Threshing Machines at the Sycamore Steam Show

Threshing Days: Pair of threshing machine workhorses re-create harvests of the past at the Sycamore Steam Show.

| February 2008

At an antique farm equipment show, one threshing machine can attract attention just because of its size and array of belts, chains and pulleys. Put two or more side by side, and you're likely to draw a crowd. At the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club's 51st annual Sycamore Steam Show last August, visitors got a good look at a 1928 Minneapolis 40-by-64-inch thresher owned by Maynard Petersen, Hampshire, Ill., and a 22-by-38-inch Oliver Red River Special owned by Bill Karl of Maple Park, Ill.

Bill, one of several people who have owned the Oliver thresher over the years, said he thought the unit dated to the late 1930s or early 1940s. Both it and the Minneapolis thresher, perhaps 10 years older, were quite advanced compared to the earliest threshing machines (those dating to the 1820s) that featured spiked cylinders turned by a large hand crank. "And those were much better than the previous methods," Maynard notes, "'which consisted of spreading it out on the barn floor and walking on it, or having horses walk on it, to separate the grain."

At the Sycamore show, each threshing machine processed two wagon-loads of wheat each day. The threshers were powered by a variety of steam engines and antique tractors owned by area collectors and farmers who wanted to see them in action.

Two teenagers kept the threshers supplied with shocks of wheat during the daily demonstrations. Michelle Stevens and Chad Peterson worked like old hands. Like all show workers, the teens volunteered their time "because it's fun," says Michelle, 16. She and Chad, 15, spoke as one when each said their parents had been taking them to shows since before they could remember.

How the threshing machines work

The two stood on a hay wagon and hand-pitched shocks onto a track that carried them into the thresher. A long belt extending from the steam engine's flywheel turned a flywheel on the thresher that activated other wheels, belts and chains that processed the wheat.

The wheat was crunched as it entered the machine, causing the grain to fall onto a shaker deep within the thresher. A fan blew chaff and wheat straw out a long tube at the rear, stacking it in a large pile. The wheat straw was later fed into a hay baler powered by a steam engine or antique tractor. A  half-bushel of grain at a time is dumped on a belt that carries it to the grain wagon.