Sandstone, Minnesota 55072
'Copyright 1976 by the Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana.'
'In my remote, remembered boyhood there was a time each year, soon after summer, soon before winter, when all the year's labor and hope culminated in one great united effort. Springtime, seed time, had been pleasant and busy; summertime, growth time, as lavish with promise as with long sun-filled days. But autumn was threshing time, and threshing time stood out a period unequaled then in its special quality, and, for me, un approached ever since. This golden season cast the same spell all over the vast agricultural plains of the northern states and Canada. It was, of course, the pay-off just as harvest with the combine is today. When the ripe wheat poured from the threshing-machine grain spout, bright with the very color of the sun, the farmer knew where he stood, how well his family would eat, how warmly he could afford to clothe them. More than that, it was the one season when farm activities became a community activity, when neighbors stood together to challenge the swift shortening of northern days, the sure roughening of a savage and capricious climate. In that setting the season produced a sense of urgency, of total involvement, finally of accomplishment, that was largely lost when the combine made harvesting a one-stage, one-man job another routine, another chore.'
I. The machine itself
Usually it attained something like thirty feet of length with feeder and blower extended. It looked, in silhouette, something like one of the plant-eating dinosaurs of dim pre history but in reverse terms, the blower resembling the raised neck, and the feeder a wide tail lopped short seven feet from the trunk. The width of the cylinder, most often thirty-two inches, was the common measure of the rig's capacity; the phrase was 'a 32-inch separator,' not 'a 30-foot separator.' It was invariably powered by belt from a tractor. The owner was commonly the richest farmer, as farmers went, or at least one of the biggest owners of land.
The single great body of this behemoth housed five distinct mechanisms:
1. the feeder, a wide slatted-canvas conveyor, received the bundles from the pitchers' forks and carried them into
2. the cylinder and concaves, where the real threshing took place a cutting, beating, and tearing between rows of exactly spaced teeth that shattered the ripe heads and freed the kernels. The broken mixture passed to
3. a sifting and winnowing section. It danced over a series of briskly shaking riddles and screens while the wind from a powerful fan blew over it. The heavy clean grain fell through and was funneled toward
4. the elevator or high-loader. This lifted it to a weigher which measured it into half-bushels and dumped it into the grain spout. The light waste straw, chaff, dust moved to
5. the blower or wind stacker, a huge pneumatic tube through which it was whisked out of the machine and blown into a pile for burning or for use as roughage and bedding for livestock.
Today's combine cuts little but the heads and conveys them straight from sickle to cylinder. It stores the threshed grain in a high tank until it can be dumped into a waiting truck. The minimal waste falls back on the field. A single operator can do it all with no more labor than was once involved in binding the full-length straw into bundles.
II. Threshing was spectacle
I remember watching from a Great Plains hilltop as threshing went on in all directions as many as half a dozen rigs at a time. A machine miles away could be spotted by the mountainous yellow straw stack at its end and the cloud of dust and chaff that the blower spewed over its top to settle on its farther slope. Eventually a stack exceeded the blower's range; then the straw spattered against its peak, unable to lift over it, and the dust cloud flared away like an opening flower, the outer edges of its petals constantly trimmed by the prairie wind.
Threshing day began before sunup. The men had already fed, curried, and harnessed their horses, repaired racks, greased wagon axles, and eaten breakfast, all by the twilight of kerosene lanterns and lamps. Rural electric service was years away.
Before 'setting' the machine for a new day or a new location, the 'separator man' scooped a handful of dust and threw it high to observe its drift. The machine was moved to face its feeder-end into the wind, and leveled to make the threshed grain flow back evenly over he screens inside. The engineer backed the tractor the length of the great brown belt, which two men unrolled. They slipped its free end on the driving pulley, then the tractor eased back to lift its midway sag clear of the ground. One man backed a grain tank under the spout at one side of the machine, while another cranked the blower up out of its semi-circular cradle on the roof. Two teamsters drove bundle wagons up beside the feeder, and picked up their pitchforks. The wheels began to turn.
Work-trained horses moved empty wagons at an easy run to where the dusty gold shocks stood in rows athwart the greater dimension of a field. Each wagon with its wide rack jounced and clattered over inequalities of ground while the blue-overalled teamster stood alert, loose-jointed, accommodating his body effortlessly to every jolt. Other teams plodded back with loads, shoulders straining into collars, heads nodding at every burdened step.
Two grain tanks, one filling while the other unloaded at the granary, usually took care of the threshed grain, but I remember one crop of oats on my father's homestead which yielded so exuberantly that there were not enough tanks available to handle it. Oats had to be heaped on the ground for recovery later. The machine's weighing device could not cope with it either, and had to be by-passed. The grain poured from the spout, not in separate half-bushels, but in a steady silver flood.
Key features of a stationary thresher are clearly visible on the rig pictured above, parked in front of a hotel in Poison, Montana. Above the machine curves the straw chute while the spout which delivered the clean grain angles downward. Less visible here but clearly seen in the bottom photo is the self-feeder, into which Central Montana farmer, Bob Abbott is pitching grain. With this exception the machine performed all threshing operations. Occasionally, however, the straw pile became awkwardly high, as in the photo at the left, and the rig had to be pulled to another location.
All day long the blue-gray autumn haze churned with sound. The deep moan of the wind stacker, audible miles away, mingled with the shaking and chattering of internal sieves and screens, the clatter of the beater and of chains on sprockets, the steady hiss of belts over pulleys, the growl of the cylinder and concaves as they tore a stream of bundles to shreds, and their occasional grinding cough when the feeder delivered a bundle crosswise. All the while there was the smooth roar of the multi-cylindered tractor or the bang bang chuff-chuff-chuff of the one-cylinder Oil-pull which, between them, powered most threshing machines.
When rain threatened, work extended ino darkness at day's end, and might continue until midnight. Men loaded their wagons by moonlight or the light from burning shocks. Automobile headlights illuminated the working area around the machine, or the machine was moved at dusk to a safe distance from the strawstack, then the owner fired the stack for light to work by.
Straw stacks burned bright orange and red all over the wide countryside. The smoke billowed away before the wind, strong and acrid near a fire but mellowing with distance. Two miles from its source it became a fragrance like that of burning leaves.
At moving time the last two teamsters to unload drove their wagons aside and returned to clean up around the feeder. One man gathered fallen bundles and straw with a fork; the other used a broad shovel to scoop up detached heads. They worked in a choking gray cloud of dust. Chaff, undersized kernels, and dirt dribbled into open collars and over damp skins.
At last the engineer eased the tractor forward to take tension off the belt. All steps involved in setting the machine were reversed. Then the machine moved along the shortest possible route across fields and meadows to the next site. Fences meant nothing; a man hurried on ahead, pulled the staples out of a few posts or tore a few posts out of the ground, and laid the wires flat while the rig moved over them. On level prairie it could lumber from farmyard to farmyard in a line as straight as the flight of a bullet.
III. Threshing was adventure
On the morning when threshers came to my father's fields, I woke very early to a clatter and clink of utensils in the kitchen, a sizzling of eggs and pancakes frying, a fragrance so irresistible that I leaped like a hooked trout. I dressed by the lamp glow that came up the stair well, and hurried downstairs and outdoors. There the teamsters were ready to start for the fields, although only the dimmer st s had begun to fade from the sky. In our long driveway, out of the slowly brightening twilight, more wagons loomed, rumbling. As they arrived, each man fastened his reins with a half hitch to the high standard at the front of his rack, and let the horses stand while he went in for breakfast. Every man, without fail, found time for a jocular acknowledgement of a small boy's fascinated interest.
The sound of the machine on the move flooded crescendo across the fields. The tractor uttered its merged or separate explosions that always felt my eardrums ringing after the sound itself had ceased. Only the old-fashioned steam 'traction engine,' obsolescent by 1920 but long valued in some communities for its silkily smooth power, moved in well-bred quiet, making small hissing, whispering, sliding noises. But even this machine announced its coming with an occasional clank and grind of huge, archaic gears. The firebox under the middle and rear of the boiler surged and growled under its breath. Orange flames bloomed out around the firedoor as the fireman shoved in more straw with his scorched and blackened pitchfork.
On a steam outfit, the hardest working man was the fireman, who had to get up long before the first glimmer of dawn, clean the firebox grates, start his fire, and have a full head of steam ready before breakfast. Often he could not take time to come indoors to eat; his meals were brought to him on the engine, where he ate standing. If he sat down, the lean muscles of his face would begin to sag and he would almost go to sleep between bites.
As the machine swayed into the selected space, a solid wood-and-metal reality, we children danced with excitement. This moment, like Christmas, came only once a year; the magic lent it by a child's hypersensitive perceptions would have been limited to a few years even if threshing has not been destined to fade very soon into history.
We did our watching from a distance until the men's comings and goings settled into a predictable patternthen we edged cautiously nearer. I can still smell the odors of chaff and beaten straw and grain, hard to define but unforgettable, and the special perfume of steam and hot steel that rose and mingled with the highly defined smell of oil and gasoline. (The gasoline of those days, incidentally, had a subtly different scent from today's gas-somehow richer, more bearable, less a reek).
The filling flare-boarded grain tank afforded a good base for watching. At first the sides were a bit high, but as the spout steadily dumped grain, a central mound built up to stand on. Wheat, rye, oats, or barley made a good foundation. Only in flaxa was there danger of sinking if one did not hold to the rim of the box. The flat brown waxy kernels nullified normal friction; under even a small boy's weight, the surface parted like quicksand.
A full rack of straw, with one side low for easy access, always stood at the rear of a steam engine. When the supply ran low, the straw boy filled the rack swiftly by moving it to the stack and directing the blower into it.
The one thing that could stop a steam rig was low water. The boiler took water from a tank wagon that had to be refilled with a hand pump mounted on its top. This took time, even when a good well was near and a good well could not be taken for granted on the prairie. Meanwhile, the engine kept using up the water in the boiler. As in all boilers, the water could not be allowed to fall below a precise minimum level. As it approached that level, the engine had to be stopped and the fire banked to avoid overheating and weakening the boiler steel.
Over the span of vanished years, I can hear the urgent, haunting, far-carrying blasts of the steamer's whistle echoing over the fields, signaling the harassed tank man to get back with water. I can see him pull the dripping hose out of the well, secure it to the tank, and flick his whip over the backs of the laboring, nodding horses as he hurried to respond to the call.
IV. Threshing was technology
I once read a battered old novel by Harold Bell Wright, a best-selling author in his day, in which he described a threshing scene as he conceived it. All I remember is that the hero and another idiot competed for hours to determine which could throw more stuff into the feeder. The hero won and was thought to be a terrific fellow.
In real life he would inevitably have been fired. A threshing machine was easily chocked to a standstill by overfeeding. Then the operator had to spend precious time clearing the mess out of the rows of concaves. Besides, an overfed machine lost efficiency and threw grain over the separator sieves and out through the blower with the straw. No wide awake farmer ever put up with that.
Good pitching in dry weather meant placing bundles in the feeder in orderly succession, with just the top of one bundle overlapping the stubble-end of its predecessor. Touched with morning dew or frost, they had to have open space between them, for damp straw was tough. Under all conditions, steadiness was the ticket.
Building a load in the field also required competence. Bundles could be thrown in at random only until the 'basket' of the rack was filled. The upper two-thirds of the load, with no wooden framework around it, had to be held together by the way the bundles were laid, in properly overlapping layers. A man might otherwise lose a corner or a side of his load on the rough haul to the separator. Moreover, since the load was much wider than the wagon that formed its base, the laws of physics laws without loopholes would be enforced mercilessly. The weight of the remaining side would overturn rack, wagon, and all.
Even if his horses did not 'spook' and injure themselves and their harness, the man then had his work cut out for him.
The same principle applied when it came to building stacks, but a stack took on a different form, a sort of bean-pot shape, except that it went up to a point and culminated in a single bundle set on sned. Several such stacks built in pairs, with room between them for the machine, were things of beauty and a joy for three weeks.
In the management of stacks, a special element entered the 'sweat,' a brief reaction peculiar to stacked grain. It was nothing more than a rise in temperature and a slight dampness within the stack. Once it had taken place the grain needed three weeks' cure before it could be threshed. This was the principal reason why stacking went out of fashion. In a season of persistent rain, how ever such as the fall of 1928, when a bumper crop was almost ruined by sprouting in the shocks some farmers chose stacking as a lesser evil. No rain, however protracted, could penetrate a good stack.
V. Threshing was sharing
Crude and unsophisticated though it was, the early combined harvester-thresher as seen here was to have a truly revolutionary impact upon wheat farming. By cutting and threshing in one operation, the combine saved time and eliminated the necessity for large seasonal labor crews. Some of the color and romance was gone, but increasing mechanization could not be denied.
Some outfits included a cook car. The individual farmer, relieved of much detail, paid extra, and the thresher took the gamble on bad weather. He hired the crew, with two women as cooks, and fed the men, rain or shine. On the far western plains, the bet usually paid off. In the Red River Valley, where it sometimes rained for weeks on end, it could break a man.
Crews hired by the thresher usually included transients who came long distances for this seasonal work. Some followed the harvest from Texas to Saskatchewan, and brought an air mildly exotic to communities that rarely saw strangers.
Under the more popular cooperative plan, the thresher charged a lower rate per bushel. He served as his own engineer and hired a separator man, or the other way around. For a steam rig he also hired a fireman, a tankman, and a straw boy. The rest of the crew were farmers and farmers' sons helping one another.
This system laid heavy burdens on farm women. If threshers came earlier than planned, a frightened housewife had to conjure a meal for a dozen ravenous men out of ordinary daily provisions, more often, something delayed them after they had committed themselves to come. Then she was left with a table sagging under the weight of carefully prepared but rapidly chilling or deteriorating food.
If there existed in those days a farmwife who could not cook superblya possibility I denyshe had sisters or friends who could cook to the level of ecstasy. A few, however, suffered under the strain. There were women who woke trembling and weeping from a mere dream of feeding threshers. None attempted the job alone; like their man, farm women exchanged their labor. Co-operative crews were always memorably fed; a farmer faced with the disgrace of letting his neighbors leave his table otherwise than in a glow would probably have shot himself.
Just before threshing day, a young steer had to be slaughtered to provide a sure supply of fresh meat. Pigpens, too, suffered vacancies. The potato patch and the vegetable garden were ransacked for the best they could yield. The kitchen, the house, the whole farmyard, swam in the odors of home-baked bread and cakes and such pies as an archangel would have carried proudly to his colleagues in the topmost circles of beatitude.
Beginning before daybreak, five meals a day were served. Breakfast might include anything from great steaming stacks of hot cakes and sausage to heaped plates of potatoes boiled, chopped fine, then browned in a skillet with butter or fragrant bacon fat. It was never a mere prelude to the day's feeding, but an experience in its own right.
At about 9:30 the women brought the first lunch out to the field. Packed in large baskets, it consisted of several kinds of sandwiches, cakes, doughnuts, cookies, rollsall washed down with coffee that sent its aroma shimmering across a half mile of dusty stubble.
At noon came the meal known as dinner on the plains basically a banquet for carnivores, but with great helpings of every delicious thing known to the human palate revolving like planets around the solar center of meat. And what meat! I have eaten roast beef that dissolved between my teeth before I had time to chew, releasing a flavor and freshness that echo in my memory today, after sixty years. The fried chicken left the taste buds in a state of happy shock, home-pressed headcheese blended a dozen ineffable flavors in every swooning bite. Along with all this went vegetables that had been actively growing an hour earlier.
The second lunch came out to the machine at about 3:00 p.m., as nobly ample as the first and with subtle differences that made a man reach for sandwiches as long as a single one remained.
At 6:00 or 6:30 the crew went to the house again, washed dusty faces at a basin set on an apple box in the yard, and went in for supper. Sometimes, for some reason of local custom, supper wasn't quite as overwhelming as dinner, but let me add quickly that those dinners were the only things in earthly experience that the suppers did not surpass.
Weather good, the season not too far advanced, the day ended with supper, but, if the season was really late, the machine never stopped from dawn until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Men ate singly or in pairs as opportunity offered, while the others worked on.
For adult members of a farm community, it was the crop and the tasks concerned with it that counted first and last. For children, especially or boys, it was the inexhaustible fascination of it all. I never knew a farmer who could admit the possibility of leaving a summer's yield only partly gathered. I never knew a boy who could walk away from a threshing machine so long as a wheel continued spinning, whether under a hot afternoon sun or in frosty moonlight.
This article is reprinted from MONTANA, The Magazine of Western History, with permission of the writer and the magazine. We appreciate the cooperation of Vivian Palladin, editor of MONTANA, and the Montana Historical Society, publisher. We sought permission to reprint because we felt this was an article that would be greatly enjoyed by IRON-MEN ALBUM readers.
'I was born in a Scandinavian immigrant community in northern Minnesota, but have lived much of my life farther west. The only western state I have not yet seen is Nevada. Most of my published work has dealt with the Great Plains and the Rockies.
'I began trying to write before I ever saw the inside of a schoolhouse or knew a word of English. My first language was Swedish, a tongue so logical and consistant in its construction that, once I had mastered a first-year book at the age of five, I could read everything printed in it, beginning with my parents' Bible.
Over the years I have held varied jobs, from planting trees to operating batteries of boilers. In youth, I taught school for four years, and married another teacher. We have a son and a daughter.