Remembering the Red River Special

Threshing in Manitoba in the 1930s and ’40s


| August 2009



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.

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.

Courtesy Keith Smith

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.

mike olson
9/17/2012 6:56:18 PM

wondering what a red river special is worth today