Threshing Day

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111 W. Wilden Avenue Goshen, Indiana 46526

July was hot again. A gentle breeze carried the sweet scent of freshly mown hay. Little animals scurried through the stubble and retreated into deep burrows. A hawk hung motionless in the vast cobalt sky.

From the distance came the whistle of a steam engine. Between whistles you could hear the clear, melodious voice of the polished brass bell, its ring still pristine and strong tolling the approach of the great giant.

Someone had fired up the Avery or the Nichols and Shepard or one of the other monstrous steam engines at the steam museum down on road 1000 North.

Men were working there today, making their presence known in the most joyful way they knew, by blowing whistles and ringing bells.

A group of farmers had organized the LaPorte County Threshermen's Association a few years ago, bought land, put up buildings and began restoring the engines they owned themselves or ran to earth in other parts of the country.

Labor day weekends became the annual showcase for their efforts. The public was urged to come and watch lumber cut at the sawmill and wheat threshed in the old-fashioned manner.

Many of the engines had colorful histories. One had been found buried nearly to the top of its smoke stack, on a farm in Iowa.

The steam generating plant that supplied electric to the museum had come from the city of LaPorte where it had served faithfully for many years.

My sons, drawn by the fascination of the powerful machines, spent many hours at the 'Steam Show.' They watched and asked endless questions, constantly teasing and coaxing for rides on the great iron stallions. The men were good-natured and tolerant, asking questions and letting them help.

My father had grown up during the reign of steam power and these survivors were old friends. He loved seeing them again and would happily walk us through the ranks of restored implements standing at parade rest.

These massive servants were part of his boyhood and he cherished them all. He enjoyed telling tales about the engines, some funny, some tragic. They were still experimental and the steam men were the test pilots. Consumer protection's widespread force field was still decades away.

He remembered the summer that a boiler exploded one threshing day, sending debris flying for acres around. No one was hurt and men talked about it for years afterward.

When I was a child, my brother Walt and I had the rare experience of enjoying one memorable threshing day. It was never to happen again for us, but that summer is still one of the happiest times I can remember.

We were living on the farm that Dad had grown up on. It was now owned by a man named Rupsis and his wife. We lived with them and Dad was back doing what he loved farmingand at the 'old place,' which made it better yet.

I was quite young then and the country was struggling in the great depression.

I recall my parents talking about voting in the presidential election. They were going to vote for some fellow named Rooseveltwhoever he was.

The house on the farm was huge I don't remember how many rooms it had, but there were a lot of them.

The farm itself was a story teller, it had been self-sustaining long before the turn of the century. The many out-buildings attested to this.

A grainery stood on a hill at the end of a wagon lane. Well built, it reflected the craft of its carpenter. Compartments with lids lined the walls. The lids kept the grains dry and clean until they could be taken to the nearby mill and ground into flours.

The floor was rich dark oak and shone with mellowness from years of careful brooming.

Above was a loft where sacks of flour were stored. The building still carried the sweet scent of good grain.

Near the road was the milk house sheltering a pump, and a tall windmill that seemed to grow out of its roof. Here was where the milk, cream and butter were cooled.

Near the kitchen door stood the smokehouse, its walls black as night, still pungent with hickory smoke.

The garden area was down the hill and an orchard bordered that. Apples with quaint names grew there: Maiden Blush, Sheep Nose and gray skinned Russets. There were all kinds of fruits to be preserved for the winter table.

There was a wine cellar and many different kinds were prepared. Dad told us that barrel after barrel of grape wine were made each year. When the wine was mature and bottled, the dregs were carried out to the pigs. Those swine would be roaring drunk for days after. I wonder what a pig hangover is like.

This had been Dad's home and our living there was like sharing his boyhood.

I certainly treasure those days when the old farm was still intact ... before developers began gnawing at its perimeter.

We had been waiting for threshing day for weeks. Getting ready. Finally it was here and excitement was high.

The sun rose early and promised a hot day. We were all up at dawn doing chores. Walt and I followed Dad to the horse barn to help feed and harness the horses. The women had been up for hours already, preparing the noon meal. A lot of men were expected.

We had barely eaten our breakfast before they began arriving. In Model A trucks, hay wagons or just walking, they came, heading out to the fields to gather wheat that had been cut and bundled into sheaves by the horse-drawn binder a day or two before. Thrill was in the air as we heard the sharp whistle of the steam engine coming up the dirt road. Thick, heavy smoke bellowed into the clear sky as the black giant rumbled, jarring the ground as it moved. Slowly it came into view. A beautiful engine that was, all black and shining, trimmed in red and gold.

High above the driver's head, across the edge of the roof, was the owner's name in proud, crisp letters. He saluted us with three, ear-piercing whistles. What pride he had in his machine! It smelled of clean oil and hot metal. What power it would generate, we could not imagine. It puffed gently sending the huge pistons racing. Above the boiler, like three pawnshop balls, the governor twirled, keeping the leviathan in trim. Chains pulled taut as the driver cranked the steering wheel and turned into the barnyard.

The threshing team was efficient and quickly set up their rig for work. The separator was positioned and the long belt described a thin 'X' as the engine pulley accepted the load. The driver backed up a little and the belt was tight. A lever was pulled and the threshing machine came to life, its grappling forks clawing greedily at the air.

The wagons came near and the horses rolled their eyes at the commotion.

Threshing began in earnest as my brother and I watched, spellbound. But we were there to work and were soon sent out to the fields to carry drinking water to the workers. We rode on wagons and trucks with the men and other youngsters that accompanied them.

I had always been a 'tomboy' and persisted in being in the thick of things. And Dad let me! How grateful I am that he did. I vied with my brothers for favors and privileges that most girls of my age were not allowed. But I was able to absorb the atmosphere and join in the camaraderies with men living the last of an age.

We worked hard that day and when dinner time came, thirty men sat down to eat and I was with them.

Wherever threshermen gather, tales of the huge dinners and delicious food always receive prime time. This was one of those meals. For the first time in our lives, Walt and I were treated like one of the workers, and we gloried in the special attention we got that day.

After the delicious meal, we sat on the grass in the front yard. Ancient trees spread their majestic arms over us, giving cool shelter from the hot sun.

Walt and I kept secretly watching the steam engine over in the barnyard, wondering if it would blow up. The men were firing it up again for the afternoon's work. Would it malfunction? No, it didn't. We were not to experience that spectacle. Just as well it probably would not have been funny after all.

The afternoon sped by and at last we were finished. Wagonload after wagonload of amber grain had been gleaned from the mounds of straw that sparkled in the fading light.

The tall smokestack, freshly fueled, sent brilliant sparks into the sky. Caught on an occasional breeze, they shot skyward only to die quickly like falling stars.

We watched as the great machine left the barnyard and entered the approaching dusk. We walked barefoot, in the yard-wide tracks etched by the massive wheels.

Sharp, steel treads cut deep swaths in the roadbed as the engine puffed softly, its sounds muffled and fading, like the muted drums of a passing regiment.

Long after it was out of sight we could still feel the quaking as the giant's footsteps shook the earth, slowly marching, forever out of our lives, leaving us with no notion at all that what we were watching was the farewell to an era.