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Threshing Long Ago

Author Photo
By Sam Moore

Check out this story about threshing and threshing machines from the early 1900s.

threshing machine
Sam Moore
An open cylinder groundhog thresher owned by Gene Loxtercamp of Sauk Center, MN..

The August, 1907 issue of The American Thresherman contained a letter from Edgar L. Vincent [no address given] in which he reminisced about an early threshing experience. When I was a boy on a western Pennsylvania farm, the big event in August was the two or three days when the threshing machine came and did our wheat and oats, so this seems an appropriate time for Mr. Vincent to retell his tale.

“The first threshing machine I ever saw was a flail. Threshing was usually postponed until the frost came in the fall, when the neighbors would come in and ‘change work’ with my father, going from one farm to another till the scanty harvest was all pounded out. It was a great time for us youngsters when the thud, thud, thud of the flails sounded their music over the hills. The work of cleaning the grain was also interesting to us boys, for we liked to turn the fanning mill till our strength ran down so we could scarcely turn the crank.

“Later came the open-cylinder groundhog machine. I recall the first time one of them set up in our new barn. We had recently demolished our old log house to make way for the new frame home that was to be built, and we moved into the stable of the newly built barn. Of course, as no cattle had yet been in the stable it was as neat and clean as any house and we liked the smell of the sweet new wood.

“But that job of threshing was a great one and no mistake! We had hung quilts all along the barn floor next the stable to keep grain and dirt from scattering into our living quarters, but when the grain bundles went into that open cylinder, how the grain did fly everywhere! Up to the top of the barn, all about the big floor, against the hay mow, into the eyes of the hands, peppering us all like hailstones in a great storm. Queer that no one had then thought to provide a cover for that cylinder! So it seems now, but like all other inventions, the thresher was a growth in progress. Men thought of one thing and put it into use and then, by-and-by, another bright idea came into their minds and to be adopted after no small struggle.

“Cleaning the grain was done with a fanning mill. The idea of combining a thresher with a separator was a thing of the future. After the thresher moved out of the barn we had to sweep and shovel the grain and chaff all up in a heap and run it through the fanning mill. It was a big thing, though, to have the grain pounded from the straw by something besides the flail.”

chatham mill machine

Image: Sam Moore

Although we kids called this machine a “windmill,” it was used to separate dirt and chaff from threshed grain and was properly known as a “fanning mill.”

When I was a kid there was an old fanning mill on our barn floor that Dad used to clean seed grain prior to planting. I remember us kids going in there and turning the crank as fast as we could while the old machine howled in protest. Kids in Mr. Vincent’s day were no different–he goes on.

“But that old fanning mill–what a glorious mystery it was to us boys! We used to get that mill out on days when father was away, knock out the pins that held on the fan cover, and proceed to ‘pretend’ thresh hay and straw by holding it against the wings of the fan, while someone turned for dear life at the crank. It was a sorry day when grandmother appeared on the scene, quietly opening the big barn door which we had carefully shut thinking to keep ourselves free from interruption. In her quaint downeast tone she raised her voice after taking in the scene of what appeared to her the destruction of the valuable mill: ‘What on airth be you a-doin’ on!’

“How the cold chills ran down our backs as we scurried to prove to dear old grandmother that we knew just how to restore the mill to its former condition. I never knew that she told father about our experiment. She loved us too well for that, I’m sure.

“But now–well, it makes one almost dizzy to think of the beautiful machines that now come to do our threshing! Perfect–not a thing lacking to enable them to do the best possible work and to do it in almost the twinkling of the eye! Run by steam engines that drive the cylinder and all other parts like lightning, they sweep across the country like tornadoes, devouring great stacks of grain like mighty monsters with huge appetites, and leaving in their trail only sacks of clean, beautiful grain! One wonders if there can possibly be so much improvement in the next years as there has been since I was a boy. I am not yet an old man and I expect to live to see that question answered.”

I don’t know how much longer Mr. Vincent lived, but he probably saw the big combines that were developed during the next couple of decades, while today his “beautiful” threshing machines are only to be seen in fence rows, museums, or at old farm machinery shows.

The story of his family living in the stable of their new barn was interesting. I once knew of a somewhat similar case that involved the local blacksmith, mechanic, and general “fix-it” man in our neighborhood when I was a kid. He, his wife and four daughters lived in a large farmhouse, while his repair shop occupied the ground floor, or stable of the large barn. One day the house burned to the ground so the family fixed up the upper part of the barn and lived there for a number of years.

People did what they had to do. 

Published on Aug 31, 2021

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment