Threshing: How It Actually Was

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Rt. 1 Nashville, Illinois 62263

Threshing articles are always of interest and there have been many written which tell us of the general and personal experiences of a particular writer, their father and/or grandfathers. It is important to keep in mind that it was the threshing event that was for generations the one really big event of each year! The farmers in the last third of the 1800s and through the 1920s, the 1930s or even into the 1940s, depending on what part of the country it took place, could get their crops in and nurse them along to harvest time, including the cutting and binding, but they could not thresh the grain without that big community threshing effort.

The first of the hobby shows, or reunions as they were first called, started only because of threshing and the effort to reenact that event in the form of a reunion. Today there are only few of us left who were experienced, living members of a threshing crew day after day. Therefore we should carry the details forward so that the people of today can see what those events were all about. There was indeed lots of work associated with the threshing, but the comradeship, the fun, the food and the really great feeling of accomplishment offset, many times over, the great effort and hard work.

It is interesting to note how the threshing articles in our hobby magazines vary so much. It is easy to tell which of the writers really had the direct or even indirect experiences, from those writers who write from pictures or from general conversation they have heard. However, they are all good! There are too many articles to comment about but thank you for all of them.

There were differences between the various areas of the country even though the basics of threshing were the same. There were variations in the hours per day they actually threshed. There were large differences in the bundle sizes even with the same wheat stand, but much more than that there were vast differences in the length and weight of the straw. Many of the plains and some western areas harvested much lighter and shorter straw. Even within one state variations were great. For example, in some parts of western Kansas near Colorado there was a vast difference in straw from, for example, the heavy black soils of central Kansas around Wichita and south into Oklahoma. Actually the stories are endless!! Let us hope as many of them as possible can be retained for history and future reading.

The date that combines took over from threshers also varies greatly. On the plains and in the west, they began a full generation and as many as 30 years before they did in the Mississippi Valley and parts of the east.

For details in this article, I turn to the counties east of St. Louis in approximately a 60-70 mile radius. I share with you a few words on HOW IT WAS and I am sure it will compare closely to fond family memories of many readers.

Farms were close together and farmsteads very often less than mile road travel apart. There were those one mile or more apart, but not many. The farmsteads themselves were not spread out and the threshing was usually close enough to the buildings so that the crew seldom were more than one to one and a half minutes walk from the mid morning and mid afternoon lawn lunches or the dinner table in the house at noon.

Speaking of the lawn lunches spread out on the grass in the shade, they were memorable indeed. There was room for a dozen or more men to eat at one time and that was enough because the threshing did not stop for lunch. The ladies were quick to serve the hot coffee from the large enamel coffee pots for as many refills as was desired. Also they continuously replaced the cold sandwich meats, the coffee cake, the home canned fruits and all the other food that quickly disappeared when these hurried lunches were eaten. We must not forget that one or two of the ladies were fully occupied using freshly cut maple twigs with all the leaves attached, making a spread of maple leaves which they used to keep the flies from the food as best they could.

The noon dinner was a really big meal inside the house at the fully extended table to serve as many as they could. Also there was always a second and third sitting. For dinner the men would wash in cold water at a large wash tub at least 2/3 full of water. The hard well water was usually provided and hard water soap generously used. Much spilled on the grass as they washed and rinsed before drying. It was truly very refreshing and there were two or three refills in the wash tub that served the crew for that noon meal wash.

The food was usually superb. Very tasty meats, potatoes and vegetables were devoured. Then that dessert! It was never one dessert, but a choice of cakes, pies and canned fruits. Most men usually had more than one dessert! With all of this activity and comradeship between everyone, the six or more ladies were scurrying all around the table making sure all the foods were kept fully supplied. Of course there sometimes were homes where the food was not so great, but they were not common. It is added that although the ladies were very busy providing such a grand meal plus the morning and afternoon lunches, they too enjoyed much comradeship and enjoyment playing such an important role in that big event!

The famous painting associated with threshing, 'When Steam Was King,' is an excellent scene showing a great deal. Mine is nicely framed with an identical miniature frame immediately below with that well known caption. The location of the straw stack in that painting was basically wrong. Being that close to the barn was very rare indeed due to the dangers of fire, even though some of the farmers put it there.

The fields were not big and the bundle wagons rarely had to load more than a half mile from the machine. If it was more, then the rig would usually be moved to those fields and put a straw stack that far from the stock pens by the barn. In those situations the ladies usually brought the lunches to the threshing rig.

The threshing ring was made up of 12 to 15 farmers in that area, and most rigs were individually owned instead of by the members of the ring. By far the most popular threshing machine size was the 36 inch cylinder with the 58 to 60 inch separating width. Usually eight bundle wagons would do the job, rarely more than 10. The frame wagons, until the last few years of threshing, were of the drop center design with the higher level extending over and beyond the wheels. The last designs were a flat bed with a slightly raised edge all around it and often so tight that wheat kernels which had shattered out from all the bundle handling during the day would collect, and if the wagon driver drove home with it there would usually be enough to feed his chickens.

Four pitchers in the field could keep the 8 to 10 wagons loaded. While the two wagon men unloading at the machine pitched bundles steadily into the feeder, the four pitchers in the field had to take time to move from shock to shock and row to row, plus moving to the empty wagons as they arrived in the field as the loaded ones left for the machine. One must also remember that a stop for a drink of water was necessary regularly; while unloading the wagon at the machine there was no stopping, so the taking of a drink had to be done either before or after pulling up to the feeder, or both.

Speaking of the drinking water, it was a full time job for one person to steadily supply the entire crew. Usually the job was done by a boy of ten or somewhere in his teens, but often a man or woman did the job. The crock gallon jugs were used and everyone drank from the jug. Usually as the jug was passed to the next crew member he would shake the jug in such a way as to rinse off the opening with a little water from the jug. Often the jugs were wrapped with a burlap bag material and by soaking the burlap each time the jug was filled, the water evaporation would help keep it cool.

The 'water carrier' always needed to have two jugs and sometimes three. It was necessary to keep moving around the whole operation so all the crew members could drink often. With all of this the refilling with fresh water from well or cistern was a steady process. It took a lot of moving around and the water carrier, or 'water boy' was the term commonly used, would often use a single seat buggy pulled by one horse to move about. Sometimes he would ride horseback, and in the '30s he might be using a car. Seldom could he walk and do the job. It certainly was an important part of the threshing, as surely the men could not work long without those frequent refreshing drinks of water.

The uprights at the front and rear of an empty frame wagon stood well above the head of a man standing. The load would have to be correctly put on the wagon as it was higher than those standards. The 'laying the bundles' and fitting them together or 'tying the load together' was the art achieved from experience over a considerable period of time. A good man would have a tight solid load. The side of the frame and the top of the load would be above those standards. Often he had to reach down eight to ten inches or even a foot from the top of the load to reach the top of the standards and get hold of the lines for the drive to the machine. Not counting the drop center, the top of the load could easily be seven feet above the frame. For readers not familiar with the word 'lines,' they are the two leather straps going to the bits in the horses' mouths. Horse riders use the word 'reins.'

During the loading of the wagon in the field, one would not touch the lines when moving from shock to shock. Instead controlling horses was done by voice command when to start and to stop. The horses would move along the row quite nicely at a proper distance so the pitcher could pitch up the bundles. Only when changing rows would it be necessary to use the lines, and of course when going to and from the field.

It was all hard work, but the bundle wagon job was often considered to be the best one. You were in the open air and traveling the full area of the threshing operation. Often there was a little waiting at the machine so a rest and a little joking and conversation was possible. Also, riding on top of a full load was smooth and with a good view, both in the field and as you moved by the engine to get up to the feeder. Standing on the load one would be well above the engine roof and those constantly changing exhausts as a good governor did its job were truly music to our ears. Those governors regulated the r.p.m. closely and with less percent speed change than nearly all modern tractors regulate their changing load speeds. That is not to say the modern tractors could not have such close regulation, because they could, but the regulation in the new tractors is often purposely at a higher percent of speed regulation than we had on the steam engines pulling the threshing machines.

The threshed grain was usually hauled away in high wheeled box wagons holding 50 bushels. There were also the larger wagon grain boxes with the top portion wider than the lower part, but they were rare. The weigher on the machine made it easy to measure this load. Then two men would scoop the grain into the bin using No. 12 scoops or sometimes No. 10s or No. 14s. Often that would take place on a sunny side of the barn or building and if there was no breeze moving that unloading was really a strain, with much perspiration generated.

On occasion there were the early trucks which usually hauled to the elevator, unless the elevator was fairly close by so the horses could do the job. This job too demanded skill and experience so as not to spill grain. It allowed some resting when back at the machine, but if the yields were high it was a rush most of the time. It must be added that for many years during the earlier days of threshing, say generally before the '30s, the grain was sacked and handled in those filled sacks.

All the crew were absolutely vital to the operation and any missing men would slow down or even stop the operation. The engine and separator were the key on which everything depended. The water wagon then was the key to keep the engine performing.

Some water wagons had the brand name of the engine, and some had no name at all. A team of horses pulled the wagon and the nearest creek or pond was used. In this area water was never far away, as it was in some areas on the Great Plains or in alkali regions. This job too was hard work, as the hand pump could be a chore indeed. If the trip took too long the engineer would use three long serious whistle blasts to signal the need for water and the water wagon driver would hurry as fast as he could to get back with that vital need of the engine. It was only those last years of threshing when the pumps were powered by small gasoline engines and some of the early trucks hauled the water tank.

In our present age we often forget about the straw stack. The blower tender could make the belt driven gear box move the blower to both extremes right and left, or anything in between to make a stack that was what the farmer wanted. He could crank a worm drive and cable winch to move the end of the blower up and down. Another handled wheel lengthened or shortened the pipe, and of course the rope he used all the time directed the straw as it came out of the blower pipe.

With a combination of these he could adjust the blower over a wide range of conditions to make the straw stack as desired. With all of that however, there was still the need for a man to regularly go up on the straw stack to properly shape it. We can remember clearly how he would work back and forth the full length of the stack to push the straw outwards with his wide special straw fork. The blower tender would pull the rope fully back to allow the straw and chaff to pass over the straw stacker each time he moved under the blower from one end of the stack to the other.

During the teens, the 20s and through the 30s, the threshing continued as that most important event. Only as combines began to come in did it slow down and finally disappear in the 1930s and early to mid 1940s. In much of the west it happened 20 years or more sooner and some places, as in California where Holt made the early combines, it took place even sooner, around the turn of the century. In my case, I was a member of the crew the day I left for pilot training in the Navy during the war.

Those 36' machines were mostly pulled by 18, 20 and 22 size engines and as the years passed the 22 size was quite popular. Also the later and higher pressure engines going up from the 135-150 to 165-175 pounds, saw the 19 size engines do the same or more work than the older 20s and even 22s.

In this region all the farmers had milk cows, chickens, usually hogs, and of course horses to take care of, and those chores kept them from threshing as long days as was done in some parts of the country like the Great Plains and into some parts of the Alberta and Saskatchewan Provinces of Canada.

As I have discussed the 'Threshing As It Was' in that 60-70 mile radius east of St. Louis, surely there are hundreds of readers from other areas who have the same or similar memories. It was truly a great era several generations long that built American farming from the hard times before the Civil War to a much higher period of prosperity, of comradeship and higher standard of living from the late 1800s up to the second World War. Since WWII there have been changes in higher power for farm machinery, advances in chemicals and hybrid seeds, but few new basic machinery inventions or changes. Even the rotary combine is not new, as at one time there was a rotary threshing machine.

Some would argue that standards of living have improved, but no one can deny that the comradeship, the close neighbor cooperation in and enjoyment of working together have all but disappeared. That is truly a shame and a tragedy! While instant communications and television news are with us, we live in a world of more indifference with less interest in the abilities of people and their accomplishments, while generally people have less knowledge of history and our heritage. There are some signs that millions of people are again desiring some of those values we once had, and they tend to collect things because they are old, whether of value or not. Also, many are attending our shows in ever-increasing numbers, indicating the desire for a connection to the era we discuss here.

Let us all make sure the details of the important threshing portion of our heritage are preserved in detail! As the saying goes, 'If you are going to put on a threshing demonstration, do it completely and right with full details. If you cannot do it in that manner, including proper clothes and hats, then DO NOT DO IT AT ALL!!'