Generations of Threshin' in Kentucky

Interviews with Cousins Billy and Joe Peel


| November/December 2000



Winston Coleman (above), a well-known photographer who enjoyed snapping pictures of Peel family threshing rigs

Winston Coleman (above), a well-known photographer who enjoyed snapping pictures of Peel family threshing rigs.

Portrait courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader

4745 Glenway Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45238 rhode@nku.edu

Billy Peel and Joe Peel of Nicholasville, Kentucky, brought history to life for me. Thanks to my good friend Patricia Ellis of Lexington, Kentucky, I had been put in touch with Joe and Billy, whose stories had a special appeal to me, since I own a 65-horsepower Case engine, serial number 35654, that once belonged to their grandfather. I expected to find out many important details about my engine and I did but I had not anticipated learning so much about the steam era.

On a visit to Nicholasville, I sat on a couch adjacent to Billy's easy chair, the family photograph album on the coffee table before us, and I relived the threshin' days, when Billy's father, uncles, and grandfather ran steam rigs in Fayette and Jessamine Counties.

Billy wore an earnest expression when he recalled the good ol' days. In central Kentucky where the blue-grass grows and champion horses graze, the good ol' days may have lasted a little longer than they did in some other places. Farm steam engines and steamrollers were used right up through World War II. Even though Billy is by no means an old man, he remembers the steam threshing and road building. The Peel family were custom threshermen during the threshing season, and, during the other months, they put their steam engines to use filling silos, crushing rock, clearing hedge, buzzing wood in ten-foot sections with a cut-off saw, steaming tobacco, and making molasses. The Peels also farmed, raising tobacco and corn and pasturing cows. His grandfather Joe's place was about six miles south of Nicholasville in southeast Jessamine County near the community of Elm Fork. Peel Lane, named for the family, led up to the old home place. "My granddaddy lived in Jessamine County, but he did most of his work up in Fayette County," Billy began.

"Granddad had eight sons and six daughters," Billy continued. As soon as the boys were able, they took roles in the family business. Billy's father, Luther, was the oldest; he was an engineer. Another brother, Bob, also ran his own steam engine, a 65-horsepower Case. Brother Carl ran engines, including mine, and he often cut silage. Brother Brutus usually took care of the thresher but occasionally ran my Case. Brother Rice hauled water and drove a truck. Brother Shirley drove a team pulling a bundle wagon. Brother Elmer occasionally hauled bundles but also did the cooking. Jord helped out wherever needed. Hannah was the oldest daughter. Then came Arkie, another daughter, followed by Martha. Vick, short for Victoria, was another daughter. Josephine and Gladys rounded out the family. Billy's grandfather had almost enough sons to make a full threshing crew, which usually numbered an engineer, a man on the thresher, two men sacking, four or five men driving teams and wagons, a water hauler, and a cook.

During a telephone conversation on February 24, 2000, Joe Peel, Bob's son, said that the younger sons and daughters in Grandfather Joe's family "didn't work at the threshin' the way the older ones did."