Memories of Steam and Sweat

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Courtenay, North Dakota 58426

We are told by men who have studied the subject, and therefore are presumed to know, that there are three stages in a person's life. First, the period of childhood, when life consists only of the present and the future. Next, the period of adulthood, when a person's thoughts and efforts are centered upon making his way in the world. The third period is that of old age when one's thoughts turn back in review, to the times and events of his youth. Let me share with you the reader, some of my memories of these long-gone days.

Looming clearly through the mists and shadows of the past is the memory of the huge steam threshing machine of that era, and the large number of men and horses required for a machine of its size. They were as much a part of farm life then as the combine is today.

The crew was fed in a cook car a building built upon a steel running gear without springs or roller bearings. It was large enough to seat 15 or 20 men and was hauled from farm to farm by two frightened horses. In the cook car there were generally two cooks and two million flies. That, I have always considered, was an unfair ration and for a good reason. Actually, how could a mere two million flies be expected to consume all of the food prepared by two able-bodied women beginning at 5 o'clock in the morning and ending at 9 o'clock at night!

However, the flies did not work at their task unaided. Three times daily they were ably assisted by the crew whose appetites could, perhaps, be best compared to that of a herd of elephants. The etiquette and table manners were not, as I recall, precisely what Emily Post or Amie Vanderbilt would have approved of, had they been present. The paramount objective appeared to be to get the food from the plate to the mouth by whatever means. Potatoes, peas, and pie were eaten with the knife, and why not? After all, why is silverware placed upon the table if not to eat with? Nor was the fork placed there for its ornamental value alone. It too, had its uses. It could be used to spear food that otherwise would have been out of reach. Or it could be used to point the direction of the next field to be threshed, and perhaps, to draw a diagram of the field upon the table.

As might be expected, there was much talk and banter, and many ideas aired between huge mouthfuls of food. However I fail to recall any discussion of Science, the Arts, or of Literature, however brief. I do though, recall many occasions when the subject of intoxicants was brought up and discussed with considerable depth and fullness (this was the probition era) and with much speculation as to where a certain brew could be procured, its cost, and the chances, both for and against being alive the next morning.

Lest the reader be misled, I wish to state that although the manners were often bad, the food was good; well cooked, well served, and in abundance. This was especially noteworthy when one pauses to consider the heartbreaking disadvantages under which those heroic women toiled. There were, of course, no modern conveniences to lighten their work. Water was pumped b y hand and carried in an open pail generally from a well somewhere in the barnyard.

Vegetables had first to be dug from the garden before being prepared and served. The ancient coal-burning stove upon which they cooked was, more often than not, a discard from someone's kitchen, which the former owner's wife had balked at using any longer. Yet, in some mysterious way most cooks managed to serve huge, and very palatable meals each day, together with two lunches to be taken to the field. However, their efforts and accomplishments, I regret to say, many times went unnoticed, unappreciated, and poorly rewarded. Truly, they were the unsung heroins of their time.

As was the custom in those days, the threshing crews bedded down in the barn loft for the few hours of rest that they were allowed. With no thought of a bath. They simply spread their blankets upon the hay, and still in their work clothing that showed the sweat and dust of the day, they laid themselves down and were soon asleep.

Because of the many horses needed for threshing in those days, it was necessary that they be crowded rather closely together in the barn at night. This brought together horses that were strangers to each other and had not been formally introduced. Why they remained friendly enough during the fore part of the night, and why they waited until the wee small hours to begin their horsing around, I do not know. Without fail, sometime after the stroke of twelve, and after the crew bedded down in the loft above, were nestled all snug in their beds, the quaking world begin. Perhaps someone of the men, awakened from a sound sleep, might (for a fleeting moment) have thought that the prophets of old might have been right after all, and that the world was indeed coming to an end. And sometimes a spike pitcher, or some other uncouth person, would lift his voice and commence chiding those below, casting rather pointed insinuations upon all members of the equine family, their ancesters, and expressing a wish that all members of the breed be lowered to a region noted for its extreme heat. It is doubtful, however, if those below heard or heeded the voice from on high, as they settled old feuds and started new ones.

Although there were some twenty men to a crew, it was easy to tell who made up the machine crew. For example, it was not difficult to distinguish the separator man from the others. He swore more calmly than an ordinary spike pitcher. He talked around his cud of Climax, taking his time and placing his oaths where they would do the most good, and using them to further enhance and amplify to greater heights, the thought he was attempting to express. Although he and the engineer were the most knowledgeable, and therefore were the elite of the crew, they were not always friends. They often disliked each other heartily.

Of course, all steam threshers had its fireman. He was as necessary and indispensable as the engine itself, or the separator that it powered. His was a rather lonely existence because he was the only one of his kind. He seldom spoke and even more seldom washed. He, it was, who arose from his bed like a sleepwalker at the unearthly hour of three-thirty or four o'clock in the night, and groping his way in the darkness, left the barn loft and went forth to the field where the machine had been left the night before. There he would begin stoking the engine's boiler with straw. All this was necessary that he might have a supply of steam when the bundle crew arrived for the day's threshing. His day would end some sixteen hours later with the coming of darkness a day's work for which he would receive four dollars or less.

As a part of every steam threshing crew there were always two spike pitchers, and sometimes a couple of field pitchers. Their work was distinctly different, as were the men themselves. Spike pitching, or spiking as it was called, was a form of slavery which had not been abolished by the Civil War. A spike pitcher was generally an ambitious young man in the prime of life, and above average in strength and stamina. He stood at the machine from early morning until late at night and helped the bundle haulers unload their loads into the separator. Although the bundle men generally had a few minutes rest while waiting their turn to unload, there was no rest for the spike pitchers. Even when a field was finished the spike pitchers were to assume the role of flunkies and hurry about preparing for the move to another field. With some twenty men and horses waiting, every minute counted. Only when the move was actually under way, could they snatch a few minutes rest. For this extra work they would receive 25c, and later, 50c a day more than 'an ordinary bundle pitcher a well earned bonus indeed.

On the other hand, the field pitcher was an entirely different caliber of person. He was often a sly fellow who believed that the world owed him a living. His job was to help the bundle haulers load their loads in the field. His work often took him to the furthest end of the field, far from the watchful eye of the boss, where he could loaf and still draw pay. His policy was to talk much and accomplish little, and I have always suspected that the field pitcher of yesteryear was in some way, the forerunner of our present-day men in Congress.

They are all gone that large concentration of men and horses, as is the machine itself, with its smell of smoke and dust. In late years a few dedicated men have attempted to bring back in a small way, the sights, the sound, the smells, and the ways of yesteryear, so that the youth of today might have a glimpse of that by-gone era. However, these events, generally advertised as threshing bees or threshing shows, are at best a poor imitation of the real thing. Where are the sweating, swearing bundle haulers men who considered it a disgrace to be late to the machine! Where is the tired greasy fireman whose efforts with straw and water furnished the steam that made it all possible? And where is the 'straw monkey' who brought the straw from the separator blower to the engine who was neither monkey nor man, but was instead, a boy who should have been in school. And let us not forget the grain haulers, that small group of willing men who bent their backs to the shovel, regardless of the heat of the day, long before the portable grain elevator came into our lives.

Missing too, are the many horses, including the huge 'tank team', giants of their kind, generally of Percheron or Belgian breeding, who could (when the big fellows lunged in their harness) gives a thrilling demonstration of horse power long before horsepower went under the hood. They were the elite of the equine family, and could, when called upon, bring a fourteen barrel tank of water across a soft field, mounted upon a wagon gear innocent of roller bearings. Gone too, is the cook car, that portable commissary on wheels with its faithful cooks, where three times daily, hungry men came to replenish the vast store of energy required for a day's work in that forgotten era. A few of the wooden hulks, blackened by age and the elements, can still be found, half hidden in a jungle of weeds in some out-of-the-way fence corner, a sad reminder of that long-ago age of steam.

The spacious barns, once the pride of their owners, and the scene of bustling activity, where once the horse herd fed and fought, stand empty now, and silent, save for the feeble chirping of the sparrows in the loft above. These buildings, desolate reminders of a once glorious past, stand now deserted and forgotten and in advanced stages of disrepair.

In a progressive nation such as ours, time brings progress and progress brings change. And nowhere has progress brought more change than in the field of agriculture. The modern farmer, as he guides his combine (many times equipped with cab and air conditioned) over fields where once men toiled in the boiling sun, may finger his hydralic controls completely unmindful of the past, as he does the work of an entire threshing crew. And perhaps his daughter, hauling grain, home from school between semesters, watches the portable elevator as it does the work of many men, while she reads the gossip column or studies for her College Degree.

Where, where indeed, are the men (and women) who went to make up a threshing unit in those days of aching muscles and calloused hands? To the young it is as though they never were. Their memory lives only in the hearts and minds of the aged and perhaps a few of the middle aged. Many have gone to another, and perhaps a better world. The rest, one by one, will soon follow.

May they find the rest they so richly earned. I would wish it no other way.