I Was There

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6013 Judy Lane, R#4, Rochelle, Illinois 61068

It’s 6 A.M., pots and pans are rattling downstairs. Better
get up, Dad’s already doing the chores. Just about time for the
6:15 Burlington passenger to go through. The old engineer has her
hooked up real good. A trail of black smoke a mile long. I loved to
watch that train go through. The smoothness with which it ran could
not be excelled.

After a light breakfast of pancakes and sausage, Dad is ready to
get started to cut grain. Four horses on the old McCormick binder,
my job was to throw the bundles out as he made the back swath.
Click, click, click, out came the bundles. I didn’t think that
there could be that many. Once in awhile, there would be one that
wasn’t tied. Dad always had some fellows come in to help shock.
After the chores were done and we had supper, the moon would come
out and Dad would say, ‘Let’s go and set up a few,’
because it was cool then. We would always take a jug of ginger
water with us when it was hot.

We always changed horses at noon. They got pretty tired when it
was hot. We had a whip in the whip socket on the old binder, but to
my knowledge, the whip was never used.

A couple of years later, Dad bought a 15-25 Emerson-Brantingham
tractor. We used it to pull the binder. Guess what! I was promoted
to ride the binder. I rode it from the time the dew was off until
nearly dark. I had a good pillow on the seat.

Well, the grain has been shocked, time to go to more interesting
things. Dad wanted to get the old Advance out. Always a lot of
tinkering to be done. We wrapped a hay rope around the flywheel and
pulled the engine out with a team of horses. They move real easy
this way, as the gearing gives you a lot of leverage. My first job
was to clean the flues. Dad backed our old buckboard in front of
the engine so I would have a place to stand. I couldn’t reach
the top of the flues, but the old buckboard did the trick. Then
there was brass to polish and general cleaning. We always had a
pail of Black Beauty axle grease, it worked wonders on the gearing.
In fact, I still have a little of that grease. The next thing, in
comes the oil man with a barrel of steam cylinder oil. Loved the
smell of that oil. The next job was to clean the grain bins of what
was left of last year’s grain. We did not have overhead bins or
elevators. All we had was a No. 12 or No. 14 scoop shovel. (Not too
bad to use once you got the hang of it.) We hauled grain to the
elevator in a triple box wagon. We were lucky, we had a spring
seat. Those old wooden wheel wagons didn’t absorb very much
shock. We had a lot of rain after harvest. The shocks still stood
in the field, clover grown up about a foot high around the

Threshing on the Clyde Bearrows farm, 1988. Left to right:
James, Scott (grandson), Clyde, and John Bearrows three

It was late in September before we could thresh. T was the time
of year when you could hear the whooping crane down in the swamp.
Have you ever heard a loon calling his mate in the evening? I have.
You could also see a few geese in their perfect formation taking
their time heading south.

Well, it’s almost the end of September. It’s Saturday,
5:30 A.M., everybody is up and going. The first thing I heard was
‘we need more wood for the cook stove, then better get a couple
pails of fresh water,’ then you might know, ‘dig a few more
potatoes.’ I was hurrying because I wanted to get where the
action was. My next chore was to hitch old Nellie to the buggy,
find a couple of stone jugs, wrap them with burlap and wet them
down to keep them cool. My job was to haul drinking water to the
help. The next thing was a rack wagon coming down the road. (Just
dirt roads then). It was old Jake Cain with his Belgian team. They
looked beautiful. You could smell that freshly oiled harness and
see all fittings highly polished. You could hear those wooden
wheels moving back and forth on the skeins. Oh Lordy, here comes
Rufe McNickles in his old Dodge touring car. He had four bundle
pitchers with him. We had a little over 100 acres of small grain
that year. As the bundle haulers started in the field, a Prairie
Chicken got up here and there. They are almost extinct now. Some
are in the Northwest.

It’s 7:00 A.M. Std. time. I hear a little toot on the
engine. There were a couple of loads that were loaded the night
before. A little puff of smoke and the old 20 HP Advance came to
life. She was pulling a 40′ Port Huron separator. I heard the
belt slap a couple of times and then I heard Dad say, ‘block
her.’ By this time, the separator was up to speed. The
separator man yelled, ‘throw ’em in, boyshead first.’
Then two more men climbed onto the rack, spike pitchers. The grain
was dry and in great shape. That old 20 HP side mounted simple
engine was running great. Dad had the old buck-board with coal
backed up to the engine. All coal was broken fist size or smaller
before it was put in the fire box. Made for faster heat. I still
have that old coal hammer on my engine. This engine was not hard on
water, and fired easy. One heck of an engine. I had just come to
the engine with water and Dad said, ‘watch the engine a little
bit. I got to go see how dinner is coming ‘. I was just ten
years old and on top of the world. I knew every bolt and nut on
that engine and what they were used for. It wasn’t long until
he was back and said, ‘get water to the men”, so there
I went again.

One thing you didn’t hear in those days was an engine
popping off. There were a lot of young spirited horses and you
didn’t need a lot of confusion with runaway teams. Not only
that, but popping an engine was also a waste of water and fuel.
Engines were popped before the threshing day started. An engineer
who couldn’t control his boiler pressure was dubbed a poor
engineer. Water was pumped into the tank by hand, so you didn’t
waste too much. Dad used to say, ‘know where the water is in
your boiler. The fire can go out, but don’t run out of

It wasn’t long until the noon whistle blew, dinner time.
Well, here come the thundering heard. Horses were tied to the feed
box on the back of the racks. Horses were fed and watered well.
Everyone headed for the yard. A tub of soft water sat on a bench,
two or three bars of soap were by the bench. An old mirror hung on
a tree nearby. Linen towels hung on the clothes line. Dinner was a
great time with roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet corn on
the cob, homemade bread, strawberry jam, and other things making it
almost a Thanksgiving feast. Then came the goodies, apple pie,
cherry pie, cakes and cookies. You eat ’til you almost burst.
After lunch, you gathered in the yard for a little idle chatter.
You could look on the horizon in any direction and see a column of
idle smoke rising into the sky from different rigs. Dad has gone to
the engine, a little toot on the whistle and things are humming
again. It wasn’t long until evening was there. Another
threshing day was over, everything sat quiet. Chaff was scattered
all over the place.

There were all makes of engines in those days. Every engineer
had his own choice, a natural thing. They were all good. Anyone who
is lucky enough to own one should be proud of it. I recommend
giving your engine a little T.L.C., for as you know, there are not
many left.

It wasn’t long until tractors started to cut in on the steam
engine. At the time of World War II, a lot of top notch engines
fell to the hands of the torch. We threshed until 1948. The last
couple of years we used a W40 International. We pulled a 28′
Red River Special. This was a fine rig, but it didn’t have the
character of the steam rig.

The next thing in the late 30’s and early 40’s was the
coming of the combine. They were of the smaller types5 to 9 foot
was average. Everybody wanted to do their own grain and not have to
go through threshing rings. We lost out on those fabulous dinners
and the closeness among the neighbors. As for the binders, a lot of
real good ones fell to the torch to make windrowers out of them. I
had my own shop by this time and cut up a lot of them to make into

Steam shows are great. You see many interesting things and all
makes of engines. Some are fixed up to almost new condition. One of
the great shows is held in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. We have been there
several times. We met some fine people out there. One couple, Gene
and Peggy Lawson from Pennsylvania, were great to visit with, real

We bought our 18-50 Case in 1985. We have 28′ and 32′
Case separators. We use the 32′ always. The 28′ is in good
shape. We thresh here at home every year. Mom cooks up a lot of
goodies and the neighbors also bring in cakes, pies, etc. We have a
regular picnic under the trees. The kids really enjoy it.
Especially to climb on Granddad’s engine and toot the

My daughter Judy and my two sons, Jim and John, and their
families took to steam like a duck to water. They really love it.
Maybe they will keep it going for years to come. (Don’t forget
the steam oil.)

My good friend, Don Vogeler, an old boiler man, has been around
when I needed help with something. He is good with an engine. My
other good friend, Albert Brown (who has his own machine shop),
helps when I need something made. He is a perfectionist quality
work! Can’t say much more, for you may be tired of reading this
article, but ‘I was there!’

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