ARCHIVES: Threshing Season in Gnadenhutten

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John Steel, 2705 Steel Rd. NW, Dover, Ohio 44622, writes, 'I ran across this old photo in our local newspaper, the New Philadelphia Times-Reporter, dated Sunday, December 7, 1997, and thought of the Album right away. This photo and story was taken some ten-twelve miles from my home here in the County of Tuscarawas, Ohio. I have tried to make an educated guess as to what make of engine and separator but can't come up with anything. In my opinion it possibly resembles a Cooper. I invite your input. Anyway, the picture captures the work that went into making us the best fed nation in the world. Keep the fire hot, lots of steam makes the work easier!'

The year 1901 in Tuscarawas County history could be called somewhat of a chaotic 12 months by the casual historical observer.

That was the year of the record April snowfall which started April 18 and dropped more than three feet of snow in four days on the county. Building roofs collapsed, sheds were flattened, trains were stalled, farm houses were isolated for days, electrical and mail service stopped and street lights went out. The snow did melt rather rapidly, and of course, local flooding occurred.

In July a single lightning flash killed a grandmother, her daughter, and two children, causing historian Henry Haglock to say it was the worst lightning bolt in county history.

A steel strike in September resulted in one man killed, another wounded in Dover riots. There was a widespread smallpox epidemic in the county resulting in deaths, but this also led to the first mandated vaccinations in the area.

President William McKinley died after being shot in Buffalo, and it was said hundreds from the county witnessed his funeral procession in Canton.

But all was not bad news for Tuscarawas County residents. A business merger was announced between Tuscarawas Railroad Co. and the Tuscarawas Electric Co. and plans were made to begin construction of a trolley line to Cleveland. Plans were also announced to bring Rural Free Delivery of mail to the county, and this became a reality in 1902.

But little heralded at the time was the growing evidence of the industrial revolution which was being made available to county residents for more trial revolution was not only evident in the urban iron and steel industry, and the coal mining boom, but in agriculture on the farm.

The accompanying photograph (1901) shows what was at the time one of the greatest advances in agriculture being made available to local farmers.

It shows Pete Zimmerman of Gnadenhutten and his crew (five sons?) on an early threshing machine getting ready for the season. Farming is a hard, difficult task today, filled with physical labor, but it is extremely difficult to conceive of how hard and slow the work was before the threshing machine, which has now been succeeded by the even more efficient combine.

Before the threshing machine came along farmers had to separate grain from stalks by hand and blow the chaff away. This was done by tramping the fields and working the grain, literally one stalk at a time.

A Scottish farmer has been credited with inventing a stationary water-powered thresher as early as 1788, but it was hardly a labor-saving device. Two Maryland brothers patented a thresher in 1837 which could be taken to the fields, and two horses walking on a treadmill produced power, but this was cumbersome and slow.

By the late 1850s, steam engines came along to power most threshing machines before the advent of tractors. A close inspection of the accompanying 1901 'Zimmerman model' shows how far methods advanced to the turn of the century and also how far advancements have come since then. Today combines will actually cut the grain from the field and then thresh it hence the combine or 'combination' of work.

But like modern combines, the 1901 model was very expensive for its day. Very few individual producers could afford one. It was left to men like Zimmerman to solve the problem by either group purchase or contracting the work.

Zimmerman (1858-1943) was the eldest son of Nicholas Zimmerman who emigrated here in 1850 to work on the Ohio-Erie Canal. Peter also operated a hardware store as well as farmed for 20 years. He not only contracted out his threshing business but also saw mill and planning mill services.

Peter was a long-time member of the Moravian Church and was a member of the building committee for the John Heckewelder Memorial Moravian Church in Gnadenhutten. Married to Emma Litchy, the couple had five sons, Peter, Joseph, Karl, Allen and Sidney, and one daughter, Elma.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Times Reporter, a daily newspaper in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. 'Archives' is a monthly historical feature written by agriculture editor/columnist Ed DeGraw. The photograph and essential information was furnished by the Archives room of Tuscarawas Kent State University campus with Earl Olmstead as curator. Olmstead is president of the Tuscarawas County Historical Society, and that organization annually publishes a pictorial calendar from which this picture was taken. The original photograph is now property of Kent State University.