Threshing with Horses

Treadmill and powers once drove harvest operation

| January 2009

Looking for an adventure? Step back in time to the late 19th century at the Miami Valley Steam Threshers show.

You’ll see the Calvin family of Radnor, Ohio, with its horse-powered equipment at Past Time Park in Plain City, Ohio, demonstrating how wheat harvesting used to be done.

Using equipment from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Calvins “thrash” wheat, winnow grain and grind it into flour, and bale straw – almost all with horses. They use a pair of horses, not a team: The two animals are never harnessed together to work as a team. One works the treadmill for the threshing machine while one rests. When it’s time to bale, the other operates the “power” for the hay press. The only concession the family makes to the internal combustion engine is a 1-cylinder McCormick hit-and-miss engine used to power the burr mill.

The thresher had its beginnings in Europe as the Industrial Revolution spread to agriculture. American-made threshers began to come on the scene in the 1830s. Before the close of the century, steam power ruled the threshing world. Some of us who grew up in the 20th century are familiar with the big threshing machine powered by a steam traction engine or a gas tractor. Both are large machines and are frequently demonstrated at antique farm equipment shows. Few shows feature the novelty of horse-powered threshing equipment in action.

The Calvins’ thresher is a unique machine that does nothing more than thresh the grain. It does a fair job of separating straw from grain but it does not winnow the chaff, dirt and short straws from the grain. Instead, grain and debris are simply dropped on a canvas beneath the thresher. The accumulated grain, chaff and bits of straw must be cleaned before it can be used.

In the early years, horses were used to power threshers. Some horse power units were treadmills; others were powered by a sweep. The Calvins use a treadmill to operate their thresher. Their treadmill’s endless belt consists of wooden slats with rollers at each end. The belt and rollers are housed in a sturdy frame enclosed by a stall to keep the horse in place. The entire contraption is inclined so that when the horse enters the stall and the brake is released, the horse’s weight causes the belt to slide backward. To keep up, the horse begins walking up the incline, which keeps the belt moving during the threshing operation. At the lower end of the treadmill is a power shaft with a pulley on it. As the pulley turns, the belt propels the threshing mechanism.