Working Together

Threshing crew

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E2762 County F Kewaunee, WI 54216

In his book Steam Power on The American Farm Reynold M. Wik has the following quotation from Henry Bossman, who used to live in Sheldon, Iowa, and who was with us on an Elderhostel experience in October, 1988. Mr. Bossman had this to say about his young life with threshing crews; 'The men sat around a long table, often out of doors, the young ladies visited, the young fry ran wild around the farm yard and some of the young people paired off. And then it was all over, but the comradeship of a big job well done would linger on in our memory. Each of us had the good feeling of having been needed by his fellow man, and of being respected as a good worker and a good sport. I don't know of a better way to weld together a group of people than to have them own a steam threshing rig year after year. You didn't have to wonder whether you could depend upon your friends, you had been partners on the threshing crew, how better could you tell a friend than that?'

Farming has undergone continuous change throughout the years. The rude pioneer farms that were wrested from the wilderness by our ancestors have been replaced by super-farms of hundreds of acres with machinery to match. However, not every change has been an improvement. Many of us remember, with fond nostalgia, the fine quality of the social life in the years before the Second War, when labor was traded between neighbors as a way of life; the social interaction that resulted was welcome and valuable.

Threshing, silo filling, hay baling, and firewood sawing were jobs that required a crew, and the long hours of hard, often cold, dusty work were rewarded not so much by the obligation of repayment in kind, but by the opportunity to meet friends and neighbors in a pleasant interruption of an otherwise solitary, humdrum life. We looked forward to those excuses to get together with our neighbors and enjoyed, in spite of the discomforts, those long work days. A snake or a nest of field mice could, by some fertile, active mind, be transformed into the basis for a new practical joke that was long remembered and often recounted.

A threshing crew in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, nearly one hundred years ago on the farm of the John Kelso family. Close attention to the picture shows it to be of an old wooden separator with a straw carrier rather than a blower, and being powered by a portable steam engine of rather a small size. There are at least seventeen men gathered around the rig, and from the few grain sacks seen in the picture, threshing probably did not go along as rapidly as was the case about twenty years later, so the number of men employed probably did not result in much work being done, according to later working methods. Still, it was a threshing scene to remember, and one to really gladden the hearts of those of us who can dimly remember threshing rigs of nearly this same great age.

There is a difference between a group of men sweating together in a hay mow and their modern counter-parts congregated at a bar or a bowling alley. In the first case, we were united against a common enemy, the Depression, and our work together was a way of conserving a slender income by bartering labor instead of dollars. This attitude put a finer point on the reason for being together, and made the socializing especially worthwhile as a means to an end. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have experienced those times recall them with fondness.