Looking Back


Threshing, Then and Now

Sam MooreIn 1907, a man named Edgar L. Vincent [no address given] reminisced about his younger years on the farm in a letter to The American Thresherman magazine.

“The first threshing machine I ever saw was a flail. After the frost came in the fall the neighbors would come in and ‘exchange work’ with each other, going from one farm to the other until the scanty harvest was all pounded out. It was a great time for us youngsters when the thud, thud, thud of the flails sounded over the hills and far away. We boys helped clean the grain and we turned the mill till our strength ran down so that we could scarcely make one more turn on the crank.

Next came the open-cylinder machine. I well remember the first time one of these machines set up in our barn. The barn was new, and as we had recently burned the logs of the old house to make way for the new frame house that was to be our home, we had moved to the barn and were living in the stable. No cattle had ever yet been in the stable and it was as neat and clean as any house could be and we liked the smell of the fresh-sawn lumber.

Well, that job of threshing was a great one, and no mistake! We had hung bed quilts along the sides of the barn floor to keep wheat kernels from scattering all over and into the stable. And when the bundles of grain hit that cylinder how the grain did fly everywhere! Up to the roof, all about the floor, into the eyes of the hands, peppering us all like hail stones in a storm. Queer that no one had yet thought to provide a cover over that cylinder! But the thresher was evolving and, as bright ideas came into men’s minds, they were adopted after no small struggle.


Two men threshing with flails.

Even then, cleaning the grain was still done with a fanning mill – the idea of combining a thresher with a separator was off in the future. After the threshing was done and the machine out of the barn, we had to sweep and shovel the grain into a heap and run it through the fanning mill. It was a big thing, though, to have the grain pounded off the bundles by something easier than the flail.

But that old fanning mill – what fun it was to us boys! On days when father was away from home we used to take the wind doors off and proceed to ‘thresh’ hay and straw by holding it directly against the fan blades while someone turned the crank for dear life. We always shut the big barn door so no one would know what we were up to, but one sorry day grandmother appeared on the scene after quietly opening the door. She stood for a moment looking at what we were doing to the old mill and then, raising her voice, she cried in her quaint down-east voice, ’What on airth be you a-doin’!


Claas Lexion combine at work. [Both illustrations courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

The cold chills ran down our backs as we hustled to show the old dear that we could easily restore the mill to its former good condition, and we never knew if she told father about our escapade. He never said anything, so she probably didn’t mention it, she loved us too well for that, I am sure.

But now it makes one almost dizzy to think of the changes in the beautiful machines that come to do our threshing! Perfect – not a thing lacking, so far as human ingenuity can provide, to enable them to do the best possible work and to do it in almost the twinkling of the eye! Run by engines that drive the cylinder and all other parts like lightning, they sweep across the country like tornadoes, taking the great stacks of grain and devouring them like mighty monsters with appetites that cannot be stayed and leaving in their wake only the sacks of clean, beautiful grain.”

Mr. Vincent ends his letter by wondering if “there can possibly be as much improvement in the next few years as there has been in the past.” Think of how astonished he would be to see one of today’s huge combines with a 40-foot header sweeping across a quarter section of wheat! He talked of threshers “devouring” grain stacks; now it’s more like gulping the crops – and think what a shock it would be if a modern farmer could gaze upon crop harvesting 100 years in the future.

– Sam Moore

Mother's Slipper

Sam MooreWe hear a lot these days about the sad state of discipline among our youngsters, and, on the other hand, of calls to the police if someone happens to witness a parent administering to a recalcitrant child any more than a mild talking to. Along these lines I thought this editorial by Bascome B. Clarke, founder and long-time editor of The American Thresherman, was interesting. It appeared in the August 1907 issue of the paper under Clarke’s byline, “Uncle Silas.”

I remember how mother used to take us on her knee when we had allowed our wrath to be kindled against some little playmate, and how she would smooth back our hair and gently calm the rising storm, and then tell us that dog story:

‘Let dogs delight to bark and bite, for God hath made them so.
Let bears and lions growl and fight, for tis their nature, too.
But little children should never let their angry passions rise,
Your little hands were never meant to tear each other’s eyes.’

That was the way mother used to do when we were little, but alas! Too many of mother’s precepts and examples are forgotten when mother has gone to heaven. We go back to where we left off that morning when our bristles were up, and we bark and bite and snap and snarl at our fellowman. We feel that we are men in the middle of the road and eleven feet high; that we are the Cardiff giants of creation and are entitled to the best seat in the big show. We trample upon the rights of others, crushing the weak, cursing the strong. Whoever doesn’t agree with us is wrong, and he deserves to be kicked through his suspenders for it. We declare ourselves the raging lions, entitled to do all the growling, and a mighty roar proceeds from our wind stackers [The wind stacker was the large fan and long pipe at the rear of a threshing machine that blew the threshed straw into a straw stack; they did make a mighty roar.] whenever anybody else has an opinion that did not emanate from our dome of thought.

There are other lasting impressions that mother used to make besides the dog story. Sometimes when she had been tormented by our continued snapping and snarling, and when we smashed each other in the face with those tiny hands of ours, mother felt called upon to tell us about the old woman who lived in the shoe, and use her slipper as a pointer. [There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn't know what to do. She gave them some broth without any bread; then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.] Sometimes she didn’t find out about it until after we had gone to bed and were dreaming of better things. But when we felt mother’s arms around us and gently drawing us across her knee and with her slipper performing her duty, however distressing to her it might be, we recalled another little stanza: ‘Who took me from my warm, warm cot, and spanked me good till I was hot? My mother!’

Some of the most lasting impressions of our lives were made with mother’s slipper. They felt like a sprinkling of tobacco sauce then, but they made lasting impressions on us in after life, and made us more considerate of the rights of others, and somehow did much to eradicate the dog theory from our systems. Oh, the crying need for more mothers’ slippers in the world! This greedy, selfish nature that will not down, but gets up on its hind legs and barks and bites and growls and fights, requires clubs and guns to cure in manhood. God bless our mothers for every love lick made with slipper or shingle too. Both were good for us then; they are with us in memory still.

Here it is, more than a century later and Mr. Clarke’s words still apply.

– Sam Moore

Mother disciplining child
What is a home without a mother? [Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

The Calf Path

A while back I ran across this little poem by Samuel Foss. Foss, who was born in 1858 and died in 1911, was an American librarian and poet whose works included The House by the Side of the Road and The Coming American.

The Calf Path

One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should.
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then, two hundred years have fled,
And, I infer the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise, bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o'er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him too,
As good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o'er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath,
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed – do not laugh –
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked,
Because he wabbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane,
That bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road
Where many a poor horse, with his load,
Toiled on beneath the burning sun
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city's crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis,
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about;
And o'er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead;
They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day –
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach,
Were I ordained and called to preach,
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind;
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track.
And out and in and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

You see, it is so hard to get out of the rut.

– Sam Moore

Painting of cows
A painting by Charles Franklin Pierce, titled “The Cow Path.”

Farmer Newstyle and Farmer Oldstyle

Sam MooreIn an old book titled Grain and Chaff from an English Manor, written by Arthur H. Savory and published in 1920 is the following little rhyme about an old Scottish farmer visiting a young and progressive “new” farmer.

Savory introduces the poem by writing, “The following lines, which have never been published except in a local newspaper, though written many years ago, apply quite well in these days of the hoped-for revival of agriculture. I am not at liberty to disclose the writer's identity beyond his initials, E.W.”

FARMER NEWSTYLE AND FARMER OLDSTYLE

“Good day,” said Farmer Oldstyle, taking Farmer Newstyle by the arm;
“I be come to look aboot me, wilt 'ee show me o'er thy farm?”
Young Newstyle took his wideawake [a wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat], and lighted a cigar.
He said, “Won't I astonish you, old-fashioned as you are!”

“No doubt you have an aneroid [old barometer]? ere starting you shall see
How truly mine prognosticates what weather there will be.”
“I ain't got no such gimcracks; but I knows there'll be a flush
When I sees t'ould ram take shelter wi' his tail agin a bush.”

“Allow me first to show you the analysis I keep,
And the compounds to explain of this experimental heap [of manure],
Where hydrogen and nitrogen and oxygen abound,
To hasten germination and to fertilize the ground.”

“A pretty sight o' learning you have piled up of a ruck;
The only name it went by in my father's time was muck.
I knows not how the tool you call a nallysis may work,
I turns it when it's rotten pretty handy wi' a fork.

“Here's a famous pen of Cotswolds [sheep], just pass your hand along the back,
Fleeces fit for stuffing the Lord Chancellor's woolsack!
For premiums e'en 'Inquisitor' would own these wethers [castrated male sheep] are fit,
If you want to purchase good uns you must go to Mr. Garsit [a prominent sheep breeder].”

“Two bulls first rate, of different breeds, the judges all protest,
Both are so super-excellent, they know not which is best.
Fair [A cattle breeder] could he see this Ayrshire, would with jealousy be riled;
That hairy one's a Welshman, and was bred by Mr. Wild [A Highland cattle breeder].”

“Well, well, that little hairy bull, he shanna be so bad:
But what be yonder beast I hear, a-bellowing like mad,
A-snorting fire and smoke out? be it some big Rooshian gun!
Or be it twenty bullocks squeez together into one?”

"My steam factotum [handyman], that, Sir, doing all I have to do,
My ploughman and my reaper, and my jolly thrasher, too!
Steam's yet but in its infancy, no mortal man alive
Can tell to what perfection modern farming will arrive.”

“Steam as yet is but an infant” – he had scarcely said the word,
When through the entire farmstead was a loud explosion heard;
The engine dealing death around, destruction and dismay;
Though steam be but an infant this indeed was no child's play.

The women screamed like blazes, as the blazing hayrick burned,
The sucking pigs were in a crack, all into crackling turned;
Grilled chickens clog the hencoop, roasted ducklings choke the gutter,
And turkeys round the poultry yard on crispy pinions flutter.

Two feet deep in buttermilk the fireman's two feet lie,
The cook before she bakes it finds a finger in the pie;
The labourers for their lost legs are looking round the farm,
They couldn't lend a hand because they had not got an arm.

Oldstyle, all soot from head to foot, looked like a big black sheep,
Newstyle was thrown upon his own experimental dung heap;
"That weather-glass,” said Oldstyle, “canna be in proper fettle,
Or it might as well a told us there was thunder in the kettle.”

“Steam is so expansive.” “Aye,” said Oldstyle, “so I see.
So expensive, as you call it, that it wilna do for me;
According to my notion, that's a beast that canna pay,
Who chomps up for his morning feed a hundred ton of hay.”

Then to himself, said Oldstyle, as he homewards quickly went,
"I'll tak' no farm where doctors' bills be heavier than the rent;
I've never in hot water been, steam shanna speed my plough,
I'd liefer thrash my grain out by the sweat of my own brow.

“I neither want to scald my pigs, nor toast my cheese, not I,
Afore the butcher sticks 'em or the factor [cheese dealer] comes to buy;
They shanna catch me here again to risk my limbs and life;
I've nought at home to blow me up except it be my wife.”

– Sam Moore

Highland cow

A Highland cow. [Courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The Joys of Gardening

Sam MooreThis is the time of year when gardeners (and would-be gardeners) are poring over seed catalogs and being pleasantly seduced into thinking that they can reproduce the same results in their back yard gardens as appear in the luscious catalog photos of fruits and vegetables – forlorn hope!

Following is a story of the joys of gardening that I’ve adapted from a chapter in John Kendrick Bangs’ 1900 book titled, The Idiot at Home.


Bart Bumble, an order clerk down at the Ajax plow Company, his only connection with growing a crop of any kind, had a small house with a fair-sized yard only one block from the factory.

One day in 1918, Bart’s brother, Bert, visited and said, “Bart, with this big yard I’d think you’d have a Victory Garden.”

“Why, I do," replied Bart. “I've got a garden patch down behind the wagon shed. The stuff we get is almost as good as canned goods, too. We had a stalk of asparagus the other night that was great as far as it went. It was edible for an inch I was told, although that part of it had already been nibbled off by my son Benny while it was waiting to be served. However, the inedible end which survived was quite sturdy, and might have substituted for a tent peg if needed.”

“One stalk of asparagus is a pretty poor crop, I should say,” said Bert, laughing.

“Maybe,” said Bart. “But Mrs. Bumble and I were proud of our asparagus crop, and regretted that it did not survive to be properly served at dinner. Benny was severely scolded for biting off the green end of it before I even saw it.”

“Twasn't very good,” said Benny.

“I’m very glad it wasn’t, son,” said Bart. “I’d be sorry to hear that you had any pleasure from your inexcusable act.”

“Do you usually serve such small portions of the stuff from your garden?” asked Bert.

“Often we don't serve anything at all from it," said Bart, “which you see is smaller yet. In this instance Mrs. Bumble had intended a little surprise for me. We had struggled with that asparagus-bed for some time. She had studied asparagus in her botany book. I had looked it up in the encyclopedia. We had ordered it in various styles when we dined out, and we had frequently bought cans of it in order to familiarize ourselves with its general appearance. Then we consulted experienced gardeners and did what they told us to do, but somehow it didn't work. Our asparagus crop languished. We sprinkled it in person. We put all sorts of fertilizers and bug sprays on it, but nothing worked, and finally when I added up the costs, I discovered that we had paid out enough money, without satisfactory results, to have kept us in canned asparagus for four years, I got discouraged, but then Mrs. Bumble discovered that one perfect stalk. She was elated our work had not been entirely wasted, and cooked the stalk as a surprise for me. As I have told you, then Benny, over whom we seem to have no control, got ahead of us –”

“You was surprised, wasn't you, pa?” demanded the boy.

“Somewhat, son,” said Bumble, “but not in exactly the way your mother had planned.”

“Is asparagus the only thing you’ve grown?” queried Bert.

“Oh no!” replied Bart. “We've had peas and beets and beans and egg-plant and corn – almost everything. Our pea crop was lovely. We had five podfuls for dinner on the Fourth of July, and the children celebrated the day by shelling them for their mother. They popped open almost as noisily as a torpedo. It was really very enjoyable.”

“Is it true,” asked Bert, “that home-raised peas are sweeter than any other?”

“Of course,” replied Bart. “That Fourth-of-July night when we ate those five podfuls we discovered that fact. Five podfuls of peas are not enough to feed a family of four, so we mixed them in with a few more that we bought at the grocer's, and we could tell ours from the others right away, they were so much sweeter.”

“Pooh!” said Bert. “How did you know that they were yours that were sweet, and not the store-bought peas?”

“How does a father know his own children?” asked his brother. “If you'd labored over those five pods as hard as we did, carefully planting, weeding, and guarding them against bugs, tenderly watching their development from infancy into mature peahood, I guess you'd know your own from others.”

“Tell Uncle Bert about the strawberry, pa,” said Benny, who liked to hear his father talk.

“Well,” said Bumble, “it's not much of a story. There was one. We had a strawberry patch twenty feet by ten. We had plenty of straw and plenty of patch, but the berries were quite shy about appearing. The results were disappointing. I found one berry trying to hide itself under a pile of straw one morning, and while I went to call the Mrs. to come and see it, a miserable robin came along and ate it! I hope the bird enjoyed it, because I estimate that berry cost twenty dollars. That is one of the things I hate about gardening. I don't mind spending forty-four dollars on a stalk of asparagus that is eaten, even surreptitiously, by a member of my own family; but to pay twenty dollars for a strawberry to be gobbled by a lousy robin is too much!”

“You forget, Bart,” said his wife, “that we got fifteen boxes out of the strawberry-patch later.”

“No, I don't,” said Bumble. “I was coming to that, and it’s really a confession. You were so unhappy about the loss of our one beautiful berry that I decided to make that patch yield. The fifteen boxes of berries that we eventually harvested were bought at the local fruit-stand and judiciously scattered about the patch where you would find them. I had hoped you would never find it out, but when you talked about spending thirty-eight dollars on that strawberry-patch next year, I decided it was better to tell you the truth.”

“Well! I never!” Exclaimed Mrs. B.

“But really,” asked Bert, “haven't you raised anything in your garden?”

“Oh yes,” said Bart. “I've raised my water bill! I used to pay twelve dollars a quarter for water, but now the bill’s at least twenty-five dollars. Truly, a garden does profit someone.”

– Sam Moore

Man watering a garden
“We sprinkled it in person.” [Illustration from the book, which is available on the Gutenberg Project]

Words of Encouragement from Harvester World

Sam MooreAmerica’s farmers today are hurting, what with tariffs, trade wars, low milk and grain prices and now the extensive flooding in the Midwest grain belt. But, it’s not new.

After the boom times and high commodity prices during World War I, a severe depression hit the agricultural sector and by 1921, farmers were hurting. Naturally, as farmers were forced to tighten their belts farm implement manufacturers and dealers faced hard times as well.

During those days the mighty International Harvester Co. published a monthly magazine called Harvester World, which was sent to employees and dealers. IH apparently felt that readers of the magazine required a pep talk so the January 1922 issue contained some encouraging words.

The first page said, “Great men are not made in soft ages, so be thankful for this period which demands hard thinking and hard work. Be thankful for this time of commercial and political stress. You may be sure that great leaders will be developed in every sphere of human action – great dealers and salesmen and managers, also, will now make themselves known. Accept the stern requirements of the period. The harder it is the better, and happier. This is the era in which men in every walk of life will be made and used for all their worth. It is a good time to be alive!”

Then on the editorial page appeared the following “good lesson.”

“In 1867, with the Civil War two years in the background, two farmers were sitting on a rail fence talking hard times. Money was scarce, hogs were a drug on the market, corn was worth fourteen cents and oats not worth hauling to town. Eggs were selling at eight cents a dozen, but farmers faced the hard times, paid for their farms and sent their children to school.

“In 1893 the sons of those two farmers stood near the same spot discussing the hard times. These were black days for men trying to raise crops and pay for their farms, and the two men even threatened to move to the city and start over. But they stayed and won through.

“Today [1922], the grandsons of the 1867 farmers are sitting in their automobiles lamenting the hard times, poor markets and low prices. All their lives they have had more luxuries than their ancestors had comforts, but they are talking the language of their fathers just the same.”

The descendants of these long-ago farmers often went through hard times during the 20th century, and now here it is, 150 years on and it’s happening again. Those men’s great-great-grandsons are sitting in their $50,000 dually pickups, checking grain prices on their iPhones, and wondering how to meet the next payment on a $400,000 combine. And, even though some will “move to the city and start over,” others will hang on and survive.

It just proves that farmers are a stubborn and tenacious lot that keeps on keeping on through hard times, depressions, droughts, fires, floods and everything else that comes their way. It’s a good thing, too, ’cause I like to eat.

– Sam Moore

Farmers talking over a fence
Two farmers talking over a fence. (Image from the December 1938 issue of Country Gentleman magazine in the author’s collection.)

Early Thoughts on the Threshing Machine

Sam MooreThe first threshing machine wasn’t produced in this country but in the British Isles when a Scotsman, Andrew Meikle, improved upon a semi-successful thresher built by an English farmer named Leckie. Meikle used a rotary cylinder with beaters around the circumference, as well as powered feed rollers to carry the grain into the cylinder and, eventually, a cleaning fan to blow away dirt and chaff. Meikle’s machine, which was patented in 1788, wasn’t portable, however, and was built into a barn and powered by a water wheel or a horsepower.

Arthur Young, an English agricultural writer wrote in 1808, warning the farmer to keep a sharp eye on the men doing his threshing (with a flail and winnowing basket). He wrote: He may lose immensely if his straw be not threshed clean; and as it is work generally performed by measure, the men are too apt to turn it over too quickly, and thresh out only that (grain) which comes the easiest from the ear. In respect to pilfering, the work gives them great opportunities so he should have a sharp lookout, and take care now and then to meet the men of an evening in their home, and to come upon them in the barn at various times and unawares. Such conduct will keep the men honest, if they are already, and will prevent many knaves from practicing their roguery. According to this, British yeomen must have been an untrustworthy lot.

Young then described the advantages of the new threshing machines: If the farmer has one of these most useful implements, he is safe from such dirty work and dishonesty. The expense of a fixed mill is from sixty to one hundred guineas [the guinea was 1 pound, 1 shilling, or 21 shillings, but it’s beyond my ability to translate that into today’s money]. It will thresh about fifteen quarters [a quarter is eight bushels] of wheat in eight or nine hours, and from fifteen to twenty quarters of barley, oats, peas, or beans. Barley is the hardest to thresh with a machine, but I have seen several that do it well, such as Mr. Asbey’s at Blyborough, Suffolk. His price for a fixed machine, 75 guineas, and for a moveable one, 120 guineas. The granary should always be located over the fixed mill that the grain may be drawn up at once, and lodged safe under the farmer’s key.

A European thresher

While this is a much later thresher than Andrew Meikle’s, it is an early 19th century horse-powered machine from Europe, probably French. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Straw was commonly used as cattle feed in Great Britain and Young alluded to this: For feeding cattle, fresh-threshed straw is better than old; for litter they are equal; but it is best for eating straw to cut it into chaff by the power of the threshing mill and to have the chaffhouse adjoining so it can be immediately stored. This house should have brick walls, so that fermentation does not set fire to anything, and then if water be thrown on the chaff, it ferments and is much more nutritious than when used in the common way. Mr. Young seems to have known a bit about silage.

Threshing was something of an all winter job in those days. Young wrote: The threshers must be kept constantly at work throughout this month [December], that the cattle feeding on the straw may have a regular supply. Many farmers who keep large stocks of lean or dry cattle thresh their worst straw first and the best last throughout the winter, that every change of straw may be for the better. This cannot fail of having good effects on the cattle, who often fall away on a change of straw that is for the worse. The wheat should be threshed first as it makes the worst fodder; next the oats, then the barley, and lastly, the barley or oats that had much clover mown with them; for in wet seasons, the clover grows so high that the straw is almost as good as hay.

Arthur Young finished up his article with: A threshing-machine is an object of such importance to every [grain] farmer that no intelligent one will be without it.

It always interests me to read these old accounts of how farming was back in “the good old days.”

– Sam Moore







SUBSCRIBE TO FARM COLLECTOR TODAY!

Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

Save Even More Money with our SQUARE-DEAL Plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our SQUARE-DEAL automatic renewal savings plan. You'll get 12 issues of Farm Collector for only $24.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of Farm Collector for just $29.95.




Facebook Pinterest YouTube

Classifieds

click me