Glimpsing the Past In Pine Village, Indiana

4745 Glenway Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45238-4537

In my great-great-grandfather’s barn northwest of Pine
Village, Indiana, in the 1860s and 1870s, oxen trod in a circle to
thresh wheat with their hooves. (This barn was built in the 1850s
and is still standing.) Within two generations, harvesting,
threshing, and separating the grain became mechanized and required
concerted interaction among rural people. By the 1920s, a person
standing on the level ground to either side of Pine Creek could see
columns of smoke rising from steam engines and could hear the
morning whistles calling to crews of farmers, ‘We have steam up
and are ready to thresh!’ During the first two decades of the
new century in Pine Village, then a town of two-hundred residents,
cooperation flourished in a variety of forms, from the harmonies of
the mandolin orchestra and concert band to the teamwork of the
town’s football club. Of all such collaborative endeavors in
and around this rural hamlet, steam-powered threshing united the
highest numbers of citizens in carefully synchronized
activities.

From 1899 to 1919, Pine Village fielded a football team which
was undefeated for twelve years and professional from 1915 to 1919.
Over two thousand spectators would convene to witness the clash of
mighty opponents a large crowd in a sparsely-populated region. The
management hired the legendary Jim Thorpe to star in an exhibition
match. My great-uncle Charles Rhode played fullback and
occasionally center, and my cousin Claire Rhode both played on the
team and sponsored it financially.

Around 1910, Samuel C. Fenton, a talented musician who had
learned his craft through performing with various ensembles in his
hometown of Pine Village, played first trumpet in Arthur
Pryor’s band, considered second only to John Philip Sousa’s
band. Pryor had been Sousa’s top trumpeter before he organized
his own ensemble. The half dozen of the best concert bands toured
the country entertaining crowds in cities small and large from the
turn of the century until the early 1930s. Such bands were
emblematic of the harmony of yesteryear.

‘Cooperation’ was the byword of rural people. Nowhere
was that teamwork more in evidence than in threshing. Horses
accomplished much of the labor and were valuable possessions. My
father watched members of the Horse Thief Detective Association
wearing badges and marching in parades in Pine Village.
Commissioned by the governor, these organizations threatened to
exercise frontier justice if any crooks were caught.

The marriage of horse power and iron implements gave blacksmiths
all the work they needed. My great-great-uncle Tommy Fenton, Pine
Village’s blacksmith, and his assistant devised a shoe to
prevent the famous harness horse Dan Patch from
‘interfering,’ or skinning one front leg by striking it
with the other front hoof. Until Daniel Messner sold Dan Patch to
M. W. Savage of Minnesota, Tommy shod ‘the Fastest and Most
Popular Harness Horse in all the World’s History,’ as a
1913 advertisement proclaimed (see Floyd Clymer’s Album of
Historical Steam Traction Engines, page 98
). Two of Dan
Patch’s special shoes were set in concrete as a modest monument
in front of the blacksmith shop and probably were buried there when
people who could not have known the history of those horseshoes
recently erected a building over the site.

We imagine the ringing blows of hammers in that blacksmith shop
of long ago. We envision a steam engineer watching intently while
Tommy repairs a broken part. When iron horses powered threshing
machines, Pine Village hosted the formation of a number of rings or
runs associations of farmers collaborating during the threshing
season (see ‘A Hoosier Town and Her Engines’ in the
November/December 1994 issue of The Iron-Men Album Magazine). The
company run northwest of Pine Village tended to thresh where the
straw could be blown into barns rather than threshing in the open
fields. East of Pine Village were farms more recently tiled and
drained. In general, the mows of the newer barns there were
smaller. When my great-uncle Charley Cobb ran a Reeves rig for Joe
Williams east of Pine Village, he was accustomed to setting
threshers and engine in the open, but when he substituted for Jake
Kiger, the engineer of the company run, Charley usually belted the
Huber to the thresher beside a barn so that the wind stacker could
fill the spacious mow with straw. (The accompanying box preserves
for posterity the names of members of William’s threshing
ring.)

Wooden staves covered by a thin metal skin formed the water tank
in front of the Huber’s smoke box. The bottom edge of the tank
had rusted away in spots. My father, Joseph Curtis ‘Joe’
Rhode, remembers a hot summer day of threshing at his grandfather
Joseph Thomas ‘Tom’ Cobb’s tall barn in a low area
where eat inside farmers’ barns but were fed from these boxes.
My father commented that, for men and horses, ‘It must’ve
been the least pleasurable to work on the bucket run of any run
with which I was acquainted.’ The bucket run hired Zack
Strickler as engineer for many years, but, on more than one
occasion, Jake St. John took a turn. Joe Williams and Charley Cobb
spent two successive years threshing the bucket run while others
filled in where Joe and Charley usually worked east of town.

Incidentally, around Pine Village, most farmers fed their straw
to livestock. The few who baled straw sold it to the Straw Board in
Lafayette where it was used to make cardboard boxes. Gas-powered
‘Indiana’ trucks with hard-rubber tires hauled loads of
straw from Pine Village to the Straw Board in late fall and early
winter. The Indiana Wagon Company of Lafayette built these
vehicles. The Straw Board accepted even damp straw, if it were
still yellow.

Each year, the threshing season officially ended on ‘settle
up day’ when the members of the threshing run would gather to
divide the profits according to pre-arranged agreements. Children
of the era regarded the occasion as a grand party embellished with
delicious ice cream. My father said that the company run’s
settle-up days at George Hess’s home were particularly
memorable. On chairs in the dappled blue shadows beneath the
hardwood trees sat the threshing men with their account books while
children concentrated on hide-and-seek in the yard and adolescents
played baseball in the pasture.

Farther to the northeast, Herb Crane and his son Loyd, a former
football team member nicknamed ‘Jersey,’ ran their Avery
Under-mounted for a ring. At sundown one day late in the
steam-power era, the Avery with threshing machine in tow came
chuffing up the road and stopped in front of my
great-grandfather’s farm. Charlie Allen, the hired man,
meditatively chewed a straw while Herb swung down from the cab and
sauntered over. Jersey leaned his elbows on the Avery’s
windowsill and watched. ‘It’s gettin’ dark,’ Herb
observed. ‘It ‘pears that-a-way,’ Charlie responded.
‘What do you say to letting us keep our rig in your barn lot
overnight?’ Herb asked. Allen squinted at the sunset reflected
in the black paint of the engine’s cab. ‘I reckon you can
keep her here,’ Allen consented, ‘but not by the barn. Put
her back there along that fence where the land kinder slopes
down.’ The Cranes obeyed then walked up the road to town. The
next day came and went with no sign of the Cranes. Other days
followed. The thresher was moved away later that winter, but,
despite repeated promises to come get the engine, the Cranes
abandoned it. For three or four years, the hulk rusted where it
sat. Eventually, it was junked. My father saved its big clevis as a
souvenir. He surmised that the Cranes must have known that
something was seriously wrong with the engine.

The steam era was drawing toward an end. Two Rumely engines and
two threshers belonging to Fred Albright were housed in a large
shed to the left of the easternmost road in ‘Oklahoma,’ the
curious name for a neighborhood of houses near the railroad in Pine
Village. The shed burned the heat was trapped. Jake, the engineer
whom Tom’s son Charley occasionally replaced, was an easy-going
fellow. ‘He was slow moving, but every movement counted,’
my father said. Jake would whistle through his white mustache. On
that hot afternoon, a lazy melody floated above the chuffing of the
engine. Suddenly, my father noticed smoke rolling off the water
tank. Afraid of fire, Joe got Jake’s attention. With a calm,
deliberate manner which my father found frustrating under the
circumstances, Jake opened a valve to fill the scorched, empty
tank.

Around a steamer there had to be plenty of water. Where Jake was
threshing, the water wagon would pull up, and a hose from the
engine’s injector would be placed in the tank. The Huber drank
water directly from the wagon until the water hauler decided it was
time to get more. He would attach one end of a hose to the nozzle
low down on the wagon reservoir and insert the other end in a small
livestock tank beside the engine. He would fill that tank with the
water remaining in the wagon’s reservoir, then he would set out
to refill the water wagon from a stream, a well, or a large stock
tank, pumped by windmill, at a distance from the threshing. Charley
Cobb also kept a livestock tank beside the Reeves engine east of
town.

The ring closest to the northwest edge of Pine Village was known
as ‘the bucket run.’ (The accompanying box preserves the
names of bucket-run members.) The threshers carried their dinner in
a bucket instead of following the custom of sitting down to a
lavish meal prepared by the wives of farmers on the ring. The
bucket run used basket racks on the bundle wagons and had no
pitchers in the field; instead, the bundle haulers walked beside
the wagons and tossed bundles into the basket. The sills on the
wagons extended rearward farther than normal and held two feed
boxes on the back corners. Bucket-run horses did not to the ground,
destroying one of the Rumely rigs. Fred never threshed again after
that. Jay Max sold his Advance engine to a junk dealer who cut it
up for scrap. I think of that engine when I turn to the same recipe
which Elva Conrad, Max’s housekeeper, and her daughter Elsie
(later married to Milton Dowden) followed when they baked sour-milk
drop cookies for Max’s threshing crew in the 1920s.

According to my father, one of the last new engines to enter
Warren County was a Keck-Gonnerman which the Fleming family south
of West Lebanon bought. It threshed for four years, sat unused for
eight or nine years, then was scrapped during World War II. The
epoch of the farm traction engine faded away.

In that era, so different from our own, the majority of children
saw both parents throughout the day and were well acquainted with
each parent’s tasks. In our metropolitan present, sensible
people keep their jobs and their lives separate, but, for farm
families back then, the home life embraced work in barn and field.
At threshing time, farmers beheld the product of their labor. By
contrast, much of our work may seem meaningless because we
contribute only a preliminary step in a process and seldom or never
view the result. Similarly, downsizing and ‘bottom-line’
economics have banished the old-fashioned virtue of loyalty to a
job and to one another. A significant but gradual cultural shift
which began to occur in the late 1800s took place in the way
personalities developed. Earlier, society prized individual
expression, even to the extent of accepting eccentricities. Within
reason, fresh traits and quirks of character provided sources of
entertainment. Later, society emphasized a greater degree of
conformity. This change accompanied the transition from a rural to
an urban America. Anyone who remembers a relative from the late
1800s who had an inimitable personality can sense the magnitude of
this cultural transformation.

The most noteworthy change in rural society occurred when small
gasoline-powered tractors and one-man combines enabled each farmer
to return to the pre-thresher tradition of working independently.
The threshing machine had brought farmers together, but the combine
drove them apart again. Ambivalence toward collaboration and
independence characterizes the history of agriculture. This
uncertainty reminds me of a traveler who asked a farmer which of
two roads was the better way to town. ‘Take either
one,” said the farmer, ‘ and, before you get halfway,
you’ll wish you’d tuck t’ other.’

Concurrent with the rise of the small tractor was the shift from
a rural to an urban population. Beginning in 1932, the majority of
U.S. government officials came from cities (see Arthur Moore’s
The Farmer and the Rest of Us, page 130). Along with such profound
alterations came a gradual forgetting about North America’s
agricultural heritage. The allure of the city eclipsed the values
of the farm. It may be claiming too much to state that agricultural
life is superior to urban living. To do so might mean celebrating a
pastoral ideal which never truly existed. It is important to
acknowledge, however, that a predominantly rural America differed
tremendously from our metropolitan existence. In a place like Pine
Village, the agricultural legacy lives on. There, to reclaim
yesteryear is a delightful possibility.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment