Wheat Harvest In The Twenties, ILLINOIS STYLE


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Sr. 17424 Rock Creek Road Nevada City, California 95959

From time to time, I have been asked the old question, 'What was it like living on the farm when you were a boy?'

Considering the current estimate that only one person in five remembers World War II, how can I relate in any way to the folks of this generation how it was on the farm in the 1920's? However I will do my best.

Although the tractor was rapidly becoming an important farm tool, we were still basically horse and mule dirt farmers, and would continue to be so well into the 30's.

I will not bore my readers with all the hardship stuff. Instead, I would like to picture that one big event, the culmination of our year's work, the grain harvest.

Traditionally the hard-core Midwest states, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, were best known as the corn producers. However it was the harvest time for our wheat, oats, and barley that seemed to bring out the best in us as a working community and left us with so many wonderful memories.

I would say, without a doubt, that the centerpiece of this whole operation was the old steam tractor. Later on, many farmers would experiment with small tractors driving small separators, using one man bundle wagons, etc. But then there suddenly appeared those awe some giants, the combines! And so Goodbye steam engine, reaper and thresher!

So back to our story, the wheat harvest and how it was done. By the end of June we would have organized what we called our 'run'. This would establish just how many farms would participate with what kind of equipment and how much manpower each would contribute, and in what order we would proceed from one place to another. And most important of all, whose rig would do our work.

In our particular area we had a choice of about three crews to go with. The Crawford boys ran a J.I. Case outfit, Henry Mosley an Advance Rumely, and a new kid on the block had a Rumely Oil Pull tractor. At one time or another I worked with all of them, my favorite being the Advance Rumely. I think it ran either an Avery or Red River separator.

On the farm there was no particular age at which a boy began doing a man's work. If you could lift a bale of hay, you stacked hay bales and if your feet reached the stirrups you plowed corn. Pretty much the same today I would suppose.

I broke into the harvest bit at about age of twelve. I and one of my friends acquired an old broken down horse and buggy and hauled water to the men in the field. We got a buck a day and our dinner.

A typical work force would usually be something like this: about six or seven hay racks for bundle wagons, maybe six men we called pitchers who tossed the bundles up to them, and enough box wagons to haul to the nearest elevator. Some folks still bagged their stuff but not many.

We used the McCormick Deering reapers that cut and tied into bundles and then we shocked our wheat and let it stand for a week or two.

Then there was the horse drawn water wagon that kept the engine supplied. It had a hand operated pump on top and the water came from wells.

Finally, the engineer and separator man and, oh yes, the water boy who tried to keep everybody happy.

As for fuel, wood being quite scarce in the prairie land, coal was the next best option and due to our proximity to the soft coal mines of southern Illinois, it was relatively inexpensive. I understand that in the big wheat states such as the Dakotas they actually tried straw burners but I never saw one myself.

As I recall, farm wages ran somewhere between $30 and $50 a month; however, at harvest time a good man could make three to five dollars a day with board and keep.

The day of threshing began just as soon as the morning dew began to disappear and lasted as long as there was daylight. We worked right through Sundays as there was always the fear of rain.

I would say the highlight of the whole operation must have been that great tradition, the thresher dinner. Believe me this was no box lunch! When they pulled the whistle on that old engine we all made tracks for the farm house where we were greeted by a bunch of perspiring ladies (no air conditioning) loading the tables with roast beef, chicken, potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, I could go on and on!! How we ever managed to stagger back out to the fields in blistering heat and not fall on our collective faces I will never know. On the farm we probably consumed more calories at breakfast time than most city folk would all day.

At age eighteen I was considered a pretty competent mule skinner and I usually wound up driving a grain wagon to the nearest elevator.

On one occasion I recall having been given a team of young, big, and somewhat skitterish Missouri mules. We called them jug heads but they were really beautiful animals. Weighing in at about 135 pounds, myself, I felt quite important driving into the little town with all the girls watching me.

I guess the mules must not have been acquainted with the elevator routine and I soon realized I was going to have my hands full! Anyway, after using my trusty buggy whip and a lot of bad words, I succeeded in getting up to and into the big elevator entrance.

So far so good, but the best is yet to come!!

With the wagon wheels properly aligned, the elevator man would trip a big handle which tipped the whole wagon up and dumped the load.

However, off to the right was the engine room where a giant make and break Fairbanks Morse gas job produced the power.

Just as my wagon reared up, that old engine fired off with a bang like a cannon!

Off went the mules dragging the double trees of the wagon tongue and yours truly hanging onto the reins for dear life!! They, or should I say we, went charging right out the back ramp, finally coming to a halt against a wire fence. One good thing about a mule, he will never hurt himself as a horse would.

Well, gentle readers, that's pretty much the way we did it on the farm in the 1920's. Not too many of us left anymore, but I still remember the smells of our steam engine and I can still see the faces of my dear friends as if it were yesterday!