Farm Collector

Reminiscing with Arthur J. Holen . .

2195 Dudley Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota


‘Slow and steady’, the engineer said time and time again
the first few days when I started firing a straw burner back in
1911. The engine was a Northwest New Giant return flue built by the
Northwest Thresher Co. in Stillwater, Minnesota. The first few days
the engineer had to take the fork several times as the steam went
down. Technique is important in firing the straw burner. A
beginner’s big fault is to want to push in too much straw and
thereby smother the fire. By and by the beginner gets into the
groove. Slow and steady and with an eye on the steam gauge one
gradually gets to master the situation. There certainly is ambition
in youth. Get up in the morning at 3:30 to get up steam so as to
start the days threshing at 6:00 A.M. That is in stack threshing –
the starting time in shock threshing varied with the dew and the
number of racks loaded the night before. If it did not look like
rain there were several racks loaded ready for the morning.
Quitting time was generally around seven. However, in some shock
runs in western Minnesota it was the practice to thresh one day on
each job. This meant moving to the next job after supper.

In 1911 the fireman was paid $2.50 a day which was 25cent more
than the bundle pitchers were paid. In 1912 I was paid $3.00 a day
which was considered good wages for firemen.

A fireman soon gets to recognize the good straw for firing. The
blue stem wheat straw had good heating qualities. The velvet chaff
straw was was not as good as the bluestem-besides the velvet chaff
had awns or beards which made it miserable on a hot day. A poor
straw for firing was marquis wheat straw especially if it was cut
on the green side. I always dreaded a job where there was an a
mount of marquis wheat. Barley straw had good heating qualities
but, Oh Man!, the beards on the barley straw how they would crawl
up the pants leg. Imagine after a hot day firing with barley straw
and at night sleeping in the tender or in the sleeping shack
without change of underwear for a whole week. I shudder now when I
think of it! Oat straw was good, but flax was the fireman’s
delight but the engineers bug a boo. Flax straw does not pack and
has such high heating qualities that cold air is drawn thru the
chute and of course apt to make for leaky flues if used for any
lenght of time.


A number of incidents which seem amusing now come to mind. When
I first started firing I got myself rigged out with a black
fireman’s cap, and of course a red handkerchief. On the first
day it happened that we had to move about three miles at noon. As I
said the engine was a return flue which gave off heat like an oven.
The fireman stood on a little platform in front of the tender which
had a covered box on it filled with straw. The hot August sun beat
down unmercifully. That might my ears started to sting. By morning
I had in place of ears a baloney ring on each side of my head. When
the engineer saw me in the morning he said, ‘I think you had
better get yourself a straw hat’. That was sound advice for

Another incident involved a cemetery. As a youth I was afraid of
cemeteries after dark. We were threshing on a farm just west of
LacQuiParle village in LacQuiParle county, Minn. The rig pulled
into a setting of four stacks late in the afternoon beside a
cemetery. Two stacks were left at quitting time. I was already
scared thinking about next morning. In fact I lay awake most of the
night getting more scared by the hour. 3:30 comes around and I had
to go out to the rig and start getting up steam. Any one who has
fired up a boiler in the early morning know that a boiler will make
some weird and haunting noises as it is heating up. I stood there
poking straw into the straw chute frozen with fear. I never have
known a time when I was as much relieved as when I had steam up and
could go in for breakfast.


As a fireman stands behind the engine slowly shoving the straw
into the fire box there is an opportunity to observe the quiet of
the early morning.

Just before the dawn everything is peaceful and quiet. The
fireman is alone with nature. Then the cock starts to crow in the
hen house. Then a light from the kerosene or gas lamp in the
kitchen-a signal that the cooks are about to prepare breakfast.
Next comes the farmer out of the house with milk pails on his
arms-this is before the day of the milking machine. Pretty soon
there is activity. The horses whinny for their feed. The pigs start
squealing for their slop and the cows start getting up from their
rest. By now steam is up so the blower can be turned on it
won’t be long now. The separator man and the engineer have
arrived on the scene to belt the machine and grease up. Shortly
after five and 150 pounds of steam and time to go in for


Will anyone who followed the threshing rigs 40-50 years ago ever
forget the food that the farm women put out? Three big meals at the
table and forenoon and afternoon lunches out to the field-and what
lunches! All kinds of cookies and frosted cakes and sandwiches that
made your mouth water. I marvel at how they did it. And mind you no
refrigrators or deep freeze and no gas or electric stoves. My hat
is off to you ladies of the bygone days. We worked hard but we
enjoyed it!


Much against my wishes I was persuaded to return to Windom
Institute Academy for my sophomore year. However in 1912 I was so
taken with the firing job that I did not go back to school. In the
winter of 1913 I took a three month course in steam engineering and
blacksmithing at the University of Southern Minnesota at Austin.
They taught everything-you name it they had it. (they ceased
operations in the early twenties.)

In the spring of 1913 Saskatchewan beckoned. However, threshing
in Saskatche was is subject for several articles. So after three
years in Sask. again back to Minnesota and a firing job in 1916 and
1917. The best part is that I went back to the Academy in the fall
of 1917. Got a job firing the furnace to put myself thru school.
But threshing was in my blood and I combined owning and operating
threshing rigs with school teaching and government work for twenty

  • Published on May 1, 1963
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