Stories of Steam Thrashin’

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Opposite page: Donald C. Thoma.
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Right and below: Webster Kirby’s crew threshing with Webster’s double-cylinder Rumely and Rumely thresher at the James Parlett farm south of Ridgeville, Ohio, circa 1912.
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Above: A 1903 Warren (Ohio) County atlas noted “prominant thresherman” James Sweney, and included a picture not only of his farm, but also of a Gaar-Scott traction engine.
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Left: A Case engine and threshing rig were highlighted in the same 1903 atlas, posed in front of A.B. Sides’ warehouse. Threshing was a key industry in Warren County.

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.

STEAMING MEMORIES

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;
case65@earthlink.net

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