WHEN WE THRESHED WITH STEAM

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Kennedy, Minnesota 56733

The old steam engine days of threshing remain with me in many a nostalgic memory, and all the more vividly because I had an uncle who was a steam thresherman. My earliest recollections of the fall grain threshing date back to about 1912 or 1914, the years just before World War I. Incidentally, the word is 'threshing' and not 'thrashing,' as it is sometimes misspelled and mispronounced. If I misbehaved I got 'thrashed' but the grain was always 'threshed.'

How I used to look forward to the fall threshing, when in the dark of early morning or late evening, I would hear the shrill but musical whistle of the old steamer, announcing the beginning or the end of the day's work. As threshing time neared, my eagerness and anticipation mounted. When the great day dawned, I was out long before day break rounding up the cows for the milking. I wanted that chore out of the way so that I could be free to watch the threshing. A long blast on the whistle told us that Uncle was coming, though he was still half a mile away.

Down the road he chugged, the big steam engine towing the grain separator and the spare water tank behind. Through the alley between the stacks he drove, and in a few minutes the machine was all lined up and ready to start work. Slowly the great belt between the steamer and the separator began to move and with a mounting roar the machine went into motion. The men on top of the stacks, usually two in each, began to throw down the bundles and soon they were falling steadily into the feeder of the grain separator. I would stand in the wagon box waiting expectantly for the first dump to come down the grain spout. There! The tripper up by the scale tilted upwards, and the hard slippery kernels shot through my fingers and down into the box.

I didn't stay there long. The fire under the boiler of the engine was fed with straw, and sometimes when the fire was going good and steam was up, the fireman would let me handle the fork for a few minutes. What fun it was to push the straw down the chute and into the roaring firebox, or watch the 'waterman' pump water into the boiler, the huge belt bobbing up and down in smooth, rhythmic motion. Up on top of the engine the governor, with its two round balls, spun around and around so fast it was just a blur. From the blower of the separator poured a steady stream of golden straw that accumulated into a large pile as the day wore on. After nightfall, I loved to watch the sparks fly upward from the smokestack of the engine, dance giddily hither and thither for a moment, then fade into the black of the night.

Farm boys in those days had no dreams of becoming astronauts when they grew up. They had never heard of the word. Few of them even had any desire to be aviators, though airplanes and flying were then becoming known, a completely new ' thing which did seem romantic and exciting. We were all going to 'fire steamers.' The fireman was a hero, though he had to get up at four in the morning to clean the flues, empty the ashes and clinkers from the firebox, then get up steam and make ready for the day's work.

Sometimes the most fascinating part of the day's threshing was the talk around the table in the evening when the crew had come in for supper. Stirring tales of coulee crossings, getting stuck in soft fields, of rivalry between different threshing crews as to which could do the most work in a day, of safety plugs blowing in and a lot more. The stories went back to the 'good old days' even then, back to the days of giants, both men and steamers.

Or, as the kerosene lamp flickered from its bracket up on the wall, a lively discussion might ensue as to the relative merits of various makes of engines. Uncle's steamer was a Buffalo-Pitts, but in an earlier day he had worn out one Northwestern and one Coline, for he was an old hand at the threshing game. There was always someone in the group who championed the big engine on account of the extra power it had. A neighbor was also a thresherman, and he had a Gaar-Scott, a much larger machine. Case was another make. Uncle preferred a smaller outfit, because being lighter, it was more mobile and easier to maneuver, with less danger of getting stuck in soft or sandy ground.

So, of course, the Buffalo-Pitts was my favorite, and I defended it warmly in debates with other boys. There were many makes of grain separators toothe Rumely, the Avery, the Minneapolis, the Red River Specialall these were well known in our region and the objects of as many arguments over the coffee cups as the iron monsters that made their belts and wheels turn.

Another exciting time was when the rig moved from farm to farm. Sometimes a youngster was allowed to ride in the straw carrier, perched more or less precariously within two or three feet of the ponderous rear drive wheels that turned over slowly and majestically, leaving large wide tracks in the soft earth. This was a joy undiluted, something to be remembered for days afterward.

During my early boyhood every thresher in the country around was a steam powered rig. Other boys had uncles and fathers with steam engines. We came to know each one by its whistle as they varied slightly in tone, and each engineer had his own style or way of pulling the whistle cord. Uncle's was easy to pick out, for he had installed a two-toned whistle that was distinctive and very musical and pleasing, in my opinion by far the finest of all.

In the morning the steam rigs around the neighborhood made music with their whistles. There was sometimes rivalry between the firemen as to which one could get up steam and be the first to sound the .whistle. There was more to firing a steamer than just pushing the straw into the firebox, and there was a trick even to that. Small forkfuls fed steadily was the best way to keep an even fire and hold the steam at the right level. Too much straw at one time tended to quench the fire and slow it down. It took half an hour or so each morning to clean the flues and otherwise get the machine ready.

One could also tell by the whistle what an outfit was doing. It was a signal system, and not just a music-maker. The code may have differed in various parts of the country, but in our area two sharp toots from the whistle meant they were getting low on straw for the enginehurry up and bring some more! Three was a warning to the water hauler to get a move on and hustle back from the spring with another load of water. A series of quick toots indicated the grain tank by the separator was filling up and for the grain hauler unloading at the granary to come on the double quick.

A fireman rated higher in our estimation than a bundle pitcher. He was paid more too, at one time receiving $1.75 a day, compared to the $1.50 a day for the men who forked the grain bundles into the feeder of the separator. And, remember, that a fireman's day began at four in the morning and didn't end until eight or nine in the evening sixteen to seventeen hours. The engineer received a little more; his day was slightly shorter as he didn't have to get up as early. But he was the boss, he ran the outfit.

Steam power had the best of the gasoline engine in some ways, but there were disadvantages too. Steam was simple and cheap to operate. The steamers had no clutches, but there was only one speed ahead and one in reverse the throttle controlled the speed of movement. Going from one place to another was slow work, especially if straw was used for fuel, for the rack behind the engine had to be refilled twice or even more on each mile traveled. On long moves cordwood or coal was occasionally used.

In later years farmers banded together into what they called 'shock gangs' and the grain was hauled directly from the shocks in the fields to the threshing machine by team and wagon. Eight, ten, and even twelve teams and wagons were used depending on the size of the rig. Sometimes extra field pitchers were used to help load the wagons in which case the number of teams could be cut a couple or so. The shock gangs did away with the work of stacking the grain, but it increased the size of the crew.

The farm women who had to cook for the large crews of men, sometimes twenty or twenty five, viewed threshing with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. There were other disadvantages as well. The men had to get up early in the mornings, especially when threshing outlying parts of the 'gang,' and they kept on late in the evening when the weather was dry. This left the milking and other morning and evening chores to be done by the women and younger children at home. Threshing was hard, dusty, dirty work, no matter how you looked at it.

Practical jokes and horseplay among the crew livened up things at times. I remember an evening when one of the crew, who had a penchant for tricks, saw great possibilities in a pile of rails. He was one of the first to finish unloading; therefore he was one of the first to come in for supper. Quietly leaving the table after his companions had come in to eat, he slipped out and carefully threaded rails through both rear wheels of wagons other than his own. Then he left quickly for home. When the others came out and headed for home in the dark they found that their vehicles had been equipped with, if not hydraulic, at least with automatic brakes. The rear wheels wouldn't turn around when a rail had been inserted through them. After much toil and broil (expletives deleted) and some broken wheel spokes, everything got more or less straightened out.

But as one of the crew remarked the next day after tempers and cooled somewhat'They have bounties on pocket gophers and foxes and wolves and other nuisances; there ought to be a bounty on guys who do things like that!'

Then there was the day when the safety plug blew. On every steam engine there was a plug, usually at the front of the machine, that would blow if the steam pressure ever got so high as to create a danger of the boiler exploding. One day, on a neighboring farm, the plug went out on a steamer, enveloping the vicinity in a mushroom-cloud of hissing, swirling steam. Every team of horses around the outfit at the time bolted, and several wagons were smashed in the runaways. One team got home with only the collar and hames left of the harnesses; everything else had been torn to bits. If the old time steam engine meant long days of grueling work in threshing time there were also times of wild excitement.

About the mid-1920s the old steamers reached the end of the trail, and a long and colorful one it had been, going back well before the turn of the century. On the smaller farms there was still another decade to go before the combines took over the threshing chores, and this gap in time was filled by the gasoline tractors. Actually, most of them burned kerosene, but of course the principal involved was the same.

Many of those used in this region were Rumelys'Advance Rumely Oil Pull'read the label on the side of the smokestack. There were a number of models and sizes; the one used by a neighbor for a decade or so was a '30-60'. 'Old Bucky-Bucky' we called it, for more than one reason. Laboring along, steadily turning the belt that ran the separator, the exhaust sounded like the words 'bucky, bucky, bucky', repeated with monotonous regularity. On a frosty morning too, it sometimes 'bucked' and refused to start, having somewhat the temperament of a mule or bronco. But the tractors never had the 'charisma' (to use a word popular today) of the old steam engines. For one thing they stunk. No other word can describe the smell of burning kerosene, the kerosene exhaust. Steam was clean, and though there was a little odor of lubricating oil around the engine, especially after it had warmed up, this wasn't unpleasant.

For years after the old steamers were gone, my field cultivator would dig up chunks of bluish-black material, unmistakably 'clinkers' dating back to the days of steam threshing. I could just see the old steam rig and a fireman dragging out the ashes from the firebox with his long-handled scraper on some frosty October morning, cleaning out the machine for another day's threshing.

The combines that succeeded the steamers no doubt made the work of threshing a bit easier, but they are sadly lacking in color. At least to those of us whose recollections of the old days are perhaps a little encircled by a halo.