I came to the Province of Saskatchewan in the spring of 1908 as a boy of 18. We were a family of father, mother, six boys and one lone sister, and we were living not too far from London, England. We were going to emigrate to the Colonies and decided that if we went to Canada instead of Australia, we would be able to get back for holiday trips every two or three years. It was sixty years before I did get back as reported in the Iron Men for Nov-Dec. 1968. Some of my most valued recollections of the homestead days of over 60 years ago were of working on the big steam threshing outfits.
There is no question but that when the steam locomotive came off the rails and on to the broad wheat fields of the plains area of North America that a new and astounding page of history had been turned. As the threshing outfits moved from farm to farm, first the tread power, then the horse-powered sweep and then the portable steamers, the outfit of men usually boarded with the farmer. By the early 1900's threshing had become a highly organized, if at times a slightly disorganized business and a cook car and sleeping caboose for the men had been added to the outfit.
Then, with the coming of the smaller gas tractors to the farm and threshing fields, by the 1910 period, the smaller crews could be boarded quite handily by the farmers wife again. And most farmers wives set as good a table as they could, sometimes under pretty primitive conditions. All praise to those early homestead women.
In the fall of 1912, I was working on a gasoline threshing outfit a few miles out of. Calgary, Alberta. At one place, we were threshing for one of those homestead misfit families; a painter and artist just out from Belgium. This man had the wrong idea about threshing. In order to cut the cost of the threshing bill, they cut on the food and we young harvesters were half starved.
On one occasion we came in for the evening meal and the lady of the house came staggering in with a large granite saucepan which she proudly stood in the center of the table. Thinking the tide had turned and that this was a large savory stew of beef and potatoes, one of the crew lifted the lid and peered in, hopefully. To his horror, there was nothing but a thin watery soup with one onion and a small carrot floating helplessly around. The shock was too much. He let the lid fall back on the saucepan with a resounding clang, in desperate frustration. The owner of the outfit was a great chap and sooner than have a row with the artist and lose the job, he used to drive to Strathmore and buy supplies there which we feasted on in the bunk shack.
In 1910 I was working on a steam threshing outfit and we started out by eating in the farm house. The farmer, David Dory, used to put up a big front that he was a very sanctimonious man, which we knew very well he wasn't. When we would come in at noon, just famished, Dory would always go off into a long tedious grace which really meant nothing to us, or in fact to him. He had a small garden just back of his kitchen door into which his calves used to break. To get some warning, he had a system of tin cans hanging on the fence and if he heard the cans rattling, he knew the calves were at his greens.
One day we arranged with one of the field pitchers to wait outside and start rattling the cans during the tiresome grace. Halfway through the blessing the can started to rattle furiously. Dory stopped and in the ensuing dead silence he rasped out 'There go them God Dam calves in my gardin' agin'.' Figuring that all had been said that needed to be said we turned to the beef and potatoes, leaving the rest of the meals to be eaten unblessed. But perhaps we should talk about the heroine of the threshing fields.
This was the lady in the cook car. It was her duty to get up from her folding bed in the corner of the car at about four a.m. and out on a fire in the cook stove in the dark, cold early dawn. She might go back to her bed for a few minutes while the cook shack was warming up, but soon after she would be up and around, rattling the pots and pans for a five o'clock breakfast. At about the same time another individual would be shutting off his alarm clock. This was the fireman and he would be bundling himself up and with a lighted stable lantern in hand, he would be trudging out to the field in the frosty starlit night to where the outfit had been left the previous evening. He would have a load of straw handy and it was his ambition to be the first fireman around to get up enough steam to blow his whistle and let the countryside know that his outfit was getting ready to thresh. We used to be able to hear these whistles in the dark, early dawn sounding off for all the world like some strange eerie birds arousing from drowsy sleep.
By now there was activity around the farm yard. The crew would be up with horses harnessed and fed. The cook car lady would have the bowls of porridge set out with bacon and eggs sizzling on the stove. The day had begun. By six a.m., the bundles had begun rolling into the separator from a few loads that had been left on overnight. The engineer, quietly impressed with the dignity of his job, would be watching everyone with an eagle eye. He was a man of some importance. He had to have 'papers'. That is, he had to pass an exam before the boiler inspector would allow him to operate a steamer; since a steamer, in the hands of an inexperienced operator could blow up and explode. This, they sometimes did with tragic consequences.
Another man who was regarded with great respect was the separator man. As he stood on top of his growling machine, large oil can in hand, he kept a careful eye on the crew as they fed in the bundles. The worst thing that could happen to a separator man was to have a green bundle pitcher let his three tined steel tipped fork go into the feeder. If that ever happened, the separator man would give a good imitation of a Dancing Dervish as he called down fire from heaven to strike the unlucky teamster dead in his tracks. An accident like that could play havoc with the cylinder teeth and concaves with an idle crew waiting around while repairs were being made.
By the 1910 period, the small mobile gas tractor began to displace the big steam outfits in the threshing fields. They were a little tricky to operate and it used to be said that when a steam engine went wrong, it took ten minutes to find out the trouble and a half day to fix it; but that when one of the new tangled gas tractors quit that it took a half day to find out the trouble and ten minutes to fix it. Often it could be nothing more baffling than an empty gas tank.
Since the small gas tractor threshing outfits could be handled by a combined engineer-separator man, the cost of threshing was drastically reduced. At one fell swoop the gas tractor eliminated the fireman, the water hauler and the separator man since one man could run both ends of the outfit. In addition, a six or eight man crew could be hired locally and go home in wet weather.
The manufacture of the farm steam tractor ceased about 1923. This ended an era that was to see agriculture become a highly specialized business that, for all its charts and graphs, is still at the mercy of the weather.
Some writers like to talk of the romance and glamour of the harvest fields when steam was king. Those of us old timers who lived those days have no quarrel with the words. We recall those days with a silent prayer to the memory of that gallant army of men and women who shared their hopes and fears with us.
And as we move around among the threshing machines in the present day re-unions, amid the chaff and straw and noise, all the moisture in the old timers eyes isn't caused by the dust.