Fanning Mills: The Devil’s Wind

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Cross section of a fanning mill showing the multiple screens, as well as the way different sized seeds were graded.
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One of the automated fanning mills available in the early twentieth century. Manufacturer: Fosston Mfg. Co., St. Paul, Minn.

In a letter to the editor in the July issue of Farm Collector, Tom Moon stated that he had found a Gem fanning mill hiding in his barn, and he was wondering about the machine’s use and value. I won’t discuss value here, but I can furnish some other information about the machine.

For centuries, grain threshing was done in several crude methods. Our ancestors beat the grain with flails, trampled it with horses or oxen, or pulled stone or wooden rollers and sledges over it. These endeavors succeeded, with varying degrees, in separating the grain kernels from the heads, but left them mixed up with the chaff, straw and a lot of dirt. The early threshing machines, known as groundhogs or chaff pilers, did nothing more than remove the grain from the head, leaving the task of separating the straw and chaff to a later operation called winnowing.

First, the larger hunks of straw and debris were raked aside and the remaining grain, dirt and chaff were swept into a pile. This mixture was shoveled into a large, shallow basket and tossed into the air. Hopefully, the dust and other undesirable pieces were blown to one side by the wind, and the heavier grain fell back into the basket. In Europe and America this was usually done on a barn floor in the current blowing through two open doors located opposite each other. When there was no wind, sheets or blankets were waved to create the air current. Obviously, winnowing was not only hard work, but was slow, tedious and inefficient as well.

There is evidence that winnowing machines, with rotary fans in boxes, were used in China as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 221 AD). In the 1500s, Dutch East India merchants carried Chinese technology back from their trading expeditions in the Far East, and these machines were built and demonstrated in the Netherlands. A contemporary account of one such demonstration tells of a local dignitary who looked into the opening out of which the air was coming, and the force of the blast was enough to lift the wig off his head and carry it across the floor.

In 1710, James Meikle, a Scottish millwright, traveled to the Netherlands where he saw winnowing machines of the Chinese design in use. When Meikle returned to Scotland, he built a hand-operated winnower with four canvas sails to provide the air. Meikle’s winnowing machine met with much prejudice, especially amongst the clergy, who labeled it the “Devil’s Wind” and thundered from their pulpits that the machine “impiously thwarted the will of Divine Providence, by raising wind by human art, instead of soliciting it through prayer.”

In spite of this opposition, winnowing machines caught on because of the big savings in time, labor and grain. James Meikle’s sons, George and Andrew, began building fanning mills in about 1768, featuring what was called a “double blast.” The uncleaned grain first passed through a dressing stage, where the larger bits were blown away, after which the grain went through a finishing stage, where a second fan blew away any remaining chaff and dirt. In England, in 1761, William Evers patented a winnowing machine that combined a rotary fan with sieves. Later improvements included scroll-shaped fan housings for a more efficient wind blast, as well as a series of shaking, or vibrating, sieves, one above the other.

Winnowing machines were brought to America before the Revolutionary War, where they were usually called fanning mills. They didn’t become popular, however, until the large explosion in wheat production during the 1830s.

American-built fanning mills usually consisted of a large wooden box, in one end of which were located four or six wooden paddles about 24 inches in length, attached to an axle. The axle, through a series of gears, could be driven at high speeds by turning a hand crank on the outside of the box. As the fan turned, air was taken in through adjustable openings at the sides of the fan, causing a blast of air to be blown across a series of two or three screens. These screens, of different sizes for different seeds, were mounted one above the other in a shoe assembly that was itself suspended inside the box on hinges. An eccentric wheel on one end of the fan shaft drove a pitman arm that caused the shoe to shake back and forth as the hand crank was turned. Uncleaned grain was poured in a hopper at the top of the mill, and, as the crank turned, the grain fell and was shaken down through the smallest screen or sieve that would allow it to pass. When the grain reached a screen it couldn’t pass through, it was shaken out of a spout into a container. Some fanning mills were equipped with an optional elevator and bagger attachment.

A 1916 catalogue from the John M. Smythe Merchandise Co. offered the Gem fanning mill in two sizes. The Gem No. 1 cost $9.50, was 21 1/2 inches wide and had a capacity of 60 to 80 bushels per hour. $10.65 would buy a Gem No. 2 that could handle 70-100 bushels per hour with its 26 1/2 inch-wide fan and sieves. A bagger and elevator attachment would add about $7 to the cost. Furnished with each machine was a 3-gauge wheat hurdle with a zinc top, and wire middle and bottom sieves, a wheat grader and a barley or bean sieve. Also included were barley or wheat screens, a pair of blinds for the fan, and a cheat, or cockle board (also called a chess board in some of the other ads). By the way, the chessboard, included with some of the mills, made me wonder, since I’d never heard that term before except in reference to the game of chess. Webster says chess, also known as cheat, is one of several brome grasses, especially a wheat field weed. I learn something new every day.

By the early 1900s, most fanning mills were used for only cleaning and grading seed crops, since modern threshing machines were almost universally in use. The Smythe catalogue claimed the outfits, as shipped, were able to clean and grade seed corn, by separating the small tip and butt ends from the larger kernels in the center of the ear. Optional accessories were listed for other purposes, such as separating oats from wheat, or separating mustard seed from oats. Screens for cleaning beans, peas, flax, millet, alfalfa, blue grass, timothy and clover seeds were available as well.

An 1894 ad for the Chatham fanning mill, sold in Ontario by Massey Manufacturing Co., elaborated on the arrangement of the screens: ‘The plan of placing the screens and riddles in the shoe cannot be surpassed. You can give them any pitch desired, and also put as many in at one time as you like, or as are required to clean the grain. You can use one riddle, or you can, by placing another under it, have a two-ply, or you can put another under the second, and have a three-ply gang. You can use one-, two- or three-ply, as the condition of the grain requires.

On our farm in western Pennsylvania, we had an old fanning mill on the barn floor. Its faded red paint, gold stripes and curlicues were a testament to the pride with which 19th century manufacturers decorated even such mundane objects. My father used the mill to clean wheat and timothy seed before planting, while we kids called the thing a ‘windmill’ and would crank it up to stand in front of the outlet on hot days.

Most fanning mills today are seen in museums or antique shops, but I’m sure there are still some out there, tucked away in corners of barns or granaries, just like Mr. Moon’s Gem. FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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