Farm Collector

The Beginning of the End of the Threshing Ring

After reading the story of the Allis-Chalmers All-Crop combine in the May issue of Farm Collector, I thought these recollections might be of interest to readers.

My dad, being a progressive farmer, purchased an Allis-Chalmers combine on June 20, 1938 at a price of $720. He traded in a team of 3-year-old horses, one 10-foot binder and a cultivator for a balance due of $80, paid in cash.

This was at the start of the decline of threshing rings. After the terrible heat of 1936, I can believe this was a great incentive to get away from the drudgery of oat harvesting. After Dad got the machine, everybody wanted him to cut their oats. We could see that from entries in my mother’s diary:

July 14, finished at McLaughlin’s. July 15, combining at Gallagher’s. July 16, finished at Wheelan’s. July 20, working at Warnock’s. Working at Dad Pfeiffer’s.

A lot of small acreages at the edge of town had small patches of oats. Dad seemed to get talked into cutting these fields. The gates were always narrow and invariably they had to pull a corner post to get in. On one occasion, Dad backed the combine and tractor through the gate, twisting and turning to get the machine through. Being in town, there were always kids and people watching. They marveled at how he got that AC combine through.

Repairing the combine

This incident happened in 1939 while cutting oats at Wheelan’s. There was a truck garden alongside the oat field. They had used a check planter to plant the corn to make the rows straight in the garden. When they finished with the check wire, they laid it over the oat field. It was forgotten as the oats grew and covered it. As Dad was cutting their oats, the wire fed up into the combine and wrapped around the cylinder. It tore out the rubber-backed concaves under the cylinder.

Dad had to bring the machine home to cut the wire out of the cylinder. Since I was small and lightweight, he had me crawl inside the machine, lie on the grate and reach down under the cylinder and hold the wrench on the bolts holding the ripped concave. Dad was under the combine, unscrewing bolts with old pieces removed and new ones bolted in place. He then went back to Wheelan’s. As a 10-year-old, it was a big deal for me to help repair the machine. It made me feel so good to be so important.

The steam engine didn’t turn on a dime

The steam engine and threshing machine were by far the largest pieces of equipment used on the farm. In our young minds, they were even bigger than life. Dad and Mom moved to a rented farm southeast of Washington, Iowa, in the spring of 1935. I was 6 years old, so I remember threshing oats in 1935, 1936, and 1937.

At threshing time in 1937, Dad told me to show the steam engine driver how to get through the gate in our lots and out to the threshing site. He said he would not be able to get there in time to show them, so I should do it.

We started watching for signs of smoke about the middle of the morning, even though Dad didn’t think the steam engine would be there before noon. At about 1:30 p.m., we finally saw the smoke in the distance. When the engine turned into our driveway, it looked even bigger than we imagined. Now I needed to do my thing and I started motioning where to go, but since I was just a kid, the crew just ignored me.

The gate between the barn and the horse tank was a tight turn with the windmill tower kind of at the corner of the tank. When they finally realized the kid was doing his job, the driver frantically started to turn the steering wheel real fast to head the big engine in the direction I was signaling.

The tower leg was coming up fast and he was spinning the wheel frantically. About the same time, the engine operator saw the situation and grabbed levers to stop the behemoth. As it came to a stop, the front wheel hub caught the tower leg. Since at the bottom of the tower the angle iron legs were double and the hub had just caught the outside leg, it put a bend in it. The old tower shook but did not collapse. The men jumped off the engine and, using a sledgehammer, they pounded the leg and took out most of the bend.

They backed the engine and got straight through the gate. From then on, they followed my directions and we got the machine to the site as Dad had instructed. When Dad got home, I told him what had happened. He looked at me and at the tower leg, and just shook his head. “I guess they aren’t used to having a boy give them directions,” he said.

First in line for a drink

Threshing was an exciting time for us boys. We would watch the steam waterman put his hose in the horse tank and pump water by pushing a big lever back and forth. When the tank was filled, he drove out to the threshing site and pulled up beside the engine. There he hooked up the hose to transfer the water to the engine.

The water boy had his pony. Two crock jugs wrapped in burlap hung over the saddle horn. Dad had a bundle wagon, so he was out in the field loading bundles. He told us how he would try to be the first to get a drink of fresh water from the jug. This was especially important since all the men drank from the same jug, and a number of them chewed tobacco. They all wanted the same man to be the last to drink, since when he chewed, the tobacco juice ran down both sides of his mouth. The chewing tobacco gave them a buzz that helped them stand the hot working conditions.

The spike scooper’s gift

One man – the spike scooper – stayed at the bin site and helped the men with a grain wagon unload oats. Most of the bins were in the driveway of the horse barn or unloaded into an inside door or one on the outside of the barn. They prided themselves in not spilling a kernel of oats as they scooped.

Sometimes there was lag time between loads. We’d would hang around and talk to the spike scooper. One time he told me to get aboard off an old orange crate. He took out his pocketknife and made a sword and dagger for me. I was so proud of them! Later, I got a longer board off a bigger crate and he whittled a gun about 3 feet long for me. I can still see it.

We’d been had, plain and simple

One early morning, we got up early to watch the men get the steam engine ready for the day’s work. Overnight, the engine had cooled down so now they could clean out the ashes. They then opened the front of the engine and swabbed out all the flue tubes that went through the heart of the engine.

They put kindling in the firebox, started the fire, added coal, and filled the boiler and water tank. Then they proceeded to oil and grease the machine. In about an hour, steam was coming up and some were released up the smoke stack to create more draft.

Meanwhile, early bundle wagons had arrived in the field. If shocks were still damp, they were scattered about to speed the drying process. Back at the engine, steam was coming up as they needed pressure to blow the whistle. As was the custom, the engineer would blow a long whistle to signal the bundle wagons that they were ready to thresh.

As Leo and I watched, they told us to hold on to our straw hats, as that loud steam whistle would blow them off. We fell for it and held onto our hats as he blew the whistle. All the men started laughing and we knew we had been had. How embarrassed we were to think that smart farm boys like us had fallen for that ruse! FC

Wilfrid Vittetoe lives in Washington, Iowa. Call him at (319) 653-2720.

  • Published on Jul 9, 2019
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