Memories of Steam and Sweat


| July/August 1975



Courtenay, North Dakota 58426

We are told by men who have studied the subject, and therefore are presumed to know, that there are three stages in a person's life. First, the period of childhood, when life consists only of the present and the future. Next, the period of adulthood, when a person's thoughts and efforts are centered upon making his way in the world. The third period is that of old age when one's thoughts turn back in review, to the times and events of his youth. Let me share with you the reader, some of my memories of these long-gone days.

Looming clearly through the mists and shadows of the past is the memory of the huge steam threshing machine of that era, and the large number of men and horses required for a machine of its size. They were as much a part of farm life then as the combine is today.

The crew was fed in a cook car a building built upon a steel running gear without springs or roller bearings. It was large enough to seat 15 or 20 men and was hauled from farm to farm by two frightened horses. In the cook car there were generally two cooks and two million flies. That, I have always considered, was an unfair ration and for a good reason. Actually, how could a mere two million flies be expected to consume all of the food prepared by two able-bodied women beginning at 5 o'clock in the morning and ending at 9 o'clock at night!

However, the flies did not work at their task unaided. Three times daily they were ably assisted by the crew whose appetites could, perhaps, be best compared to that of a herd of elephants. The etiquette and table manners were not, as I recall, precisely what Emily Post or Amie Vanderbilt would have approved of, had they been present. The paramount objective appeared to be to get the food from the plate to the mouth by whatever means. Potatoes, peas, and pie were eaten with the knife, and why not? After all, why is silverware placed upon the table if not to eat with? Nor was the fork placed there for its ornamental value alone. It too, had its uses. It could be used to spear food that otherwise would have been out of reach. Or it could be used to point the direction of the next field to be threshed, and perhaps, to draw a diagram of the field upon the table.

As might be expected, there was much talk and banter, and many ideas aired between huge mouthfuls of food. However I fail to recall any discussion of Science, the Arts, or of Literature, however brief. I do though, recall many occasions when the subject of intoxicants was brought up and discussed with considerable depth and fullness (this was the probition era) and with much speculation as to where a certain brew could be procured, its cost, and the chances, both for and against being alive the next morning.