Remembering Thrashin Day

Threshing was hard work, to be sure – but also offered the pleasure of neighborly camaraderie.

| March 2018

  • 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.
    Photo courtesy Robert Pripps
  • A steam threshing outfit in Manitoba, Canada, in about 1910, with a crew that averaged about 10.
    Photo courtesy Robert Pripps
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy Robert Pripps
  • 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.
    Image courtesy Robert Pripps
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy Robert Pripps

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.

2/20/2018 6:19:48 PM

I consider my self luck in that my brothers father in law was the last hold out, as far using a binder and thrasher for grain harvest, in our neighborhood and all the young and old men in the neighborhood were hired to fill out a crew necessary to operate these machines. maybe not the "full" experiences of some but close enough. - silo filling was done with a corn binder and "cutter box" - there again requiring a crew of able bodied men. - as I look back on the experience it really made for great friends, I to still get to enjoy to this day.

2/20/2018 12:25:37 PM

I remember this, grew up in east central South Dakota. At 5 or 6 I was tasked with pulling my little red wagon with jars of cold water down to the crew . When the supply ran low, put the remainder under the machine, gather the empties , head for the house, fill and return. Always had one of the young guys spike pitching on top of each load. Dad giving them hell if they got overly excited and jammed the machine with too much, too fast. Worse than that was getting sweaty and letting the three toned fork slip thru their hands and wind up IN the machine. That shut things down till the remaining pieces were removed and a new fork procured !!! Good days, fondly remembered.


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