735 Riddle Road Cincinnati, Ohio 45220
Having grown up during the heyday of agricultural steam power, my father made annual journeys to the threshing reunions at Pontiac, Illinois. During those pilgrimages, Dad told stories about the engine his uncle had operated a Reeves, for which the owner, Joe Williams, had built a special shed in three compartments proportioned to shelter not only the engine but also the water wagon and separator. When Dad later acquired the Williams property, I tried to picture that gray, tumble-down building as new, the proud Reeves looming up inside. What follows is a reminiscence.
In his trademark blue jacket, Joe Williams commanded the men of the threshing crew. He owned the twenty horsepower Reeves engine but preferred to run the separator, to supervise the stack, and to give orders to everyone from the engineer to the water boy. He considered himself something of an expert on separators, and told farmers not to buy a Hart weigher for their threshing machines, but to purchase what he knew to be the superior Garden City weigher. No one minded Joe's bossing; he was respected and liked.
Joe had masterminded the formation of the threshing circuit in his corner of Warren County, Indiana, and he had purchased the water wagon, separator, and engine from the Reeves Company in Columbus, Indiana. For over a year he shopped around to replace his portable engine with a more powerful traction engine. On June 21st, 1910, a Mr. J. W. Fee from Clarks Hill, Indiana, wrote to Joe:
'I received your card and write you stating that I have a Rumely Ideal Sep 34 x 56 Ruth feeder wind Stacker all in good Repair or The Best of Repair
'Rumley Single engine mounted on Eighteen Horse Boiler made to order one of Rumleys late Style Boiler and Fire Box
'Jacketed Boiler the paint is not hurt on Seperator. Sixteen hundred buys this out fit ...
'I would not take that for it. If it was so I could Run the Rig my Self. But as it is I cant get away I have a General Store That keeps me here all the Time, and my helth is not good any way This is Shurley a bargin
'The Engine is as easy firer as any Body ever put a fire in
'I have a large 8 Roll McCormic Shreder and and Bird Sell huller . . . two Thousand for the whole thing
'The Shreder has feeder and Blower and the Huller Has Blower and feeder also
'This out fit is worth $2,500 if it is worth a Cent. But I will take $2,000.The whole out fit cost me three years ago $3,700. if you want a machine you cant Beat this offer ...' (Editor's Note: Dr. Rhode has chosen to include letter excerpts and quotes in his article verbatim, that is, with no correction of misspelled words or erratic grammar, in order to give a glimpse into the 'real life of the times.')
Maybe Joe could not 'beat this offer,' but he wanted new equipment. Correspondence shows that, in early March 1911, Joe visited the Reeves branch office in Indianapolis. He liked what he saw. A letter from a dealer for J. I. Case, dated March 15, could not dissuade Joe from buying Reeves machinery. Nor could the following letter from a Mr. G. W. Lyons in Attica, Indiana:
'Now, Mr. Williams, I want to say to you right here that if you are [going to buy a threshing outfit], I want to talk with you before you close up your deal. I have a proposition to make you, that you can not afford to turn down. You will find that the Red River Special Line excells all other makes, and it is a machine you can go out and do more and better work with than you can with any other machine. This is the Guarantee on it. Let me hear from you, and let me make you my proposition.'
In mid to late March, Joe passed up his opportunity to purchase Nichols and Shepard machinery and bought his Reeves equipment instead. The Geiser Manufacturing Company got in on the act far too late, writing to Joe in February 1912.
Immediately after Joe purchased his machinery, the vultures descended that is, companies of all descriptions fired off letters to him to buy their oil, their boiler compound, their suction hose, their rubber belting (Grizzly brand was particularly appealing, with an ad featuring a large engraving of a bear), and even their settlement ledger-books. Joe did buy cylinder oil. grease, and other lubricants from National Refining Company, whose letter, dated only days after Joe purchased his rig, stated:
'We understand through Messrs. Miller & Forden, that you have recently purchased a new threshing outfit, and we thought we would come early and avoid the rush and see if we could not get your order for oil for this season.
'I would like to say first that we are the oldest independent oil company doing business in this state, and the best one among the entire bunch, counting everybody. We have the finest line of Lubricating Oils made, and we can sell you a half barrel of our best Cylinder Oil at 32 cents per gallon, and a barrel of our National Red Engine Oil at 16 cents per gallon.
'Now, these are close prices, considering the quality we are offering you, and we will be perfectly willing to furnish you these goods on sixty days' time.
'Of course. I realize that you are not likely to want this oil now but can you not give us your order to be shipped out at a little later date?'
Evidently. Joe couldn't ignore the beseeching tone of this letter.
His new Reeves outfit ultimately cost Joe $2,773.79. He had until the 1st of September to pay his note, and Joe would miss that deadline while dickering over the cost of the machinery. He thought he was being overcharged. What Joe failed to realize was that, had he paid the full amount ($2,523.79) on July 1st, he would have received a discount already subtracted from the purchase price. By waiting until September, Joe had to pay interest ($250.00), which effectively eliminated the discount. Mr. W. H. Hodge, Manager of the Indianapolis Reeves dealership, wrote:
'Your not understanding in regard to this is likely the reason you thought you were not entitled to pay interest from July 1st but you are clearly entitled to do so according to the sale made with you. We don't doubt but what you want to do the right thing and we also want to do so ...'
Joe eventually did the right thing he paid what Reeves asked.
Back in March, three months before his equipment was shipped to him by rail and before the haggling over the price Joe decided to build a special shed to protect his costly investment. He knew the size of his engine and of his water wagon, but he asked the Reeves Company for the exact dimensions of the separator. Hodge replied with the recommendation that Joe consider the length and width of the threshing machine and then 'allow a foot or more at each end and side in building the shed.' A close fit for a machine twenty-six feet long and nine feet, four inches, wide!
At the Reeves Company's request (and maybe with hopes of a discount), Joe named two other farmers as likely prospects for Reeves to approach, but, with regard to the first man, Hodge wrote that 'we have tried a great many times in past years to sell [him] but have never been able to do anything with him, but shall keep on trying.' As for the other man, he 'is pretty light financially but we will call and see him.'
In early July, Reeves sent a man to help Joe fire up his engine for the first time. It must have been a tremendously exciting day for Joe! Now his planning would begin to pay off.
Joe had plenty of vision. He had assembled an association of farmers agreeing to mutual responsibilities for the fall wheat and oats harvest. Joe would provide his machinery and his expertise. Any farmer with forty (or fewer) acres of grain would contribute a team and wagon to make the round of all the farms on the circuit. If a farmer were disabled, he would employ a driver. Between forty and eighty acres also would mean the supplying of a wagon and team, but the farmer would have to hire a man in addition to the teamster. One having over eighty acres to thresh would furnish two wagons and teams and three men. Usually, these wagons would be for hauling bundles from the fields, but sometimes the farmer would provide wagons designed to hold the 'thrashed' grain.
These arrangements having been agreed upon by all the farmers in the association, a typical day on one of the farms in Joe's circuit featured eleven wagons and teams in the field. The odd number ensured that, on a staggered schedule, the same man would not always have to arrive the earliest in the day or leave the latest at night. Drivers stood on their wagons and masterfully aligned bundles for the most efficient load; not using the reins, these skilled teamsters clucked commands to their obedient horses. Pitchers, many of them high school boys, tossed the bundles up to these bundle haulers.
Beside the separator were two more wagons having come in from the field to unload their bundles into the threshing machine. Four solid-sided wagons carried clean grain from the separator to the storage bins.
To operate his shiny maroon-and-gold engine, Joe had hired the best engineer he could find the knowledgeable and careful Charlie Cobb, my father's uncle. Charlie had studied James H. Maggard's Rough and Tumble Engineering and knew that 'good common sense' and 'a cool head' were his best tools, along with a handful of the cleaning fibers known as 'waste.' The chuffing of an engine under load ruled out vocal communication between the supervisor of the separator and the engineer, so a code of hand signals was the practice. Joe and Charlie had polished this non-verbal parlance to an art.
One day, out of the corner of his eye, Charlie glimpsed Joe's order to stop the engine. In the length of time it took Charlie to position the throttle and the reverse lever, Joe had climbed to the top of the separator and was shinnying up the wind-stacker toward the pinnacle of the mound of straw. Everyone watched with baffled curiosity. What lay behind Joe's strange antics?
Dr Robert T. Rhode created this oil painting, ' Threshing with Uncle Charlie,1911,' to accompany his essay, 'A Reeeves Rig in the Steaming Teens.'
In one motion, Joe dropped onto the stack and stripped off his jacket. He smothered a clump of straw inside his coat. Then the crew began to detect the cause of Joe's frenzya wisp of smoke curled from his jacket.
With his sharp eyes, Joe had discerned a red glow in a cluster of wheat straws. Somewhere inside the thresher, a spark must have ignited the chaff on its way through the blower toward the straw-pile. Once Joe was assured he had extinguished the ember, he slid down the side of the stack, his ruined coat in his hands.
At the end of that season, everyone gathered at Joe's house for the ice-cream social held on 'settle-up day.'' The water boy and the pitchers received two dollars for every day they had worked. Earning the same pay were the spike pitchers and spike scoopers, as were called any extra pitchers or grain-shovelers needed on big farms. Charlie made six dollars for threshing wheat and five dollars for harvesting oats for each day of labor, as did Joe. After wages were calculated and disbursed, the farmers in the association sat back content with their yields and with their ice cream. Joe smiled; he had enough to buy a new blue jacket.