Reflections of a Young Thresherman

A Young Steamer Reflects on Lessons Learned and the Value of Tradition and History

McCormick binder and thresher

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A very young Jeff Detwiler (left), his grandfather, Frank Gorrell, and Jeff's brother, Chad, on the machine that introduced Jeff to threshing and steam.

Some of you may find this hard to believe, but not so long ago this 35-year-old man was deeply involved with the now legendary annual harvest, much as our heralded Iron Men were party to the glorious threshing days of old.

At the tender age of 6, I was my grandfather's right hand man, helping him keep !track of what I thought at the time was a huge machine. That machine was a 12-foot McCormick 'combination' binder and thresher. I didn't know how they came up with the term 'combine' until four or five years ago when I finally started paying attention to one of Chady Attebury's threshing lectures.

My grandfather, a very wise man, worked his land until the day he passed away, and I remember the days of harvest as though they were yesterday. I spent every minute on the platform of that old McCormick with my grandfather, chewing on dust, watching the golden wheat as it was laid down, augered to the feeder and taken to the threshing cylinder. What came out in the grain bin amazed me! Not much payoff for all the stuff that was blowing out of the back of the combine, but I knew that this was what put food on my grandfather's table, and I respected him greatly for his commitment to the land. The harvest times were some of my fondest memories, and every summer spent at my grandfather's is now a time capsule that I open frequently, hoping to glean one more bit of wisdom from my time spent with him.

And oh, how we did eat. As all the old threshermen know so well, the food and the fellowship were as much a part of the entire threshing experience as spiking bundles, firing an engine or fetching water. The sight of grandma and my aunts pulling up in the wheat field meant that I would be sitting and listening I to my grandfather's stories, dining on some of the best tasting food ever created by any woman anywhere. I remember drinking milk from quart mason jars and fried chicken that would melt in your mouth, along with mashed potatoes, fresh green beans and hot buttered rolls. Even the fresh well water in wet, gunny sack-wrapped cider jugs was like pure gold.

It was amazing how simple foods could taste so incredible out under God's blue sky. I would soak it all in, laying in the fresh wheat in the back of the old grain truck. It was as close to heaven as you could get. Not a care in the world, just good, honest hard work and a nice cool shower at the end of the day out in the homemade wash pit attached to grandfather's old machine shop. This fancy shower consisted of a 55-gallon barrel mounted up in the rafters, with the top cut off so the sun could heat the water and a faucet and an old showerhead attached to the bottom to provide the refreshment. My, how we could get clean in a hurry on a cloudy day! That clean smell is something I will never forget.

I can say with all honesty that I am one of the last of a generation to have experienced what life on the farm was like with no running water and the infamous 'walk' to the old outhouse. You'll never know how good you have it now until you have made the walk in the snow at 10 o'clock at night and found the outhouse full of granddaddy long-leg spiders. It was usually better to just turn off the flashlight and make your visit quick. It is strange indeed how one can be so well kept in today's luxuries, yet long for and miss the past so. I reckon it is the same with the thresher-man's passion for steam.

My grandfather took me to my first steam show in 1974, when I was 7, and it was there that my lifelong education of steam, how it changed our world and what it meant to these Iron Men, began. I was hooked from the moment I saw the huge steam engines moving about the Pawnee, Okla., show grounds, and I was mesmerized by the powerful, yet beautiful sounds coming from their smoke stacks. Never did I imagine that one day I would be part of a much bigger story than my own.

Frank Correll, Chad and Jeff sitting on the back porch of the old family farmhouse in Mulhall, Okla., in the 1960s.

That First Engine

Fast-forward 20 something years to 1997. I had the chance to attend the annual Oklahoma Steam & Gas Engine Show in Pawnee, Okla., with my now betrothed, Cristy. We had only been dating six months at the time, and even she could sense something special about my relationship to steam and the old days of threshing. I told her then of my dream to one day own one of these incredible machines.

As fate would have it, in the fall of 2000 I received a call about the sale of the Ivan Burns estate. My father and I had purchased a Case threshing machine not two months prior, and I was still dreaming of a steam engine to make the outfit complete. Not knowing much about what to look for in an engine, I picked up the phone and dialed Paul Martens in Fairview, Okla. Paul had befriended me back in 1992 at the Major County Historical Society's Annual Threshing Bee in Fairview, Okla., and I considered him a trustworthy source of steam information. When all was said and done, I became the latest owner of a 1926 19 HP Keck-Gonnerman steam traction engine.

I was as excited as a boy with a shiny new Schwinn bicycle. I won't go into what my wife thought of the whole transaction, but let's just say the floor of the old barn loft is mighty hard and cold. She finally forgave my extravagance, and she even makes an appearance at the three or four steam shows I take the engine to each year. I think the Keck is even growing on her a little, but don't tell her I said that.

I have developed so much respect and admiration for the gentlemen who ran these engines so many decades ago, hacking a living from America's frontier, rearing their children, and burying many of them along the way. It has been a dream of mine since I was 7 years old to someday preserve those memories and history of a time that is today being so quickly forgotten. These men and their machines represented the true work ethic that existed during the era of steam, providing the springboard with which this great nation grew into the 'bread-basket of the world' it is today.

I'm still not sure what exactly drew me to these machines and the overall-clad men that surrounded them. Maybe it was the sheer, raw power they represented, which at the turn of the century was years ahead of its time. Perhaps it was the fact that these beautiful machines were built simply, painstakingly crafted by hand, with trial and error as their only source of reference material. No computer aided design, no computer testing and modeling, and certainly no automated assembly process. Just men's brains transforming ideas and thoughts of how these behemoths should piece together and work.

Or maybe it was just the simple fact that the gentlemen surrounding these works of art were works of art, themselves. They have graciously taken me inside their world, and shown me first hand what it truly means to fire and operate a steam engine. I have not come across a kinder, more good-hearted group of men in my brief 35 years on this earth. Theirs is a true value system, and they have inspired me in my faith and my determination to seek wisdom and integrity as my strongest suits. It pains me each year, attending shows around the region, to find that another legend has passed on, taking with him another of the last of a generation to have actually gotten their hands dirty to earn their keep. I only hope that I can do honor to their sacrifice and their spirit of hard work by passing this history and these gentlemen's memories on to my children someday, and then on to theirs.

My goal is to continue their legacy by showing young people of today just what went into making this nation such a strong and wonderful place to live. Most youth these days have no idea what our grandfathers and great-grandfathers went through to survive in the youthful days of this great nation. We have come to an age of instant gratification, of quick and easy consumption, where values are measured only by what position you hold or how much you have. I hope that people will be able to look at my life and know that I stood for strong values, God, and respecting and honoring those that came before me.

Contact steam and threshing enthusiast Jeff Detwiler at: 5900 Harvard Drive, Oklahoma City, OK 73122, or e-mail: jdetwiler@detwilerandassociates.com