Threshing, Then and Now

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In 1907, a man named Edgar L. Vincent [no address given] reminisced about his younger years on the farm in a letter to The American Thresherman magazine.

“The first threshing machine I ever saw was a flail. After the frost came in the fall the neighbors would come in and ‘exchange work’ with each other, going from one farm to the other until the scanty harvest was all pounded out. It was a great time for us youngsters when the thud, thud, thud of the flails sounded over the hills and far away. We boys helped clean the grain and we turned the mill till our strength ran down so that we could scarcely make one more turn on the crank.

Next came the open-cylinder machine. I well remember the first time one of these machines set up in our barn. The barn was new, and as we had recently burned the logs of the old house to make way for the new frame house that was to be our home, we had moved to the barn and were living in the stable. No cattle had ever yet been in the stable and it was as neat and clean as any house could be and we liked the smell of the fresh-sawn lumber.

Well, that job of threshing was a great one, and no mistake! We had hung bed quilts along the sides of the barn floor to keep wheat kernels from scattering all over and into the stable. And when the bundles of grain hit that cylinder how the grain did fly everywhere! Up to the roof, all about the floor, into the eyes of the hands, peppering us all like hail stones in a storm. Queer that no one had yet thought to provide a cover over that cylinder! But the thresher was evolving and, as bright ideas came into men’s minds, they were adopted after no small struggle.

Two men threshing with flails.

Even then, cleaning the grain was still done with a fanning mill – the idea of combining a thresher with a separator was off in the future. After the threshing was done and the machine out of the barn, we had to sweep and shovel the grain into a heap and run it through the fanning mill. It was a big thing, though, to have the grain pounded off the bundles by something easier than the flail.

But that old fanning mill – what fun it was to us boys! On days when father was away from home we used to take the wind doors off and proceed to ‘thresh’ hay and straw by holding it directly against the fan blades while someone turned the crank for dear life. We always shut the big barn door so no one would know what we were up to, but one sorry day grandmother appeared on the scene after quietly opening the door. She stood for a moment looking at what we were doing to the old mill and then, raising her voice, she cried in her quaint down-east voice, ’What on airth be you a-doin’!


Claas Lexion combine at work. [Both illustrations courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

The cold chills ran down our backs as we hustled to show the old dear that we could easily restore the mill to its former good condition, and we never knew if she told father about our escapade. He never said anything, so she probably didn’t mention it, she loved us too well for that, I am sure.

But now it makes one almost dizzy to think of the changes in the beautiful machines that come to do our threshing! Perfect – not a thing lacking, so far as human ingenuity can provide, to enable them to do the best possible work and to do it in almost the twinkling of the eye! Run by engines that drive the cylinder and all other parts like lightning, they sweep across the country like tornadoes, taking the great stacks of grain and devouring them like mighty monsters with appetites that cannot be stayed and leaving in their wake only the sacks of clean, beautiful grain.”

Mr. Vincent ends his letter by wondering if “there can possibly be as much improvement in the next few years as there has been in the past.” Think of how astonished he would be to see one of today’s huge combines with a 40-foot header sweeping across a quarter section of wheat! He talked of threshers “devouring” grain stacks; now it’s more like gulping the crops – and think what a shock it would be if a modern farmer could gaze upon crop harvesting 100 years in the future.

– Sam Moore

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