Cradle Scythe and sickle. Photo courtesy of R. Scheuerman Collection.
The arduous task of summer harvest was first undertaken using a primitive cradle, or scythe connected to four to six long wooden ribs that could hold several hand swathings. These were then dropped in the stubble and bundled into rows of shocks reminiscent of a van Gogh painting. (The basic design of the hand-sickle has remained essentially unchanged since the dawn of civilization, and use of this ancient implement endured throughout Europe well in the 1800s. Some ten swipes by an experienced fieldworker typically provided enough stalks to fashion a sheaf about one foot in diameter.) The calloused hands that knew this labor then either flailed the wheat, barley, and oat cuttings or led a team of horses around a hard-surfaced circular area to trample the stalks. The straw was then removed with pitchfork and the seed carefully shoveled with as little dirt and roughage as possible into burlap gunny sacks. The grain was eventually dumped and winnowed to separate the kernels from chaff and dirt. An entire family might harvest only two acres in a day from which might be gleaned fifty to seventy bushels of grain.
The US Patent Office registered more than two hundred and fifty hand- and horse-powered threshing machines between 1820 and 1845. One of the most popular was New England inventor Joseph Pope’s hand-crank model operated on the “Scottish principle” and could thresh ten dozen sheaves per hour to yield about five bushels of grain, or double that amount if powered by horse. Pope’s tablelike platform held a cloth conveyor that carried the stalks under a revolving wooden beater at one end that knocked the grain from the brittle heads. But the golden remains still had to be winnowed in a separate operation to clean the grain. Few farmers could afford to order small mechanical fanning mills from the East, which were expensive and required considerable strength to turn the internal blades for sufficient wind to clean the grain before small steam engines were introduced. Oak Point, Oregon, farmer Joseph Hamilton is credited with bringing the first mechanical thresher to the Pacific Northwest. The Ohio native journeyed over the Oregon Trail in 1847 with a wagon containing the machine’s components, which he reassembled and operated for several harvest seasons. That same year fabricator F. C. Cason was selling fanning mills built in his Oregon City shop.
Pope's hand Thresher. Photo courtesy of The American Agriculturist (1830).
In the summer of 1856, Hudson’s Bay Company workers at Ft. Vancouver received a Buffalo-Pitt’s threshing machine, which was shipped in pieces on bateaux to Cowlitz Farm. The nearly half-ton marvel combined both thresher and fanning mill and was powered by several teams of horses. The animals were led around a turntable of sweeps attached to a tumbler rod on the ground that connected to the thresher. The machine was operated by four farmhands and capable of threshing five hundred bushels in a twelve-hour shift – easily a ten-fold increase over the old flailing method and eight times more efficient than Pope’s hand-machine. But the Buffalo-Pitts system experienced numerous breakdowns and the horses used in the operation were soon replaced with coal- or wood-fired steam engines. George Washington Bush introduced the first horse-powered reaper to south Puget Sound in 1856, and obtained a threshing separator the following year. In 1858 Ft. Walla Walla wagon master Charles Russell obtained the first threshing machine east of the Cascades for the small fields of oats and wheat he tended near the fort.
In the 1870s small, horse drawn reaper-binders that could drop five or six grain bundles on the ground tied with wire and later with twine appeared in Northwest fields. Six to eight bundled sheaves were then arranged in shocks to further ripen or be hauled directly on open wagons to large stationary separators, or to threshing machines. A McCormick or Marsh reaper could harvest fourteen to fifteen acres a day and increased output tenfold over the hand scythe method. The machine’s advent and economic significance were celebrated in Will Carleton’s “Song of the Reaper.”
The grain-stalk bows his bristling head,
As I clatter and clash along,
The stubble it bends beneath my tread,
The stacker’s yellow tent is spread,
And the hills throw back my song – my song –
The hills throw back my song!
Then hie! where the food of nations glows,
And the yellow tide of the harvest flows,
As we dash and crash and glide and run;
And the world will eat when our work is done!
Grain collected by these early threshers still required further cleaning to remove chaff and weed seed in order to fetch full value in cash or trade. For this reason, pioneer Oregon inventor Daniel Best devised a hand-powered mechanical separator in the winter of 1869–70. An 1859 Oregon Trail immigrant from Iowa, Best relocated from Oregon to Sutter County, California, in 1869 where he built the first of many “Best Grain Cleaner” models. He returned to the Willamette Valley in 1874 and established his business in Albany. Best eventually acquired forty-three patents and his ingenuity would revolutionize agricultural mechanics worldwide. The “Best Combined Harvester” outfitted with header, thresher, and cleaner appeared in 1885, and the following year he sold the first and relocated his operation to San Leandro, California. In 1888, Best’s company manufactured one hundred and fifty combines in an effort to keep up with strong demand. Under the skillful management of Best’s son, Clarence Leo “C. L.” Best, the firm eventually merged with California’s Holt Manufacturing Company to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company. Washington’s first manufacturer of threshing machines, Walla Walla’s Gilbert Hunt, founded his company in 1888 and introduced growers to the popular “Pride of Washington” series.
Best, Holt, and other manufacturers sold large headers in the 1880s with twelve- to twenty-foot sickle bars and reels. Some were three-wheeled contraptions pushed by horses or mules behind the header and driven by a “header puncher” who steered by means of a rudder wheel connected to a board between the knees. The operator’s hands guided the lines to the horses and operated a lever to adjust the height of the sickle that cut the grain, which fell onto a wide and rapidly moving canvas draper reinforced with hardwood slats. On the downhill side of the header was a sloped elevator where a flexible, wood-ribbed draper carried the cuttings upward and dropped them into a header box wagon, built with one side lower than the other to fit under the spout.
Pitts Horse-Powered Thresher and Cleaner. Photo courtesy of The Cultivator and Country Gentleman (1848).
In addition to the wagon driver, a loader worked inside the wagon to equally distribute the grain with a pitchfork in a laborious routine considered one of the most strenuous of the entire operation. Another header box would move into place when the first was full, and the loader would jump into it to continue working while the other wagon was driven to the thresher, a beehive of harvest activity. At a centrally located area in the field, usually near a country road, a small army of workers moved continuously amidst the cacophony of roars and whistles from the steam engine, thresher, derrick table, and horse-drawn wagons.
As many as two dozen experienced workers were needed for stationary thresher operations, and it was not uncommon to see women from the family driving teams. The overall harvest operation was supervised by the “straw boss,” who was often the owner of the thresher and engine who rented them out to area farmers. He handled the hiring of the core crew from reliable acquaintances and relatives, and other helpers from the several thousand “bindle stiffs” who converged on rural farming communities each summer looking for harvest employment. The going rate for such employment in 1900 was about three dollars a day. The boss also worked with the farmer to determine the sequence of fields to cut, and oversaw other aspects of the workers’ myriad responsibilities. Teamsters were needed to drive the two or three headers that usually comprised an outfit’s contingent, and for handling the two-horse teams that took the several header boxes back and forth to the threshing area from the headers relentlessly winding through the fields.
The wagon cuttings were unloaded onto large piles by the driver and “spike pitchers,” and a “stacker” who properly arranged the grain into two or three tall piles. A “forker” then set to work on a large platform mounted on a wagon called a “derrick table,” named for a high four-beam derrick that rose some fifteen feet above it. At the top of the poles a pulley was suspended, through which a rope ran, connecting a “derrick team” of six to eight horses to a six-pronged steel Jackson fork. The forker positioned the Jackson onto one of the piles and yelled to the derrick team driver to move the horses ahead so the fork’s load could be hauled to the table and dropped with a trip rope. In later years the main pulley rope was connected to a net in the bottom of the header box wagon that could be lifted to deposit the load directly onto the derrick table, which eliminated the need for the Jackson fork.
Two workers called “hoe-downs” then used hoe-shaped forks to guide the grain at a measured pace onto a long canvas feeder that led to the thresher’s gnashing mouth, out of which long metal fingers moved back and forth to pull in the grain. This grueling work usually went in shifts with pairs of hoe-downs trading off in half-hour intervals. These workers determined the maximum rate of intake by listening to the growl of the metal monster. Care was taken not to choke the creature with too much grain, which risked breaking a drive chain or shaft, or jamming the machine. The laborious task of extracting the partially digested stalks by hand from inside the tightly packed innards was usually tended to by several of the younger workers using every possible contortion of limb and colorful language. This chore was especially unpleasant if the straw was infested with countless miniscule spines of scabrous tarweed that stung like fire if touched.
Deep inside a rapidly rotating cylinder, rows of short steel tines were narrowly mounted above a set of stationary iron “concaves” with large teeth to shatter the kernels out of the heads. The particles then fell through a series of rocking sieves to an auger at the base of the machine and into a “bulk tank” storage bin. The sieve action combined with the effects of a wide-bladed fan created a virtual wind tunnel through which the straw and chaff were blown out the back of the thresher. These tailings were stacked by two “straw pitchers” until a long “wind stacker” pipe was introduced after the turn of the century that blasted the straw twenty feet away to form a pile. Other important needs of the thresher were tended to by an “oiler,” who kept the moving parts well lubricated and assisted the mechanic, or “separator man,” in maintenance work.
The inner workings of the thresher were turned by an enormous drive-belt, at least sixty feet long and crossed in the middle. It ran from the steam engine’s power wheel to the thresher’s main pulley. On the 1890s Case, Rumley, and other models it could deliver up to forty horsepower. The huge engines were ponderous steamers, some up to twenty feet long, and tended by experienced engineers. The long distance of the engine from the thresher was a fire prevention measure. The fireman’s job was considered one of the most exhausting of all tasks in the sweaty crucible of harvest, and certainly the hottest. These workers earned the crew’s highest wages. The fireman rose at 4 a.m. to clean out the ash pit and boiler flue soot, and light the firebox with straw. When sufficient pressure was reached, he blew the whistle to wake the rest of the crew who usually slept outside in their bedrolls. During the day he had to constantly fuel the flames, usually with straw. This was brought to the fireman by a “straw buck,” who used a pitchfork to provide a steady supply from the main pile behind the thresher to the engine. A “water buck” was in charge of the cigar-shaped wooden water wagon, which carried up to five hundred gallons and a hand pump to keep the steam engine and horses satisfied.
Cover courtesy of Washing State University Press.
Twirling sprockets run by flat chains turned the cylinder, fan, augers, and other components that howled throughout the day. A mechanic was needed to keep thresher properly operating, a “roustabout” to run errands, gather the enormous foodstuffs necessary for the crew’s consumption, and facilitate communication among the workers. A “sack jig” filled gunny sacks with the grain while two nimble-fingered sack sewers sitting on two grain sacks raced to close the bags using long steel sack needles flared at the end. They formed a corner “ear” on the left side of the sack, rapidly tied it off with two half-hitch loops, and then moved across the top with nine lightning stitches before closing it off with an identical ear on the right side.
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Reprinted with permission from Harvest Heritage by Richard D. Scheuerman and Alexander C. McGregor and published by Washington State University Press, 2013.