Steam Show and Threshing Bee

Smith Steam Engine

Mary Jane Reckinger Smith Steam Engine, Illinois Thresher Co. Sycamore, Illinois, 1917

F. D. Schrauth

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We thank Fox Tales of Industrial Supply Company of North Aurora, Illinois for permission to reprint the following article by Peg Tyndal Jackson. And we thank F. D. Schrauth of 112 S. 5th St., St. Charles, Illinois 60174 for sending us same.

Typical of the steam shows held from April to October all over the country was, the one held this August for the 15th year on the Taylor Marshall Farm just north of Sycamore. Gigantic steam engines, many of them built around 1917, put on demonstrations of threshing and sawing wood as they did it 'back then'.

On display also were gas tractors, separators, and a great many other items of antique farm equipment. There was even a balloon ascension, with a pretty girl going up, up and away; and a parade through the grounds of all the whistling, snorting, puffing machines. Two teams of enormous oxen, each beast weighing 2600 lbs. plodded their way along, pulling a swamp buggy. As in the 'good old days' threshers' dinners were served by the ladies of the Charter Grove Grange.

This nostalgic event was attended by around 12,000 people over a period of four days, and it not only brought back memories to the Old Timers, but kindled interest among the younger people who came in droves.

'There's something about steam,' says John Malsch, President of the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club, the organization that puts on this show. 'Steam only lasted about 40 years,' Mr. Malsch went on, 'but it was good, efficient power. . . and once the steam was up, those old engines didn't let you down.'

The boss of each threshing job was the engine operator. Sometimes it was an outsider who contracted to thresh the grain. Or it could have been one of a 'ring' whose members got together and purchased the steam engine, as it was with Newton Gould of Elburn, an exhibitor at this show.

At a Sheriff's Sale in 1924, Mr. Gould and nine other men bought the last engine manufactured by the Illinois Thresher Co. in Sycamore in 1917. They paid $1,000 for it, $100 apiece. Mr. Gould drove the 25 h.p. engine home from the factory, and for a good 20 years he and the nine neighbors used it to thresh their oats, wheat, and barley, to run a saw mill and cider mill, and to fill their silos and shred the corn.

Mr. Gould, the engineer, would drive the engine to the job first thing in the morning. Since it took an hour-and-a-half to get the steam up, he'd pour on the coal or wood, and line up the engine next to the water tank wagon, as soon as that crew member arrived.

Several sharp toots on the whistle assembled the rest of the crew. They had to level the separator (also called threshing machine), line up the steam engine with the separator, put on the drive belt between the two, and bring around the grain wagon. As soon as the first bundle wagon came in from the fields, the men would start forking the sheaves of grain onto the separator's conveyor ramp, and the threshing was underway.

As the day went on, a regular code of whistle toots established communication between the engineer and the twenty or so members of the crew. One short and one long blast on the whistle, for instance, meant 'Get another grain wagon here or we'll have to dump it on the ground.' Two short blasts meant, 'We need a bundle wagon. Hurry!'

Or three short, frantic blasts said to the man who was filling the water tank in the cow yard, 'Come right now, full or not, or this whole blasted thing will explode!'... to quote Mr. Malsch, Steam Show President, himself a steam engineer for many years.

There'd usually be around ten teams of horses at a threshing bee in this part of Illinois . . . more in the Dakotas. Great care had to be taken that a horse's switching tail didn't get caught in the belt that drove the separator when the bundle wagon was lined up beside it. The separated kernels of grain would pour out of the side of the separator into the grain wagon, and would then be hauled to the barn. On the front of the machine was the windstacker from which the straw was blown onto a strawstack. The light chaff lifted off into the air.

The going price in those days for threshing wheat was 4 a bushel, 3 for barley, and 2 for oats. A gadget on the separator counted the bushels of grain coming out of the separator. A time-keeper kept track of each man's time at $1.50 an hourman plus team.

In those days about 40 bushels to the acre made a good crop of oats. This sold for $1.00 a bushel on the Chicago Grain Market. Nowadays the 95-100 bushels per acre bring only 40 to 50 a bushel. An old time steam engine and separator could thresh as much as 3000 bushels of oats a day.

When noon arrived, all twenty men took their turn at table. Since very early morning the farm wives had been preparing a meal, usually consisting of huge roasts of beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, beans, corn, peas, homemade bread, cabbage slaw, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, cottage cheese, apple sauce, and most often a good slab of apply pie to top it off.

Those days may be gone foreverbut it's good to recapture them, either in memory or imagination, at a Steam Show and Threshing Bee like the one in Sycamore.