We’ve all heard about the legendary meals prepared for threshing crews by farmers’ wives. The tale less often told is of the cook shacks that traveled the route with steam threshing operations. It’s a story come to life in Trenton, Missouri, where a cook shack that once accompanied a steam-powered threshing crew has been rescued and preserved as a page from the past.
Built by father and son Bill and Okey Boram, Humphreys, Missouri, the cook shack probably dates to a period of time between 1890 and 1900, based on an archaeologist’s informal assessment. Bill Boram’s steam engines were the heart of a threshing operation that blanketed the area.
Well over a hundred years ago, that area was not as big as one might think. “That cook shack was used within 10 or 12 miles of home,” says Mike Williams, Parsons, Missouri. “It was made to be pulled at 5 miles an hour, hitched to the back of the thresher.” Steam engines crept from farm to farm; days started early and ended late. Crew members did little more than work and sleep, the latter likely in the barn or on the ground beneath wagons.
A challenging retrieval
For decades, the cook shack was safely ensconced within a shed, where it was used as a tool shack. When a summer storm blew the shed down, concrete was poured around the shack and a new, shorter shed was built around it. So gradually that it escaped notice, over the years the shack sunk into the shed’s dirt floor down to its axles.
In the summer of 2021, the decision was made to extricate the relic. “It took 10 men and two skid steers 10 hours to get it out,” Mike says. Mike, in particular, feels a bit of kinship to the shack, in that his forebears hired to Bill Boram to handle their threshing.
Mike describes the retrieval in one grim word: disheartening. “We took the wheels off and got it onto the cement,” he says. “Then we finally got it to the door and it wouldn’t clear. The rears were bolted with two 24-inch bolts, so we had to tear out the whole room: walls, ceiling and doors.”
The team worked for two days in the heat of a Missouri summer. “They were really hot, miserable days,” Mike recalls. “There was just no air in that shed. By the time we got it out the door, four guys had left. People would just disappear.”
The project was launched with ample determination but little in the way of a solid plan. With the clarity of hindsight, Mike admits he may have “oversimplified” the process. Crew member Adam McClure, Trenton, now the shack’s caretaker, concurs. “Definitely oversimplified,” he says.
“I went over there a few times that summer, looked at it and scratched my head,” Mike says, “enough that my wife was tired of hearing about it. We finally just decided to tear into it and tunneled into the back wheel.” As the shack was pulled free of the dirt, a long-lost pedal car was also unearthed.
Simple, functional furnishings
During threshing runs, the cooks were in constant motion from dawn to dusk, preparing meals for the crew. At night, the women slept in the shack’s wooden bunks, likely cushioned by cornhusk mattresses. The shack’s walls are lined with what looks like tarpaper. On its one window, nails were used to hold the glass in place.
The interior was outfitted with a Hoosier cabinet, a cookstove, a dropleaf table and a chair. Shelves held supplies and utensils; pots and pans hung overhead. In cramped quarters, the women prepared potatoes, stews, maybe a chicken; maybe fruit pie and bread. “They would have made a lot of coffee,” Mike says, “that’s for sure.”
Double layers of planks form the shack’s floor. “Imagine how hot it was in there when they fired up that stove,” Mike says, “and in the summer heat.” After the shack was brought out of the shed, the original cookstove was replaced with a different antique stove and a new stove pipe.
Years in the shed provided protection
The shack measures roughly 16 by 8 feet and is more than 10 feet tall. The builders appear to have repurposed wheels and axles from an old thresher. All of the framework was oak, likely cut at a local sawmill. Pine was used for the shack’s floor and siding; the roof had rolled shingles. “They probably had the axles and just went from there,” Mike says.
The wooden axles’ cast iron skeins showed little wear. “The axles still had grease on them, which was amazing. All we did was grease the wheels,” Adam says. “If (the cook shack) had been outside for 90 years, it would have crumbled by now.”
Arm-like brackets protruding from under the shack’s floor remain a mystery. “Maybe they used them to store tables underneath the floor,” Mike muses. The exterior was painted red, perhaps using leftover barn paint.
Complicated to load
Once liberated from the shed, the cook shack needed a thorough cleaning. “There was 4 to 6 inches of raccoon poop on the roof,” Mike says. Adam’s mother, Marilyn McClure, Trenton, tackled the job of cleaning the shack’s interior.
Marilyn’s next assignment was considerably more enjoyable. “When I told her, ‘We put you in charge of decorating it,’ she got pretty excited,” Adam says. “She’s been an ‘antiquer’ all her life.”
The cook shack made its public debut at the Livingston County Steam & Gas Assn. Old Time Harvest Days in Chillicothe in September 2021. A skid steer was used to load the shack on a trailer, where it hung over on every side. “It was kind of tricky to get it on the trailer,” Adam says with considerable understatement. “Mom said we should never do that again.”
When a better trailer is obtained, he says, the cook shack could be displayed at area shows. “It’s really neat to see it in a steam engine parade,” he says. While it was on display at the Chillicothe show, visitors were allowed to enter the shack and have a look at how things were done a century ago.
A unique piece of local history
No one knows how long the cook shack was used on threshing runs. “We think it might have been used into the late 1920s,” Mike says. “It was probably put in the shed by Bill Boram’s grandson. It was used for storage; it was full of tools. For the longest time, it was the only place on the farm that could be locked.”
In the shed, the old shack was safe from about everything but tornadoes and coons. “They didn’t drive nails anywhere near it,” Mike says. “I think it was dear to Bill Boram. I bet he was very proud of it when it was new. I think he and his son were proud of all their equipment.”
Donated by Rodney Boram, Trenton, Bill Boram’s great-grandson, the cook shack tells an eloquent story of traditional agricultural practices. It also stands out as a unique piece of local history. “I’m not sure cook shacks like this were very common in Missouri,” Adam says. “It’s about one-of-a-kind around here.” FC
Three meals a day–and two “light lunches”
Cooks worked dawn to dusk to feed threshing crew’s gargantuan appetite
According to a post on the Menonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum website, the use of threshers’ cook shacks in central Kansas reached its peak from about 1900-1920. The museum’s website details a typical cook shack in operation near Goessel, Kansas:
“The cook shack was about 8 feet wide, 16 feet long and 7 feet high. It sat on a high wheel wagon gear. To enter, a set of portable steps were necessary. Two small screened windows on either side of the cook shack allowed for some ventilation to occur. On all four corners, guy ropes to anchor the shack were driven into the ground. There was an elevated roof section, small interior cupboards, and the hole in the floor, which allowed easy access to food and other supplies in the storage area under the floor. This space beneath the floor was used as storage for potatoes, canned goods, and cleaning supplies. During the day, the bedding was folded to provide more space for the dining table and the two benches.
“Outside the cook shack, lavatory facilities consisted of wash basins set on benches. Towel racks were improvised by using a nail partially protruding on the outside wall of the cook shack. A mirror and comb were attached to the wall in the same manner.
“When it was time to move the cook shack, the steps were removed and placed inside the shack on the floor. The cook shack was pulled by two horses or mules. The driver stood in the doorway with the screen door open so that he could see the rough road that was ahead of him. When going over rough roads, several men walked on either side of the cook shack so that it wouldn’t tip over.
“The cooks served three meals a day in the cook shack and they were responsible to deliver two light lunches to the field for the 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. coffee breaks. A hired girl in Saskatchewan during the 1928 harvest season describes the meals: ‘Breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, hashbrown potatoes, and a gallon of coffee. For dinner at 11 a.m., we cooked a 15-pound roast, two types of vegetables and what seemed to me to be a half-bushel of potatoes. All men liked pie for lunch out in the field. This was another gallon of coffee, sandwiches and cookies. For supper we had cold meats, potatoes, salads, and cake for dessert.’ These five meals made it necessary to keep the wood-burning stove hot nearly all day. Later, kerosene burning stoves were used.”
For more information: The cook shack will be on display at the Livingston County Steam & Gas Assn. Old Time Harvest Days in Chillicothe Sept. 23-25. Call Mike Williams at (660) 359-7333.
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.