Generations of Threshin' in Kentucky

Interviews with Cousins Billy and Joe Peel

Winston Coleman (above), a well-known photographer who enjoyed snapping pictures of Peel family threshing rigs

Winston Coleman (above), a well-known photographer who enjoyed snapping pictures of Peel family threshing rigs.

Portrait courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader

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4745 Glenway Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45238 rhode@nku.edu

Billy Peel and Joe Peel of Nicholasville, Kentucky, brought history to life for me. Thanks to my good friend Patricia Ellis of Lexington, Kentucky, I had been put in touch with Joe and Billy, whose stories had a special appeal to me, since I own a 65-horsepower Case engine, serial number 35654, that once belonged to their grandfather. I expected to find out many important details about my engine and I did but I had not anticipated learning so much about the steam era.

On a visit to Nicholasville, I sat on a couch adjacent to Billy's easy chair, the family photograph album on the coffee table before us, and I relived the threshin' days, when Billy's father, uncles, and grandfather ran steam rigs in Fayette and Jessamine Counties.

Billy wore an earnest expression when he recalled the good ol' days. In central Kentucky where the blue-grass grows and champion horses graze, the good ol' days may have lasted a little longer than they did in some other places. Farm steam engines and steamrollers were used right up through World War II. Even though Billy is by no means an old man, he remembers the steam threshing and road building. The Peel family were custom threshermen during the threshing season, and, during the other months, they put their steam engines to use filling silos, crushing rock, clearing hedge, buzzing wood in ten-foot sections with a cut-off saw, steaming tobacco, and making molasses. The Peels also farmed, raising tobacco and corn and pasturing cows. His grandfather Joe's place was about six miles south of Nicholasville in southeast Jessamine County near the community of Elm Fork. Peel Lane, named for the family, led up to the old home place. "My granddaddy lived in Jessamine County, but he did most of his work up in Fayette County," Billy began.

"Granddad had eight sons and six daughters," Billy continued. As soon as the boys were able, they took roles in the family business. Billy's father, Luther, was the oldest; he was an engineer. Another brother, Bob, also ran his own steam engine, a 65-horsepower Case. Brother Carl ran engines, including mine, and he often cut silage. Brother Brutus usually took care of the thresher but occasionally ran my Case. Brother Rice hauled water and drove a truck. Brother Shirley drove a team pulling a bundle wagon. Brother Elmer occasionally hauled bundles but also did the cooking. Jord helped out wherever needed. Hannah was the oldest daughter. Then came Arkie, another daughter, followed by Martha. Vick, short for Victoria, was another daughter. Josephine and Gladys rounded out the family. Billy's grandfather had almost enough sons to make a full threshing crew, which usually numbered an engineer, a man on the thresher, two men sacking, four or five men driving teams and wagons, a water hauler, and a cook.

During a telephone conversation on February 24, 2000, Joe Peel, Bob's son, said that the younger sons and daughters in Grandfather Joe's family "didn't work at the threshin' the way the older ones did."

According to Billy, threshing was "the big excitement." Billy continued, "They had six or seven teams of mules. Most of the time, they didn't shoe those mules. They had hard feet. We'd drive them on the road up to Fayette County. I was about thirteen years old. We'd take about four wagons. A lot of times my grandfather would rent a team from Bill Bowman. Bill had a big team of mules, and a fellow named Earl Scott would drive them. My grandfather used mules to haul grain with. We raised a lot of corn in the bottomland to feed those mules." When Billy spoke about threshin', I saw in my mind's eye the blue sky of summer, banks of fluffy white clouds, and fields of orangish yellow wheat stubble tucked between hills and ponds.

While Billy talked, he slowly paged through the photo album. He came to a newspaper clipping of a snapshot taken in 1905 on the Elbert Jennings farm on Keene Pike. In the photo stood Grandfather Joe Peel, then in his thirties. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, suspenders, a shirt buttoned at the neck, and a big mustache. Beside him, a portable steam engine glistened. "He used to run a gristmill with it," Billy gestured toward the engine. "They ground chicken feed. The engine just had a valve they opened up for the throttle."

By this time, Mary Margaret, Billy's wife, had joined us in the living room. She smiled, nodded toward Billy, and said, "LizzieElizabeth was Joe's wife. Later on, Billy was the one who hauled his granddaddy around when he needed to go anywhere."

"Sometimes we run two rigs at the same time," Billy continued. "One might be on Clay's Mill, the other up on highway twenty-seven just about where Fayette Mall is now. The man who owned that farm had some wheat up around in there."

Billy leaned back in his chair. A smile crossed his face. "In 1938," he recalled, "we were going to start threshin' on a place where we'd have to make three or four sets in the field. That morning, the pitcher stuck his fork in the first two bundles and rolled them over at my feet. A swarm of bees come out of them bundles. A whole swarm! He went for the woods, I went up the field, and the mules went for the barn." Billy chuckled. "I didn't get stung!"

Joe remembered, "Daddy and them threshed the biggest crop of wheat ever grown in this part of the country. I heard them talk about it many times. It was on the Rob farm. They threshed a big field of wheat. It was 3,600 bushels. That's a big wheat crop, especially around here."

"Sometimes we loaded the straw back in the barn," Billy said. Mary remarked, "That was a mess, especially if some kids got up in the barn and started playing in it." Billy went on, "These little farmers down in the hills would thresh out of the stack and blow the straw into the barn. One time, we threshed a crop of barley that the farmer had mowed down and pushed with a bullrake up under the feeder. We had two or three men putting it in the feeder."

One memory led quickly to the next. "Another time," Billy reminisced, "I was standing high up on the bundle wagon." He gestured to a photograph of a wagon beneath a towering cube of wheat sheaves. "That's how we used to load them in those days way up there like that. It didn't seem I was falling off. It just seemed the ground came up to me."

I winced, picturing the shock of landing. "Did it hurt?" I asked.

Billy didn't reply; he merely turned another page in the photo album. Mary's eyes twinkled. "It had to hurt," she said, "but he's pretty tough."

Billy turned pages with photographs and articles documenting wheat threshing on the Shellie farm between 1925 and 1930 and the Jim Lowery farm in the 1940s. Then Billy came to a newspaper clipping that featured a faded snapshot of Grandfather Joe and a threshing crew. "My granddad had a cook-shack," Billy said. "I just barely remember it. Shorty, a black man, worked for my granddad. He cooked that cornbread, soup beans, and potatoes. We'd have bacon for breakfast. When I was old enough to begin to remember more, Granddaddy had a wagon with a stove. He'd unload the stove, set up the pipe, and they'd cook in the open under a tree."

Joe remembered the cookshack. He said that, at one time, his mother, Bonnie, and his father's sisters "used to cook for all those men."

"I started out by helping Elmer, who was the cook by that time," Billy mentioned. He stretched back in his chair, relaxing. "We were threshin' up on the eastern part of Fayette County," he narrated. "A man had a mare pony and a stallion pony, and his children rode the ponies. I was just a boy then. One morning I was down at the cookshack, and his boy rode the stallion pony down. 'You ride this pony,' he told me. He said it was gentle. I got up on it, and, directly, it shot out like a motorcycle. They'd had him shut up in the barn for several days, and he was wanting to run. He raced over toward where a fence was. I knew I'd never make it over that fence. I started pulling on the reins before he got up there where Rice was pumping water. The pony turned before he got to the fence, and we made a great big circle." Billy laughed.

I asked what time of the year the Peels threshed in their part of Kentucky. "They'd start with barley in the last week of June," Billy answered. "Then the wheat would be ready. This'd go up through August. We'd have all these mules at the farm where we were threshin'. We'd turn them out on the field at night, come back and get them in the morning, then move on to the next place."

"How much did you charge?" I inquired.

Billy said that the prices varied, depending on the season and the year. "From about 1937 through World War II, we charged roughly ten to twelve cents per bushel of wheat, rye, or barley. A bushel of wheat weighed sixty pounds, rye fifty-six pounds, and barley forty-eight pounds, if my memory serves."

"During the Depression era," Billy recollected, "Granddad would go on Monday morning to Lexington on Vine Street and say, 'We need ten men on this truck.' There might be twenty get on there, and ten of them would have to get off again. He took them out to help with the threshin'. They slept in the barn, under the wagon, or wherever. They'd work for the week, then he'd pay them a dollar a day and take them back to town on Saturday. On Monday morning, he'd go back downtown to get the extra hands. Many of them had drunk cheap alcohol over the weekend."

Joe recalled that many of the men who did the work of threshing during the Depression around Lexington were black. "They'd go out to work a week at a time," Joe mentioned.

A wet season in 1937 or 1938 came to Billy's mind. The Peels were threshing east of Lexington on the Armstrong Mill Road. "We threshed the man's barley. We had a fifty-horse Case threshin' there. We started in on the oats, and that Case had all it could do." Billy interrupted his story to point out, "You get your shocks wet, and you can't do anything with them. Oats were the heaviest thing to thresh. If you got hung up, you had to pull that feeder loose and get all that wet straw out of there." He went on with his account, "That year, the oats were so heavy you could hardly haul them. It'd take two or three men to sack them, they were so heavy. My uncles said, 'We'll get that big old boy tomorrow, and we'll get this threshin' done.' Next day, we brought in the big double-cylinder Frick. We started in, and this double engine got going shug-shug-shug-shug. It really rolled them oats out of there!"

A small double-cylinder Frick was the last steam engine Grandfather Joe owned. "He got that engine from a fellow who lived near Carlisle, but the farm the engine was sitting on was near Avon."

"We sacked all the grain in those days. After I quit helping the cook, mostly I drove a team, but I did some sacking. They were two-bushel sacks, a hundred twenty pounds of wheat in a sack, and you'd have to be pretty stout to put one of those on your shoulder with one hand. To begin to pick up one of them sacks, you let it fall into you and let it roll around your arm and shoulder. Sometimes they'd load it all up and take it to the Lexington Roller Mill, where they took the good wheat to make bread. They had another mill for bread, Woolcott Mill, up there on Fourth Street." Other mills ground feed for livestock.

"Have you ever seen rye?" Billy wanted to know. I shook my head. "Well, rye was a tall crop and had a lot of straw. It'd stretch all across the wagon bed."

Billy turned another page in the photo album. I wasn't sure if he were showing me the pictures as much as he was using them to stir his memories. "We had a 28 or 30 International four-cylinder ton-and-a-half farm truck that hauled water for the engines. One of them was a single-cylinder Frick. There it is filling a silo at the Henry Downing Fleetwood Dairy Farm in the thirties. He used to put the milk in quart bottles delivered to your door. He had over a hundred acres. He had a big spring in the back, and he had a pump. He'd go over to it, put about a gallon of gasoline in it, start it, and let it run till it ran out of gas. They'd use the water to wash the concrete and the buckets and all. Most of his milking he did by hand. He later had a Dodge truck for the Fleetwood Dairy. The silo was fifty feet high. It took a little better than a day to fill that silo. The Frick was scrapped in World War II."

Billy paused then commented, "I believe it was the old Frick about 1937 that had the safety plug melt out. My dad was running the engine. Maybe the water wagon didn't come fast enough. Whatever the reason, he let the water get low and melted that plug out. The steam came up around the engine. You had to let it cool down, get up in that boiler to get that plug out, and pour new metal in the plug before you could run again. My granddad bought that engine from Till Burdine. Granddad used it to pull a gristmill that had wooden gears on it. I believe they said they were made out of apple tree wood."

Joe remembered that the family had a gristmill to grind the cornbread and flour. It was powered by steam.

Between 1920 and 1925, the year Billy was born, Grandfather Joe used a 1916 Case steamer on one of his rigs. Ed Troutman of Brookville, Ohio, later bought it and ran it at the Darke County Steam Thresher's show. A photograph from 1986 depicted the engine at the showgrounds in Greenville. A caption gave the full history: the Case, serial number 33618, was built in 1916 and sold by 1920 from the Case agency in Lexington to Joe Peel; the next owner, J. T. Patterson of Harrodsburg, had the engine from 1925 to 1932; the third owner, Harry Edwards of Bryantsville, had the engine from 1932 to 1959; and Troutman purchased the Case in 1959.

At one time, the Peel family ran three rock crushers simultaneously. Billy said, "One of them was at Mount Lebanon, another at Jig Water"

"Or Elm Fork," Mary explained. "It's the same place."

"The third one was at Glass's Mill on Jessamine Creek," Billy continued. "There were big rock quarries down there."

Billy and Mary had that easy way of talking back and forth without really interrupting each other that comes from being happily married for a long time.

Billy pointed toward a photocopy of a photograph showing a Case steamer belted to a rock crusher. "That's your engine," Billy said. "At Glass's Mill," Mary said. Billy added, "Grandfather Sanders, my mother's dad, owned that farm. They built a platform up to the crusher, and they'd feed that rock off the platform down into the crusher. That was kind of a white looking rock in that area. They did most of that crushing in cold weather. They pumped the water for the engine out of the creek. Boy, you could fill a tank with that two-inch hose!"

In the July/August 1996 issue of The Iron-Men Album Magazine I published an article (titled "How I Became a Case Man") giving the best information I had then on the history of my engine, built in 1923. That was before I met Billy. Now I was about to get accurate details from him. "Your engine," he said, "was sold new out of Lexington from the Mountain Dew Coal Company in the mid to late twenties. Arch Hager took it on the railroad to Berea, then he drove it to Jackson County to crush rock. The engine next went back to the Case dealership in Louisville. My granddad bought it from the Case Company there. They loaded it on a train and brought it to Nicholasville. In the late thirties, Granddad sold the Case to Cecil Johnson. Cecil and his brother Vernon owned it together. Cecil was a farmer and an auctioneer. Cecil and Vernon sold the engine to Howard M. Dunn in 1968."

In 1995, I bought the engine from Howard's son Lloyd.

Another of the rock-crushing rigs used a 40-horsepower Case. The rock crushers supplied the raw product for macadam roads. The Peels' financial compensation came from two sources. Billy said, "The WPA [Works Progress Administration] would furnish part of the money, and the county'd pay some and that's how they got the roads built down there."

"Most of the stone for roads," Billy added, "came from the Kentucky Stone Company on the Kentucky River."

Another photo depicted the single-cylinder Frick belted to a Case thresher. Near the threshing machine, grain sacks were stacked five high like a wall of heavy pillows. Studying the picture, Billy smiled. Another anecdote had come to mind. "One time, we were threshin' on Mr. Staton's farm," Billy started in. "He had a tenant farmer. The tenant was loading that grain on a brand-new wagon. He had bean sacks and tater sacks and all kind of sacks. Finally, that wagon was so heavy he couldn't move it out of its tracks. He had a team of big black workhorses hitched to the wagon. They pulled and couldn't budge it. They broke their hame strings, and he wired them back up and tried it again. They still weren't going anywhere. After they took the belt off the engine, they looped a chain around the wagon tongue, just to get the wagon started. It had sunk down about that far in that hard ground.' Billy held his hands apart to indicate a depth of about four inches. 'After the engine got the wagon out of its ruts, the horses pulled it on around to where they could load that grain on a truck. The tenant had a hundred sacks. It weighed ten-thousand pounds on that wagon!"

Joe mentioned, "We've got a picture of Billy and Newton Land. It shows them feeding the separator. There's a team of mules on either side of the feeder. Winston Coleman used to come out there and take those pictures. They did have a big picture by him in the Farmer's Bank in Lexington. It was a photo of the Peel family threshin'."

Billy turned to a picture taken by Coleman, the celebrated Lexington photographer whose fame today reaches well beyond Kentucky. It showed a 65-horsepower Case with a toolbox up under the canopy on the left-hand side and contractor's driver wheels. "We threshed with that engine in 1943 at the Turner Farm at Clay's Mill. Turner had at least three farms. Rosemont Garden is the name of the street that ran beside Rosemont Dairy, which Turner owned." Billy identified Bob Peel, Benny Peel (a son of Brutus), and Rice standing by the right driver wheel. "Who's that on the bundle wagon?" I asked. "That's me," Billy replied. "Granddad ran that thresher until about 1947, when he bought a Case thresher with rubber tires on it. My uncle Bob got that sixty-five Case from Burgin over near Danville. He brought it across Brooklyn Bridge over the Kentucky River. Several years later, that bridge fell in the river. Granddad had a Minneapolis engine at one time. We went to Lebanon to get a sixty-horse Case. We went to Springfield to get a fifty-horse Case, and, past Perryville three or four miles toward Danville, we got a sixty-five Case. It had no cab."

Joe explained where the Peel family stored so much equipment: "We had two different places we kept the engines. We had a barn, and it had a big shed on it. We put the steam engines and the threshers in there. We had another farm up the creek, and sometimes we'd store them there. I used to play on the engines when I was a boy."

At one point, Billy asked me, "Have you ever seen a Case thresher with a geared blower, the kind where the blower lay down behind there?" I hadn't, except in books."Well, we had one of them once. We slugged it one time and stripped all the gears out of there. Granddad had to hire another guy to finish threshin', and it cost him about as much as the grain was worth."

Remembering the many engines that the Peel family owned, Billy recounted, "We used a forty-horse Case to cut and fill silos for a man who owned beef cattle. He'd raise them until they were nine-hundred pounds, big ones! This whole subdivision where we are right now was a beef farm. He had another farm nearby. My granddad sold the Case. Carl, my uncle, drove it over to Buckeye to deliver it."

"We used mostly the fifty-horse Case to pull hedge trees. They'd give you all you had, to pull them roots out of the ground."

Joe told me, "I can remember them using the steam engines for threshin' and crushing rock and pulling hedge. I helped steam tobacco beds. That lasted a whole lot longer than steam threshin' did. I still have two tobacco pans. They're all metal. Some of them were made with wood covered with tin, but the wood would get soaked with that steam and would get too heavy to move. You had to steam each spot for twenty minutes. You know, you could put them potatoes under the pan and cook them! Put them eggs under there and cook them!"

Billy also described steaming tobacco beds: "Well, we had a pan nine foot by twelve foot. Some people wanted their tobacco bed nine feet across, some wanted it twelve feet. You could turn the pan either way. It was a pan that covered the ground. We stuck the steam hose under the pan and hoed the dirt up around the edges of the pan. The purpose was to kill the weeds and fungus and bugs."

Joe recalled his father making molasses with steam: "He put a steam line down in the sorghum box and steamed it to make molasses."

While Billy turned another page in the photo album, he said, "George Ware had one of the engines my granddaddy hada forty or a fifty-horse Case. Granddad had sold it to Everett Jennings, who sold it to George. He had it all knocked down and was going to put a new boiler on it. He passed away recently."

When the steam hobby began, Luther built a model of a nineteenth-century thresher. A photograph of the wooden machine showed it to be a credible replica.

Mary's voice sounded nostalgic when she said, "The home place was just sold in 1999." She reflected on that fact then offered this advice: "You have to let go of some things and move on where your life leads you."

Billy and Mary had been led to have a large family, though not as big as Granddad Joe's. Their son Danny and his wife Linda have two children, Dana and Shane. Their son Jimmy and his wife Vivian have two daughters, Gwen and Jaime. Their son Michael is single. Gwen and her husband Mark Traylor have two children, Natalie and Jakob. Grandson Jakob had spent the afternoon with us, while we reminisced about the threshing era. Clustered on a drop-leaf cherry table near me were beautifully framed family photographs.

The Peel family made a prominent contribution to the steam power era. The good ol' days of steam threshin' and other uses of steam power came to life for me when I talked with Joe Peel and Billy Peel of Nicholasville, Kentucky.