It isn't every day that you get to visit with a neighbor who remembers steam threshing. And when Donald C. Thoma dropped by to see my Case steamer, I knew it was going to be a good day.
Born in 1921, Donald farms near Ridgeville, Ohio, and lives in the house built by Martin Keever, an early settler who figured prominently in Ohio history. Part of Donald's home is the brick house Martin built in 1809, the birth year of Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe. The rest of Donald's house was completed in 1836. To walk through one of the three front doors is to step back into history.
Donald has nine children. After his first wife, Margaret, passed away, he married Ruth, who has four children of her own. Donald has the easy-going nature that comes with big families.
Indeed, big families run in Donald's family: His great grandfather, James Parlett, had 15 children by two wives. James was born in 1810. In his early 20s, he walked all the way to Ohio from Fredericksburg, Va. Donald's father had six brothers and six sisters, his father-in-law (one of 12) had seven children, and his mother-in-law was one of 12.
Steam-powered agriculture also runs in Donald's family. One of James' boys, Washington, had a Case steam engine and thresher. Washington's brother Dave, Donald's grandfather, most likely fired the Case "because he was good with boilers - a good fireman," Donald recalled. "He also was the one to fire the kettles at butchering time." Donald's father, Charlie Thoma, owned half interest in a 28-inch Wood Bros. Hummingbird separator. The other owner was Wilbur Hutt. Charlie and Wilbur threshed on Turtle Creek and around Ridgeville. They used a 30 Hart-Parr to pull the thresher.
"James Sweney had a Huber without a canopy," Donald remembered as we spoke. "He said each time his son Howard fired it, the sparks went down Howard's neck. On one occasion, it was getting dark, but the crew wanted to finish. So they threshed two more loads before going to have supper on the screened porch. Howard was eating when he heard a plop plop. He looked up, and there was a hen looking down at him. He said you had to watch where you put your plate."
In about 1912, a man named Emerson Surface was selling Rumely equipment in Ridgeville. Later, "He sold Advance-Rumelys, then he sold Allis-Chalmers," Donald said. "Webster Kirby was a custom thresherman. Emerson sold him his engine, a double-cylinder Rumely with a Rumely thresher. Web had a clover huller and a corn shredder, too." Donald has two photos of Webster's rig threshing next to the farm James Parlett had owned and that now belonged to George Riley. It was located beside the bend in the road south of Ridgeville. James farmed with horses and mules. He threshed with a flail and said you had to be careful not to hit yourself in the back of the head. James' house and barns are still standing.
"Emerson said that one time he was running Webster's engine and the clutch was slipping, so he threw a handful of gravel in the flywheel, and that fixed the problem," Donald pointed out. "On Emerson's own engine, the clutch grabbed. So he oiled it, and that fixed that problem. Emerson went off to World War I. He put his separator and his engine in his father's barn. While he was gone, a crew took his engine and separator, and threshed with them. The men running the equipment didn't oil the machinery; they just ran it squeaking. When Emerson found out about it, it made him so mad he sold his outfit and never did thresh with it again."
"Emerson took a 20-40 Rumely on trade for an Allis-Chalmers WC," Donald recalled. "His wife drove him down to get it and took fuel along. She left; then he discovered that rats had chewed the wires off the engine. Emerson didn't want to walk home, so he got some baling wire and ran it from the spark plugs to the magneto. That's how he ran it home."
Donald's recollections illustrate what a small world it is: "The block man, Harry Riner, used to come stay with Emerson. I was out to Elgin, Ill., at the Minneapolis-Moline winter convention. To my right was Orrin Schmidt, and I said something about Harry. 'You know Harry Riner?' Orrin asked. "I sure do," I said. "I knew Harry, too. He sold threshing machines in Kansas."
Speaking of "threshin' days," Donald reminisced, "Andy Malott was a thresherman. He had several acres of beans to feed the troops in WW I. He said to his neighbor Eddie King, 'I've never threshed beans before. How do you do it?' Eddie told him, 'Well, you run the separator as slow as you can run it and still keep it a'goin'.' So Andy had the crew slow down the thresher to a crawl. He hadn't cut the beans in time, and it looked as if it had snowed on the field. Instead of threshing the beans, he ground the beans. After a while, the boys couldn't find Andy and were looking around for him. There he was under the separator, dirt all over him and drunker than a skunk." Not many of Andy's beans made it to the army.
Donald served in the military "from Dec. 30 of 1942 to the 22nd of November in 1945." He took his basic training in Miami Beach, Fla., learned to repair Pratt & Whitney engines at the Buick plant in Flint, Mich., was reassigned to Salt Lake City, was reassigned again to Dalhart, Texas, for a year and finished his duty in Gulf Port, Miss. "After I learned about Pratt & Whitney engines, I never saw another one. I worked only on Wright engines. I was crew chief for B-17s, and I changed over to B-29s on Victory in Europe Day," Donald said.
Back in the winter of 1938, a 50 or 65 HP Case helped build a bridge north of Ridgeville on State Route 73. "The engine sat on the north side of the road to the west of the creek. Emerson fired it. They had tarps up and put the steam hose in there to keep the concrete from freezing. Sometimes they had to fire all night. The bridge lasted 60 years."
Donald continued with a story about Emerson and the end of the kerosene tractor days: "Emerson bought a carload of Rumely OilPulls of different sizes. They were unloaded at Lebanon, Ohio, and he ran them up Highway 48. He had a hard time selling them because no one wanted them anymore. He had a 30-50 for a number of years."
Donald smiled broadly when he began to tell me about Eddie King: "I'll start when he was a boy. Bill was his brother. He lived on Riley Wells Road, which was then Cranetown Road. Their father was driving the tobacco setter and sitting on the barrel that dropped a little water on each plant while Eddie and Bill set the tobacco plants. The father called back to his sons, 'You guys ready to turn?' They didn't say anything. He looked back. There was nobody there. They were in the middle of the field, fighting like roosters."
Eddie bought a Huber engine and a Huber thresher to match. "He liked a Huber because it was easy to get around in these small barn lots in Ohio. A fellow wanted a Huber to run a sawmill. Eddie traded the Huber for a Rumely engine. They made the trade in the town of Corwin, Ohio, because the fellow was afraid the Rumely would go through the floor of a covered bridge. Eddie was driving the Rumely back home and was getting his nerve up to cross the bridge. Just then his guide chain broke. There was a blacksmith shop right there, so he had the chain repaired. While the blacksmith was working, Eddie worried about that bridge. When he was back on the road, he took that covered bridge slowly. He made it over, breathed a big sigh of relief, and went on home."
"Another time," Donald related, "Eddie had neglected to tighten the key on the flywheel. He was on the hill on Highway 42 going north. The key fell out, and the engine took off downhill with the separator following along behind. Eddie wondered whether he ought to jump off, but he stayed with it. After he reached the bottom of the hill, he walked back up, found the key, and put it back in the flywheel."
"Meanwhile, John made a circle and came back through the same hole. John went, 'Ho! Ho! Ho! That fence wasn't any good anyway!' And he went on down the road."
"You could always tell from the tracks in the road if Eddie had gone that way." Donald explained, "He always went straight, turned a bit if he had to, then went straight again. If you came along beside him, he wouldn't see you. He looked far ahead. He always took the guide chains up accordingly."
Donald described Eddie's cure for a leaking tube: "He'd pull the fire out of the firebox, throw boards on the grates, and crawl in to roll the leaking flues."
One time during the threshing season, Eddie asked Donald, "Have you got your old shotgun with you?" "Yeah, why?" Donald replied, scratching his head. "There's a rabbit sitting over there by the fencerow. Why don't you shoot him?" Donald spotted the rabbit and easily shot him with his old 10-gauge shotgun. "I went over to pick him up and noticed Eddie's footprints in the frost. He'd found that rabbit lying along the road and had set me up. He was up there on the engine dying laughing!"
Donald mentioned an incident that took place on Oregonia Hill not far from Donald's home: "A man was going there with a steam engine and a threshing machine. The bull gear broke. The engine started running backwards. He went to jump off, and the drive wheel ran over him and killed him."
When Donald spoke of Mathers Mills Hill east of Lebanon, I shuddered. The Wilmington Road, heading steeply up the infamous hill, makes a sharp cut to the right followed by a sharp cut to the left. "The Apgar family owned a 65 Case. The engine was pulling two threshing machines. The engineer drove that outfit up Mathers Mills Hill! He started with a full water glass so he wouldn't burn out his flues."
"There was a man down in Adams County, Ohio," Donald remarked, "who was always trading steam engines, and he came home with a 30 HP Russell. To get to a field, he drove the rig up a hill with a switchback. He went in there, threshed, came back out, and got in trouble. He went over the edge of the switchback, but he managed to keep everything together.
"About 1900, an engineer by the name of Barnhart was driving his engine and threshing machine across the bridge in Franklin, Ohio," Donald said. "He went through the floor. The engine and the separator went in the water, and the engineer did, too, but he didn't get hurt. The engine and thresher were abandoned. After the 1913 flood, a suspension bridge was built. Then in 1933 or 1934, a new bridge was constructed. The crane hooked onto something under the water and couldn't move it. It might have been that engine."
The memory of an engine out of control reminded Donald of another steering nightmare: "John Havens was moving an engine after steaming tobacco beds north of 73 on the west side of Route 48 not too far from Waynesville, Ohio, and he hit a rock while he was firing. Before he could get hold of the steering wheel, he ran through a fence. Doan Barkney owned the farm. He was on the porch and stood up to look down. Meanwhile, John made a circle and came back through the same hole. John went, 'Ho! Ho! Ho! That fence wasn't any good anyway!' And he went on down the road."
"There used to be a lot of engines," Donald said, "but they junked them all. My uncle Clinton junked 15. Dad and Wilbur sold the Hummingbird in 1930 or 1931 to Barnhart. He pulled it away with a single-cylinder Rumely engine. Wilbur bought his uncle Web's separator to thresh with. He belted it to a 20-40 OilPull. I don't know where he got the OilPull, but it took him all day to drive it home. About the last time anybody threshed around here was in 1935 or 1936. In 1940, Zeke Surface and Roy Reno began to thresh with steam again, using a 16 HP Baker engine and a Minneapolis separator. I remember when Emerson sold his last steam engine, which was about a 20 HP Advance-Rumely. He took a Huber in on trade, and the Huber sat in the alley there for a long while. Then one day it was gone."
Between 1977 and 1996, Donald threshed with a Red River Special 28-inch separator at the Warren County Fair in Lebanon. From 1978 through 1980, Donald served as president of the Antique Machinery Club of Warren County - a club he helped found in 1976. In 1990, he was president of the Dayton Area Antique Engine and Equipment Assn.
Donald C. Thoma continues to do his part to keep the memory of threshing alive.
Contact steam enthusiast Robert T. Rhode at: 990 W. Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066; firstname.lastname@example.org