Custom Threshers Got the Job Done

Learn about the custom threshers of years past, found all across the great plains and Midwest, always ready to get the job done.

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by Anthony B. Lovelace

I see them every spring. They lumber along, making their way south, each moving at their own pace. They all look a bit different as they make the journey. Some favor green, some red; yellow and silver make up the rest.

They hail from all over the Midwest and Great Plains; places like Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Colorado. As they arrive on the north side of town, make their way through town and then out again, they bring with them an air of anticipation and excitement…

Back down the line

This being the May issue and with wheat harvest nearly underway here on the Great Plains, I thought we might visit over a picture of a harvest crew. Before we talk about the actual crew, let’s look at the equipment. You can make out Minneapolis on both the steam engine and the thresher. I assume both were built by Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co., Hopkins, Minnesota. The threshing machine looks like it is constructed mainly of wood. The steam engine is putting out a bit of smoke, so the boiler must be warmed up.

What I found really interesting is the barrel mounted in front of the smoke stack; it looks like it has a hose of some type attached to it. I assume that barrel holds water, but I wonder: Was it used for the engine or maybe mounted up there in case of a fire? I suspect one of you readers will be able to help me out.

While we are talking about the barrel, the two pieces of channel iron attached there and holding it up do not look big enough for the job. The other thing I found interesting is the chain attached below the barrel. It looks like it is attached down on the front axle and then draped over the channel iron holding the barrel.

If that was a modern tractor, I would tell you the chain was to pull the tractor out when it got stuck, but the chain doesn’t look big enough to pull that steam engine out of anything. The rear lugs look like they have a bit of mud in them, so maybe it was to tug on the engine if it got bogged down.

The last thing on the front of the steam engine is the lantern hanging under the barrel. I know threshing wheat had its dangers. I don’t think anybody would attempt it at night, so what was the lantern for? Moving back to the driver of the steam engine, there are two blocks below his right arm. These must have been used to block the engine’s wheels once it was belted up.

Tangling with a two-wheel auger

Before we move on, I want to give those of you who just met me a bit of background. The summer after my senior year in college, I worked for Harold Meyer, a local farmer. One of the jobs on the farm that didn’t rank very high on my “favorite list” was binning wheat. Harold had a Mayrath auger, one of those with two wheels and an electric motor.

Harold wasn’t a big farmer. He only had one tin granary outside and four wooden granaries on one end of the milking barn. Each harvest we’d get the auger out of the barn and set it up to bin wheat. To move it around, I’d lift the end of the auger, set it on my shoulder and then horse it around over every bump and hole in the barnyard until it was positioned perfectly. That auger and I were not very good friends. If given the chance, I’d have gladly left it in the road for the next passing scrap iron man.

I am not one to suffer in silence. One day after I finally maneuvered the auger into the exact spot needed, I made a few negative comments about the blasted thing. At that point, Harold shared this story with me: Years earlier, a man showed up each harvest. Harold didn’t know where he came from or how he got there. He assumed he was a hobo either looking for work, or possibly running from the law or his family.

The wanderer’s job during harvest was to use a scoop shovel to scoop wheat into the bins. When the wheat piled up in front, he would climb in the bin and scoop it to the back, and then climb out and scoop more in the front. The wanderer did that day after day, load after load. Harold said he was not the biggest guy he ever saw, but he could never remember a stronger man.

After each load was completed, the wanderer made a pencil mark outside the bin on the wood that you still see there today. Eventually he quit showing up. Now I am neither the brightest light in the chandelier nor the sharpest tool in the shed, but I didn’t have to give that story much goin’ over before my relationship with that auger changed!

All dressed up for the occasion

I tell that story because it was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the men on this picture postcard. All look to be in good working order. You can tell that they did not make a living on a keyboard or at a desk. On the far left is a fellow who looks to be holding something in his right hand. He seems a bit bigger than the others. When I picture that wanderer who scooped wheat years ago, this guy is what he looks like. He looks like he is nothing but brute strength.

I know the engine was warmed up and sitting still when the photo was taken, but I wonder if those guys knew they were going to be the subject of a photograph. Look at the two rubes standing on the front of the threshing machine with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They both look to be in their Sunday “go to meetin'” clothes, complete with neckties! I am pretty sure that would not have been normal work attire for a harvest crew. They really thought they were in tall cotton, didn’t they? I wonder what they would think if they knew they were going to be in a magazine 100 years later.

I have a few of these old harvest crew postcards and the workers always wear long sleeves, which makes sense when you’re in wheat chaff all day. Some of the men in this crew seem to have on jackets. I understand the long sleeves, but why the jackets?

Back on the farm again

As the crews made their way through Alva, headed to Texas, you knew that harvest was getting close. I remember the excitement of getting the John Deere 6600 out of the barn. I’d wash off the dust, clean out the inside of the cab, wash the windows and grease the zerks.

The grain trucks were next to be cleaned and serviced. A 1968 Chevrolet C-50 and 1949 GMC (“ole Betsy”) made up our grain hauling fleet. The ’49 GMC was equipped with a cable hoist on the bed. Back in 1949, that was probably first class! After all the equipment was serviced, we’d clean out the grain bins and get out that auger I had grown to love.

Harold liked to plant four varieties of wheat. He only had one tin granary at the time, so we had to bin the other three varieties in the wooden granaries. Putting the wheat in those wood granaries, and then removing it in the fall, was also not at the top of my list of “favorite chores” on the farm. At the top of each wooden bin, up above the door, was a tin cylinder that went through the wall of the bin. We used the auger to auger the wheat up through that tin cylinder and it would flow through the wall and into the bin.

Learning the difference between running a combine and operating a combine

I gained experience on the working end of a scoop shovel during harvest when we were filing those bins and had to scoop wheat toward the back, and again in the fall, when it was time to get the wheat out. I would fill the scoop with as much wheat as I could and then try to toss it to the desired location, most of it spilling in the process. One day Harold took the scoop from my hands and showed me how to use it. He could throw a scoop full of wheat anywhere he wanted and not lose a kernel. I was lucky if a kernel made it to my intended location.

I would get pretty antsy as the wheat surrendered to the passing of time and the dark green slowly gave way to that beautiful amber color. Each day the rustling of wheat, as it waved in the wind, became more prominent. Finally came those words I had been waiting for: “Let’s go try it.” We’d take the old 6600 to the field with a tin 1-gallon coffee can, cut a sample and take it to town.

Once cutting was underway, I was usually the combine operator. The 6600 was a 1975 model with a newer 220 John Deere header. I spent many harvests in that combine. In that yellow seat, I learned the difference between running a combine and operating a combine. Every sense in my body was attuned to the sounds, smells, sights and feel of the combine. We developed quite a bond.

Every day at noon, we’d stop for dinner. I’d check the sports page to see what time the baseball games were being played. That evening, I’d reach up over my head and work the dial on the AM radio hanging from the cab’s roof until I heard the golden voice of Jack Buck and his partner, Mike Shannon, calling the game for the St. Louis nine, or the soothing voice of Denny Matthews coming to me from Kansas City. When the stars aligned just right, I could pick up four major league teams — the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers and the Colorado Rockies (if the Rockies played an evening game). I was in tall cotton, let me tell you.

At around 6 p.m., we’d stop for a sandwich, chips and a pastry. Iced tea filled an old glass mayonnaise jar with a lid. I’d eat my supper and climb back on the combine, finishing the tea as I made rounds and listened to the radio.

Remembering when harvest  was part of the life of a town

Every once in a while, I’d get to take a load of wheat to town with Harold. I remember the line of bobtail grain trucks, each farmer waiting his turn. Occasionally the big boys would have a tandem grain truck, and sometimes a semi.

If the harvest was good, the wait might take a while, so it was not uncommon to visit while you waited. It was neighborly back then. Once the truck was on the scales, the elevator crew offered refreshments and then you’d dump and head back to do it once again.

When the dew finally shut us down, Harold sent me into town to eat. Back then, Beeler’s restaurant stayed open till around midnight so the farmers and harvesters could come in and get something to eat when the day’s work was through. I remember visiting with the custom harvesters and locals there. It was a good time, a time that seemed to pass slowly, a time to visit and enjoy camaraderie with wonderful people. Harvest back then encompassed more than just an individual farmer; it was the life of the entire town; you could feel that.

Thankful to enjoy the here and now

Harvest today is like a car wreck; it happens so fast and when it’s over, you shake your head and wonder what just happened. I go down by the local elevator and gone are the bobtail trucks and people visiting in line. Instead, you see big semis and everybody’s in a hurry. There are no restaurants open past regular hours and no late-night visiting; seems to me that maybe harvest has lost its sense of community.

I continued to work for Harold for just over 20 years. The years I worked for the government, I’d take vacation to help him during wheat planting and harvest. I learned about things like sun dogs, biting flies and clear train whistles. I learned what it was like, living through hard times, to be thankful for small things and to enjoy the here and now.

When I wander through these long-forgotten small towns, my mind goes back to those years. I miss those days; it hurts my heart to know they are gone. There isn’t a time when I reflect on those summer days that a smile doesn’t creep across my face. I have many fond memories, and I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to experience them.

Before I go, I made a bit of a mistake on our last visit. I wrote that the Big Boy weighed 1.2 million tons, when that should have been 1.2 million pounds. I am sure most of you caught that. It probably will not be my last mistake. I hope you enjoyed getting together as much as I did and I look forward to seeing you again. Until our next visit remember to take time out of your busy schedule and enjoy the view from the back roads. FC

Anthony Lovelace lives in Alva, Oklahoma. He enjoys traveling and collects anything old, has a very small cow herd, and writes. Write him at P.O. Box 174, Alva, OK 73717; email:

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