Early Threshing In North Dakota

Northwest Engine

1904 Northwest Engine and Peerless Separator outfit of the father of Earl Olsen, Concrete, North Dakota. The crew composed of Indians from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Courtesy of Holland E. Maxwell, Route 4, Huntington, Indiana 46750.

Holland E. Maxwell

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Concrete, North Dakota 58221.

I was exposed to steam threshing at a very early age here in North Dakota in the extreme northeastern part of the state. My father and mother were married in 1893. Just when my father began threshing for himself, I am not sure of, but probably before he was married. His first engine was a return flue portable and probably a Northwest. It had done a lot of work as the rigs were few and far between in those days and the runs were long. I am sure that some falls the threshing was not finished when we were snowed in for the winter, and finished up in the spring. This old engine was sold for scrap in 1922. He had also bought a Case traction before 1900, and ran two complete rigs or outfits. He sold the case engine in 1915 to a man in Minnesota to use on a sawmill.

For some years we had in our grave yard on the farm two Advance and a Peerless grain separator. One of the Advance had a straw carrier and the other a Maple Bay blower. More about that blower later on. They made a lot of noise and could be heard for some distance.

The enclosed picture was my father's outfit in 1900, the year I was born. The engine was a new Northwest belted up to a much used Peerless separator. This picture was taken in 1904. I was four years old and am sitting on the tool box of the engine. The crew in the above mentioned picture was made up of Indiana from the White Earth Reservation in Minn. which was east of us in Minn.

In 1907 Dad bought a new 36' Minneapolis separator without feeder or blower. He took the self feeder and the Maple Bay blower off of the old Advance and put them on the new Minneapolis. In 1912 I started as straw-monkey, hauling straw to fire this Northwest engine. Later coal was used in place of straw. In those days the owner of the outfit usually furnished the bundle wagons and teams too. My father kept thirty-five head of work horses for this job as well as farming, as we did not have tractors for field work except in a few cases. I fired this engine the last year we threshed with steam which was 1918.

Cook cars as they were usually called was a very important part of the threshing crew. They were usually built on an old separator frame and wheels, and were self contained and often were over twenty feet in length. A poor cook and you were in trouble. Usually two women did the cooking. One time Dad had one man who took care of it alone. Cooks put in long hours. Five A. M. breakfast, forenoon lunch, dinner, an afternoon lunch, and supper at from seven to eight P. M., and for a crew of twenty-five hungry men. A flunky would take the lunches out to the rig and the men would eat as they came in to unload. When the cook car was some distance from the machine Dad would take the cook with the food in large kettles and eating utensils to where the machine was and there was a short noon hour while the men and horses ate.

When the cook car was moved to the next job by horses, the cooking utensils and tin dishes had to be placed so they would not fall all over the floor, as the steel wheels under the cook car made it ride pretty rough over ground that was never very smooth. If managed right the meals were very good, and a man did not stay in business long if they were not. It used to be said that an Army traveled on its stomach, and so did a threshing crew.

One thing that was a headache was bad weather. The men had to be fed regardless of the weather. During an extended rainy spell most of the hands would go to town for liquid refreshments and to get rid of their excess money. This was often trying and if the rain was too prolonged some would deliberately quit and the boss would have to get busy and hunt up replacements. This was often the case at the end of the season. It was surprising how many flimsy excuses they could hatch up when they pulled out.

As I look back on those old horse and buggy days, it was a good time to have lived. It meant long hours, with lots of dust and dirt, but we had good times and unions, strikes, excessive taxes were not known to us then.