From Farmer to Area Thresherman

When weather made it difficult to shock and stack oats, Gilmar Johnson turned to a threshing rig – his own

Threshing on Gilmar Johnson's place with his 50 HP Case engine and 28x50 Case thresher

Threshing on Gilmar Johnson's place with his 50 HP Case engine and 28x50 Case thresher.

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It was the fall of 1946 and I was shocking my oats. I enjoy shocking grain, but not this oat crop. Our area had been hit by heavy rain and wind, lodging much of the grain. Consequently, there were many tangled bundles, mean to shock, let alone stack. Here comes my brother Evert, who farmed our home place, and a couple neighbors, Bob Hinrichs and Curtis Wedin. They had pondered this grain problem and had come up with the idea: Maybe I could buy a thresh machine with the idea of getting threshed as soon as possible. Normally farmers would stack their grain, then there was no hurry to thresh.

I had a 10-20 McCormick-Deering tractor on rubber and I was at least familiar with thresh machines. I worked with the Joe Kessel rig at Stacy, Minnesota, the fall of 1933. That rig was a 15-30 McDeering tractor and a 28-inch McCormick-Deering thresher. During the falls of 1938, ’39 and ’40 I worked on my uncle’s (Arvid Friberg’s) rig, a 22-36 McCormick-Deering tractor and a 28-46 Case thresher. The next five falls, 1941-45, I was with the Lindblad Brothers rig, a 60 HP Case steam engine no. 22714, and a 32x54 Case thresher. To me this was the ultimate rig for threshing.

Now back to buying a threshing machine. I got talked into it – nothing ventured, nothing gained. I saw an ad, a 28-inch Case for sale, and I made haste to check it out. I didn’t expect to pay $600, but threshers were hard to come by, and I already had customers. I had just made the deal for the Case when another prospective buyer from Minnesota was there. He offered me $700 cash, so I felt pretty lucky to get it.

Using my 10-20 tractor and this machine I threshed for 19 farmers, plus doing my own grain. My last job with this machine was 210 bushels of oats for Christ Peterson near Frederic, on October 21, 1946. The Case dealer in town then let me shed the machine in his building.

I was happy with my run, but I did thresh for a close neighbor, Arthur Knauber. His job of about 40 acres, was far bigger than I had threshed. He usually hired extra help for threshing, to get his job done in one day. He evidently did not feel I could thresh his in that time. I am sure he was right. A short time later, Art and I got talking and he said to me, “Why don’t you get a steam rig and thresh like we used to in Dakota?” (The Knaubers moved into our area from Webster, South Dakota, in 1920.) Now that was a challenge I could hardly pass up. After all, I’ve had steam in my blood since I was 5 years old, give or take a few years. (Farm Album Vol. 3 No. 1)

There were still steam engines setting around. Scouting around one day Hardy Lindblad and I found a 50 HP Case engine no. 33174. It had a cab, jacket, extension rims, contractors bunkers (which were not in bad shape). The owner, Tom Monson, said it needed flues. The price of the engine, as is: $100.

So now I had a steam engine. By now it bothered me, no little bit, as to what my neighbors would think. Will I be ridiculed? Thank goodness my wife did not protest, though she was not happy with the deal. We bought our farm in 1938, and we had to watch our payments and pennies. In a Sunday paper was an ad listing a 28x50 Case thresher no. 103014 for sale, at Royalton, Minnesota. Working with the Lindblad’s rig I sure was sold on the 20-bar cylinder, and the simplicity of operation and maintenance of Case machines was just what I wanted.

By chance, an auction west of Spooner, Wisconsin, listed a 50 HP Case steam engine no. 32232. Howard King, the owner, put a bid on the engine for $200, but there were no takers. This engine had contractors bunkers in good shape. I wrote to Howard, offered him $150 for the entire engine, and it was a deal.

I threshed with this machine and the 28x50 thresher for four falls, from 1947-50. This outfit done me proud. All my customers were fascinated by steam power so smooth, so quiet, so steady. Here we had plenty of power and capacity to keep any crew busy, and of course the steam whistle was used often.

The flues started leaking on this engine, but we finished the 1950 run the spring of 1951. With the help of Harry Falstrom we put new flues in engine no. 33174. Harry had worked on boilers and engines all his life. His last engine was a 30 HP Huber no. 11248. This engine has been at the Dalton, Minnesota, show many years.

With new flues, and the bunkers off engine no. 32232 we were on the road again. Part of my run had some steep hills, but we had no trouble. By using the tank truck hooked ahead of the engine with a 50-foot cable, and with the truck in low gear, we went nonstop. Jens Hanson drove the truck between jobs and fired the engine in the belt.

August 15, 1953 we were threshing 12 acres of timothy for the Wedin brothers. This timothy had been cut with a binder and shocked. The tops of the shocks were covered with seed. The shocks were brought to the thresher with a Farm-Hand loader, and mounted on a WC Allis-Chalmers tractor. Very little seed was lost, whereas pitching bundles on a wagon would have been a greater loss. The 12 acres yielded 1290 pounds of seed. While threshing timothy, Jens was stooping over to stir the coal fire in the engine, his straw hat fell off, and into the fire it went.

While threshing Ajax oats for Orr Brenizer, at times the tally was tripping 10 times a minute (5 bushels). Ajax was a good yielding oat, but long on straw and with a tendency to lodge. (My father-in-law near Grantsburg threshed 1485 bushels Ajax oats from 14 acres August 6, 1959, using a 28-inch steel Minneapolis thresh machine belted to a 77 Oliver tractor.) While we were setting up to thresh for Bob Hinrich’s he came in with a big load of oat bundles and wondered how many bushels were in the load. It tallied 103 bushels. Threshing was mostly oats at 5 a bushel. Other crops we threshed were rye, wheat, succotash, barley, spelt, soy beans, sunflowers and timothy.

Our biggest job was on August 25, 1951, 2518 bushels of oats for Art Knauber, and our smallest was a set job for Victor Hulteen, 54 bushels of oats. My last custom job threshing was 393 bushels of oats for Pharis Stower August 18, 1956, using my steam rig. Nevertheless, I kept threshing my own grain. The last time I belted up to the 20-bar cylinder machine we threshed 190 bushels on August 12, 1976.

From the time I bought this thresher I was never held up for any trouble or need of repairs. When I bought this thresher it had a 14-inch drive pulley, which I replaced with a 12-inch Rockwood pulley, to get the 750 RPM. I wish I knew what year it was built, and how many bushels it threshed before I got it. It was still in good shape, and in a good shed at Dale Halonie’s in Webster, Wisconsin. He has 24 HP Minneapolis engine no 7653, once owned by George Bednar.

Of course I sensed threshing was being phased out. Farmers were raising more corn and less grain, with a shortage of labor, combines moved in. I was glad for the threshing I did get in. In the 10 years I had threshed for 32 farmers, five of them I threshed for all 10 years, namely Pharis Stower, Wedin brothers, Eric Peterson, Bob Hinrichs and my brother Evert Johnson.

Threshing had its incidents. 1951 was a rainy fall. Some farmers had stacked their grain. At Raymond Peterson’s there were two oat stacks set in a field, a long way from his buildings. The seeding of red clover in this field was thick and tall. The minute I drove onto the field the engine governor opened at once. It was so soft going I hardly dared stop, so I got the thresher spotted and belted up. The front wheels of the engine slowly sank in. To make matters worse, it was cloudy and looked like rain any minute. My heart was in my throat for two hours but the Good Lord stood by. What a place I could have mired. “All is well that ends well.”

Another time, Bob Hinrich had cut some small trees and brush where we were to cross the road ditch to set up in his field to thresh. Crossing that ditch on our way out, the engine bunkers got hung on a stump. That took some time and doing to dig out the stump. Luckily we had finished threshing that day.

Orr Brenizer had a gravel pit put up past his buildings, and trucks often came by for gravel, driving over a space where he normally stacked his grain. Thus, one stack was set off to one side, to allow for traffic. By putting a cable around the base of the stack and hooking it to the steamer, the stack was pulled in quick and easy. I saw this trick done using a 40 HP Case at Ramert’s Steam Threshing Show at Fulda, Minnesota, on September 18, 1955.

By coincidence my thresh run was next to Lindblads. One day both our Case steam rigs went over the same half mile on a town road, and going in opposite directions we almost met.

It was April 1958 and I bought a 32x54 Avery Yellow-Fellow thresh machine serial no. 13113 (1918) from a junk dealer who had just acquired it. It had always been shedded, complete with belts, too good a machine to junk. I used it to thresh my grain in 1958 and 1959. It runs very quiet, with that slow speed, wide blower, but what a complicated, heavy wide machine to take down the road. I was told the Yellow-Fellow was a very good machine, but heavy in the belt.

Back in 1965 I bought a 28x46 McCormick-Deering thresh machine with a long feeder, but no weigher. Evidently at one time a weigher and tally were optional equipment. The serial number is 287618D. I wonder what year? I used this machine for my oat crops in 1977-80. The grain pan then needed repair. I had belted this machine to my Massey-Harris 4-wheel drive tractor, which made a nice outfit. Come February 1981, a nearby widow had a 22x36 Allis-Chalmers thresh machine for sale which had always been shedded but not used for 10 years. With a 9-inch drive pulley the RPMs were just right for my 10-20 Titan tractor which I have used up through 1985. A nice running machine, it does good work but is most unhandy to adjust or work on, yet the wheels are spring mounted.

Of all the thresh machines I’ve worked with, at no time did anyone use the self-oscillating blower device, which is standard equipment on all machines with wind stackers. I had this device ready to go on my 28x50 Case and used it on most jobs, which saved a blower man.

Now as I think back on those threshing days, it seems almost a dream, most of my customers have passed on. Trading help, as neighbors did, is no more. Art’s son is still farming, and rents my cropland. I can still reminisce as I page through my albums and scrapbooks or set up a projector and run movies or slides. This may be bygone but not forgotten. IMA

Gilmar Johnson writes from Frederic, Wisconsin.