Farm Collector

Pig’s Threshing Days

Pig Gady was running for his life down an alley in Burlington,
Kan. He clutched a broad-brimmed straw hat in one hand. It looked
as if he were swatting hornets with it, he was sprinting so fast.
He kept looking over his shoulder, until he was sure he had lost
the Industrial Workers of the World men who were chasing him. Pig
slowed to a walk, his sides aching, his heart pounding.

It was 1913, and Pig had just turned 20. Pig was not born Pig.
His real name was Ernest Alvin Gady, but early on he acquired the
nickname Pig, and it was too good not to stick. Pig was in Kansas
to find work on a threshing crew, and there was plenty of work to
do. Wheat fields with honey-colored shocks covered hundreds of
miles across the Great Plains.

The problem was that Pig had run into a nest of angry I.W.W.,
and these Wobblies, as they were called, had demanded that Pig join
their socialist order. Pig wanted nothing to do with the
organization because he had heard they forced neophytes like him to
hide shrapnel inside bundles so as to tear up threshing machines
and bring work to a halt. ‘Now why would anybody want to bust
up a separator?’ Pig wondered, shaking his head in
consternation. Pig sympathized with the I.W.W. goal of higher wages
for workers, but he considered their efforts to sabotage thresher
men as one of the worst forms of criminal behavior.

‘What am I gonna do?’ Pig mumbled, sauntering along.
Lost in thought, he barely noticed the fence beside him. The tall,
rough-cut boards were plastered over with posters and handbills.
Suddenly, a particularly colorful advertisement for the Barnum
& Bailey Circus caught his eye. With his pocketknife, Pig cut a
small red rectangle from the poster. He slipped the card into the
pocket of his shirt and strode confidently along. Heading north on
Third Street, he encountered two men he thought might be Wobblies.
When he was close enough, he flashed the corner of the red
rectangle and winked. One of the men produced an I.W.W. red
membership card from his shirt pocket and smiled. The Wobblies paid
Pig no further notice. He sauntered past them, whistling a merry
tune.

Pig hopped a boxcar, and was soon on his way to another town
farther west. The rhythmic crooning of the train lulled Pig into
daydreaming about the farm where he had recently helped with the
threshing. One of the men pitching bundles into the separator had
suddenly flung his fork toward the cylinder. With a sharp eye, the
engineer had seen what was happening, had blown the whistle, and
had brought the belt to a halt in no time. Luckily, nothing was
damaged.

Pig later commented, ‘That separator man was mad as a
hornet. He cussed that pitcher up one side and down the other for
holding up the works. The pitcher claimed that a bee had stung him,
and that’s what made him lose his grip on the handle of the
pitchfork. The pitcher said it was the engineer’s fault for
setting the thresher so near the beehives. By this time, the
engineer had come over to join in the argument. He blamed the
farmer for keeping the hives too near the barn. Just about then,
everybody thought that maybe it was the farmer’s fault, but he
spoke up and blamed the separator man for selling him the hives.
The farmer yelled, ‘Why, he’s the one who put ’em here
beside the barn!’ The pitcher turned to the separator man and
shouted, ‘So it’s your doggone fault!’ That was a case
of ‘what goes around comes around’!’

While the boxcar gently rocked to and fro, Pig remembered his
father, Elmer, for whom thinking big was both his virtue and his
downfall. Elmer and his brother, Bill, ran a butcher shop in Pine
Village, Ind. Bill cut the meat, and Elmer bought the stock.
Butchering took place every other day because Bill and Elmer had no
refrigeration to preserve the meat. Even though the shop gave Elmer
plenty of business, he got into buying Western range sheep,
fattening them and reselling them. As Elmer bought more and more
sheep, he kept adding sheds to his barn. Elmer’s butcher shop
and his sheep business were turning handsome profits.

It was then that Pig’s father mortgaged the farm to
speculate on the Board of Trade. Pig begged his father not to do
it, but Elmer had made up his mind. Elmer lost not only the farm,
but also the butcher shop. He became a day laborer in Pine Village,
while Bill went to Chicago to work for a big meat farm. Shortly
after, Bill fell from a streetcar and broke his back. Miraculously,
he survived and returned to Pine Village. Bill walked stooped over.
Frank Ogborn’s department store and grocery gave him a job
taking orders and making deliveries.

Until his father gambled and lost everything, Pig had been
anticipating a career in education. After graduating from Pine
Village High School in 1910, Pig had taught lower grades, but his
father’s downfall brought shame and a need for utter
independence. Pig chose the life of a transient laborer and lit out
for the West. Sly as a fox, Pig dodged trouble and kept
threshing.

Pig was fortunate enough to find employment as a spike pitcher
for threshing rings in eastern Kansas. ‘Much of the wheat out
in Kansas was winter wheat. It was spiky and tough, but it sure did
grow well there,’ he said. He fondly recalled the engines
belted to the threshers in the barnyards and the neighborly dinners
prepared by the farmers’ wives. Yes, Pig knew the comforts of
threshing runs, but in western Kansas and in states farther north,
he came to know threshing on a vast scale with fields of wheat
shocks stretching toward the horizon and with half a dozen columns
of smoke indicating the locations of various crews, each with its
steam engine and separator, all under the command of a custom
thresher man.

At night, he avoided the sleeping car (‘Too many bugs
waiting to bed down with you!’) and slept beneath the stars.
His sleep was the deep sleep of a young man who has done hard,
honest work. ‘For the first two weeks each season, your hands
would blister and your back and legs would hurt, but, after that,
you would toughen up. Then you could go on pitching all day,
stopping only for meals. We had top-notch cooks in the chuck wagon.
I guess we were lucky, ’cause I heard there were some places
where you’d have to pinch your nose to get the food past your
face.’

The thought of bad food almost awoke Pig from the sleep that had
stolen over him, but the Kansas miles rolling past the boxcar made
him drift and doze again. One day many years later, Pig compared
his father to Fred Albright, who did not think big but who worked
slowly and steadily toward his goals. During the teens, a farmer in
the Province of Ontario employed Fred, and Fred gained considerable
experience as a thresher man. When he married the farmer’s
daughter, Fred thought it was time to return to the U.S. and start
his own business. He opened a grocery store in Pine Village. He
saved enough money from his sales to buy two 20 HP Rumely steam
engines and two threshing machines. Fred ran one and his brother,
Joe, ran the other.

Pig dreamed about the majestic sight of that pair of Rumely
steamers rumbling through town on their way toward the wheat fields
to the east.

Many years later, Pig had occasion to remember another transient
laborer, Clive Morgan, likewise a resident of Pine Village, who
followed the harvest into Saskatchewan. A wheat rancher hired Clive
to care for the rancher’s 40 head of horses year ’round,
including the harsh northern winters. A long wire ran from the
house to the barn, so that anyone in the barn could feel his way
back to the house during a blizzard. Clive reported that bundle
wagons in this area of Saskatchewan were 16 feet long and 8 feet
wide. Eventually, Clive went to Detroit, where he got a job
grinding crankshafts for Model T Fords. When the Depression hit, he
was laid off and, like other young men who had sought adventures
far away, he returned to Pine Village.

Many years later, Pig asked himself, ‘Was it in 1939 or 1940
that Mac McCormick and those two other fellas – I can’t think
of their names – drove to Oklahoma in a Model T? If I remember
correctly, they ran out of money trying to make that old car go
that far.’ Mac and his friends worked in hay fields to earn
cash to repair the automobile. In one town, the marshal took them
for hooligans and was going to run them out, but they managed to
convince him that they were civilized high school lads. They began
to help with the threshing as soon as they arrived in Oklahoma, and
they worked the harvest as far north as Montana.

Pig shared these memories and conversations with me in 1966,
when, crippled with arthritis, he was confined to a rest home near
our mutual hometown of Pine Village. I remember Pig as an old man
in a brown plaid flannel shirt and jeans. His face usually wore a
gray, vacant expression, but his eyes lit up whenever he saw me.
‘Say, what do you know?’ he asked, grinning from ear to
ear. Every time I saw him, Pig leaned forward and began to tell
stories of his train-hopping days. He never missed the chance to
express his respect for his fellow itinerant thresher men. I
listened, and the walls of Pig’s tiny room in the rest home
faded away, replaced by the broad expanse of Kansas’ fields and
skies.

His stories always led back to 1913, and Pig was there, jumping
down from the boxcar and looking for work. Scrutinizing a bunch of
hopeful unemployed men who had gathered near the train station in
some Kansas town, a custom thresher man chose Pig to pitch bundles.
Pig climbed into a wagon and was hauled to where the work was to be
done. Now Pig was doing what he loved best: lifting the sheaves
high above his head and expertly dropping them for the bundle
loader perched atop the wagon. I like to think that Pig is still 20
years old, and still threshing somewhere in a realm of
honey-colored wheat.

Steam historian and author Robert T. Rhode is a regular
contributor to Steam Traction. Contact him at: 990 W. Lower
Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066 or e-mail at:
case65@earthlink.net

‘His stories always led back to 1913, and Pig was
there, jumping down from the boxcar and looking for
work.’

  • Published on Jan 1, 2004
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