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In my great-great-grandfather's barn northwest of Pine Village, Indiana, in the 1860s and 1870s, oxen trod in a circle to thresh wheat with their hooves. (This barn was built in the 1850s and is still standing.) Within two generations, harvesting, threshing, and separating the grain became mechanized and required concerted interaction among rural people. By the 1920s, a person standing on the level ground to either side of Pine Creek could see columns of smoke rising from steam engines and could hear the morning whistles calling to crews of farmers, 'We have steam up and are ready to thresh!' During the first two decades of the new century in Pine Village, then a town of two-hundred residents, cooperation flourished in a variety of forms, from the harmonies of the mandolin orchestra and concert band to the teamwork of the town's football club. Of all such collaborative endeavors in and around this rural hamlet, steam-powered threshing united the highest numbers of citizens in carefully synchronized activities.
From 1899 to 1919, Pine Village fielded a football team which was undefeated for twelve years and professional from 1915 to 1919. Over two thousand spectators would convene to witness the clash of mighty opponents a large crowd in a sparsely-populated region. The management hired the legendary Jim Thorpe to star in an exhibition match. My great-uncle Charles Rhode played fullback and occasionally center, and my cousin Claire Rhode both played on the team and sponsored it financially.
Around 1910, Samuel C. Fenton, a talented musician who had learned his craft through performing with various ensembles in his hometown of Pine Village, played first trumpet in Arthur Pryor's band, considered second only to John Philip Sousa's band. Pryor had been Sousa's top trumpeter before he organized his own ensemble. The half dozen of the best concert bands toured the country entertaining crowds in cities small and large from the turn of the century until the early 1930s. Such bands were emblematic of the harmony of yesteryear.
'Cooperation' was the byword of rural people. Nowhere was that teamwork more in evidence than in threshing. Horses accomplished much of the labor and were valuable possessions. My father watched members of the Horse Thief Detective Association wearing badges and marching in parades in Pine Village. Commissioned by the governor, these organizations threatened to exercise frontier justice if any crooks were caught.
The marriage of horse power and iron implements gave blacksmiths all the work they needed. My great-great-uncle Tommy Fenton, Pine Village's blacksmith, and his assistant devised a shoe to prevent the famous harness horse Dan Patch from 'interfering,' or skinning one front leg by striking it with the other front hoof. Until Daniel Messner sold Dan Patch to M. W. Savage of Minnesota, Tommy shod 'the Fastest and Most Popular Harness Horse in all the World's History,' as a 1913 advertisement proclaimed (see Floyd Clymer's Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines, page 98). Two of Dan Patch's special shoes were set in concrete as a modest monument in front of the blacksmith shop and probably were buried there when people who could not have known the history of those horseshoes recently erected a building over the site.
We imagine the ringing blows of hammers in that blacksmith shop of long ago. We envision a steam engineer watching intently while Tommy repairs a broken part. When iron horses powered threshing machines, Pine Village hosted the formation of a number of rings or runs associations of farmers collaborating during the threshing season (see 'A Hoosier Town and Her Engines' in the November/December 1994 issue of The Iron-Men Album Magazine). The company run northwest of Pine Village tended to thresh where the straw could be blown into barns rather than threshing in the open fields. East of Pine Village were farms more recently tiled and drained. In general, the mows of the newer barns there were smaller. When my great-uncle Charley Cobb ran a Reeves rig for Joe Williams east of Pine Village, he was accustomed to setting threshers and engine in the open, but when he substituted for Jake Kiger, the engineer of the company run, Charley usually belted the Huber to the thresher beside a barn so that the wind stacker could fill the spacious mow with straw. (The accompanying box preserves for posterity the names of members of William's threshing ring.)
Wooden staves covered by a thin metal skin formed the water tank in front of the Huber's smoke box. The bottom edge of the tank had rusted away in spots. My father, Joseph Curtis 'Joe' Rhode, remembers a hot summer day of threshing at his grandfather Joseph Thomas 'Tom' Cobb's tall barn in a low area where eat inside farmers' barns but were fed from these boxes. My father commented that, for men and horses, 'It must've been the least pleasurable to work on the bucket run of any run with which I was acquainted.' The bucket run hired Zack Strickler as engineer for many years, but, on more than one occasion, Jake St. John took a turn. Joe Williams and Charley Cobb spent two successive years threshing the bucket run while others filled in where Joe and Charley usually worked east of town.
Incidentally, around Pine Village, most farmers fed their straw to livestock. The few who baled straw sold it to the Straw Board in Lafayette where it was used to make cardboard boxes. Gas-powered 'Indiana' trucks with hard-rubber tires hauled loads of straw from Pine Village to the Straw Board in late fall and early winter. The Indiana Wagon Company of Lafayette built these vehicles. The Straw Board accepted even damp straw, if it were still yellow.
Each year, the threshing season officially ended on 'settle up day' when the members of the threshing run would gather to divide the profits according to pre-arranged agreements. Children of the era regarded the occasion as a grand party embellished with delicious ice cream. My father said that the company run's settle-up days at George Hess's home were particularly memorable. On chairs in the dappled blue shadows beneath the hardwood trees sat the threshing men with their account books while children concentrated on hide-and-seek in the yard and adolescents played baseball in the pasture.
Farther to the northeast, Herb Crane and his son Loyd, a former football team member nicknamed 'Jersey,' ran their Avery Under-mounted for a ring. At sundown one day late in the steam-power era, the Avery with threshing machine in tow came chuffing up the road and stopped in front of my great-grandfather's farm. Charlie Allen, the hired man, meditatively chewed a straw while Herb swung down from the cab and sauntered over. Jersey leaned his elbows on the Avery's windowsill and watched. 'It's gettin' dark,' Herb observed. 'It 'pears that-a-way,' Charlie responded. 'What do you say to letting us keep our rig in your barn lot overnight?' Herb asked. Allen squinted at the sunset reflected in the black paint of the engine's cab. 'I reckon you can keep her here,' Allen consented, 'but not by the barn. Put her back there along that fence where the land kinder slopes down.' The Cranes obeyed then walked up the road to town. The next day came and went with no sign of the Cranes. Other days followed. The thresher was moved away later that winter, but, despite repeated promises to come get the engine, the Cranes abandoned it. For three or four years, the hulk rusted where it sat. Eventually, it was junked. My father saved its big clevis as a souvenir. He surmised that the Cranes must have known that something was seriously wrong with the engine.
The steam era was drawing toward an end. Two Rumely engines and two threshers belonging to Fred Albright were housed in a large shed to the left of the easternmost road in 'Oklahoma,' the curious name for a neighborhood of houses near the railroad in Pine Village. The shed burned the heat was trapped. Jake, the engineer whom Tom's son Charley occasionally replaced, was an easy-going fellow. 'He was slow moving, but every movement counted,' my father said. Jake would whistle through his white mustache. On that hot afternoon, a lazy melody floated above the chuffing of the engine. Suddenly, my father noticed smoke rolling off the water tank. Afraid of fire, Joe got Jake's attention. With a calm, deliberate manner which my father found frustrating under the circumstances, Jake opened a valve to fill the scorched, empty tank.
Around a steamer there had to be plenty of water. Where Jake was threshing, the water wagon would pull up, and a hose from the engine's injector would be placed in the tank. The Huber drank water directly from the wagon until the water hauler decided it was time to get more. He would attach one end of a hose to the nozzle low down on the wagon reservoir and insert the other end in a small livestock tank beside the engine. He would fill that tank with the water remaining in the wagon's reservoir, then he would set out to refill the water wagon from a stream, a well, or a large stock tank, pumped by windmill, at a distance from the threshing. Charley Cobb also kept a livestock tank beside the Reeves engine east of town.
The ring closest to the northwest edge of Pine Village was known as 'the bucket run.' (The accompanying box preserves the names of bucket-run members.) The threshers carried their dinner in a bucket instead of following the custom of sitting down to a lavish meal prepared by the wives of farmers on the ring. The bucket run used basket racks on the bundle wagons and had no pitchers in the field; instead, the bundle haulers walked beside the wagons and tossed bundles into the basket. The sills on the wagons extended rearward farther than normal and held two feed boxes on the back corners. Bucket-run horses did not to the ground, destroying one of the Rumely rigs. Fred never threshed again after that. Jay Max sold his Advance engine to a junk dealer who cut it up for scrap. I think of that engine when I turn to the same recipe which Elva Conrad, Max's housekeeper, and her daughter Elsie (later married to Milton Dowden) followed when they baked sour-milk drop cookies for Max's threshing crew in the 1920s.
According to my father, one of the last new engines to enter Warren County was a Keck-Gonnerman which the Fleming family south of West Lebanon bought. It threshed for four years, sat unused for eight or nine years, then was scrapped during World War II. The epoch of the farm traction engine faded away.
In that era, so different from our own, the majority of children saw both parents throughout the day and were well acquainted with each parent's tasks. In our metropolitan present, sensible people keep their jobs and their lives separate, but, for farm families back then, the home life embraced work in barn and field. At threshing time, farmers beheld the product of their labor. By contrast, much of our work may seem meaningless because we contribute only a preliminary step in a process and seldom or never view the result. Similarly, downsizing and 'bottom-line' economics have banished the old-fashioned virtue of loyalty to a job and to one another. A significant but gradual cultural shift which began to occur in the late 1800s took place in the way personalities developed. Earlier, society prized individual expression, even to the extent of accepting eccentricities. Within reason, fresh traits and quirks of character provided sources of entertainment. Later, society emphasized a greater degree of conformity. This change accompanied the transition from a rural to an urban America. Anyone who remembers a relative from the late 1800s who had an inimitable personality can sense the magnitude of this cultural transformation.
The most noteworthy change in rural society occurred when small gasoline-powered tractors and one-man combines enabled each farmer to return to the pre-thresher tradition of working independently. The threshing machine had brought farmers together, but the combine drove them apart again. Ambivalence toward collaboration and independence characterizes the history of agriculture. This uncertainty reminds me of a traveler who asked a farmer which of two roads was the better way to town. 'Take either one,'' said the farmer, ' and, before you get halfway, you'll wish you'd tuck t' other.'
Concurrent with the rise of the small tractor was the shift from a rural to an urban population. Beginning in 1932, the majority of U.S. government officials came from cities (see Arthur Moore's The Farmer and the Rest of Us, page 130). Along with such profound alterations came a gradual forgetting about North America's agricultural heritage. The allure of the city eclipsed the values of the farm. It may be claiming too much to state that agricultural life is superior to urban living. To do so might mean celebrating a pastoral ideal which never truly existed. It is important to acknowledge, however, that a predominantly rural America differed tremendously from our metropolitan existence. In a place like Pine Village, the agricultural legacy lives on. There, to reclaim yesteryear is a delightful possibility.