Remembering Thrashin Day

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A McCormick reaper at work, circa 1831. Harvesting grain was still a labor-intensive process, but with an adequate crew, 8 or 9 acres per day could be cut, bundled and shocked.
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A steam threshing outfit in Manitoba, Canada, in about 1910, with a crew that averaged about 10.
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A typical threshing scene from the late 1920s or early 1930s in a Kansas wheat field. The man on the rig at the left is guiding the straw stacker; the other man on the rig, the team boss, keeps a constant eye on the process, ready to shut things down if something goes wrong. The man on the far right is standing on the bundle wagon pitching bundles onto the conveyor.
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A patent model of a mechanical flail threshing machine dating to the 1840s. Threshing with a flail goes back to biblical times. The flail consisted of a short wooden club attached to a longer handle by means of a leather joint. The “thresherman” lashed the grain spread out on the threshing floor, rupturing the hulls and separating the grain from the stalks and chaff.
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In the late 1700s, European Quakers added fingers, or a basket, to the scythe, making what became known as the “cradle.” With it, the “reaper” (as such field hands were called) could cut the grain on the fore-swing and deposit the sheaves on the ground on the back-swing. It was the first farm tool to combine two functions. With the cradle, a reaper and a binder could reap, bind and stack 5 acres in a 12-hour day.

Only the oldest among us have first-hand memories of neighborhood threshing. Those who do, remember with fondness the noon meal, as the neighborhood women tried to outdo each other with an over-the-top feast.

The farmer whose wife succeeded at that had no trouble getting his neighbors to join him in the threshing ring. A threshing crew consumed and expended calories by the thousands. As evidence of that, the expression “to eat like a bunch of threshers” lives in on our lexicon.

When I was a lad, my maternal grandfather had a big Case steam engine and a Case thresher, which he called a “separator.” He lived in a neighborhood of small farms, most of which were owned by relatives. I’ll never forget the excitement of threshing day: the rumble of the steam engine, the lineup of horse-drawn wagons, the hot, dry September weather, women bustling to prepare a large noon meal. To a small boy, threshing day compared favorably to Christmas.

Our farm family consisted of Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Leroy (a bachelor), a couple of older cousins who usually lived-in and helped out around the farm, a hired man, and my mother and my sister and I who just came for threshing.

Jobs for everyone

Children were up with the chickens on thrashin’ day; Grandpa and Grandma had been up long before. Farm life in those days always began before sunup, but this day called for extra effort on everyone’s part. The youngsters had to do extra morning chores so that Grandpa and Uncle Leroy could get “Old Sal” (the steam engine) fired up. That meant getting the cows in, fed and milked; the eggs gathered and the chickens fed. We also had to get the windmill hooked to the pump so that the big tank by the barn would be full for both the horses and Old Sal, a machine with a voracious thirst.

The older cousins were detailed to catch five or six big chickens for butchering, followed by scalding, picking and singeing to remove pin feathers. Others of us would build a roaring fire in Grandma’s great iron stove, because Grandma, who had been up since 3 o’clock, had potatoes ready for the kettle and 10 or 12 pies ready for baking. She wanted to get the baking and cooking done before the September sun made the kitchen too hot except for the really strong.

Women and girls worked in the kitchen helping Grandma, cooking and preparing fried chicken, roast beef and thick slices of ham, mountains of mashed potatoes and bowls of gravy, baked beans and squash, creamed sliced cucumbers, radishes, pickles, corn on the cob, slabs of homemade bread, butter and jam, several kinds of pies and much more to feed the hungry workers.

Thrashin’ day started early

Operating a threshing machine required about a dozen men and boys and seven or eight teams of horses with wagons, if the grain shocks were still in the field. Stack threshing required a somewhat smaller crew, but even then, if the haul to the granary was long, extra help was needed. Once the steam was up and the flat belt was singing, woe betide if there were not enough bundles of grain to fill the maw of the thresher. Enough bundles had to go in to keep the steam engine’s governor open because no one wanted to hear that engine loafing.

At about 9 o’clock, after finishing their own morning chores, the neighbors began arriving with their wagons and teams, or in their Model A Fords. It didn’t pay to get started too early, as the morning dew had to be dried off before we could start. Some of the wives and daughters came as well, bringing special dishes for the noon meal and to help Grandma with the preparations. 

By then, Leroy had the separator spotted – positioning it and leveling it – and Old Sal belted up. We kids had spent the previous weeks bringing wood from the farm’s wood lot for fuel for the big steamer. As soon as the first flatbed wagons were back from the field with bundles of oats, Leroy had the rig churning, and Old Sal was chuckling.

Grandpa always climbed on top of the rig, oilcan in hand, to supervise the operation. The older cousins usually bagged the grain and heaved the bags onto a wagon; sometimes though, the grain was augured directly into a bin wagon. My job, as long as Grandpa had the outfit (he donated Old Sal for scrap iron during World War II), was to carry drinking water for the men and older boys in the field pitching bundles onto the wagons. For this full-time job I was provided with a pony and cart with two 5-gallon crocks wrapped in burlap.

‘Dig in, boys’

At noon, Leroy gave one long, hard blast on the steam whistle to announce dinnertime. The whistle not only signaled workers in the field, but also warned the kitchen crew.

Several washtubs of sun-warmed water stood on stands under the trees in the yard. The field crew lined up before the tubs, taking turns scooping great handfuls of water over their heads and letting it run down their necks. This not only cleaned and cooled them, but also helped to somewhat soften the chaff caught under their shirts. A stack of cotton towels was handy. Grandma saved those too worn out for use in the kitchen for just this occasion, fearing machinery grease would ruin her good ones.

The meal, of course, was the high point of the day. As the men trooped from the wash stands to the dining table, tantalizing aromas of hot baked goods and roasting meats greeted their nostrils. Boys who were old enough to help shared in the noon repast with the men; younger boys ate with the women and girls.

As the family patriarch, Grandpa would offer a short blessing that included thanks for the harvest and then said, “Dig in, boys, it’s not getting any better settin’ there.”

Now began a relatively quiet period while plates were loaded and dishes were passed. The women worked behind our backs, pouring lemonade and a reddish drink called “nectar.” As the first servings were consumed, conversation began. “Dewey, pass those radishes down this way, or is that your private dish?” “Earl, hand me a piece of that-there fried chicken. No, not the whole plate, just hand me a piece.”

Conversation and calamities

Once the peril of imminent starvation was no longer of concern, the conversational logjam was broken. The focal point of the camaraderie was the repartee with the meal, and several subjects had to be ritually dealt with: The heat (“Leroy, you don’t need to keep throwing wood into that engine. Just open the doors and let the breeze blow through the tubes.”) … the wind (“Ya’ know, if that wind ever quit, I think all the buildings would fall over.”) … the dryness (“I got a letter from my brother in Minnesota and the stamp was pinned on!”) … and the engine (“Heard about a guy over in Butternut got hisself one of them new Farmalls. He’s going to use it to drive his thresher. Bet he has trouble. You just can’t beat a steam engine!”).

Then came horror stories of mechanical breakdowns befalling threshers, just when they got their turn with the thresher and had all of their help ready. From there, the talk turned to other calamities, such as tales of when the food was all prepared and delay kept the thresher from showing up. In those days, there was not much in the way of refrigeration and a day’s delay could be a catastrophe. You could count on a story about the lady in the Catholic community who expected to feed the threshers on Thursday, only to have the schedule slip to Friday. That meant frantically canning the beef and pork, and running to town for fish.

From there, the conversation turned to the various thresher meals experienced in the past, and the relative merits of the cooks. By that time, the women were bringing in the pies, without much discretion about eavesdropping, so the subject was quickly dropped.

After the meal, we sat around on the grass in the shade for about 15 minutes, and then headed back to our duties. Work continued until the farm was threshed, generally until 4 or 5 o’clock. The neighbors headed home for evening chores and supper.  

Something gained; something lost

Grandpa and Uncle Leroy sometimes moved Old Sal and the separator to the next farm before dark, and then came back to do chores. All in all, it was quite a day! Grandpa, Leroy and some of the cousins repeated the routine the next day, and indeed, for a week or two, starting at one end of the neighborhood one year and the other the next. Each day different; each day the same. But it was harvest time, the time they had worked for all year. It was payday, so it was never boring.

This was the cultural phenomenon called “threshing time.” In addition to getting the grain harvested, it combined the camaraderie of working and eating with neighbors and the satisfaction of entering into a mutually dependent relationship. By the 1950s, nearly all of that had passed from the scene, as even the smaller farmers owned their own combines. Gone was the sense of interdependence, replaced by independence: the ability to harvest at your own pace and schedule, with your own machine and without much of a requirement for hiring or borrowing help. Granted, that was much more efficient, but those who lived through earlier times recognize that something important to society has been lost. FC

After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

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