Harvesting Oats the Old-Fashioned Way

The traditional way of harvesting oats was a strenuous, labor-intensive process.

| November 2016

  • Charles Buckner driving mules Sarah and Sally with Kalyn and Curtis Jackson on the bundle wagon, trying to get the oats stacked and in the dry before it rains.
    Photo by Ron McGinnis
  • Mike Rookstool with pieces from his collection of varied forks used on the farm.
    Photo by Ron McGinnis
  • Three pitchforks. The pitchfork is the correct tool for pitching loose hay and straw, or grain bundles that have been harvested with a binder. These have varying numbers of sharp tines. Mike found the center fork in an old barn. It may be as much as 150 years old, he says, and was forged by a blacksmith.
    Photo by Ron McGinnis
  • Mary Terry pitching a bundle of oats so Kalyn Jackson can stack it on the wagon with his father, Orville Jackson, driving mules Jenny and Dobber.
    Photo by Ron McGinnis
  • Bill Brown (left), the oldest member of the crew, and Dan Manning shocking oats.
    Photo by Betty Manning
  • Dan Manning (front) forks a bundle from the oat shock before pitching it to Kalyn Jackson to stack on the wagon.
    Photo by Ron McGinnis
  • Rick McKinnis operating a 1940s-vintage John Deere binder in the oat field behind a 1963 Allis-Chalmers D-15 tractor driven by Larry Eagleburger.
    Photo by Betty Manning
  • 1925 photograph showing the first combine – a 12-16 Case – used in Saline County, Kansas.
    Photo courtesy Dan Manning
  • Left to right: A hand-made forked tool of European origin patched together with tin and horseshoe nails; an unidentified fork that might have been used for feeding hay or straw into a hand-tie baler (hay press); a coke fork (front) more likely used to scoop rocks in the Ozarks; two-, three- and four-tined pitchforks; a pitchfork whittled out of a wild cherry limb; a five-tined pitchfork hand-made from white oak; and a five-tined manure fork held by someone who really knows how to use it, Mike Rookstool.
    Photo by Ron McGinnis
  • “Hib-Spe-Bar” catalog.
    Farm Collector archives

Today’s healthy-sounding slogan about a breakfast cereal made out of oats would have had a different connotation 100 years ago, when harvesting oats meant hard, sweaty and itchy work. Folks back then were more likely to start their day with oatmeal than dry cereal. According to what was printed on the cylindrical box oats were packaged in, “There’s nothing better for thee, than me.” That claim could be argued by someone who still remembers the hot cereal’s bland taste and sticky texture reminiscent of wallpaper paste.

The process of harvesting oats a century ago was an equally grim prospect. Many improved versions of Cyrus McCormick’s original reaping machine were being manufactured by the turn of the 20th century. Those horse-drawn (and, later, tractor-pulled) binders were only able to cut stalks of wheat, barley, rye and oats and form them into bundles before they were tied together with twine.

It was then that the hard work began. Shockers gathered bundles by hand and jammed their stem-ends down into the stubble (cut-off stalks) to keep the bundles from toppling over in windy weather. The bundles’ head-ends were pointed upward, allowing good air circulation, which was crucial to the drying process. The shock was complete when 10 bundles were placed upright (with one or two fanned out on top as a cap to shed rain).

Gathering bundles for the thresher

A week or so later, depending on weather conditions, the grain would have dried enough to be gathered. Pitchers forked the bundles onto wagons where stackers laid them flat with stem-ends sticking out. If done correctly, none of the bundles slid off the wagon. If they did, each would have to be pitched up again, and the stacker would be harassed for failing to do his job correctly.

Some farmers built tall stacks of bundles in the field, taking care to make the stack rainproof. Grain was sometimes stored in a barn or shed to keep it dry until threshing. Several days might pass before the threshing machine was available to separate chaff (weed seed, dust, husks and straw) from the grain kernels.

Eventually the steam-powered traction engine or gasoline tractor arrived, pulling the threshing machine, water wagon and cook shack into the field to complete the harvest. It wasn’t long until another planting season started, and the growing process would begin again with the good Lord’s help.


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