The Good Old Days of American Threshing

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Here are a couple of tales of old-time threshing that I lifted from the pages of a 1927 copy of The American Thresherman.

“Three men, their clothes covered with black grease and dirt that told of their vocation as threshermen, drove their tired teams as they laboriously climbed the “Hog-back” that led into Sugar Tree Bend. 

“The darkness of night was closing over the greasy trio as they turned into the big bend of the Pecatonica River on this late October evening. 

“Big Chris Swanson was in the lead with his high tail Case separator and following him was Long Chris Norslie with the two-wheeled Dingee-Woodbury horse power. Bringing up the rear was Little Cooney Doring driving the trap wagon, loaded with the odds and ends of tumbling rods and sweeps, along with the straw carrier. 

“Eventually they reached a little clearing in which stood a cabin surrounded by a rail fence. In another enclosure were four small stacks of wheat and a log stable with a straw thatched roof. Inside the little home an evening meal was fixed and waiting to fill the stomachs of the tired, hungry men. The meal consisted of sizzling sow belly, potatoes boiled in their natural habiliments and corn dodgers, to be washed down with a combination beverage of coffee, toasted rye kernels and chicory. 

“By four the next morning, with the aid of the light from tallow candle lanterns, the men were setting and staking down the machinery that was to separate the golden wheat from the straw in the handbound bundles. 

“As the sun began to light the east, our little trio of threshermen got to work as the wheels began to hum. Across the valley surveyors could be seen staking out a new railroad which was later built. 

“The railroad is still there, but the cabins, the straw sheds and the old threshing machines are gone, disappeared forever. 

“Most of these old threshermen are gone too, sleeping the eternal sleep. A few are left who walk with halting steps and speak with faltering lips. Thus have passed some of the finest and most picturesque pioneers that our great country has ever known.” 

The above story was written by Frank W. Doring, son of one of the threshermen mentioned in the story; the piece is titled “In Wisconsin Fifty Years Ago.” 

Circa-1890 Case threshing machine. [Courtesy of the J.I. Case Company]

In the same issue, in the Women’s Department, is the following story titled “Cooking for a Western Crew.” 

“Somewhere in the wheat region of eastern Washington, is a place called Badger’s Pocket. I used to wonder why, but during my time there as a cook for a threshing crew, I learned the reason. 

“My little daughter and I were on a cook wagon which either followed or preceded a Case thresher and steam engine around that country for about fifty days. 

“The cook wagon was drawn by two steady old mules driven by an old man of Scandinavian descent who helped me set up when we landed at a new “set.” We rose at four A.M. and it was around ten P.M. before I retired, but I did not feel tired, as the air of that hot dry climate seemed exhilarating after living all my life on the coast. 

“One afternoon the thresher started for a new setting, but it was dusk before my cook house finally got started. I had baked several berry pies for the noon meal the next day and on our way through a stretch of sand we got off the road. One wheel went into a badger hole, causing the wagon to give a sudden lurch. My pies were loosed from their moorings and all but one fell on the floor. I was upset but the driver said, “I couldn’t help it. A badger hole.” 

“We then got down into a coulee and the mules couldn’t pull the wagon out. The driver hung a lantern high on the cook house to serve as a beacon. The crew came back to find us and were guided by the lantern. 

“After getting the cook house upon the road again and catching up with the thresher, the men were told about the loss of the pies. But they only laughed as they were too glad to see us to be very grouchy. 

“I then fixed coffee and sandwiches and it was after midnight before we were finally settled close to the thresher. 

“Those boys would not have left their “eats” out on the plain all night, even if they had to hunt till dawn. Neither would they have left their cook and her little girl. They were fine to us; I cooked good meals, and they surely appreciated it and showed it in their acts.”Flora Jackson, Elma, Washington.

Those were the Good Old Days, when men were men, and the women were just as tough.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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