A thresherman's life story

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Editor's note: For some years, Dan S. Zehr has been, at my request, planning to write his life story of his threshing experience. It was completed just prior to his death and was passed on to us by Mrs. Zehr after his demise. Mrs. Zehr wants it said that the copy was proofread by Prof. Clyde Huddleson, Normal, Illinois.

We are certainly glad to get this story and to pass it on to you.  - Elmer

Now that the Illinois Brotherhood of Threshermen has completed its tenth annual reunion, the time has come to record a few interesting facts found in the early background of this important organization.

The evolutionary growth and development of the methods used from the beginning of threshing small grains until the present time furnish some of the richest and most stirring data in all agriculture history. I doubt very much if there ever existed any established group of men whose members show as much pride, spirit, and joy in the annual reliving of many of their former experiences related to the threshing program of years ago as does this brotherhood.

Perhaps the basic reason that I have enjoyed to the utmost the yearly planning of these several reunions is that I was born into a threshing machine family in Peoria County, Illinois, September 15, 1887. However, my parents, Daniel W. and Kathrina Streitmatter Zehr, moved to a farm east of Fairbury in the spring of 1890, and there I lived for a long, happy, and profitable time among men who were full-fledged threshing machine operators. My father and his three brothers operated threshing machines and my mother's brother also owned an outfit. Then, to bring the chain of interest on down to my own generation, my brother, who passed away in 1922, was owner and operator of two threshing outfits, and operated a corn sheller and fodder shredder as well.

And now, finally, myself. I have been a thresherman active in the business for fifty-eight years. So you can see that I developed according to the old adage 'bred in the bone and in the blood', and it was inevitable that I should carry on the worthy profession of 'threshermanism' for almost three score years.

At the age of three, back in the fall of 1890, I had my first glimpse of a steam engine, and with that glimpse I might say my fate was sealed. Never had I felt such excitement as I did one early morning when awakened by the musical whine of a buzz saw in our orchard. (To this day, I say there is no sound sweeter to human ears).

I dressed quickly, leaving necessary buttons unbuttoned, shoe strings untied, and rushed to the window to see what was happening in our usually quiet and bird-filled orchard. There, to my great surprise and joy, I saw an old upright Canton Monitor nick named 'Pop Bottle' because of its shape, although I did not know these names then chugging away. It had been pulled to my father's farm by a team of large mules owned by a couple of Negroes. Not being accustomed to seeing colored people, nor to the sound of the noisy, strange-looking engine, my day promised to be the most amazing and different than any I had ever before experienced.

All forenoon, getting as close to the machine as Father would permit, I watched this unusual outfit, covering my ears with my hands, at times, to soften the head-splitting noise, scuttling out of the way of its pungent wood smoke, wiping wisps of straw from my eyes. I can still hear the shrill toot when the largest of the two Negroes apparently the engineer pulled the whistle string to notify Mother that the men were coming in for dinner. Between bites of mother's god cooking, the conversation concerned the fine farm that Father owned, but, for the most part, it was about the work the threshing crew meant to finish before nightfall, the necessity of threshing machines for lightening farm tasks, and how lucky farmers were that some imaginative person had invented the threshing machine.

I can remember this as distinctly as if I were seeing again, at this very moment, the serene country scene, the enthusiastic, grimy workers gulping down their food, and hear their wise (to me) words. And knowing that, as soon as the apple pie was eaten, I would soon be listening to the noisy and satisfying chug-chug of the awesome engine and the occasional deafening toot of its whistle.

From this first day of my being introduced to a threshing machine I shall hurry to the following autumn. A neighbor, living about four miles from us, was to play the role of the thresherman in our particular community. He had a little six H. P. Russell engine and thresher with handfed boards, and the web, or straight, stacker.

The day it was moved into my father's barnyard to give us service, the engineer was taken suddenly ill. Father had been more or less eager to try his hand at running the little Russell and, since he had hauled water the past season for this engine, felt that he was capable of managing it without any trouble. And so he set it to going and fortunately controlled its whims like a veteran. He was so successful that I say this episode marked the beginning of his threshing career. Every year, from this time until his death, he was a custom thresher, and a good one!

The next steam engine to come to my attention, and one that I remember very well was a twelve H. P. Gaar Scott with belt wheel on the left side; no slabs or tops had been used up until now, which was in the fall of 1892.

My enthusiasm and interest in the giant machines was as keen as ever. In my boots, and rubber overshoes if the weather was bad, and work clothes imitating my father I followed the puffing monsters as much as he would permit. During the winter of 1892 he had engaged the father of Samuel Fortna, of Forrest, Illinoisa nearby town to come and shell his crop of corn. As usual I was late in getting up and, after hurriedly grabbing a bit of breakfast, I rushed to the window to watch six horses going around and around, pulling the four hole spring sheller. At the front of it a man was scooping the cobs, the long and unbroken type, into a pile close by, while four men in the crib were scooping corn into the sheller. I shall never forget the picture of the man on the platform on the middle of the power, in his too-large overcoat, felt boots, and with long whip which he curled through the air; then, suddenly jerking it, caused a pop like a firecracker if the horses failed to move as fast as he thought they should.

At the dinner table that noon the men remarked proudly that they had shelled twenty wagon loads during the morning. From the pleased expression on their faces I knew that they felt they really had done something wonderful, although my young mind was incapable of understanding just what.

Immediately after the meal, since there were no conveyors, it was necessary to reset the sheller. This task was soon accomplished and the work continued. Incidentally, Father built the first conveyor in Livingston County. He took one-half inch yellow poplar boards which he had saved from an old automatic straw stacker he had dismantled the year before, and used bolts which my brother and I had taken from an old Buckeye wire tying binder manufactured by C. Aultman and Company of Canton, Ohio.

The years rolled along and improvements were constantly being made in the steam engines and the shelters. In 1893 Father engaged the Coleman Brothers of Wing, Ill., to thresh his wheat with a twelve H.P. Gaar Scott engine and a new Huber thresher with a self-feeder and band cutter. This improvement lessened a really hard and dirty job.

The next important engines to come to my notice, and you may well believe that I was precocious in my knowledge and liking for the huge; powerful machines, were a ten H.P. Case with center crank left side fly wheel, and an Advance thresher with feeder and web stacker. Father by this time was on the tail end of his fifteen-hundredth run, which proved to be an unsatisfactory one. The fall had been exceedingly wet, which caused threshing to be very late. The oats had grown in the shocks, a condition not welcomed by thrifty farmer father. But his crop was threshed and placed in our big barn.

A week later the barn burned to the ground, destroying many tons of hay and more than three thousand bushels of oats!

But this overwhelming loss did not prevent his buying a machine of his own during that winter. He purchased it in Peoria, Illinois, where the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company had a branch office. He ordered one of their latest outfits which consisted of a 32x50 hand-fed separator with blower. Also, he bought a Peoria Hart Telescoping weigher, and a twelve H.P. Upton Port Huron engine with a Marsh gear reverse.

Before this new thresher was shipped, Father decided because of the large run he had to thresh to return to Peoria to add to his order. This time he chose a new eighteen H.P. compound engine and a 36x60 Port Huron thresher with a blower belt going around the corner of the machine. This also had a flat bottom blower, pipe, a Lamb feeder, and a Peoria Telescoping weigher. At about this time he added to his 'collection' a new Marseilles spring shelter with eight holes for feed chains in the feeder. He operated this for many years with great success. Success, at times, being paid fifty cents per hundred bushel for shelling corn, and for threshing one cent per bushel! But a dollar was worth a dollar in those days and that meant something.

During this same year 1894 Father purchased a second Port Huron outfit, a sixteen H.P. piston valve engine and a new Avery Yellow Fellow separator which had on it a J. B. self-feeder, blower on one corner with a set of gears which lifted and lowered the blower hood as it traversed from side to side. The feeder had a large sign on each side of it saying, LOOK OUT OR I WILL GET YOUR FORK. And it meant just that since it had a large hook on each side to pull the handles in. Many a fork was jerked away from the pitcher, but with no fatal results due, possibly, to the big-lettered warning.

As the old sixteen H.P. piston valve Port Huron grew older and the runs longer, Father decided to trade it for a new twenty-two H.P. Avery Return Flue engine with a Grime reverse and a Mason steam lubricator having a large brass stem in its middle that was part of the piston. This piston forced oil into the steam line. Too, the Avery had a good cross head pump which was lacking in the Port Huron. About this time Father also bought a new Port Huron Cylinder sheller and his first job with it involved a thirty thousand bushel job in the town of Mairbury, Illinois and located back of the Claudon Bank. I should state here that much of the corn in the ear was hauled to elevators during this period, which, naturally, introduced a different sort of task for men with corn shellers.

Father's business continued to grow, and in 1900 he purchased a new eighteen H.P. Port Huron with V cleats, locomotive and long cab, cushion seats on both sides, head light, a large dinner bell on the dome. The machine was one of the finest and most practical in our territory. Because of Father's ownership the Zehr family felt that it had 'arrived'. No owner of the most super-duper truck to be found at the present time could be prouder of his vehicle than we were of our magnificent Port Huron. The fall after Father's purchase he threshed sugar cane seed for a good friend living south of Fairbury and who operated a big cane and cider mill, a change from the usual task of shelling corn and threshing wheat and oats, for he did much custom work.

The forward trend of steam engines and the important place they occupied in the lives of farmers brought a very unusual, but necessary, organization into existence The Thresherman's National Protective Association of Chicago, Illinois. Father was a member of this group and I have his membership card which I prize highly.

Time passed swiftly for me in those days, yet during my boyhood I absorbed all that my young brain could comprehend and which was to help me immeasurably when later I followed in Father chaff-covered footsteps and became owner and operator of my own machine. The toots of the huge, clumsy engines, their laborious panting I call it their clouds of dense smoke bringing tears of both nostalgia and pain to the eyes, recall a phase of romantic American life now found only in the pages of history and in the annual meeting of Illinois Brotherhood of Threshermen. Let us hope that our brotherhood can cause the present generation to appreciate the wonder of those bygone days and keep alive 'steam engine' interest for years to come.