing ring called for exchange of labor. Each farmer typically furnished one man and a team for each 40 acres of threshable grain on his farm. After the threshing season, a settling-up date was set when a final business meeting was held to square accounts. At that meeting, the treasurer presented each member with his threshing bill and made the adjustments necessary to equalize discrepancies in the amounts of labor furnished by each member during the season.

“They’d band together as a group of neighbors to provide for each other,” Lennis says. “They worked together, ate together and got to know each other very well.” The result was a congenial relationship not only among the men who worked on the crew, Wik notes, but also among the entire group of farm families. These associations merged with a common interest to create a friendly social atmosphere. In a passage from Steam Power on the American Farm, Henry Bossman of Sheldon, Iowa, recalls the day of settlement:

“The men sat around a long table, often out of doors, the ladies visited, the young fry ran wild around the farm yard and some of the young people paired off. And then it was all over, but the comradeship of a big job well done would linger on in our memory. Each of us had the good feeling of having been needed by his fellow man, and of being respected as a good worker and a good sport. I don’t know of a better way to weld together a group of people than to have them on a steam threshing rig year after year. You didn’t have to wonder whether you could depend upon your friends, you had been partners on the threshing crew, how better could you test a friend than that.”

Casualty of progress

For all the nostalgia now associated with the threshing ring, it was an imperfect system. The combination of 28-inch separators and a labor force made up of farmers who went home every night to do chores drew out even small threshing jobs that might have been done in a matter of hours. If bad weather set in, the farmer’s wife could face cooking for the crew for a matter of weeks.

Many farmers proved to be poor bookkeepers, failing to make adjustments for labor inequalities. Grievances and grudges festered. And because most of the farmers in the cooperative ring were not experienced threshermen, operations were often plagued by inefficiencies.

Soon, however, the threshing ring became almost a moot point. Technology advanced rapidly in the 1920s and the gas tractor became a common sight on the American farm, gradually pushing steam traction engines aside. Threshing rings were replaced, in some instances, by silo-filling rings, where a farmer with a chopper, wagons and blower would fill silos at neighboring farms with the traditional exchange of labor.

“For over half a century [the threshing ring] was the most highly socialized aspect of farm life,” Wik says, “surpassing in importance and duration of time the other communal aspects of farm life, such as husking bees, barn raising, butchering and hay baling.” But modern technology and societal changes in the post-war years conspired against farm traditions. “As time went on, there was less and less need to rely on neighbors,” Lennis notes, “and with that, we lost something.” FC 

For more information: 
—Lennis Moore, Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Assn., 405 E. Threshers Rd., Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641; (319) 385-8937: e-mail: LennisMoore@hotmail.com; online at www.oldthreshers.org.
—Steam Power on the American Farm by Reynold M. Wik, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.