Memories of an Old-time Thresher man
A highly romanticized vision of the thresher man as depicted in a 1909 advertisement for Swift's Fertilizers.
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: email@example.com
'His stories always led back to 1913, and Pig was there, jumping down from the boxcar and looking for work.'