Threshing Time in North Central Montana

Rancher recalls harvest and threshing time of yesteryear

A straw-burning threshing machine and crew

A straw-burning threshing machine and crew – including engineer, separator man, water hauler and others – at Kibby, Mont., in 1900. Emiel Miller was the steam engine's operator.

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W–oo–oo-oo-oo! 

The whistle blew a long blast to let the threshing crew know it was time for dinner. The men who operated the bundle wagons, which hauled the shocked grain to the threshing machine, stopped their work. They wiped their foreheads with big bandanna handkerchiefs, slapped the dust from their overalls, dusted off their hats and caps, and headed for the farm house. They were joined there by those who operated the steam engine and separator, all of them looking forward to the bountiful dinner they knew would be waiting. "Grandpa, I really like to blow that whistle," said 10-year-old Francis. He had been given the job of pumping the water out of the water wagon into the boiler of the steam engine. In return, his reward was blowing the engine whistle three times a day: when work began in the morning, and at noon and night to call the men to dinner and supper.

"I like that big steam engine, Grandpa," Francis said as they went up to the house.

"Yes, it's a dandy. I like steam engines, too," his grandfather agreed. "I wish you could have seen an interesting one I operated a long time ago – long before you were born. Our steam engines now burn coal or wood, but that one burned straw. I have a picture of it in the house, and I'll show it to you after dinner."

Before the men went into the house for dinner, they lined up at the washbasin outside the house. The farm wife had put out a bar of homemade soap and a pail of water, as well as towels often made from coarse cement sacks. Threshing was dirty, itchy work, and the cool water felt good as each man washed up.

And what a dinner awaited! Fried chicken, roasts, mounds of potatoes, bowls of vegetables from the farm wife's garden, homemade bread and butter, pies, cakes, pickles and jellies awaited. Each housewife wanted to be sure she served as good a "table" – or even better – than her neighbor.

After the big dinner, the men went out in the shade of the house, lay on the ground and rested for a short time before returning to the field. Francis reminded his grandfather of the picture of the straw-burning engine.

"This picture was taken in 1900 in a field near a small town named Kibby, Montana, that no longer exists," his grandfather explained as he showed the picture. "I think a photographer came out from Great Falls to photograph this separator and straw-burning steam engine. This was one of the first in central Montana. You can see in the picture, it took a lot of men and teams to get the crop out, but it was a forward step in farming."

Francis, now 81, recalls the days when he was that 10-year-old boy in north-central Montana in the late 1920s. Only a couple of local farmers owned threshing machines. They took them around to the neighboring farms, and all the neighbors pitched in, bringing their wagons and teams and helping each other harvest wheat and oats.

After the long, hot afternoon of work, young Francis again blew the whistle, and the men returned to the farm house for supper. The housewife, and any helpers she could get, had washed the noon dishes in time to prepare another big meal, realizing it would be late that night before she "washed up" from the second meal.

Those who lived nearby went home to sleep. Those from farther away slept in bedrolls in the bunkhouse, the barn or any place convenient. Francis slept in the barn during one harvest, when the rain came in through the window (probably no harvest the next day), and the horses in the barn were fighting, kicking and squealing in their stalls. It was never dull at threshing time!

Francis' grandfather, Emiel Miller, came to Great Falls from Nebraska in the late 1800s. He married there, and worked for others in the area, including Joe LaVoey, owner of the fabulous straw-burning engine and separator. Then, in 1908, Emiel filed on a homestead in north-central Montana. That homestead is now part of Francis' ranch near Harlem, where the steam-driven threshing machines of the past have been replaced by combines.

Combines, of course, eliminated the need for horses at harvest time. Francis recalls that care of the horses was a big task for the threshing crews. The teams had to be fed and watered morning, noon and night. In the morning, it took time to harness the teams, and at night, more time to remove the harnesses. These days, he says, it's a lot easier for hired men to just "turn off the key" on the combine, and drive their pickups home. The men who bring in the wheat today are glad to have their air-conditioned combines. But there is one drawback to modern harvesting techniques: grandchildren who beg rides on the combines will never know the thrill of blowing a loud steam whistle, as did their grandfathers years ago. FC 

Venus Bardanouve drew background information for this article from her husband, Francis, a third-generation Montana rancher. The couple live in Harlem, Mont.