Steam Threshing Rings

At the turn of the last century, steam threshing rings brought steam engines to communities


| March 2011



A Russell steam engine with thresher

A Russell steam engine with thresher.

Photo courtesy John F. Spalding, www.spaldingscorner.com

The big steam-powered threshing rigs that came on the scene at the turn of the last century were critical to expansion of agriculture in America. But the price of such rigs put them out of the average farmer’s reach. When groups of farmers banded together to buy the equipment and form neighborhood threshing rings, it represented an asterisk on the history of industrialization. 

“The threshing ring was a significant phenomenon because it was one of the rare times when modern technology actually preserved cooperative patterns,” notes Lennis Moore, Chief Executive Officer, Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Assn., Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Before steam engines became widely available, threshing was handled on an individual basis by small separators and treadmills. Later, gas tractors helped farmers operate independently. “You didn’t need to rely on your neighbors,” Lennis says. Tractors ran smaller separators with smaller crews. “One single man could do what used to be done by a bunch of men.” But for a golden time in the early 1900s, neighbors worked cooperatively.

Substantial investment

Up to the late 1800s, most grain was harvested by small threshing outfits and processed by small barn threshers and groundhog threshers. In many areas, the average day’s output when harvesting wheat seldom exceeded a hundred bushels. In the 1860s, small portable steam engines sold for about $1,000 ($26,300 today). Just a decade later, larger self-propelled engines came on to the market. More versatile but also more costly, the engines were only economically feasible when used in custom applications.

After 1900, the price of large threshing outfits topped the $4,000 mark ($102,500 today). That figure was so far beyond the resources of the average farmer that the threshing business was almost entirely turned over to a group of professional custom threshermen.

Even then, owning a threshing rig was no safe bet. “There was no easy money to be made,” Lennis says. “Ownership represented a substantial investment. It’d be the same money as you’d spend now to buy a huge, new combine. People today ask how can the modern farmer enjoy economic success when equipment costs so much. I believe people said the same thing in 1910 when they looked at steam engines, separators and water wagons.”

Equipment wasn’t the only challenge. A big custom operator might employ a workforce of up to 30, a particularly daunting challenge in the less populated West. There, itinerant workers filled the ranks. Others were pressed into service at gunpoint. “Occasionally the demands for migratory labor became so great that attempts were made to force men to leave the trains and accept jobs in the fields,” writes Reynold M. Wik in Steam Power on the American Farm.