Bringing in the Sheaves

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Box 355 Arlington, South Dakota 57212

Each summer, Prairie Village at Madison, South Dakota, sponsors an old threshing machine in action. As I watched that separator gobble the grain bundles, my thoughts returned to my childhood days on the farm.

As a child growing up in the 1930's, I loved to watch the growing oats become a green carpet. When the oats matured, breezes bent the heads and made fields look like rippling bodies of water. In a week or two, as if by magic, the verdant hues became a crescendo of golden colors. Meanwhile, my father was repairing canvases, sharpening sickles, and buying twine at Ringsted, Iowa.

Dad harnessed Maude, Bess, Dolly, and Star and hitched them to the binder to cut the standing grain. With a clickety-clatter, the binder slashed the thick, hollow stems and placed them on the canvas conveyor. At just the right time, an iron arm would encircle this bunch of oat stems and, using a length of twine, would tie them into a bundle.

My father pulled a lever, and kerplunk, the bound sheaves dropped onto the stubble field in a windrow. Almost immediately, another bundle flopped into the carrier. Tails and manes of the horses streamed sideways in the wind. Their eyes reflected a sullen, weary look.

Mother worked side by side with Dad all during harvest. As my short legs trailed along to bring lunch and fresh water to my parents, I smelled the aroma of fresh oat juices. My bare feet felt the pricks of the sharp oat stubble. Penetrating heat caused perspiration to dampen our clothes. Chaff and dust from the air combined with our sweat to turn our shirts into a starchy grime.

Our next task was shocking the grain which involved our entire family. Dad and Mother, wearing long sleeves and gloves, grabbed the twine and encircled a bundle in each arm. They set them on their butt ends in tepee fashion, the bundles interlocked and supported each other. Taking two more bundles, they placed them next to the first ones. Soon six bundles stood side by side. My sister, Maxine, and I completed the shocks by placing a bundle on each side. At the same time, Dad was creating a new shock, taking pride to make straight rows like army tents.

When Mother's energy permitted, she sang as she shocked. She had learned that the best way to settle an argument between Maxine and me was for her to burst into a humorous song. Dad was not blessed with an ear for music, but occasionally he hummed a monotone melody.

These pyramid-like creations in our fields got the oat kernels off the ground and provided an opportunity for the sun and air to further dry the kernels. If hail fell, damage to the grain in the shocks would be minimal. Our neighbors, the John Bosold family, insisted on capping their shocks. They flattened both the head and the butt of one bundle and placed it like a crown on top of the shock.

The July sun beat down relentlessly. We wore straw hats with wide brims to protect our faces from sunburn. Our lips and throats felt parched. Our family brought lunch and water along to the fields. We drank the warm water, but it did not quench our thirst. As we lunched, we heard the chatter of a flock of blackbirds hovering overhead, hungry for a taste of the newly ripened oats. Our faithful horses at home were getting a deserved rest.

Threshing was the next operation. Gus Gustafson, who owned the machine, was the star performer. At 5:00 a.m., on the first day of threshing, we heard the huge steam engine coming down the country road, puffing sooty smoke all the way. It pulled the threshing machine, a dinosaur about thirty feet long, exclusive of feeder and blower. The thresher stood about eight feet tall and six feet wide. It was also called a separator since it separated the grain from the straw. As Gus neared our place, he blew several blasts on his fog-horn like whistle. Maxine and I rushed to the end of the lane to watch the exciting parade. Even the animals joined in the celebration. Collie barked, the roosters crowed and the cows joined the symphony.

Steam engines furnished the power for threshing. A water wagon, usually pulled by horses, was a necessity as the water supplied the necessary ingredient to make steam. One person, called the 'water monkey', made many trips to a creek, slough, or pump each day. His tank held eight to ten barrels and he filled it with a hand-operated pump and a long suction hose.

Ten neighborhood bundle haulers began to arrive about eight in the morning. Dew on the bundles made them too tough to thresh at an earlier hour. Steel rimmed wagon wheels, topped with bulging hay racks, crunched along the dirt roads. We could hear the clip-clop of the horses' hoofs and the jangle of their harnesses. The brawny men, with their three-tined pitch forks, went to the field to load their racks. They hoisted one bundle at a time, skillfully arranging them in rows.

Two drivers reined their horses up to the hopper of the thresher and unloaded bundles at an appropriate speed, alternating from each side of the machine. A rhythm was established to feed the bundles evenly. Woe to the man who clogged the machine! Like the jaws of a lion, the devouring maw in the cavernous opening gobbled the bundles. The thresher clattered and shook as the steam engine puffed black smoke. The loose chaff eddied and circled in little cyclonic clouds that blinded me.

The blower spit a constant stream of golden straw, piling it in a stack in the feed yard. The straw stack grew higher and higher. Maxine and I yearned to climb this adventurous mountain, however, we were cautioned that, like quicksand, the loosely packed straw could swallow any intruder into its deep billows.

At noon, teams were watered and tied to a fence or a tree while the crew ate. The men bantered, told stories, and teased the younger members of the crew. Each family dog slept under his own wagon. Woe to the dog who ventured under the wrong wagon! When Gus and his crew finished at our place, he traveled to another farm. At the end of the threshing season, the crew celebrated by throwing their well-worn straw hats into the machine.

In the early pioneer days it took sixty-four hours of labor per acre to bring a crop from seedtime to harvest. I can bear witness to the fact that, even after the advent of the binder and the threshing machine, a great deal of sweat was required. These mechanical devices, however, were giant steps toward progress. Nevertheless, the comradeship developed during the threshing season remains a delightful memory.