Reprinted by permission of author William P. Schramm, Rt #2, Box 1H, Barnum, MN 55707. Also, permission is granted by The Farmer Magazine, 1999 Shepard Road, Saint Paul, MN, 55116 in which the article first appeared.
I was born at the right time. When I reached my boyhood, threshing by steam had attained its prime. The horse-powered separator era had ended, when a 12, 16 or even 18 man crew was needed to do a farmer's threshing.
In those earlier days a 'bagger' was needed to sack grain as it came from the separator. Six to eight strong-backed men carried the filled sacks into the granary, where they emptied them into a bin.
The farmer who first backed a wagon to a separator with a team of horses was probably something of a hero. Even then, grain was still sacked. But the filled sacks were hauled to the granary by wagon. Soon after, grain was run directly into the wagon box.
Straw-burning steam engines were still going in my younger days. The rig's owner would have a fireman, who would be kept busy pushing straw into the engine to keep up steam. Unthreshed bundles made a hotter fire, and the grain kept it hot longer.
I remember one time when Dad was in the granary scooping back grain. One of his grain haulers drove up with a load to tell Dad: 'It's a shame the way your oats bundles are being carried to the engine and fired with!'
Father set down his scoop and ran out to the machine. The minute the rig's owner saw Dad coming, he dropped the oats bundles and his face turned red. Dad shook his fist in the thresher's face and called him a name. The thresher ran for the separator and climbed atop it. Dad followed and, before the oral fracas ended, the rig owner begged: 'I'll pay for your grain, Mr. Schramm. How much y' want?' 'Five dollars!' When the time came to pay, the thresher threw off $5.
By the time I got to the age when I would go with the rig's crew, coal-burning engines had replaced straw burners. At 16, my first job was hauling water. In two seasons as a 'water monkey,' I learned to run a steam engine which I discovered to be simple enough until something went wrong with its mechanism. Then, even a good engine man had to call in someone who knew more than he did.
In the early days of threshing, there were bad threshermen among the good ones. There were instances when some rascal, out of envy or rank mischief, would 'do in' a rival rig operating in the same neighborhood. The favorite weapon was a horseshoe, shoved into a bundle in a grain stack. When it reached the cylinder, Hades broke loose. Usually, the damage brought a week's lay-up while the rig's owner waited for repairs to arrive. I recall seeing stack pitchers shaking out all the outer bundles before tossing them into the machine's feeder, to make sure they didn't conceal horseshoes.
Bridges were among early threshermen's worries. They often were too narrow or not strong enough to support a rig. Cautious owners often pulled miles out of their way rather than risk crossing an unsafe bridge.
Steam engines seldom set fire to grain stacks. Most had screen hoods on their smokestacks to reduce the danger of sparks flying out. During my many years with a steam rig only once did a coal burner throw a spark and set a stack fire.
A fired stack was a peculiar phenomenon. Flames would envelop, swirl around the stack in an instant, then glow inward and consume the stack mainly by smouldering. The rig's owner usually had ample time to pull his separator to safety and pay the farmer's loss. Unless there was a lively breeze, the fire could easily be confined to one stack.
Climbing a grain stack had to be learned by experience. Stacks with a 'belly' always were difficult to climb. The proper way was to push your hand in as high as you could reach, grab a bundle band, pull yourself up and throw your weight forward, then scramble up to the stack's peak before your feet could slip.
Then there was the crew showoff. He would stand inside the engine's big drive wheel, grasp a spoke in each hand and ride the driver 'round until he again reached the upright position.
Breathed there a thresher crew that didn't carry a deck of cards. After a late supper, there almost always was a poker game by lantern light in the farmer's haylofts, where we slept, with each player putting a nickel in each pot. An amateur card shark could augment his $2/day wage with his winnings. Sometimes, the game lasted until 2 a.m.
During my years, I encountered some unforgettable characters. One engineer was a somnambulist (sleep walker). After he had fallen asleep, this fellow would get up and start his nocturnal pilgrimage. There was something in his subconscious mind that guarded him against mishaps. When he came close to other sleepers, he'd step across, never on us. He would turn aside when he came near a hay chute. Haymows often would be stifling hot, so the outside door would be left open.
When the somnambulist approached the opening, he'd stop short and change direction instead of stepping off into space, as he might well have done. Oddly, a full moon seemed to exert a strong influence on his mentality.
Our nine-man outfit was unique in that it trailed along its own cook wagon, plus a cook. This was a boon to the farmer's wife. The only ones at her thresher table were the two or three neighbors who did the grain hauling. The rest of us ate in the cook wagon.
Our cook was something of an oddball. For example, it was a hot August day on which everything goes wrong. At about 11:45 a.m. when I blew the dinner whistle, Cooky discovered everything on his cookstovefrom beef roast to spudshad burned to a charred, uneatable crisp!
Our first indication that something had gone awry was when we saw our otherwise benign Cooky leap out of the cook wagon and shake a furious fist at some fleecy clouds floating innocently across the blue summer sky. He shouted some blasphemous epithets at someone. Later, he told us it was Lucifer. It was he who Cooky blamed for having a hand in burning the thresher's dinner!
Two days after Thanksgiving, when we had crossed into North Dakota and, luckily, finished our last job, the winter's first snowstorm came. The threshing rig was left there to await next year's crop and our crew went their separate ways.
The next season, I went with a local rig and stayed with it through 11 long seasons, all bumper crops. In the early 1920's gas tractors replaced the steamers and threshing lost much of its glamour. Also, there appeared on the scene to crowd the big outfits a small separator named the Yellow Kid. Farmers could power it with their field tractors.
The old steam engines were sold for scrap iron at $25 each. If you want to know a steam engine's value today, ask the man who is fortunate enough to own one! The old days had come to an end. Those are the days the threshermen reunions now are bringing back into reality, and are doing a good job of it.