Last Stop on the Threshing Ring

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John Collier/Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
Wheat in Pennsylvania.

Twilight was softly gathering on a late autumn evening. The harvest moon was slowly rising above the Wasatch range to mingle its gorgeous colors with the crimson sky which indicated days of summer were over and an early winter was about to be ushered in.

My anxious father stood gazing in the distance and listened as he sat the fresh pail of milk down on the back step where Mother appeared in the open door and the fumes from a wholesome cooked supper filled the night air with an appetizing odor. It was no small task to cook for a hungry lot of threshers and the spirit of rivalry prevailing in the neighborhood – so each woman tried to outdo the neighbor woman.

Consequently the meals for the hungry and dusty lot were almost banquets, and Mother was obliged to call in a neighbor girl to assist with the supper which had been so carefully prepared for the expectant crew that were due an hour previous.

“I wonder what’s keeping them so late,” Mother said and a worried look shown over her face as she feared the meal would be cold and spoiled after their big task of preparing the same. Our job was the last on the route and that old machine had been grinding since August 1 and was now late in November. We had to wait our turn. The hands were all engaged as well as paid for as no money was in circulation. It was necessary to exchange work and the thresher took up toll. The good board they received and the common hospitality made it an easy matter to get plenty of men. In fact a job on the thresher was coveted and engaged many months ahead.

While we youngsters looked forward from one year to the next for the happy event, the chance to watch a threshing job generally came by invitation, especially to be permitted to push the wheat back in the bin and eat at second table after all the big men were through. To run around the track the horses had made with the sweep power after the machine had gone was also quite a privilege. So naturally my youthful heart was filled with rapture at the thought of threshers coming. My father and mother were no more anxious than I as we waited and watched together for the approach of the coming machine.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the rumbling of wide iron tires over the frozen ground. “That’s them,” Father said, “Better open the big gate.” Which command I eagerly obeyed and watched the big red monster drawn inside with two span of horses, followed by the horsepower trap wagon and toll wagon and men, all in a jolly mood, laughing and shouting and, to me, it was the crowning feature of the day. Father designated the way to set and assisted with horses and the jumbling of tumbling rods, equalizers and chains was all music to me. And I felt honored to walk up to the house with the real boss.

A fresh tub of warm water was waiting outside and soon it was surrounded by the dusty and hungry crew, laughing and cutting their little pranks. Around the table that was heavily laden with wholesome food they all sat. While grace was being said I was praying in my own heart. Ma wouldn’t ask me to wait. And sure enough, there was a vacant place right next to the boss feeder and share holder and I was allowed to occupy it!

I felt honored and somewhat embarrassed among all the big men who were heroes in my young eyes and I marveled that they could operate such a great machine and hoped that some day I might be one like them. The usual jest and jovial humor continued during the meal. “Hey, you straw monkey, someone over there wants potatoes too!” The old man referred to followed the machine to stack straw for a bushel of wheat a day and of course felt entitled to his board and there was nothing dainty about him after bucking straw all day. Happenings of the day and plans for the morrow were talked over and finally the last man had filed out after leaving instructions for breakfast at six.

I didn’t sleep much that night and before the first man was on the job, I was out looking over that machine and got a liberal supply of dust on me to look and smell like a real thresherman. At seven o’clock breakfast was all over and horses were all hitched. The crack of the whip and the power began to rumble. The face wheel on the separator began its familiar grind and soon the hum of the cylinder sent out strains of music through the keen morning air. Pitchers were dropping bundles in all shapes from the top of stacks until an old experienced feeder let out a yell at a red-faced husky who was fresh on the job. The clean wheat began to purr out in the half bushel measure with Father, Uncle and even a third party called in to assist, carrying the bags on their shoulders to the granary.

Everything was running nicely and seemed assured our grain would be threshed in good shape before winter even though we were the last on the string. Suddenly the driver shouted, “Whoa!” as he saw the green hand drop a fork headed straight for the cylinder and just missing the band cutter’s head. But too late! Crash in the cylinder and, before the horses could be stopped, a concave was broken, a casting that held the cam with a number of cylinder teeth being bent. We’re done for now (the main boss said) unless they’ve got extras in town.

Soon the best driving horse was hitched to the buggy and a share holder was on his way while the rest straightened and replaced broken teeth. By eleven o’clock the man came driving back, all to no avail. Not an extra this side of Racine, Wisconsin. Well, what does that mean? It means she’ll sit right here until we get one from the east. And there she sat. Stacks half threshed.

The order was telegraphed in but even at that, day after day we waited and it was several weeks before the treasured part would arrive. Winter was approaching. The first snow had already covered the open stacks and a disabled threshing rig. It was the day before Christmas when the main boss came and announced he had a Christmas gift – and no better gift could be! The part was soon replaced and snow shoveled off the stacks. The good old familiar hum was piercing the winter air and no better music or Christmas chimes were ever sounded! When the last bundle was put through and the idling machine seemed to ring clearer and louder.


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