Fall brings sweet memories of Alberta threshing days
Mid-September was threshing time in eastern Alberta. We could always tell it was coming by the signs. From the very first of September, the morning air became crisp. Many mornings the frost turned the green grass a foggy white, while fog hung in the hollows in back of the barn.
The leaves on the old poplar tree by the windmill had begun turning yellow and buckskin brown. The breeze bore the odor of freshly cut barley; oats and wheat mixed together like a Mulligan’s stew. Each had its own distinct perfume, yet the fragrance was never separable. In the fields, long windrows of shocks stood at attention like dumpy little soldiers. Each shock was golden yellow – a color that made them look appetizing and edible to me even as a boy.
Everything had a sense of urgency on the farm, and farmers moved as though expecting the next north wind to bring snow. Winter was fast closing in.
In the kitchen of the old farmhouse, Mom was busy making pies, cakes and cookies for the day the threshing crew would arrive at our small farm. I loved to sidle into the kitchen, drawn by the aroma that kicked my boyish taste buds into full bloom. ‘May I have one of these?’ I asked before running off again.
One Monday morning at 5:30 a.m., Dad hitched our horses – Bill and Jess -to the hay wagon and headed off to Greg Waters’ place to begin threshing.
The threshing crew
A threshing crew usually consisted of nine men, with nine teams of draft horses. Like the men who drove them, the horses came from every breed -there wasn’t a thoroughbred among them. Most horses came fresh from the pasture ready for work. But, for the first day or so, the noisy threshing machine always spooked one team of ‘old faithfuls.’ Then the scared horses hightailed it to the far end of the field, running over dozens of shocks as they galloped.
If the teamster were lucky, he’d find them standing in the corner of the field with the wagon still in one piece. They’d fearfully snort as he backed them up, turned them around and headed them back toward the place they’d started. At times like these, a few choice words better left unsaid were usually translated into the sound of cracking leather as the teamster applied the reins’ long ends to the team’s hindquarters. They feared the machine with its many noises, but they learned to fear the teamster more.
The threshing machine’s owner was always the boss. It took a good man to keep a threshing operation running smoothly, and he walked about the machine and the tractor that powered it like a lord among serfs. He squirted a shot of grease here and there, and generally ensured that everything ran okay. A crew boss drove his men hard, yet he left them feeling they did their job well.
A threshing crew also had a field pitcher and a spike pitcher. They were often transients who managed to buy a four-bit pitchfork, and then travelled from crew to crew making 50 cents a day, if they were lucky.
The teamsters and the boss were always local farmers who worked together to harvest crops before winter arrived. The crew threshed 160 acres for each man before moving onto another farm. The same crew usually worked together year after year, and often the field and spike pitcher returned, as well.
Women worked hard, but threshing was a man’s job. Each night, Dad returned after dark, finished the chores Mom and I hadn’t done and tumbled into bed. The blisters on his hands burned, and every muscle in his 5-foot-8-inch, 145-pound body throbbed from the endless work. Those first few days in the field were often the end of a greenhorn’s dream of easy money.
A week passed, and one night Dad came home later than usual. His hands were now calloused, though his muscles still ached from the day’s labor. The clock on the kitchen cupboard pointed to 10:30 p.m.
‘Pansy,’ he said to Mom, ‘they’ll be here for dinner tomorrow.’
Mom handed Dad the grocery list that she’d prepared. He went to the phone and rang the five ‘longs’ and one ‘short,’ which was the number for Johnson’s Red & White Store.
‘Hello John,’ Dad said, his voice betraying his weariness. ‘This is Jake Redford. I’m sorry to be calling you at this time of night, but the threshers are coming tomorrow and I haven’t been able to get into town for groceries yet. I’ll be there in an hour.’
More than once I got to go along for such late-night rides.
John, the shop owner, was a tall man, skinny as a toothpick with a couple strands of black hair combed across the top of his bald head. As we arrived, he was turning the key in the lock. We went in, and John turned on the lights over the counter. He looked half tired in the store’s semi-darkness.
‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ Dad apologized.
‘It’s all right Jake,’ John answered. ‘I know you guys are busy, so I’ve got to be open when you need the stuff.’
Dad read Mom’s list, recounting all the verbal instructions she’d given him, such as, ‘Get Heinz ketchup. Don’t get Richardson oatmeal because it never turns out good.’
John scribbled down everything on his note pad, interrupting as he went along.
‘You with Greg again this year?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ Dad answered.
‘You’ve been with Greg the last five years?’ he interrupted again. It was always five years.
‘No, nine,’ Dad answered between ordering six bottles of Heinz ketchup and two bottles of Campbell’s horseradish.
‘Who’s got some done?’ John asked.
‘Ten pounds of oatmeal,’ Dad said. ‘Greg’s got 160 acres and Olaf’s got a 160. Twenty-five pounds of hamburger, please.’
‘How’s it running?’ John asked.
‘Greg got 80 bushels to the acre,’ Dad answered before adding, ‘I need a box of cow salve. Old Ernestine has got a sore udder again.’
‘How’s Olaf’s?’ John asked.
‘About 60 on the Woodcock place. Five pounds of cheese, the old blend,’ Dad politely continued with the list.
‘That’s not bad for such sandy soil,’ John added as he gathered up the items on the list. ‘Hey, son,’ he said to me. ‘Hand me those boxes over there.’ He pointed to two big boxes, which I couldn’t put my arms around. I pulled them more than carried them, and he put the groceries inside in a systematic way to make use of every inch of space.
When the groceries were loaded, we said good night and drove away. As we left the lights of town behind, the car’s headlights punched two holes into inky blackness of the night. By the time we pulled into the yard, frost was forming on the lawn grass. I was ready for sleep.
The thresher arrives
About 9 a.m. the next morning, Mom said to me, ‘Here they come!’
I ran to the back step, and sure enough, the threshing crew was coming up the road. Greg Waters was driving his big, red Massey-Harris tractor and towing the lumbering, metal threshing machine behind him. The tractor and driver looked like David standing before Goliath, but the monstrous threshing machine followed along in utter obedience. Behind it came nine teams of workhorses. They came in all colors and sizes and were well seasoned after two weeks on the crew. The reins hung over the line poles on most of the wagons, and their supposed drivers were sitting at the side of the rack with their feet swinging idly in the breeze.
The spike and field pitchers thumbed a ride with one of the teamsters. They turned into our yard, and a new sense of excitement swept over me. The men on the wagons waved to me as they drove past the step.
‘Hey Buckshot!’ Olaf Olsen called out to me. ‘Tell your Ma to put the kettle on.’ Olaf was a tall, thin man. He talked a mile a minute, though he never said much about other people; he just joked a lot.
Behind Olaf’s team came Neil Jones. He was average height, skinny and dirty. Neil’s horses were always harness-rubbed. Dad used to say you could always tell if a horse belonged to Neil by the harness sores on its body. Next in the procession came Uncle Joe’s team. Uncle Joe walked with a limp, but he could pitch as many bundles in a day as any other man on the crew.
‘Come on,’ Uncle Joe yelled to me.
I ran to his wagon, he reached down, took my hands and swung me up into the rack without stopping his team. We all pulled up to the granary just as Greg was swinging the big separator into place. Then, Greg unhooked the tractor and backed it around so it was headed straight for the giant monster. The tractor was then parked 100 paces from the threshing machine so the two could easily be belted.
By this time, Dad and Uncle Joe had unrolled the long, webbed belt. One end was slipped over the threshing machine’s pulley, and the other placed over the tractor’s pulley. In minutes, black smoke belched out of the old tractor’s exhaust. The motor lugged down, and the circular belt slowly began to turn. Finally, that sleeping giant of a thresher suddenly awakened as its many wheels and belts began to move.
‘She’s a-ready,’ Abel Caparilla, the Italian field pitcher, said as he picked up his pitchfork.
‘You’re a-sure?’ Olaf teased.
‘She’s a-ready,’ Abel repeated in his broken English with a smile.
Abel and Olaf climbed into Olaf’s wagon and followed the other teams into the field to begin loading sheaves. Roy stood around, chewing the fat with Greg until the first load was pulled up by the feeder, then he climbed up on the load and started to work. One by one, the two men tossed sheaves into the feeder. The rattling, roaring sounds were practically enough to shatter eardrums, but they deadened in tone as the sheaves began to move through the thresher’s ‘digestive’ system. Next, straw began to fly out of the huge pipe pointed to the spot where Dad wanted the straw pile. Straw soon blew out in a thick, angry cloud and settled on the ground to form a golden blanket. As the day wore on, the blanket grew into a massive mountain that became higher than the granary itself.
The work-weary teams and their wagons came and went all day. Sweaty men laughed at each other’s not-too-funny jokes as they worked. When the sun was high overhead, Greg walked over to the tractor, pulled the throttle, and the engine died on the spot.
‘It’s dinner time, boys!’ Greg declared.
The men unhitched horses from the wagons, each glad in his own way for a break in the morning’s work, and everyone headed for the barn. Olaf corraled his horses toward the water trough, then jumped on the back of his favorite nag. From the sitting position, he suddenly stood in the saddle. The horse continued to wearily walk toward the only oasis in the hot sun, while Olaf grinned, waved his arms and did sort of a ‘highland fling’ as he stood on the horse’s back.
‘Olaf’s feeling his oats today,’ Uncle Joe said to Neil.
‘Once a boy, always a boy,’ Neil complained.
When the horses were tied and munching away at wheat bundles, the men sauntered to the back porch. They rolled up their shirt sleeves and lined up for clean, cold water in the wash basin. Each man cupped his hands and tossed water over his face, washing away the dust from the morning’s labor. What he missed with the water came off on Mom’s big towel.
When they finished, the crew noisily filed into the kitchen to greet Mom, as Dad hustled them to the dining room table. Mom had stretched the table to its full length and placed her best china set on her finest linen tablecloth.
‘Everybody take a seat,’ Dad said, ‘then we’ll say grace.’ Prayer was one thing Dad insisted on no matter who ate at our table. When he finished saying grace, 11 hungry men dug into the fine food.
Mom placed me on a chair next to Dad, while she served the crew. I was sure there would never be enough food for me and all those hungry men. Down the left side of the table came my favorite mashed potatoes, brown gravy, peas and my not-so-favorite carrots.
‘Oh, no!’ I thought, as Abel took the last of the gravy. Thankfully, Mom took the empty bowl and headed for the kitchen, returning with the bowl filled to the top again.
I liked to eat with the crew – there was always so much excitement. Everybody teasing and putting other fellows down, and Olaf was always at the center of it.
‘Hey, Bill! You were kind of loafing this morning, weren’t you?’ Olaf teased the big burly red-head at the far end of the table.
‘Why, I out pitched you two-to-one!’ Bill exclaimed between mouthfuls of food.
‘Aw, come off it,’ Uncle Joe joined in. ‘Any school kid could’ve out done you both.’
‘What do you think she is going to run to the acre?’ Uncle Joe asked Greg.
‘About 65 bushels,’ Greg replied. He was usually quiet, and his answers were always short.
‘Jake’s got all the luck,’ Olaf took up where Greg left off. ‘Making money hand over fist. Take me, now, I don’t know why I wasn’t born rich instead of good looking.’
‘Some say you missed out on both,’ Neil joked in his whiny voice.
All jokes ended when Mom suddenly appeared with a pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream. When dinner was over, the men headed for the field. I started for the door to go with Uncle Joe or Olaf, but Mom stopped me in time to say, ‘Rex, I need a hand with the dishes.’
I looked at all those dishes and fought back the disappointment. Perhaps it’s not so bad, I eventually thought, because she always found another piece of pie for me.
Gone for good
A few days later, the excitement was gone as quickly as it had arrived. The threshing crew was off to another field, the grain was in the granary, and straw was in the straw pile. Nights turned cold, and white flakes of snow soon drifted from the north as winter finally arrived.
Today, little remains of those days. Olaf now lies at rest beneath the old poplar tree in the cemetery, and the old threshing machine sits idle at the local museum.
Moving across the golden-yellow fields these days is a new monster. It’s red and across one side of it are printed the words ‘Massy Ferguson.’ They call it a combine, and only one man drives it.
The laughter of the threshing crew is heard no more. The old nags no longer spook and run to the far end of the field when the thresher rattles to life. The local storekeeper no longer sells groceries at midnight. In fact, old John Johnson is long gone as well, and a new chain grocery store sits where his business once operated. The new manager says, ‘I have store hours, so please don’t call me in the middle of the night.’
Sadly, the fancy combine has killed the spirit of harvesting. Yes, it does the job as well or better than its predecessor. But gone forever is the fun, the food, the hard work, the good neighbourliness and the adventure that came every fall at threshing time. A longing for the good old days remains with those few who still remember the threshing machine, its nine teamsters, spike pitcher and even old Abel, the field pitcher.
– Contact Len Colp at Rural Route 1, Bailieboro, ONT, Canada KOL 1BO; (705) 939_6755; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The farm Collector Memory Project seeks stories, photos and anecdotes about farming in days gone by, especially tales from those who recall threshin’ days before World War II. We’ll print them all, as space allows. Send submissions with self-addressed stamped envelopes to: Memory Project Farm Collector 1503 S.W. 42nd St. Topeka, KS 66609 E-mail: email@example.com