The Threshers Are Coming

Memories of steam and threshing on the farms of Michigan

Michigan threshing crew

A threshing crew pauses for the camera somewhere in central Michigan, date unknown. The engine is a Nichols & Shepard.

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Threshing grain was the big day of the summer on the farm.

The grain was cut and shocked, and if it looked like it might be two or three weeks before the thresher would get to the farm, the grain bundles were stacked. Wood to fire the steam engine was hauled in and piled near where the engine would be belted to the grain thresher.

Threshing day was an exciting day for the children, and everyone was up early that morning. The children would run out in the road to see if the rig was coming, and then there it was, coming down the road to the farm. As it got closer, they could hear the engine puffing and the grinding sound of the iron wheels on the road. Then it stopped in front of the house.

The kids looked in awe at this big, hissing, iron monster. The thresher man stepped down from the engine and walked toward the barn where he met Grandpa. Together, they would look over where the set was to be made. While this was going on, the water wagon pulled alongside the engine and filled the water barrels. Then it was off to the river to pump the tank full of water again.

The grain separator was pulled in place, then it was leveled and blocked, as neighbor men who would be helping with the threshing arrived. The bundle feeder was swung up and locked in place, and the drive belt was laid on the ground and unrolled by the thresher man. He lined up the belt by sight, and then drove his engine up to the belt. The fireman gave the belt a half twist and put it on the belt-drive pulley. The steam tractor backed up, pulling the belt tight. If the alignment looked good, the thresher man yelled “block it,” and a man on each side of the engine set a block in front of the drive wheel to hold it in place.

The thresher man returned to the thresher to finish getting it ready, as grain tallies were set to measure the amount of grain threshed. The blower pipe was swung around and pointed to where the new straw stack was to be made. The bagger was set up, and then there was the last-minute greasing, oiling and checking of belts. While all of this was going on, the fireman was busy greasing, oiling and firing the boiler. Soon, all was ready.

Steam hissing from the pop valve told the thresher man the engine was ready, with a full head of steam. Everyone took his or her place, standing still and silent. The thresher man stepped up on the platform of his engine, gave the whistle cord a hard pull and sent out a wailing shriek that was heard for miles around. Then, with both the thresher man’s hands on the controls, the wheels began to turn and black smoke bellowed high into the air. The steady panting sound of the engine and the hum of the thresher was music to everyone’s ears.

There were 12 to 15 men in a threshing crew, and to get this many men you exchanged help. The neighbor men helped you, and then you helped them with their threshing job.

Grandma was busy at the house getting ready to feed the threshing crew. A tub of water was set out in the yard in the morning to be warmed by the sun. The crew would wash in this. The thresher man and fireman usually washed first, and sometimes they looked like they were greased and oiled as good as or better than their rig. By the time the last of the crew got to the tub, the water was not just dirty, it was getting a little thick.

The women exchanged help, too. Cooking for the threshers was a big job for two or three cooks. There were also small children to take care of and to keep in or near the house, away from the danger of the threshing rig. Added to this was the uncertainty of what the day might bring before it was over. A breakdown or rain could send the crew home, only to come back again another day, and you would start all over again. You could never be sure that you were done cooking for the thresher men until you saw the rig going down the road.

Threshing in Clare County

George Cooper did the first grain harvest on the Fitzpatrick farm located in Arthur Township, Mich. The young man tending the water wagon was Evert Allen. He became the blacksmith, and in later years served as sheriff of Clare County, Mich.

Bill and Charlie Fitzpatrick eventually purchased their own threshing rig. Over the years, four different steam engines were used. All of them were in the 12 to 16 HP size. The first was a Rumely, second was a Port Huron simple and third was a Nichols & Shepard. The last engine used was a Case. All of the steam engines were purchased used.

Pictures showing the drive wheels show the Rumely to be one of the first in the Rumely line of traction engines. The Port Huron developed a problem common to many of the old-style counter-shaft engines, with brackets pulling loose from the boiler. Somewhere along the way, these two engines were sold or traded off. The Nichols & Shepard sat by the road in front of the barn for a few years and was scrapped about 1931.

The Case engine was purchased in downtown Midland, Mich. Charlie fired it up for the 35-mile trip home by way of old U.S. Highway 10 to Loomis, Mich. When he got to Sanford, Mich., the highway department was jacking up the bridge to give it more high water clearance, so he came home by way of Hope and Edenville, Mich. The Case engine was scrapped about 1940.

One of the hardest threshing runs Bill and Charlie ever got into was moving the rig from the farm at the south edge of Arthur Township to the northeast corner of the township to run the first grain crop for a new settler. Most of the roads were old logging trails over very hilly terrain.

There was no bridge across the north branch of the Tobacco River, so they had to ford the river. Those people were always grateful to Bill and Charlie for enduring the hardship of threshing their first crop.

The Marks’ farm fire

The first thresher was a wood frame Case. Bill was threshing at the Marks’ farm across the road from the Hardwood School, which is now the corner of Athey and Browns roads. They had two log barns built close together, with one long roof covering both barns and a drive between them. The thresher sat in the drive.

Bundles from one side of the barn were pitched into the thresher and the straw was blown to the other side. No one knows for sure, but it is believed a flint stone was stuck to a bundle. The blower turned into a blowtorch.

Bill jumped onto the engine and reversed it. That threw the drive belt off. The instant the drive pulley stopped, he slammed the clutch in. The reversed engine went over the wheel blocks. A man saw the engine coming, grabbed a chain by the barn, wrapped it around the tongue of the thresher and hooked it to the front of the engine when it came close enough. The chain did not hold onto the thresher tongue. By then, it was too hot to go in for another try. No one can remember exactly when this happened, but it was around 1920. A new Case thresher replaced the burnt one.

Road construction

Most of the gravel for the first road-building around the area came from Barber’s pit. In later years, this was Earl Sanders’ gravel pit. This pit was located by the middle branch of the Tobacco River on the east side of Bailey Lake Road. A Buffalo-Pitts engine ran the gravel screen, but the fireman could not keep up steam.

Bill was asked to fire the engine. He was the undisputed best fireman around the area. Lee Perry, who lived in Beaverton, Mich., was a road construction contractor who built many miles of state highway in Michigan. He was working on a section of highway at Johannesburg, Mich., and asked Bill to work for him and operate the Buffalo-Pitts pulling the road grader.

Bill rode with Lee to the construction site on Sunday afternoon. Bill looked the engine over and said, “You can take me to Alpena, Mich., in the morning to get repairs for the engine, or take me home. I will not fire an engine like that.” The water glass and safety valve were both broken. The engine was repaired and Bill did the job.

A man from Beaverton told how he hired onto the job. He met Lee on a weekend in Beaverton and asked for a job working on the road construction. Lee said, “I’m a damn hard man to work for.” The man replied, “I’m a damn hard man to get any work out of.” Lee said, “Be on the job Monday morning.”

Threshing clover seed

Threshing clover seed with a Birdsall clover huller was very common in this area of Michigan. One time while threshing a stack of seed, a hen was sitting on a nest of eggs under the edge of the stack. The hen and eggs got pitched into the huller. That hen and the eggs gummed up the huller so bad it plugged from one end to the other. What a mess to clean out.

On July 31, 1909, Bill mortgaged his 40 acres of land to the Birdsall Manufacturing Co. of South Bend, Ind., to purchase a new clover huller for $730. Mortgaged again on Feb. 24, 1913, to William Haley of Clare, Mich., for $170, and again on March 25, 1916, to William Haley of Clare for $300. This money would have been used to buy a used steam engine or thresher.

One fall, Charles Fitzpatrick moved his threshing rig into the Smith Creek area to thresh clover seed. One evening, there was a party and square dance at the Podunk School. Charlie went with a man from the area to the party.

They unhitched the horse from the buggy and put him in an old log building by the school. The problem started when the horse bumped his head on the top of the low doorway on his way in. When it was time to go home, the horse would not come out through the door. Charlie and his friend had to find a saw that night and cut a log out of the doorway so the horse would come out. They got back in the morning in time for Charlie to fire up the engine for the day’s run.

The country store was a hangout for the men of the area. At the end of the threshing run, Charlie went to the store. There was a barrel half-full of cider in the store. Charlie asked, “How much for the cider?” “Four dollars,” said the storekeeper. Charlie paid the $4. Everyone who came to the store that night could have all the free cider they wanted to drink. When the store closed for the night, Charlie told the storekeeper he could keep what was left in the barrel.

Except for one job, the threshing clover seed in the Smith Creek area was done. One man in the community, after stacking his seed by the barn, broke his leg.

To get a threshing crew for your job, you helped your neighbor, and they helped you back. Charlie said to the men in the store that night, “I will thresh the seed for free if four men will volunteer to do the work.” Everyone wanted to help.

Charlie said, “No more than four of you. I don’t want his wife cooking for any more men than is needed to do the job.” The bags of seed were carried to the house so the farmer could see them. Years later, the man met Charlie on the street in Clare, Mich., and wanted to pay him for threshing his seed. Charlie said, “No, it was paid for that day.” Charlie was that way, as were many of the early settlers.

Huber tractor

In the spring of 1923, Charlie bought a new cross-mounted Huber tractor. This tractor was used until the end of his threshing days in the summer of 1943. I did not know that Uncle Charlie planned to make his last run, and I never forgot the last three jobs.

Dad liked to raise a field of spelt every year. He always stacked the grain by the barn, and the bundles had to be extremely dry when stacked or they would go into a sweat for a few days before drying. Spelt has a tougher straw than oats or wheat.

It had been stacked less than a week when Charlie pulled in with the rig to thresh. He used a long, heavy drive-belt, and a pair of wood blocks held the tractor tight in the belt. I was carrying grain that day and was out by the thresher when the event that was about to unfold took place.

Charlie was standing on top of the thresher at the front end, watching the bundle pitchers, telling them to feed slowly and keep the bundles evenly spaced. But that was not good enough.

The old Case started plugging up back at the blower. The old cross-mounted Huber told Charlie what was going on behind him when the governors opened up, it sounded like a big airplane taking off. He ran to the back of the thresher, climbed down the ladder and ran the length of the long belt to shut the Huber down.

While Charlie was running to the tractor, it pulled itself up on the wheel blocks. Then the drive pulley slipped in the belt. Then the tractor rolled back and snapped the belt up tight, getting another grip on the drive belt and pulling up on the blocks again. The old Huber would not give up. It just kept lunging in the belt. By the time he got it shut down, the thresher was one cloud of blue smoke.

The last threshing job was the next farm to the north, John Loar’s. ST