Learning the Ropes


| November 2003



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Steam-traction engines provided power for threshing machines

What's more exquisite and beautiful than a sea of golden wheat waving in the wind just before harvest? I was raised to love the grain harvest - the hustle and bustle, the excitement of driving different farm machines, and the way each farm machine handled intrigued me. As a young lad, I ran barefoot behind the binder, treading in the path of the wide bull wheel that provided power to the machine. The binder flattened the straw stubble in the direction that it traveled, so it didn't hurt my bare feet as I chased it from behind. Before too long, Dad could see that I needed something constructive to fill my time and converted my energy to a better use ... shocking the grain.

Almost all big threshing outfits were operated by steam in the early 1900s, but sometimes Dad was forced to use a tractor-operated thresher if the steam outfit was down, and that always disappointed me. The steam outfits never ceased to fascinate me: Their steady puffing noise was music to my ears when compared to the clatter of early-day gasoline tractors. The steam engine's whistle was the best sound of all. That familiar shriek was the signal to start work, it told us when the engine needed water, and when it was time to quit. One particular sound that no one wanted to hear, however, was the signal for fire: five short toots in rapid succession. Luckily that never happened at our place, but it did happen elsewhere.

A steamer drinks plenty of water, so a water wagon was pulled by two stout horses or by four horses if there were more than one steam engine. The water came from creeks if the farmer's well couldn't supply enough. The water was delivered to the steamer's tank by a hand pump, operated by the water wagon teamster. An engineer was required at all times to operate the steamer, watch the water glass and keep a good, roaring fire lit so the engine had plenty of power to operate the huge grain separators. He also took care of the lubrication.

A massive leather belt transmitted the steam engine's power to the grain separator. Steady power from the steamer turned the cylinder, which powered the separator's innards at the right speed for proper threshing. A separator man was on hand at all times. He was the outfit's boss and usually stood on top of the machine so he could direct the bundle pitchers. Four to 12 men were necessarily employed when threshing shocks, according to the size of the outfit. Oftentimes, a horse or mule was spooked from the racket and activity as they sidled up to the separator as the bundles were unloaded. Horse and mule runaways occurred, and a blast from the steam whistle often sent them running.

Pranks and shenanigans

Large outfits were seldom without a prankster who played tricks and pulled jokes at the expense of other guys in the outfit. These tricks were not always innocent fun, and hard feelings sometimes resulted. One cold morning, for example, a fellow in the outfit hung his jacket on a fence post when he became hot from working. Carefully sneaking up on the man, the prankster stapled the jacket to the post and hid the evidence with the sleeves. At day's end, the farmer was in a hurry to get home, so he innocuously grabbed the jacket as he passed the post. A great rip could be heard even from some distance away, and those that heard it had a good laugh much to the chagrin of the poor victim.

Another serious prank was to slip the drawbar pin out of the doubletree, separating horses from the driver. As the driver finished unloading his bundle rack, he pulled away from the threshing machine so that another wagon could pull in. 'Giddyup!' the driver would shout. The horses moved out, but the driver and the wagon stood still. Once the horses realized that they were on their own, they usually ran away without restraint.