WATER BOY

Corliss engine

Ralph Donaldson

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D.D.S. 401 South Adams Street Boswell, Indiana 47921

Of all the unsung heroes of the big threshing rings of other days, no mention or due credit is ever given the water boy, and we are of the opinion (and we know others will agree) that his job was just as important as that of the engineer, separator man, bundle-hauler, pitcher or grain hauler. The water boy had to be able to do almost a man's work, yet he usually was a local farm boy, perhaps the son of one of the members of the ring, perhaps ten to fifteen years of age. Any boy over that age would certainly be doing a man's work during the threshing season with a team and wagon. Actually, a good water boy was one not inclined to play, but realized what fresh drinking water meant to the men who performed their various jobs during the day.

An enterprising farm boy who wanted to earn approximately 50c a day always made the rounds of the farmers in the ring as early as possible in the summer and lined up as many jobs as he cared to handle. There was always competition, for most neighboring farmers also had sons or relatives who also wanted to earn a little pocket money. Of course, the job on Dad's or the home farm was always 'for free', but in my case there was one uncle who had two daughters (girls never hauled water), two other uncles had no children, and another uncle had a son (my cousin) but he was old enough to run a bundle wagon. Also there was the possibility of getting a few jobs from other farmers in the ring.

Dad was very generous and he gave me the free use of his best driving horse and our second best buggy. But I also received some very strict orders from him and I knew I had better follow them to the letter or receive the consequences. There was to be no 'fooling around' at any time, up at 4:00 AM, off to the threshing job at 6:00. All jugs and kegs were to be emptied completely and filled with fresh, cool water each time after I had made the rounds of the pitchers in the fields, scoopers, bundle haulers, and always a fresh jug of water at the engine and another at the separator. And that went on continually all day long. If not, then we 'heard' from Dad and there were mutterings and louder complaints from others that 'that so and so water boy isn't worth a d-----' But the average farm boy knew and did what was a good job. After all, his pay, reputation, and future jobs were at stake. Usually it was the 'town boys' who never quite seemed to want to work too hard or who never understood just what fresh water meant to tired, sweating threshermen on a hot August day.

This is a picture of the Hamilton Corliss engine which supplied 110 volts direct current for the village of Brooklyn from 1903 to 1925. The man is George Green the owner and manager. . Electricity was then used principally for lighting, so the plant was started each day at dusk and operated until midnight, when the towns people had better be in bed or have the kerosene lamps lighted. Mr. Paul Totten of Brooklyn, who gave me this picture, told me that when they were having a dance in the hall that was adjacent to the power house, they would sometimes take up a collection and give the operating engineer a few dollars to keep the lights on for one more hour.

I remember watching in fascination this engine run, and how they kept the power house spick-and-span and the engine polished. It was broken up for scrap about 1934. Courtesy of Ralph Donaldson, 10275 Case Rd., Brooklyn, Michigan 49230.

Here is one of the first fruits of my recently begun search for photos of local threshing activity. The original is very sharp and clear right down to rivets and buttons and it copied nicely too I think. Fortunately it is front labled, leaving no doubt as to its whereabouts and Walt McQuiston, a newphew or cousin who gave me the print also showed me the barn which is still standing and looks very much the same. Walt was a well known thresherman around this area [Southern Lawrence County] for many years and is very interesting to talk to on the subject at the age of 93.1 would say the engine is obviously a Frick. Would you agree?. Courtesy of Thomas G. Downing, Route 1, Box 181, Ellwood City, Pennsylvania 16117.

No right-thinking water boy was ever presumptuous enough to crowd in and eat at the 'first table' at noon. He may have 'washed up' with the first men to the house, but he always stood to one side and let the men eat first unless there was that rare 'one chair left' which he could have. This is one reason I shall never forget an aunt of mine. Knowing I was hungry, all the chairs being filled, she called me around the side door and I sat on the steps and ate a marvelous meal from a plate piled high with the finest food and all the lemonade I wanted to drink.

Dad always admonished me to go on about my work and not to hang around where some of the threshing crew might be waiting to unload bundles or do their various jobs, for there were always ribald jokes, swear words, gossip, vulgarities, wherever the men congregated. Besides, the water boy was usually the butt of all jokes, had to listen to all complaints, grumblings, and in general, everybody 'picked on' the water boy. Here again he had to rise to the occasion, take his abuse and not get mad at his tormenters. I can truthfully say that I always shrugged it off - all except once -when a pitcher in the field put what I thought was a small snake down my shirt and I had my clothes off in nothing flat, only to find that it was a field mouse. But in the heat of the torture, I gave him such a tongue-lashing and 'cussing-out' as he had never heard before from a 10 year old boy, and believe me, no genuine farm boy ever grew up who did not acquire a few choice words for his own work-day vocabularly! Of course Dad never heard them, for we knew better! But most of all the ribbing and joking, was as it was meant - in fun and it was forgotten - unless someone told of an amusing incident in later years. But the water boy also came in as an assistant or jack-of-all-trades at threshing times. The housewife might 'draft' him to hang out the clean towels at the well, or put out soap, combs, mirrors and tubs of cool water under a handy shade tree for the men as they came to the house to 'wash up' for dinner. Other duties might include carrying various messages to the men, maybe a quick trip to town, helping someone brace the next bridge down the road that the engine and separator must cross. Then, after all threshing was finished in a day or two came 'settling-up day' among the members and it was on this day the lowly water boy rose to true stature when he went along with Dad to the meeting, for on this day he was paid by the various farmers for whom he had worked. On that day he would go home with several half-dollars in his pocket and that meant money for the County Fair, maybe a new fish-pole or it was perhaps to be added to other savings to buy something later of more importance. Also, 'settling up day,' usually meant a good supply of watermelons or homemade ice cream on hand and it was free and there was no limit as to how much you wanted to eat!

So, the water boy finally grew up; others came along to take over his duties while he may have taken on a new job, handling a team, may be pitching bundles, or any of the many threshing-time jobs that were handled by grown men. There still are a lot of us left who remember the booming cry of 'WATER BOY!' as some thirsty pitcher or helper in the field wanted us to speed up 'Old Punkin' and bring them a drink of fresh water first.

If you ever heard that cry, you will never forget it as long as you live or as far as you travel it will stay with you always, and beyond a doubt contributed its share to that well known quip (or proverb) 'You can take the boy from the farm, but you can't take the farm from the boy.'