Remembering the Red River Special

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Typical threshing scene featuring a “low bagger” machine similar to the Red River Special 28-inch separator. The big pulley is connected to the blower fan.
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In this 1930 photo, an unidentified boy stooks wheat in Manitoba.
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Keith Smith’s sister and grandfather in 1928, using a binder (pulled by a four-horse team) to tie grain into bundles prior to threshing.
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Keith Smith and his family’s 1920s-era Nichols & Shepard Red River Special.

My most vivid memories of harvesting have a good deal to do with the Nichols & Shepard Red River Special 28-46 threshing machine owned by my uncle, Walter Smith.

It was used to thresh wheat, oats and barley on his 480-acre farm northeast of Oak Lake, Manitoba, Canada, during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. By the early 1950s, pull-type and self-propelled combines had pretty well replaced the labor-intensive threshing crews.

By August, if the weather was favorable and we had avoided grasshoppers and hail, fields of wheat, oats and barley would be ripening on our 320-acre half-section farm. The wheat was mainly for cash sale to grain companies, primarily Manitoba Pool Elevators.

First, with a horse-drawn binder (four horses), the crops were cut, grain stalks tied with twine into bundles by the binder and sheaves dropped in rows in the grain field. In later years (after 1939), when Dad bought a brand new John Deere Model B, it replaced the team. The new tractor (bought from Roy Carlisle’s John Deere dealership in Griswold) cost $700 plus the money from the sale of two of our horses.

Those rows of sheaves were “stooked” by hand. Men and boys like me piled the sheaves together, heads up, usually six to eight sheaves to a stook. The grain dried in that position until threshing.

When it was harvest time, we’d see the stook teams – each team of two horses pulling a rack – emerging with their drivers from the bushes just south of the southeast corner of our farm. After the four or five teams came the tractor pulling the separator. Uncle Walter, usually behind the tractor’s steering wheel, drove into the wheat field to a spot quickly cleared of stooks by the first one or two stook teams. He’d stop the tractor and get down from the seat, pick up a handful of dirt and throw it up into the air. That’s how he knew the wind direction and how to “set” the machine, because threshing the crop and trying to blow the straw against the wind would be foolish.

After positioning the thresher, two holes were dug in the ground immediately in front of the rear wheels and the machine was pulled forward to settle gently into these holes. This minimized the rocking motion of the machine when it was operating, as the straw “walkers” that moved the straw along inside the body of the machine had a back-and-forth motion to them.

Next, the drive belt, carefully wound onto a holder near the front of the threshing machine, was unrolled and dragged out in front. Then came the real test of a good operator. Could he (usually Uncle Walter) line up the tractor the first time, so that when the belt was looped over the tractor’s drive pulley it would be in exactly the right spot? If it wasn’t, the belt wouldn’t stay on the pulley and you’d have to re-align the tractor.

Alignment completed, the tractor was backed up slowly to tighten the belt. The belt already had a twist in it to make sure the big pulley on the threshing machine rotated in the right direction. The drive belt was around the big Rockwood pulley connected to the 28-inch-wide cylinder, 18 inches in diameter, studded with steel teeth. This cylinder revolved, designed to just miss a stationary set of fixed teeth called concaves.

The main separation of the grain from the straw happened here – maybe that’s why the threshing machine was often referred to as the “separator.” You really knew that things were well on their way when my dad turned the two big geared devices at the back of the machine to put the blower into position. The first gear raised the blower (a metal pipe about 12 feet long and 18 inches in diameter) off its holder; the other swung the blower around to point back up and away from the machine.

Uncle Walter would throttle up the tractor and slowly let out the clutch. The belts and chains would slowly start to move until the machine was humming. My dad’s job was to grease, oil and adjust all the moving parts – no small assignment in an era when few bearings were sealed. An unattended shaft or chain would soon wear out if not receiving a regular squirt of oil from Dad’s oil can. And so it went.

While the set-up of the machine was going on, the hired men were busy getting that first load of sheaves on their wagons. It was a badge of honor to have the first load ready after a separator set-up.

Then there were the “spike” or “spite” pitchers (I never knew which was the correct term). They were the men who stayed out in the field, walking from one wagon (they were called racks) to the other, helping that person with his load.

They didn’t have teams of their own, but were usually the strongest, ablest men. They knew better than anyone how you had to maneuver the team of horses from one side of the row of stooks to the other during loading in order to keep the load of sheaves balanced.

In addition to portable granaries to hold the grain, we often used two grain wagons holding about 60 bushels each. While one wagon box was being filled, the other was driven to the yard and unloaded. This was often my job. I was maybe 15 years old. I drove into the yard and backed the horses and wagon up to the granary in the barnyard and shoveled 60 bushels of grain (usually barley) through a small window into a bin in the granary. Try that sometime!

Then I drove the empty wagon back to the machine and quickly switched the grain delivery spout over, unhitched the team, hitched the horses to the just-filled wagon and repeated the whole operation. Granaries on site at the threshing machine made things easier for me, though I was often in that granary as it gradually filled up. I shoveled the grain back as best I could until the shingle nails on the underside of the roof dug into my back. Then I crawled out a small window and we had to find somewhere else to put the grain.

Who were the men who brought the loads of sheaves to the threshing machine? They worked hard, very hard, for $5 a day, later $6 a day. I can remember Dad wondering how he could ever afford to pay the last harvest time wages I can remember – $7 a day.

This was a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. job, with the harnessing and unharnessing of the horses and other jobs outside of those hours. We often hired men from the nearby Sioux Valley Indian Reserve – Jimmy Elk, Gordon Bone and others.

Harvesters from Ontario with their funny – we thought – Ottawa Valley accents came out West on subsidized “Harvester Special” trains. There were others, too. People like Lee Jolson from somewhere in central Saskatchewan. He came to us for several threshing seasons. A powerfully built man, he amused us kids on “off” days (when it rained) by placing a 4-inch nail between the fingers of his clenched fist and driving that nail right through a two-by-four.

Off days were difficult – not for us kids, but for Dad, and especially for Mother.

The men still had to be paid (but the daily rate dropped to $4, as I recall), but there was only so much that could be done and, if the rain continued, only so much harness repair and barn cleaning. Mother, without help, still had to provide three meals a day to the three or four men hanging around.

And those guys could eat! A pie was never cut into anything but quarters. How my mother did all that work I will never know. If I could somehow deliver a medal – posthumously – I would dearly love to bestow one upon her.

Straw blown into the barn loft had to be forked back – my dad’s job – and I recall him heading into the loft with a big straw fork, with no mask or protective clothing, to move the straw to allow for more to be blown in. I was always so scared of that, and so relieved when he emerged, covered in dust and red-eyed, a half hour later.

No description of harvesting in the old days would be complete without some mention of “lunch time.” This wasn’t the noon meal – always referred to as “dinner time” – it occurred around 3:30 or 4 p.m. and was usually delivered by my mother, who hitched up the horse and buggy and brought the lunch right to the machine. Lunch was often tomato sandwiches on homemade bread, something sweet and pots of hot tea. There was always the big pottery water jug with a wet burlap bag wrapped around it, sitting in the shade of the tractor wheel, but sweet, hot tea at 4 p.m. was special. The men, as they came in with their load of sheaves, helped themselves, while Dad or Uncle Walter (or me, in later years), unloaded their rack – the machine never stopped.

My dad was someone I really respected. Honest to a fault. So you can imagine my surprise, almost dismay, the evening I saw him turn his Westclox Pocket Ben watch back 10 minutes and assure one of the men that there was plenty of time (it was really 7 p.m.) to unload into the separator that last load of sheaves. A small bending of the truth by Dad – something I never witnessed again as long as he lived.

That kind of harvesting was the norm over 60 years ago. In the early 1950s the pull-type and self-propelled combines took over and threshing machines became instant dinosaurs. Swathers replaced binders and the stooking operation was no more. All those harvest workers disappeared as one person could now do it all.

Not only that, but in this 21st century, one farmer operating a modern combine with help from a grain truck operator, often a spouse, can straight combine – no binder, no stooking, not even a swather – twice as many acres in a day as the old 10-man threshing crew could do. And today those 4,000 to 5,000 bushels would be safely stored in a metal, aerated hopper-bottomed grain bin. The $300,000 today’s farmer has invested in that high-tech, computerized combine for use rarely more than three weeks a year would be enough money to buy outright 10 half-section family farms of the 1930s.

Today’s yields are double, or more than double those of the 1930s or ’40s – probably due to better weed control, newer varieties of grain and more fertilizer. Thirty bushels to the acre of Marquis or Redman wheat was then thought to be good; today’s bearded wheat varieties yield 60 to 70 bushels per acre.

Thinking back now, old-time harvesting was a fascinating series of activities in spite of all the difficulties and hard work. I am glad I was there to take part in it. FC

For more information: Keith Smith, e-mail:
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