Jim Sodergren of Scandia, Minnesota, grew up on a small farm where beans were harvested by hand for many years. When local demand increased, his father bought an Owens bean and pea thresher to help boost production.
"At the time, we grew white beans, called Great Northerns, that were used for pork and beans, bean soup and just about anything you can make with beans," Jim recalls. "We ate a lot of beans back then. Though we never grew a large amount of them, we planted and harvested the ones we had by hand."
Raising beans the old-fashioned way is hard work. Beans needed to be planted in May, and could be ripe by late September or early October. "They had to be planted when there was no chance of frost," Jim says, "because frost would kill them entirely."
The beans were planted in rows of hills. In late fall, they were pulled out by hand and put on stakes in the field. When they were dry, the poles were pulled out, stacked on the hay wagon and taken to the site where they'd be harvested. And it was all done by hand.
Second find bails out auction buy
Looking for a way to reduce the labor associated with the bean harvest, Jim's father, Glen, bought an Owens thresher at an auction. "The Swedes in the area kept asking for Swedish brown beans for their traditional Swedish 'bruna bönor' served at church lutefisk dinners," Jim says. "So the local stores wanted the Swedish brown beans for the Christmas season, starting just after Thanksgiving, and they sold out of them quickly."
But the Sodergrens' Owens thresher was not all it was cracked up to be. "My dad had never seen — or even operated — a bean thresher, so it didn't turn out to be too promising," Jim says. "It was in poor shape, with heavily worn bearings and cylinder, and it was missing a lot of parts. After seeing all the rotten wood everywhere in the frame, he knew it just wasn't going to work out." That meant a return to threshing by hand.
A year later, while cutting firewood at a neighbor's place, Glen saw something familiar sticking up through the dirt and leaves. When he investigated, he found the remains of an Owens thresher identical to his. "This one was not so worn out, and it had the pieces that the first one needed," Jim says, "and the metal cylinder and bearings were in better shape. Between the two, he was able to build one working thresher."
Dry beans essential
When the beans were dry, the poles the plants hung on were pulled out, loaded on a hay wagon and taken to the threshing machine. Then the vines were released from the poles into the thresher.
If the beans were not perfectly dry, problems were inevitable. "They would wrap around the cylinder, and you'd have to stop the machine and clean everything out," Jim says. "But if everything is good and dry, the pods will snap open easy, and everything works well."
Though most threshers are fed from the top, using pitchforks, the Sodergrens' Owens was fed from the end, by hand. "The cylinder and concave teeth knocked the pods open, and the beans fell down on the shaker screen," he explains.
"The blower blew the fine chaff out, while the stalks and whatever else pushed its way out the back. Our machine had many rows of notched wooden pieces that would oscillate back and forth, working the straw on its way up and out the back. Most of that wood was rotten and worn out when we got the machine, so all of it had to be replaced."
Small but mighty
The cylinder teeth on the concave in the Owens are fixed and cannot be adjusted. "As I remember, there was a pretty coarse screen on the shaker under the cylinder," Jim says. "But beans and peas are quite large, so the screen was mainly there to get the dirt out, because when you pull them out by the roots, there's going to be a lot of dirt. The machine had a large blower to blow the finer chaff and dust out back."
The beans and peas run through by themselves. "We used a large washtub, maybe a 20-gallon tub, and put it underneath where the beans came out, and it takes quite a while to fill it up," he says. "It was amazing how many beans could go through there in such a short time. It really did have a large capacity for its size."
Despite the fact that the Owens thresher could be run by a single person, the Sodergren family turned the harvest into a fun time. "We had a threshing party each year," Jim says. "Friends and relatives would come and watch, and help out a little bit, and then we'd have a big meal afterwards. Usually with bean soup, of course."
Almelund Owens tackled bigger jobs
Jim has enjoyed the unusual opportunity to work with a second Owens thresher. "I was at the Almelund (Minn.) Threshing Show when they ran theirs using an old-fashioned hit-and-miss engine," he says, "and another time with a tractor, using soybeans for the demonstration."
The Owens thresher at the Almelund Show is a larger version of the machine he grew up with at Scandia. "Ours was smaller, with an 18-inch-wide cylinder," he says, "while the one at Almelund is larger."
Otherwise, there was little difference between the two. The Almelund Owens operated the same as the smaller one on the Sodergren farm. "There was nothing really different," Jim says. "It has to be fed by hand, so you just pick up the beans and toss them in there."
Scoring an auction bargain
The Almelund Owens was purchased at a gasoline engine auction by Wayne Olson, now of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Charles Erickson, Lindstrom, Minnesota, when they were president and secretary, respectively, of the Almelund show.
When the thresher came up on the auction, there was no interest in it. "Chuck and I decided to buy it for the show, going half and half, and got it for $200," he says. "That's a hard piece to sell unless you have something to run it with, which is why we got it for a good price."
Wayne liked the Owens' fine original condition: Its decals were clear, and it still had a lot of original paint. "We could see that it had not been used a lot, because it had very little wear," he says. "Unfortunately, the man who had owned it had passed away, so any history he might have known was gone with him."
Designed for a specialty crop
Given the age of the piece, the Almelund Owens' pristine patina is particularly impressive. "It was probably manufactured in the 1890s," Wayne says. "It's not broken up or rusted out, so I guarantee you that it sat in a barn its whole life."
Wayne says the Owens is an unusual piece. "You don't see one of those every day," he says. "I've done a lot of collecting over the past years, at least 600 gasoline engines bought and sold from Washington to Boston, and I've been all over at a lot of shows, but I haven't seen another Owens thresher like this one. I would say that it is fairly rare."
"I've seen smaller Owens bean and pea threshers, but never another one that big," he adds. "Beans and peas are a specialty crop, not like wheat or grain, so there aren't that many farms that grow them. That's one of the reasons that this one didn't get used that much, as you can tell by looking at it." FC
For more information: Jim Sodergren, 21700 Parrish Rd. N, Scandia, MN 55073; (651) 433-2269. Wayne Olson, 9071 Cemetery Rd., Bowling Green, KY 42103; (270) 791-3186; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com.