A Threshing Machine Tragedy

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P.O. Box 256 Mayville, North Dakota 58257

There were many accidents around steam threshing engines before gas tractors took over the job of driving the separators. Perhaps the worst of these disasters to occur any place was the one on the Grandin Farm, No. 4, north of Mayville, North Dakota on October 21st, 1891.

The Grandin Farms were first started by the two Grandin Brothers, E.B. and J.L., bankers in Tidioute, Pennsylvania. They had bought many bonds of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1873 the railroad went bankrupt, so the bonds were valueless. However, the railroad had got a land grant from the government to build its tracks from Duluth, Minnesota to the west coast. So every other section for forty miles on each side of the track was railroad land. The Grandins and other owners of these bonds could exchange them legally for this railroad land. This is how they became the largest landowners in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. At the peak of their farming operations, they owned 75,000 acres. But they also bought some of this land, as they were wealthy oil men. One of the brothers had drilled the second oil well in Pennsylvania.

This large acreage was split up into different farms, like No. 1,2,3,4, and so on. They came to be called bonanza wheat farms, as this was the main crop on the new land of the valley. This huge operation required many horses and mules, and employed many men, especially during harvest and threshing in the fall. More than one threshing machine was needed to thresh all the grain that these bonanza farms produced before the snow came down on the fields.

There was a good wheat crop with much straw in 1891. So the threshing machines were behind with their work, keeping on much later than in a normal crop year.

On this October day, there had been a lot of bad luck with the machine. Some of the belts had got tangled up in the pulleys and shaft resulting in one cracked pulley and a sprung shaft. To get repairs, the foreman had to go over to farm No. 2 for a pulley to replace the cracked one. So much time was lost getting the separator fixed.

It was about 4 o'clock before they got this done, and were ready to go. There was a full head of steam on the engine, and ten loaded bundle racks standing around. Some of the crew members were also waiting to get started. All these idle men together, with all the trouble and the lateness of the season, made the foreman nervous. He told the engineer to start up, but he hesitated and said the water was too low in the boiler and he was waiting for the water to arrive, because it was dangerous to start with so little water.

This angered the foreman and he blew up saying to the engineer, 'to hell with you and your water tank, you start up right now.' Famous last words, as when the engineer started up the ensuing explosion decapitated the foreman, and his head was found 100 feet from his body.

Six men were killed in this accident, and two injured. The engineer M.N. Ernsberger, was found with his head blown open. The fireman, Hans Braasted was lying next to the fire box with his throat cut. Others killed were A. W. Blowers, J.M. Burns and William Clark. The impatient foreman, Allan Marsh, who was in such a hurry to get going, left a young wife and two small children.

Nate Osman, the head feeder, had a lucky escape. He was on his knees at the tool box, between the engine and separator, getting out some tools. 'All at once', he said, 'there was steam everywhere and iron flying by me. I started to run behind the separator; when I realized the danger was over, I went back and called out to the boys to come and help the injured ones'.

The explosion did freakish things. A saddle pony had been tied to the hind wheel of the engine. When the boiler exploded, the saddle was blown off the horse, but the pony was not hurt.

Before threshing started the engine had been in town, and put in the best condition to run. New flues had been installed and there were no flaws in the boiler.

The pile of debris that was left in the field from this disaster was regarded as an accursed spot on the ground. It grew up in weeds, and was not cultivated. The farm implements always swung around and avoided it for many years thereafter.


The Georgia Agrirama, state museum of agriculture, has been praised for providing older persons opportunity for participation in museum activities.

Agrirama has costumed interpreters, most of whom are members of the American Association of Retired Persons, hired through the Senior Community Service Program.

A steam-powered logging train is one of the exhibits. AARP calls the Agrirama program 'an excellent example of a way to put older people back in the work force in an interesting concept'.