3982 Bollard Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45209
At threshing reunions, my dad is not always inclined to compliment the men feeding the threshing machine. Occasionally, he expresses to me his criticisms of the job they are doing. His remarks convey no animosity and are not the complaints of a crotchety old-timer. Instead, his valid assessments are based on his experience and are intended to help me to understand how threshing was done. My father, Joseph C. Rhode, pitched bundles, hauled bundles, and fed bundles during the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. His bundles seldom went sideways or backwards into the cylinder of the threshing machine although, as he would say, 'anybody can make a mistake now and again.
'There was considerable competition and pride,' Dad once explained, 'in who could make the nicest-looking load, or who could pack the biggest load that is, thresh off the most bushels from his wagon or who could pitch bundles the fastest and still be accurate.' Threshing was hard, serious work. Efficiency and precision mattered.
Today, a faded photograph of a threshing scene evokes nostalgia for the simple grandeur of the past when farmers collaborated in a landscape of pristine beauty. Such cooperation did not preclude amicable rivalry. The crew competed partly from a love of sport but mostly to do the best possible job of harvesting the crop. On the threshing rings of my home town, each farmer wanted to save the highest percentage of the other farmer's grain so that he would do the same for him.
The fact that the fanners drove their teams across beautiful stubble fields was merely another bonus to a glorious but demanding task. There truly were 'amber waves 'Michigan Amber, a smooth wheat lacking the itchy beards found on older varieties like Turkey Red. 'Michigan Amber is about my earliest memory of a particular type of wheat,' Dad said. 'It was much darker than many of the varieties you see today and beautiful to look at as it stood in the field.' Michigan Amber also constituted a true soft wheat, unlike Perkhoff, a semi-soft hybrid having some hard wheat in its immediate ancestry. 'They grew hard wheat out in the Great Plains, but we grew soft wheat here in northwest Indiana,' Dad explained. Perkhoff gradually replaced Michigan Amber, and bleached-tan stubble supplanted the bronze straw of my father's first recollections of threshing.
By the time my father was old enough to heft a pitchfork, bundle wagons had improved, having racks on front and back for stability. When he was a boy, farmers still were using wagons with only two upright stakes at one end and two stakes at the other endand with plenty of room for bundles to fall off the corners. 'When I was just starting out, old-timers would tell me, 'You young guys don't know how to load bundles until you've loaded a wagon with only stakes!'
And they were right,' Dad agreed. 'For those wagons, they had to learn an intricate pattern of laying bundles on the corners.'
Substituting racks for the old-fashioned stakes on the bundle wagon made a difficult job a little easier. One ring (or 'run') north of the town of Pine Village tried having only one man per wagon to serve as both pitcher and hauler. In that situation, the wagon was a 'basket rack, with low side panels as well as high racks on both ends,' according to Dad. 'Usually a gee and a haw were enough, depending on how well-trained the team was, but sometimes the man had to lead the horses from one shock to the next. At the beginning of the load, the man piled the bundles in willy-nilly, then he tried to lay rows on top. At least twice during the load, he had to climb up the front or the back rack to straighten out bundles.' This method of loading took time, and usually one man could not get as many bundles on a basket wagon as two men could on a wagon with end racks only. Dad said, 'That's why most runs had a man on the ground and one on the wagon. The one on the ground was the field pitcher, and the one on the wagon was the bundle hauler.'
The estimation of the proper ways to pitch and load bundles varied from locale to locale and from person to person. J. Sanford Rikoon's Threshing in the Midwest 1820-1940 (Indiana University Press, 1988) quotes Harold Pointer of New Unionville, Indiana:
'... I wanted the heads to be in the wagon, to be facing the middle so that when I went to the separator they wouldn't fall out. Any of that grain that shattered out then would still be in the wagon. I used to say, 'If the heads are out, the rabbits get fat.' So I wanted that pitcher to work just right. He had to stick that fork into the bundle and then move it around, had to get it up to me just right. The heads would come down in the middle if he laid it on right. You know, you had to be pretty quick to get the hang of that . . . you see, also, as those shocks came off of the binder, they generally had a certain shape to them that the binder made when it tied them up. They had a tendency to wrap them bundles so that they were flat, the binder flattened them out along a side. And so if you were loading on the wagon then, if you were up there, you would want those bundles to get up there with that flat side down, on the bottom of the wagon. Then the load up there, which got quite large, would ride better. Them flat sides there would give you more supportand if they wasn't pitched up that way, why I'd have to bend down then and turn them over to get them just like I wanted. I didn't want to have to do that, because then I wouldn't be able to keep up with those bundles being pitched up there so carelessly-like.' (67-68)
Rikoon next quotes from an interview with Merwin Winer of St. Marys, Ohio: 'Then you always want to put the bundle in front of the guy that's a-loading it. Always want to put it in front of him when you two work long enough together you know how to put the bundle up there, put the head up, so that it lays down there for him. When you'd know that you was going to go to the far side, you'd put it up there with the butt. You know he could just grab that and put it on the wagon. Then when he was on your side, you'd put the head up to him first.' (68)
My father stated, 'As a hauler, I didn't want the pitcher to guess where I might like a bundle to go. I preferred it when the man on the ground carefully pitched the bundles in front of me with the heads toward me. That way, I could stick my fork in that bundle and turn it right or left to put it in place. I would have to touch it only once.' Efficiency called for a minimum of wasted effort.
Dad described a poor job of pitching: 'A beginner might toss up a bundle so that it fell sideways or, worse, with the butt toward the hauler. The hauler would have to touch that bundle more than once, before he could get it situated where it belonged.'
On the other hand, an excellent pitcher could 'lift bundles to the center of the wagon. The hauler could leave some lie where they fell and just tramp on them without having to touch them again.' As Dad put it, 'A hauler could be a bit less careful with the positioning of bundles in later layers, but the first layer needed to be exact.'
Occasionally, the pitcher would help the hauler by assembling the first row of bundles along the edge of the wagon. As the hauler, Dad preferred to have the pitcher hand him the bundles, which Dad would arrange in the initial row. 'It was hard for the pitcher to see where he was actually placing the bundles,' Dad reasoned. 'I didn't like it too much when the pitcher built the first row because the bundles might be too far back or too close to the edge. The first layer of bundles had to be put on just right, or else the load would be uneven and unbalanced.'
Other helpful pitchers would show off by tossing three or four bundles onto the wagon simultaneously. Dad related, 'Some bundle haulers were most adamant about having pitchers give them only one bundle at a time. If a pitcher tossed several at once, the hauler might start throwing them back on the ground!'
A well-constructed shock had nine bundles. Dad recalled, 'The first year that I was pitching on a run, one farm had shocks made by itinerant laborers who didn't care and who did a quick job, got their money, and left. Some of those shocks had over thirty bundles in them! That straw and grain didn't cure out very well, and there was plenty of mold.' As a pitcher, my father liked to upset the shock by inserting his pitchfork two-thirds of the way up and pushing it over on its side. 'Then the bundles came loose easily,' Dad stated. 'This was much easier than taking off the cap and lifting each bundle. After a shock had been standing for a long time, the individual bundles would stay put, standing upright even without the capping bundle.' To separate a tight group of upright bundles was difficult.
When bundles were loaded, the heads of grain needed to be toward the center of the wagon. Dad said, 'The head end is heavier. The bundles will fall off the wagon if they're turned the other way, with the butts toward the center. A big bunch would slide off when you bounced over the field.'
The butts of the bundles needed to extend six to ten inches beyond the edge of the wagon. My father explained that, if he were beginning to build a load, he would put three or four bundles on one side of the wagon then three or four on the other side. According to Dad, 'On a bundle, the butt end is fluffed up, but the heads lie flat. I would weight down the heads of the bundles I had placed on the wagon by putting the butt of another bundle on top of the head of one of the bundles I already had on there.' These bundles on top are said to 'tie down' the bundles on the bottom. When the steel-wheeled wagons moved from shock to shock, the bundles would bounce around, some toward the center of the wagon, some out. 'You didn't want to leave bundles untied. You needed to tie down those first bundles fairly soon,' Dad said.
The length of bundles varied from crop to crop and from year to year. If the bundles were short, there would be six rows of bundles across the wagona row on each edge of the wagon bed, a second row tying them down, and a third row tying down the second row. The heads of the third rows would meet. Dad commented, 'Usually, though, there'd be four rows, two on a side, and then you'd lay a row of bundles at right angles to them. This new row would go down the middle in the low spot down to the floor. You'd lay two or three bundles with their butts toward the back of the wagon and two or three with their butts toward the front of the wagon.'
Next, the hauler would add layers. 'You had to be real careful about that outside row every time,' my father said. 'You needed to bring the load up very straight. Now, some guys would put the outside bundles of successive layers farther out then draw the sides back in again higher up. By so doing, they had room for a few more bundles, but I never had the nerve to try that very often. Sometimes, you'd see them lose part of their load when the wagon hit a bump.'
Long ago, loads were taller. 'When I was a boy,' Dad recalled, 'the farmers built a load five layers higher than the stakes. It took craftsmanship to do that! Then when I first began to help with the threshing, we were putting three layers above the top of the racks. Eventually, we went only one layer above the height of the endracks. That way, we saved the horses somewhat.' Loads could be built up higher when the fields were larger; generally, the longer the distance to the thresher, the higher the load.
My grandfather, Seymour Rhode, was regarded as a champion at building a load. In his generation, many haulers did not use pitchforks to position bundles on the wagon. Seymour lifted each bundle into place by hand. He employed a fork only to unload. By Dad's day, haulers were using pitchforks for loading. Also by my father's era, wagons had become standardized at a width of seven feet and a length of fourteen feet. A few people built them sixteen feet long and complained about how much harder they were working to load their wagon.
Once the bundle wagons had pulled to either side of the thresher, the hauler displayed another skill involving practice and grace unloading the bundles into the feeder. As Dad instructed, 'It's very important for the heads to go in first so that the bundle is lying straight on the feeder and so that the heads go straight into the cylinder.' In the nineteenth, century, before threshers were equipped with mechanized feeders, the man hand-feeding the bundles always fed them heads first into the cylinder. In Dad's generation, farmers knew to preserve that worthwhile tradition.
'It was easier to get the bundles to go in headfirst if the feeder had a feeder board, which divided the feeder into two narrow channels,' Dad said.' 'Even a guy who was doing a fairly poor job of pitching could barely get a bundle turned crossways on a feeder with a feeder board. In fact, you could just stick the tines of your fork under the heads, turn them to fall onto the feeder, and trust the weight of the heads to line up the bundle straight against the divider board.' The divided feeder spared the men a little exertion.
Pitching bundles into the feeder required a watchful eye and a steady hand. 'If the butt of a bundle hit the feeder chain first,' Dad remembered, 'then there was the possibility that the bundle would stand up, topple over, and go into the thresher with the butt first. You needed to make the heads hit the chain so that the bundle would go in headfirst. This orientation saved the grain and made for the cleanest job of threshing.'
Once, after a magnificent threshing dinner, the crew began to boast for the supposed benefit of the women working nearby. Dad told the rest of the story:
'The heavily-muscled hulks were bragging about how they could get the engine 'up in the collar' which meant making the engine work hard by feeding the thresher so fast it would choke. A wiry man cut short their banter: 'You don't have to be big to slug the cylinder. All you have to do is put two bundles side by side butts first and one across them on the feeder.' Later on, a man pitching bundles into the thresher was hoping to get a little rest, and he took the wiry man's suggestion. It slugged the cylinder all right. It didn't make the separator man very happy, though.'
For convenience and elegance of feeding, threshing machines needed long, low feeders. 'For the kind of wagons we used and the kind of threshing we did in northwest Indiana, the lower feeders especially were easier on the crew,' Dad said. By the same token, wide-diameter steel wheels on wagons were easier on the horses. 'When the smaller, rubber-tired wheels came in, the pull was not as steady, and the horses rubbed sores on their necks,' Dad recalled. 'In the field, the rubber tires would struggle to climb a ridge but would roll quickly down the other side. These constant alterations in the draft were hard on the horses. The changes to more modern ways were not uniformly good.'
At antique-machinery shows through the years, Dad has paid close attention to how people feed the thresher, and he has 'pitched in' to help. As he summarized, 'Threshing is an art, like anything else.'