The Day the Thresher Came

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The threshing crew poses with the Cusack family circa 1912. Patrick's father, Charles
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Patrick's grandfather Thomas Cusack built this house in 1880. Born in Cavan County, Ireland

The children played in the farmyard on hot summer days. Their usual games were ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Ho-Bo.’ As they played on an especially warm day in July 1930, the children heard the faint ‘puff-puff’ of a smokestack in the far-off distance. They knew the magic day had finally arrived – threshing day was always the highlight of summer.

The familiar sound signaled that Jim Stevenson or Frank Wolfert, and their steam engine and crews were coming to thresh the wheat. When black smoke was first sighted, the big steam engine was still 2 miles away. Due to its weight, the engine moved at about 1 1/2 to 3 mph.

Naturally, all the children ran to the highest spot on the farm to snatch a first glance as it came over the hill. The cupola on top of the barn was the best spot for a first view. It was, however, the hardest to get to at this time of year because the barn was empty. To reach the cupola, the kids had to throw a rope over the track in the roof and pull themselves up on the rope.

As word that the thresher had arrived spread, the excitement eventually reached the kitchen. The house had been cleaned extra well by the girls. There had been days devoted to baking in anticipation of the big day. As no one knew for sure when the thresher would arrive, the engine noise and the huge, black billows of smoke signaled the day had finally come.

Harvest preparations

Dad and my older brothers had worked for days to guarantee the wheat bins were ready for the harvest. The bins needed repair each year, because rats gnawed holes in the floor in their attempt to glean the last bit of grain during the preceding winter. Dad patched the holes with sheet metal, and back then, the most available source of sheet metal was the Prince Albert tobacco tin.

Next, space in the barnyard was cleared to make way for the new straw stack. Straw was a by-product from the grain harvest. The straw was valuable for bedding the animals in the coming winter, covering vegetables to prevent freezing, and was even used in the farmhouse for filling ticks. An additional chore for the children involved preparing the straw ticks.

The ticks – or mattress covers – were emptied each year and readied for fresh straw. The ticks were blue-and-white-striped material sewn together to form a mattress cover with one opening where straw was tucked inside. When a tick was filled with fresh straw, the opening was closed to prevent the bedding from escaping. Then the ticks were used as mattresses for the farmhands’ beds. The best straw to use for ticks was fresh wheat straw with no beards (or stickers) on the heads. Barley and oat straw wasn’t suitable because of the great number of beards.

The boys had extra chores, as well. The big washtub had to be cleaned, filled with rainwater and placed in the sun to warm. Large towels were stacked beside a smaller tub on a bench. The crew got very dirty while working with the harvest, and at mealtime each man stood over the tub and threw the water up onto his face. More than one man stood around the tub at a time for efficiency, and the water might have to be replaced a couple of times before the entire crew was finished working. Often, there was a friendly scuffle over towels, and someone’s head got shoved in the water. Yet, it was all in fun, and real fighting was absolutely forbidden until after the day’s work was done.

The food was set on a large table, and then Mother and the girls stood watch to make sure all of the field workers ate plenty. As soon as one group got up from the table, another group filed in and sat down. There was very little conversation at the table, but the stoic men communicated with a roll of the eyes and nodding of heads. Usually, those nonverbal cues referred to the fine quality or enormous quantity of the food Mother prepared. Crew members who’d worked with the same steam engines for years – and who’d eaten good food prepared by the best cooks in Michigan would say, ‘Thank you. Your dinner is always one of the best.’

A job for every crewman

The men in charge of the steam engine set the thresher (or separator) on solid ground and turned the steam engine to face it. It was important that the components were in perfect alignment, as a 1- by 100-foot belt connected them. Next, a man on the thresher dropped the feeder down and made sure that all of the bearings were packed with heavy grease. Because the bearings were made of wood, they could burn up easily if allowed to roll without grease. He also made sure he placed the components so the blower operator could put the straw stack in the spot designated by the farmer.

Old Jimmie Glen operated the blower, as he was crippled and had to sit while working. All day he sat in the dust and turned the blower back and forth to adjust the straw stack. He was supposed to follow the stacker as he went around. The stacker was the man assigned to distribute the straw evenly. Most of the time, the stacker was up to his waist in straw, trampling it down to make it stack in a mound. If Jimmie was having a bad day, or if the wind wasn’t just right, he got some strong words from the stacker. He seemed to act as if he couldn’t be fired and clearly got his kicks out of picking on the stacker.

The young and very strong men could try out for a bundle-pitching job. This job entailed going to the field with the wagon where the bundles of grain were transferred onto the wagons by the pitchers. As they worked, the pitchers threw the bundles higher and higher until the load was finished. The bundles had to land in front of the bundle stacker with the head of the bundles facing him. When a wagon was completely loaded, it might be a high as 12 feet above the wagon bed.

Sometimes, to purposely slow things down and allow for a break, the spike pitcher would intentionally plug the machine by adding four extra bundles. The thresher couldn’t handle the strain and locked up every time. Then, all workers would sit down or horse around while the thresherman unplugged his machine. There were usually some bad words flying back and forth while the thresher was repaired, but not when Jim Stevenson was in charge. He wouldn’t tolerate cussing. The worst slang he ever used when he got angry was ‘by jingo boys.’ Jim was a staunch Seventh Day Adventist and a good example for the rowdy workers.

Another harrowing experience was when wagons got stuck in a rut on the way to the machine. All work would stop, because no other wagon could get through. Also, there was the danger of the entire load being tipped onto the ground as the wagon was freed. The drivers who thought they had the best pulling teams would hook up to the stuck wagon. Bets were made as to who would succeed, but it was usually Pat Cunningham’s team of horses, Jake and Tom, that led the wagon out of the rut. Pat, who was affectionately called ‘Little Pat,’ was the driver.

After a long day, it was always a good sight when the last wagon headed for the field with a swish of straw fresh under its wheels. The team seemed to know its long day was nearly done, and stepped in time with the song of the harness and the jingle of the tug chains. As the driver turned into the breeze, he knew the workday was over when the remainder of the bundles were placed on the wagon, and the pitcher hopped on for the last ride to the barn.

More than just hard work

Some nights before they bedded down, the men would have fun with competitive games. Amateur wrestling matches were popular, as each crewman could prove how strong he was. Others tested their strength by putting a rope over their shoulders, and then put the other end under the threshing machine’s front axle to lift it off the ground. Matt O’Connell, my uncle, once displayed his prowess by grabbing a grain bag – 2 1/3 bushels – with his teeth and throwing it on his shoulder.

When the men were tired of the games and contests, they told stories of their experiences and exploits of days gone by. Remarkably, the crew told of some farms where the farmer’s wife didn’t welcome them. To show her distaste for the crew, she only served baked potatoes and a platter of meat. The crew expected pastries and was disappointed with the meager fare. Yet, they could eat it or leave it, because she didn’t care.

Some crewmen said the manner in which the farmer’s wife treated the crew was symbolic of her feelings for her husband. Therefore, a meager meal was a source of shame and embarrassment for the host farmer. Lucky for the crew, most farmers were proud of their wives’ cooking abilities – especially the pastries.

If another day of threshing at the same location was in store, the crew slept in the loft, high up in the barn. They made a bed in the hay or straw, whichever happened to be in that barn loft. Jim Stevenson always stayed with his crew. He warned the crewmen not to sleep on their backs, as sparrows roosted in the top of the barn, and they were full of grain. Many other stories and boasts were related before the men finally settled down for their well-earned rest. They knew that morning would come all too soon.

The end of harvest

When the machine was closed down after the grain was threshed, an accounting was done. All workers gathered around the bagger man, usually Charlie Cusack, my father. The machine had a tally device, of which the bagger was in charge, which registered the number of bushels threshed. The farmer paid the machine’s owner 1 1/2 cents per bushel of threshed grain. After the owner took his cut, each worker received his share from what was left. Some years, when the rain was light and the wheat could be quickly threshed, workers might go home with $1.50 or $1.75 for a day’s work.

The last one to be paid, just before the steam engine was ready to leave the farm, was the boy who kept the pail of soft coal ready for the engine. One year, when I was the pail carrier, the thresherman didn’t honor our bargain to pay me 25 cents for a day’s work. He said, ‘You’ll get your money when I find it rolling up hill.’ I thought I was doing him a favor, and it was a difficult lesson to learn. As a result of that experience, I learned to get future agreements in writing.

The black clouds may roll up in the western sky and heat lightning may show on the horizon, but the crew always knew when the last of the harvest was safely in the bin. Each man had a wonderful feeling of thanks in his heart for another harvest well done.

As the thresher chugged away to the next farm, the machine’s owner would always ask Dad when the next crop would be ready. Mother would give a look that said, ‘I hope never.’ That was the end of the most exciting day of the summer – the day the thresher came. FC

– Patrick ‘Quint’ Cusack grew up in Muir, Mich., as one of 10 children on the family farm his grandfather Thomas homesteaded in the 1850s. Patrick hopes to preserve the memories of threshing time so that future generations will appreciate those days gone by. Write Patrick at Quinto Farms, 8572 Borden Road, Muir, Ml 48860.

‘After a long day, it was always a good sight when the last wagon headed for the field with a swish of straw fresh under its wheels. The team seemed to know its long day was nearly done, and stepped in time with the song of the harness and the jingle of the tug chains. As the driver turned into the breeze, he knew the workday was over when the remainder of the bundles were placed on the wagon, and the pitcher hopped on for the last ride to the barn.’

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment