The Way Things Were

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Six teams on a large horse power under control of the teamster with his whip. Image courtesy J.I. Case Company, Racine, Wis., U.S.A.

I have in my collection three or four copies of Farm Power magazine that was started in 1935 to replace American Thresherman, a publication that had gone out of business in 1932. In the May, 1936 issue of Farm Power, I found the following story which I’ve edited a little.

“When You and I Were Young Maggie”

“People like ‘reminiscences.’ I wondered whether your readers might not be interested in an account of the old horse powers that we used for running threshing machines, clover hullers, wood saws, etc., before the days of tractors, or even steam engines. This was about fifty years ago in Lafayette County, Wisconsin.

They were great old characters in their day, those old horse powers. I haven’t seen one for over forty years, but I know more about them than I do about the new-fangled combines. I have a mental picture of the old horse power from which I could draw pretty good plans for making one.

“The old ‘power’ was a rather decent looking contrivance as it was drawn along the road. But when it was ‘set’ ready to run the separator, it was quite formidable looking. Then, the setting of the whole threshing outfit was not a matter of just a few minutes, as it is now, with the modern tractor. It was an ordeal requiring an hour or so of hard work. The power had to be firmly staked down and heavily braced to keep it from starting off across the country when six teams of horses were hitched to it and the threshing began. The power stood about seventy five feet from the separator, to which it was connected by a ‘tumbling-rod,’ instead of by a belt, as tractors and traction engines are. A man stood on the platform of the power with a long whip to keep the horses going round and round in a circle. It was a pleasant enough job for the driver on a summer day, but it could be a little tougher in the winter when we were hulling clover or sawing wood, or doing a late job of barn threshing. On the other hand, the work was very hard on the horses in hot weather, but much easier for them when it was cold.

“The threshing machines run by the old horse powers made a peculiar singing or humming noise that could be heard on a calm day for miles. This sound wasn’t steady, but rose and fell every few moments. It was punctuated every little while by a chugging noise when a grain bundle went into the cylinder crosswise instead of lengthwise.

“The power consisted of a large cog-wheel several feet in diameter that moved on a horizontal plane. There were many other cog-wheels, most of which ran vertically. The purpose of the whole set of cog-wheels was to step up the slow motion of the horses to the rapid movement of the cylinder which turned at about twelve hundred times per minute. To the large, horizontal cog-wheel were attached five or six long wooden ‘sweeps.’ These sweeps did not extend straight out from the center like the spokes of a wheel, but were tangent to the big wheel to which they were fastened. The five or six teams were hitched at the ends of these sweeps, but not directly. There was a system of rods and chains called an ‘evener’ to which the horses were hitched. This gave each team the same load as all the rest.

“The horse powers were mounted on wheels, and the sweep poles, braces, tie-down stakes, and tumbling rods were all taken down and loaded on top for hauling. When moving from one farm to another, the old separators were heavy for the horses to pull along the road even in fine weather. In muddy weather, the roads were terrible. There were no ‘Lincoln Highways’ in those days, nor any gravel or macadamized roads either, at least not in our area.

“In the old days to which I refer (the late 1880’s and early 1890’s), the farmers cut their grain with a reaper and bound it into bundles by hand. Binders had not yet arrived and the combine of today was undreamed of. Each farmer hired several men to bind the grain, using straw for bands. One youngster like me was supposed to follow along and shock up all that these men bound. The grain was then stacked, instead of being threshed out of the shock as at present.

“The threshing machines had no self-feeders nor wind-stackers (straw blowers) then. The separator crew consisted of three or four men, one of whom would feed the machine. Two boys cut the bands of the bundles (and sometimes they cut the feeder’s hands also). Holding sacks for the grain was also a boy’s job. A crewman measured the grain, using a half bushel measure and marking each half bushel down with a pencil. Afterwards, a tally-box was invented that did away with the pencil work. The stacker conveying the straw up to the stack was stationary, not the movable blower as nowadays. Four or five men worked up in the straw stack in dirt that was sometimes dreadful.

“In those old days, and up until the arrival of the automobile, the farmer gave two meals (dinner and supper) to all who helped him thresh and the threshing crew stayed all night. ‘How dear to our hearts are the scenes of our childhood’”

These recollections of threshing more than four generations ago were written nearly eighty years ago when I was only two years old. I’m sure no one is still alive who remembers the way a separator sounded while being driven by a six team horsepower. I’m thankful this man, whose name isn’t given in the magazine article, took the time to write down his experiences and I hope by reprinting his tale to keep it alive for future generations.

– Sam Moore

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