While leafing through some old The American Thresherman magazines in my collection I found the following letter in the June 1924 issue. The following recollections were written by E.L. Vincent, but there’s no address given for him.
How We Used to Thresh
I went down to the barn the other day and looked at the first threshing machine we ever had on the place. It was an old flail, made by hand, with a stout strip of eelskin to hold the two pieces of wood together. As I looked at that old weapon, I thought back to the days when I whaled away with it on many a flooring of grain, especially buckwheat and beans. More than once I used to whack myself with the crude affair, and I always got more dust up my nose than I did beans or buckwheat on the floor.
After threshing was over, we had a great time cleaning the grain. That was real fun and the boys enjoyed turning the crank of the old fanning mill while I shoveled the dirty grain in and took up the clean grain from the back of the mill. We were not in a hurry; time wasn’t as valuable as it is now, nor was help as scarce or as high-priced.
When I was about nine my father built a new barn, and while he was putting up a frame house in place of the log cabin we had lived in previously, we moved into the nice barn, which was clean as could be. We had our living rooms in the stable with the big barn floor for a parlor. But threshing time came while were in the barn and we had some fun fixing up for that event.
A neighbor had bought a new grain separator and a horse power to run it. That was the first such machine we ever saw. To give the threshers room we cleared out the parlor and hung bedquilts between the barn floor and the stable, which was our living room to keep the grain kernels and dust out.
Then we waited for the men to “set up.” I don’t remember just how that machine was made, but I think it must have had an open cylinder for the teeth to revolve in, for the wheat flew far and near all over the barn when the machine was running . It was many years before we had any better threshing machine than that, but we thought it was a great step ahead, and so it was.
Inventors steadily made improvements in their threshers. Larger horse powers came to replace the single horse we used then. After a while horse powers were made wide enough for three horses and separators were also much larger so the work could be done much faster. The farmers sometimes furnished one or more of the horses to work the tread, and I remember that an uncle of mine put a beautiful, high-spirited horse on the machine once when they were threshing at his place, and the frightened animal threw himself over the side of the tread power and was killed.
Many changes have taken place since the days of the flail or the open-cylinder machine. At present our machines are things of real beauty that whirl out the grain in the twinkling of an eye and leave it cleaned far better than it was in the old days. No fanning mill we had then could begin to compare with the combination mills we have today.
Now we have an engine and a separator of our own to do our own threshing. We are independent of many things that used to hamper us. We can choose the best time for doing the work; it doesn’t cost us half so much, and the dread of threshing has mostly disappeared.
When I am inclined to get blue over the farming outlook and wonder how things are coming out, I go down to the barn, take that old flail down from nail where it hangs, and make a few whacks with it. That satisfies me! I hang the old thing up again and say, “Things are pretty good nowadays after all!”
Back in those days, people did what they had to do. When I was a kid, the local mechanic, who kept everyone’s cars, trucks, and tractors running and mended farm machinery when it broke down, had his repair shop in the downstairs level of a large barn, while he, his wife, and his four daughters lived in a big farmhouse. One morning the house burned to the ground so the family moved into the upper part of the barn, where they lived for many years.
– Sam Moore
This woodcut from an 1854 Prairie Farmer illustrates a thresher and one-horse tread power similar to the one Mr. Vincent describes.