Steam Show and Threshing Bee

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F. D. Schrauth
Mary Jane Reckinger Smith Steam Engine, Illinois Thresher Co. Sycamore, Illinois, 1917

We thank Fox Tales of Industrial Supply Company of North Aurora,
Illinois for permission to reprint the following article by Peg
Tyndal Jackson. And we thank F. D. Schrauth of 112 S. 5th St., St.
Charles, Illinois 60174 for sending us same.

Typical of the steam shows held from April to October all over
the country was, the one held this August for the 15th year on the
Taylor Marshall Farm just north of Sycamore. Gigantic steam
engines, many of them built around 1917, put on demonstrations of
threshing and sawing wood as they did it ‘back then’.

On display also were gas tractors, separators, and a great many
other items of antique farm equipment. There was even a balloon
ascension, with a pretty girl going up, up and away; and a parade
through the grounds of all the whistling, snorting, puffing
machines. Two teams of enormous oxen, each beast weighing 2600 lbs.
plodded their way along, pulling a swamp buggy. As in the ‘good
old days’ threshers’ dinners were served by the ladies of
the Charter Grove Grange.

This nostalgic event was attended by around 12,000 people over a
period of four days, and it not only brought back memories to the
Old Timers, but kindled interest among the younger people who came
in droves.

‘There’s something about steam,’ says John Malsch,
President of the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club, the
organization that puts on this show. ‘Steam only lasted about
40 years,’ Mr. Malsch went on, ‘but it was good, efficient
power. . . and once the steam was up, those old engines didn’t
let you down.’

The boss of each threshing job was the engine operator.
Sometimes it was an outsider who contracted to thresh the grain. Or
it could have been one of a ‘ring’ whose members got
together and purchased the steam engine, as it was with Newton
Gould of Elburn, an exhibitor at this show.

At a Sheriff’s Sale in 1924, Mr. Gould and nine other men
bought the last engine manufactured by the Illinois Thresher Co. in
Sycamore in 1917. They paid $1,000 for it, $100 apiece. Mr. Gould
drove the 25 h.p. engine home from the factory, and for a good 20
years he and the nine neighbors used it to thresh their oats,
wheat, and barley, to run a saw mill and cider mill, and to fill
their silos and shred the corn.

Mr. Gould, the engineer, would drive the engine to the job first
thing in the morning. Since it took an hour-and-a-half to get the
steam up, he’d pour on the coal or wood, and line up the engine
next to the water tank wagon, as soon as that crew member

Several sharp toots on the whistle assembled the rest of the
crew. They had to level the separator (also called threshing
machine), line up the steam engine with the separator, put on the
drive belt between the two, and bring around the grain wagon. As
soon as the first bundle wagon came in from the fields, the men
would start forking the sheaves of grain onto the separator’s
conveyor ramp, and the threshing was underway.

As the day went on, a regular code of whistle toots established
communication between the engineer and the twenty or so members of
the crew. One short and one long blast on the whistle, for
instance, meant ‘Get another grain wagon here or we’ll have
to dump it on the ground.’ Two short blasts meant, ‘We need
a bundle wagon. Hurry!’

Or three short, frantic blasts said to the man who was filling
the water tank in the cow yard, ‘Come right now, full or not,
or this whole blasted thing will explode!’… to quote Mr.
Malsch, Steam Show President, himself a steam engineer for many

There’d usually be around ten teams of horses at a threshing
bee in this part of Illinois . . . more in the Dakotas. Great care
had to be taken that a horse’s switching tail didn’t get
caught in the belt that drove the separator when the bundle wagon
was lined up beside it. The separated kernels of grain would pour
out of the side of the separator into the grain wagon, and would
then be hauled to the barn. On the front of the machine was the
windstacker from which the straw was blown onto a strawstack. The
light chaff lifted off into the air.

The going price in those days for threshing wheat was 4 a
bushel, 3 for barley, and 2 for oats. A gadget on the separator
counted the bushels of grain coming out of the separator. A
time-keeper kept track of each man’s time at $1.50 an hourman
plus team.

In those days about 40 bushels to the acre made a good crop of
oats. This sold for $1.00 a bushel on the Chicago Grain Market.
Nowadays the 95-100 bushels per acre bring only 40 to 50 a bushel.
An old time steam engine and separator could thresh as much as 3000
bushels of oats a day.

When noon arrived, all twenty men took their turn at table.
Since very early morning the farm wives had been preparing a meal,
usually consisting of huge roasts of beef, mashed potatoes and
gravy, beans, corn, peas, homemade bread, cabbage slaw, tomatoes,
cucumbers, pickles, cottage cheese, apple sauce, and most often a
good slab of apply pie to top it off.

Those days may be gone foreverbut it’s good to recapture
them, either in memory or imagination, at a Steam Show and
Threshing Bee like the one in Sycamore.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment