Threshing in the Corn Belt

The Avery up-side-down.

The Avery up-side-down.

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Earl ham, Iowa

I am a regular reader of the Iron-Men Album and look forward to the arrival of each copy. I enjoy the pictures of old threshing rigs and engines manufactured before the turn of the century as well as reading the letters that you publish in each issue.

I thought you might be interested in an historical sketch of threshing in the 'Corn Belt' that shows quite conclusively that Iowa, and the other corn producing states of the middle west, was at one time the scene for many threshing crews where large acreages of wheat, oats and barley were grown and some of of the largest crews operated the largest separators manufactured by any of the companies in business during the first half of the twentieth century. Steam predominated through the nineteen twenties and then the gas tractor began to appear. These rigs compared in size with those pictured so often in the plains states of Nebraska, Kansas, Montana and the Dakotas.

Gradually custom threshing was replaced by rigs owned and operated by a 'company of farmers'. Later smaller separators were purchased by individual farmers who pulled them with their small tractors that were becoming useful for plowing and to pull binders and other equipment on the farms. Still later the combine became a part of the equipment needed on almost every farm. Today one can drive for miles through this same corn belt and seldom see the cloud of dust and chaff coming from the blower of even a small separator -- so universal has become the combine of today.

My interest in engines dates back to about 1907 when a neighbor who owned a 12 hp Gaar Scott engine and a 32 x 54 Gaar Scott separator would pull his rig out of the shed and begin to make repairs and preparations for the run in our neighborhood and a second run that consisted largely of stack threshing.

My brother, who is two years younger, and I would spend every minute of the day that our parents would permit watching him work and were more than thrilled when he would start the engine to try an adjustment on either the engine or the separator. The great thrill was when he asked me if I would shut her down when he signaled from the separator. I was about twelve years old then. Prom that day to this I have never lost interest in steam outfits and, frankly, I would like to be firing one today instead of using the combines that are in our country.

Another early recollection I have was to sit on the engine when he was sawing wood for the neighbors, usually in the winter when those good old Iowa mud roads were frozen hard enough to hold up the engine. Each of the neighbors would cut the willow and maple trees on their farms to use for firewood in their cook stoves and also for heating the house because coal was too expensive and, of course, gas or electricity were unheard-of in rural communities. Our neighbor had built a saw outfit on wheels for this purpose, pulled by the 12 hp Gaar Scott, and the sawing was an all-day affair to get a supply to last until the next winter. If this job happened to be on a Saturday, or during the Christmas vacation when I was not in school, I was in my seventh heaven because I could carry sawed wood to fire with and he would let me fire some too. He did custom shelling and feed grinding with a portable sheller and grinder and another opportunity was available to watch the engine run and listen to its sharp bark when the load was heaviest.

When our neighbor told my brother and me that he had traded off his old Gaar Scott outfit for a new Avery return flue 16 hp engine and an Avery Yellow Fellow separator we could hardly wait to see what it would look like for we had never seen a return flue engine and couldn't imagine an engine with the smoke stack on the back end of the boiler instead of in front. We lived about a mile from the Rock Island railroad and could clearly see every train that passed. When the local freight came puffing up the grade that June day, after school was out, and on a flat car an engine with the smoke stack obviously on the back end of the boiler, and with it a bright yellow separator we knew a new day had arrived. We both ran to our neighbor and told him it had arrived and 'when was he going to unload it?' In spite of the fact that it was right in the midst of corn plowing time, which we were trying to get laid by before time to start harvesting the oats and barley, we persuaded my father to let us go to town, a mile away, to see at least a part of the unloading. When we got there the engine was already off the car and he was just ready to unload the separator by hooking a long cable to the tongue and extending the cable to the opposite end of the flat car where it was coupled to the engine. The engine eased the separator slowly down the incline that had been built at one end of the car with heavy railroad ties and planks. Soon we were on the way home and the thrill of riding for a mile on that new rig will never be forgotten. Needless to say, my father had a bad time getting us to work each day because we wanted to see that new rig tuned-up for threshing so just as soon as we could get our part of the chores done in the evening (and sometimes before) we would scoot over to just look at that beautiful engine and separator.

When I was eighteen years old my father let me take a team to haul water for the outfit for the entire season during which I learned to run the engine. The same summer my brother talked the neighbors into letting him run the blower to help the men who worked on the straw stack because all the farmers diligently stacked their straw for feeding purposes. That was the beginning of our careers in running the threshing outfit for what had become a 'company of farmers' who bought out the original owner when he quit farming.

When World War I came along in 1918 I was drafted into the service on July 1st so did not get to fire the Avery 16 hp that summer. Upon my return I was again ready to take over the engine at threshing time and my brother had hauled water during which time he had learned to run the separator. Over a period of twenty years the company owned and operated the Avery 16 hp return flue engine with a 32 x 60 separator; another Avery 16 hp engine with a 36 x 60 Yellow Fellow separator and a Minneapolis 20 hp engine with a 32 x 60 Yellow Fellow separator. Both of the Avery 16 hp return flue engines were fine engines but a little hard to fire up on a cold boiler. The Minneapolis engine was the finest, easiest to handle I have ever pulled the throttle on. Our company was partial to the Avery Yellow Fellow separators and I must say it really could eat the grain and do as fine a job of cleaning as any separator I have ever seen. On several occasions we have threshed over two thousand bushels of wheat in one day and never stopped except for dinner at noon when my brother and I would take turns oiling both the engine and separator while the other ate. Some seasons when the grain was short, with less straw to handle, we used ten bundle wagons to haul in from the field and four pitching into the separator. The Avery 16 hp engines would really bark under the load but the Minneapolis 20 hp handled it comparatively easy.