Reminiscing with Arthur J. Holen . .

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2195 Dudley Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota


'Slow and steady', the engineer said time and time again the first few days when I started firing a straw burner back in 1911. The engine was a Northwest New Giant return flue built by the Northwest Thresher Co. in Stillwater, Minnesota. The first few days the engineer had to take the fork several times as the steam went down. Technique is important in firing the straw burner. A beginner's big fault is to want to push in too much straw and thereby smother the fire. By and by the beginner gets into the groove. Slow and steady and with an eye on the steam gauge one gradually gets to master the situation. There certainly is ambition in youth. Get up in the morning at 3:30 to get up steam so as to start the days threshing at 6:00 A.M. That is in stack threshing - the starting time in shock threshing varied with the dew and the number of racks loaded the night before. If it did not look like rain there were several racks loaded ready for the morning. Quitting time was generally around seven. However, in some shock runs in western Minnesota it was the practice to thresh one day on each job. This meant moving to the next job after supper.

In 1911 the fireman was paid $2.50 a day which was 25cent more than the bundle pitchers were paid. In 1912 I was paid $3.00 a day which was considered good wages for firemen.

A fireman soon gets to recognize the good straw for firing. The blue stem wheat straw had good heating qualities. The velvet chaff straw was was not as good as the bluestem-besides the velvet chaff had awns or beards which made it miserable on a hot day. A poor straw for firing was marquis wheat straw especially if it was cut on the green side. I always dreaded a job where there was an a mount of marquis wheat. Barley straw had good heating qualities but, Oh Man!, the beards on the barley straw how they would crawl up the pants leg. Imagine after a hot day firing with barley straw and at night sleeping in the tender or in the sleeping shack without change of underwear for a whole week. I shudder now when I think of it! Oat straw was good, but flax was the fireman's delight but the engineers bug a boo. Flax straw does not pack and has such high heating qualities that cold air is drawn thru the chute and of course apt to make for leaky flues if used for any lenght of time.


A number of incidents which seem amusing now come to mind. When I first started firing I got myself rigged out with a black fireman's cap, and of course a red handkerchief. On the first day it happened that we had to move about three miles at noon. As I said the engine was a return flue which gave off heat like an oven. The fireman stood on a little platform in front of the tender which had a covered box on it filled with straw. The hot August sun beat down unmercifully. That might my ears started to sting. By morning I had in place of ears a baloney ring on each side of my head. When the engineer saw me in the morning he said, 'I think you had better get yourself a straw hat'. That was sound advice for sure.

Another incident involved a cemetery. As a youth I was afraid of cemeteries after dark. We were threshing on a farm just west of LacQuiParle village in LacQuiParle county, Minn. The rig pulled into a setting of four stacks late in the afternoon beside a cemetery. Two stacks were left at quitting time. I was already scared thinking about next morning. In fact I lay awake most of the night getting more scared by the hour. 3:30 comes around and I had to go out to the rig and start getting up steam. Any one who has fired up a boiler in the early morning know that a boiler will make some weird and haunting noises as it is heating up. I stood there poking straw into the straw chute frozen with fear. I never have known a time when I was as much relieved as when I had steam up and could go in for breakfast.


As a fireman stands behind the engine slowly shoving the straw into the fire box there is an opportunity to observe the quiet of the early morning.

Just before the dawn everything is peaceful and quiet. The fireman is alone with nature. Then the cock starts to crow in the hen house. Then a light from the kerosene or gas lamp in the kitchen-a signal that the cooks are about to prepare breakfast. Next comes the farmer out of the house with milk pails on his arms-this is before the day of the milking machine. Pretty soon there is activity. The horses whinny for their feed. The pigs start squealing for their slop and the cows start getting up from their rest. By now steam is up so the blower can be turned on it won't be long now. The separator man and the engineer have arrived on the scene to belt the machine and grease up. Shortly after five and 150 pounds of steam and time to go in for breakfast.


Will anyone who followed the threshing rigs 40-50 years ago ever forget the food that the farm women put out? Three big meals at the table and forenoon and afternoon lunches out to the field-and what lunches! All kinds of cookies and frosted cakes and sandwiches that made your mouth water. I marvel at how they did it. And mind you no refrigrators or deep freeze and no gas or electric stoves. My hat is off to you ladies of the bygone days. We worked hard but we enjoyed it!


Much against my wishes I was persuaded to return to Windom Institute Academy for my sophomore year. However in 1912 I was so taken with the firing job that I did not go back to school. In the winter of 1913 I took a three month course in steam engineering and blacksmithing at the University of Southern Minnesota at Austin. They taught everything-you name it they had it. (they ceased operations in the early twenties.)

In the spring of 1913 Saskatchewan beckoned. However, threshing in Saskatche was is subject for several articles. So after three years in Sask. again back to Minnesota and a firing job in 1916 and 1917. The best part is that I went back to the Academy in the fall of 1917. Got a job firing the furnace to put myself thru school. But threshing was in my blood and I combined owning and operating threshing rigs with school teaching and government work for twenty years.