Farm Collector

Making Connections

“It takes teamwork,” Ron Lange says with a wink
as he hitches Kate and Susan, a couple of Belgian horses, to a
vintage McCormick-Deering ground-driven corn binder. Within
minutes, the trio has cut and tied a row of corn stalks and dropped
them in the field, ready for shocking. This Hoskins, Neb., man has
farmed with horse power for more than 65 years, and enjoys
demonstrating his team’s versatility at the threshing bee held each
September in Pierce, Neb.

Pierce’s Old Time Threshing Bee has it roots firmly planted in
the 200th birthday of this country. When Governor J. James Exon put
out the call to small towns across the state to commemorate the
bicentennial, folks from Pierce got really steamed up, and fired
the boiler for a celebration that is ongoing. “The Threshing Bee
wasn’t official until 1977, but it came out of the bicentennial
activities,” explains Marilyn Meier. “In 1976, the town had a
machinery parade and museum (Pierce Historical Society) dedication,
and that got things moving.”

The Pierce event is all about family fun and education. “Our
goal is to bring forward the past to better see the future,” says
Sophie Eldhart, 28-year show veteran and threshing bee matriarch.
The show, which began principally as a steam threshing bee on local
enthusiast Jute Hoffman’s farm, now offers something for just about
everyone’s old-time interests. “Our program usually includes horse,
steam, petroleum and human-powered demonstrations,” says board
member Ellwood Meier.

The 2004 event, held Sept. 18-19, featured Cockshutt and Case
equipment, antique vehicle parades, horse demonstrations, power
threshing and shelling, yarn spinning, rug weaving, quilting and
corn shuck doll making, to name but a few of the old-time
delights.

Burning a little hay

At the Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee, horses were hitched to
wagons, ground-driven implements and even stationary machines in
powerful demonstrations of their versatility. Kate and Susan, Ron
Lange’s mother-daughter team of Belgians, pulled a single-bottom
John Deere riding plow in addition to the corn binder, and later
powered a grain elevator through an ingenious device called a
“sweep power.” The sweep power converts a horse’s easy, circular
pace to PTO power though a planetary gearbox.

In another demonstration, Dale Duncan hitched Bob, a Haflinger
gelding, to a sweep gristmill. In this case, the horse circled the
mill, directly turning the grindstone as he walked. According to
Ron Lange, the sweep method of powering stationary devices was very
common compared to the more expensive treadmill. With the sweep,
operators also had flexibility in the number of horses that could
be called upon to do the work. Sweep powers were even used to run
threshing machines before the ready availability of tractors with
belt pulleys.

Mert Toelle and his son Trevor brought Mick and Mike, a team of
Belgian geldings, to the show along with many pieces of horse-drawn
equipment, buggies and wagons of all kinds. “We’ve only had Mick
and Mike for a few months,” Mert says. “They are 4 and 5 years old
though, so they know how to work together.” Trevor, who attends
high school in Pierce, put the team through its paces, alternately
pulling a John Deere sulky plow and 8-foot riding disk. Mert drove
a high-board wagon with the team to support the hand corn-picking
demonstrations.

Several folks tried their hand at picking corn the old-fashioned
way. Hans Burmester, Nebraska’s 2002 champion picker, was on hand
to provide a few tips and a fine demonstration. “The number of
pounds I can pick in a contest depends on the size of the ears and
the quality of the planting,” Hans explains. “The bigger and closer
the ears, the more pounds I can pick.” Hans demonstrated how to
break the ear from the stalk, cleanly husk it and toss it against
the backboard on the wagon in one easy motion. “Do you think he’s
been doing that for a few years?” Mert Toelle asked with a wink,
acknowledging Hans’ skill.

It wasn’t only about horses and hand picking though. The Pierce
Threshing Bee had more than enough mechanical power to go
around.

Horse-free horsepower

Kernels of corn were stripped from Hans Burmester’s hand-picked
ears with a Minneapolis-Moline Model E sheller mounted on a 1939
Ford 1 1/2 ton truck owned by Lyndon Bierman of Battle Creek, Neb.
The sheller, powered by the old Ford’s PTO, made short work of the
ear corn, neatly depositing cobs into one wagon and grain into
another. Shellers such as Lyndon’s went the way of threshing
machines with the advent of affordable combines.

Although horses can be used to power threshing machines, Keith
Huwaldt prefers tractor power. This Randolph, Neb., man started his
own threshing run in the 1950s and kept at it long after combines
were available. “I continued to do custom threshing up into the
1970s using the 1947 Farmall M on the belt,” Keith explains. “I
donated the threshing machine to the (Pierce) Historical Society,
but me and the boys still run it.” The 28-inch McCormick-Deering
threshing machine easily hums through loads of bundled oats,
receiving power from either Keith’s Farmall M, or from the
Historical Society’s 1916 Case 65 steam engine.

“We got the steam engine in 1985,” Donavon Koehler explains as
he lovingly stokes the aged beast’s boiler. Donavon is responsible
for maintaining and operating the big Case as a volunteer, but he
enjoys every minute of time he spends with the machine. “I enjoy
running the tractor in parades,” he says, “but it is really fun to
belt it to the threshing machine and watch the straw pile up.”
Judging from the crowds gathered around that combination this past
September, Donavon isn’t the only one who enjoys steam-powered
threshing.

As the freshly-threshed oats were elevated into wagons and
hauled off, Keith and his crew pulled an Oliver stationary baler up
to the straw stack and belted it to his 1936 International
Harvester F-20 tractor. “Straw is much easier to handle in bales
than loose,” Keith says. “Especially if you need to haul it some
distance.” Baling with the Oliver required at least four hands. One
person monitored the tractor, one pitched the straw and two others
threaded and twisted the bale wires in an intermeshing series of
well-choreographed motions.

Bernard Voborny of Neligh, Neb., trailered his 1860-vintage
sawmill to the Pierce Threshing Bee for the 28th consecutive year.
Bernard and his brother DeWayne made the old stationary saw
portable by mounting its undercarriage on wheels, and installing a
gearbox drive. “The gearbox is fabricated from two final drives we
took off an old Allis-Chalmers WD tractor,” Bernard explains. The
mill now receives power through a 100 hp John Deere tractor PTO,
which keeps the 48-inch blade turning at a consistent 550 rpm. “The
blade gets distorted and makes an uneven cut if it gets hot or
slows down,” Bernard says. “The canopy keeps the sun from heating
it, and with 100 hp behind it, the blade doesn’t get bogged
down.”

While Bernard converted logs to lumber with his sawmill, Walt
Klein converted wonderfully aromatic cedar billets into shingles
with a 1902 Simpson shingle mill owned by the Ray Valley Heritage
Association of Petersburg, Neb. This particular mill consists of a
large saw blade mounted horizontally on the end of a mandrel with
an indexing vise mounted on sliding rails. As Walt pushed the vise
across the top of the blade, a slightly-tapered, shingle-shaped
slice of cedar was obtained. Pulling the vise back repositioned the
billet for the next pass. Walt powered the mill with his own 1945
Farmall B tractor. “I really enjoy demonstrating the Society’s
mill,” Walt says. “It gives me a chance to meet people, and to give
the (Farmall) B a workout.”

Hand and foot work

Inside one of the permanent buildings at the Pierce Threshing
Bee, visitors were treated to the quiet concentration of dedicated
volunteers who tirelessly answered questions and demonstrated their
crafts. In one corner of the building, DiAnn Boehm of Ames, Neb.,
demonstrated the art of treadle-wheel spinning, deftly working a
clump of Angora rabbit hair into fine and uniform yarn. “I
particularly enjoy spinning rabbit and alpaca,” DiAnn explains
about her passion for making fiber from fur. DiAnn spins the
age-old way, but her spinning wheel is made of modern polymers and
alloys, an ironic connection of past and present.

Master quilters Sandra Kinney and Virginia Huwaldt were on hand
to answer questions about their age-old art form. Although both
artists employ modern tools in their quilting, they offered all
comers a chance to understand the history and role of the craft in
this country. Likewise, Wanetta Walker of Norfolk, Neb.,
demonstrated the lost art of wagon-wheel rug making. “In this
process, pioneer women used a wagon wheel’s metal tire as a
rug-weaving frame,” Wanetta explains. “They typically used scrap
materials such as feed sacks, but I usually buy new material for my
designs.”

Corn shucks left by the hand-picking demonstration weren’t just
cast to the breeze at Pierce. Susan Wattier and Jean Biershenk
collected the husks, soaked them in water and delighted hundreds of
folks with a hands-on corn shuck doll-tying demonstration. “It’s
fun to watch the (people’s) smiles as the dolls take shape,” Jean
says. Other traditional art forms on display at the threshing bee
included whittling, and the ancient art of Pysanky, a form of egg
decoration brought to Nebraska by Ukrainian immigrants.

Lasting links

Born from a call to commemorate the country’s bicentennial, the
Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee is now a celebration of people,
practices and roots. The organization is as committed to
maintaining a grounded connection to things of the past as it is to
preserving educational links to ways of the past. And judging from
the crowds that attended the 28th annual two-day event, the little
town of Pierce is onto something big. “We especially want to
interest the young people,” Sophie explains. “If they don’t learn
about this, it will be lost forever.”

The 29th annual Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee will be held
at the Pierce County Fairgrounds Sept. 10-11, 2005. For more
information, contact Elwood Meier at (402) 329-4245, or
csham@ptcnet.net; Donavon Koehler at (402) 329-4221, or visit the
Pierce Historical Society’s website at
www.ptcnet.net/museum

Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector and
freelance writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia
in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Penn.,
and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway,
Gettysburg, PA 17325; or call (717) 337-6068; or e-mail:
willo@gettysburg.edu

  • Published on Jan 1, 2005
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