THRESHING CREW COOK

Old Case steam engine

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Kenneth Fiegel, Route 3, Box 14, Kingfisher, Oklahoma 73750. Reprinted with permission James N. Standard, Managing Editor, The Oklahoma Publishing Company

The grand finale of the parade was the old Case steam engine, driven down the paved street with Kenneth Fiegel at the helm. At intervals the whistle would be blown. As the shrill whistle pierced the air, jet planes on loan from Vance Air Base in Enid roared overhead. The old Case engine that had been retired in 1933 had been restored, and now it came rumbling down Main Street in Kingfisher, much to the delight of a generation that had never seen such a contraption.

Directly behind the steam engine came the cook shack better known to an earlier generation as the beanery. The cook shack was pulled with a team of mules, and all details were authentic, with the old horse collars shined and ancient fly nets covering the mules.

I watched the passing of the old cook shack with mixed emotions, for in the short minutes of this July parade, 34 days of my life were brought back to memory. It was the same old cook shack, now fully restored, that I had worked in one summer back in 1937 as a teen-ager. I was assistant cook for the threshing industry. I still remember how excited I was to have landed that job for the pay was fabulous$2.00 a day! It was a day that began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m.

What was it like then, back in the summer of 1937? Average wage for most farm work was $1 a day, less for domestic help. The rigors of the depression had eased somewhat, but the economy was still strained. In just a few short years this was all to change, as the nation was to be plunged into the horrors of World War II, and the migration to the defense plants would begin.

But, for then, in the summer of 1937 $2.00 a day was BIG money. I planned to use the money to finance my second year at Central State College. The job as head cook paid $4.00 a day, but that job required a woman with previous experience feeding a threshing crew, which generally numbered around 24 men.

The cook shack was called the beanery for good reason. Beans were a part of the daily menu. A cook shack was a kitchen on wheels, a dining hall by day, and a bedroom by night. Two hinged flaps were raised on the sides for ventilation, with screens on the inside to keep out the flies.

If we were lucky, the cook shack might be parked under a clump of cottonwood trees. Generally it was parked out in the open, for trees were a scarce commodity in that area. The relentless sun would beat down on the uninsulated roof. It was at least a hundred degrees outside, and not much less inside.

Boards, covered with oil cloth, built along the sides, served as tables. Long, narrow benches were used for seating. All eating utensils were tin. They had to be unbreakable. Sometimes two moves were made in one day to different farms. At night, two Coleman lanterns were suspended from the ceiling for light. Portable wooden steps led to the interior, which had an inner screen door. No matter how far out in a field, flies soon found the cook shack, and these did create a problem.

After supper was over, and the dishes put back in the old wooden cupboard, the window flaps would be lowered, doors closed, and the interior sprayed with an insecticide called Fly-Tox. We would then retreat to the outside for 30 minutes, and peel the potatoes for the next morning meal. (Yes, potatoes for breakfast.) Before calling it a day, we would re-enter the cook shack and sweep up the dead flies.

If the fields to be threshed were large, we might spend one entire day in the same location, which was then an easy day for the cooks. When a move came, the cooks were transported by pickup to the new location, and a team of mules came for the cook shack. Before leaving, the cupboard doors would be nailed shut, so the tin dishes did not fall out. Always with us, ahead of the cook shack, we took our buckets and potatoes, and out in the open or under the shade of a tree we peeled our potatoes for the next meal.

When the steam engine whistle blew at high noon, it was a signal for all work to cease, and all workers came to the cook shack. Horses were watered and allowed to rest for an hour. The bundle wagons, grain wagons, everything was horse-powered. One hour was allotted to the men to eat and rest a while, then at 1:00 p.m. the whistle would blow again.

Meals were cooked in one end of the cook shack, on an old cast-iron stove heated by coal. Fresh homemade bread was part of every meal, except breakfast; then it was hot biscuits. It was my job to mix a gallon of peanut butter and a gallon of dark Karo syrup every three days. This was used as a spread on the hot bread and biscuits. (Jimmie Carter would have liked that.) At that time, it was against the law to buy oleo (called margarine now) that was already colored. The coloring came in a separate capsule in powder form. This was sprinkled over the hard white loaf of oleo. It took vigorous stirring to have it come out evenly yellow and not streaked with orange.

The final whistle would blow again at 6:00 p.m. unless a rain storm was imminent, and then work would continue until rain began, even if it was around 7:00 p.m. The 40-hour week was unheard of during harvest season. Sunday was not a working day for the crew, but the cook shack was open seven days a week. It was a light day as part of the crew were local men and boys, and they went home over Sunday.

The men carried their bed rolls with them from job to job and slept under the stars. Should a summer rain storm come up, they would move to the barn and bed down on the straw. Around midnight the cooks would set up their folding cots in the aisle of the cook shack and call it a day. Even after the Coleman lanterns were extinguished, we could hear the buzzing of the June beetles attracted to the screens by the lighted cook shack.

There were some pleasant aspects to this rigorous life. After the evening meal and the sun went down and the air cooled somewhat, the men would gather around the cook shack and spin yarns. In a short while someone would produce a guitar. Some would join in the singing, others would just listen.

I know I listened to 'Lamp lighting Time in the Valley' for 34 nights in a row. When the last strains of the guitar faded into the warm summer night, cicadas would then take up their nocturnal chorus.

When a move was made to a new location, everyone in the farm house would come out to watch the lumbering steam engine take its place where a straw stack was wanted. The straw stack served as feed for range and dairy cattle and also protection from the elements. Few trees grew in that area, and the straw stacks were often the only shelter for livestock.

That summer of 1937 was the only year I was a member of the threshing crew, working as assistant cook. In another two years the cook shack was put into mothballs along with the old Case steam engine.

Imagine my delight that beautiful summer day last year, in again seeing the old cook shack, fully restored, being pulled down the paved streets of Kingfisher. The very same one I spent 34 days with back in that hot summer of 1937.

One could almost smell the beans cooking!