The Art of Loading and Feeding Bundles

3982 Bollard Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45209

At threshing reunions, my dad is not always inclined to
compliment the men feeding the threshing machine. Occasionally, he
expresses to me his criticisms of the job they are doing. His
remarks convey no animosity and are not the complaints of a
crotchety old-timer. Instead, his valid assessments are based on
his experience and are intended to help me to understand how
threshing was done. My father, Joseph C. Rhode, pitched bundles,
hauled bundles, and fed bundles during the Thirties, Forties, and
Fifties. His bundles seldom went sideways or backwards into the
cylinder of the threshing machine although, as he would say,
‘anybody can make a mistake now and again.

‘There was considerable competition and pride,’ Dad once
explained, ‘in who could make the nicest-looking load, or who
could pack the biggest load that is, thresh off the most bushels
from his wagon or who could pitch bundles the fastest and still be
accurate.’ Threshing was hard, serious work. Efficiency and
precision mattered.

Today, a faded photograph of a threshing scene evokes nostalgia
for the simple grandeur of the past when farmers collaborated in a
landscape of pristine beauty. Such cooperation did not preclude
amicable rivalry. The crew competed partly from a love of sport but
mostly to do the best possible job of harvesting the crop. On the
threshing rings of my home town, each farmer wanted to save the
highest percentage of the other farmer’s grain so that he would
do the same for him.

The fact that the fanners drove their teams across beautiful
stubble fields was merely another bonus to a glorious but demanding
task. There truly were ‘amber waves ‘Michigan Amber, a
smooth wheat lacking the itchy beards found on older varieties like
Turkey Red. ‘Michigan Amber is about my earliest memory of a
particular type of wheat,’ Dad said. ‘It was much darker
than many of the varieties you see today and beautiful to look at
as it stood in the field.’ Michigan Amber also constituted a
true soft wheat, unlike Perkhoff, a semi-soft hybrid having some
hard wheat in its immediate ancestry. ‘They grew hard wheat out
in the Great Plains, but we grew soft wheat here in northwest
Indiana,’ Dad explained. Perkhoff gradually replaced Michigan
Amber, and bleached-tan stubble supplanted the bronze straw of my
father’s first recollections of threshing.

By the time my father was old enough to heft a pitchfork, bundle
wagons had improved, having racks on front and back for stability.
When he was a boy, farmers still were using wagons with only two
upright stakes at one end and two stakes at the other endand with
plenty of room for bundles to fall off the corners. ‘When I was
just starting out, old-timers would tell me, ‘You young guys
don’t know how to load bundles until you’ve loaded a wagon
with only stakes!’

And they were right,’ Dad agreed. ‘For those wagons,
they had to learn an intricate pattern of laying bundles on the
corners.’

Substituting racks for the old-fashioned stakes on the bundle
wagon made a difficult job a little easier. One ring (or
‘run’) north of the town of Pine Village tried having only
one man per wagon to serve as both pitcher and hauler. In that
situation, the wagon was a ‘basket rack, with low side panels
as well as high racks on both ends,’ according to Dad.
‘Usually a gee and a haw were enough, depending on how
well-trained the team was, but sometimes the man had to lead the
horses from one shock to the next. At the beginning of the load,
the man piled the bundles in willy-nilly, then he tried to lay rows
on top. At least twice during the load, he had to climb up the
front or the back rack to straighten out bundles.’ This method
of loading took time, and usually one man could not get as many
bundles on a basket wagon as two men could on a wagon with end
racks only. Dad said, ‘That’s why most runs had a man on
the ground and one on the wagon. The one on the ground was the
field pitcher, and the one on the wagon was the bundle
hauler.’

The estimation of the proper ways to pitch and load bundles
varied from locale to locale and from person to person. J. Sanford
Rikoon’s Threshing in the Midwest 1820-1940 (Indiana
University Press, 1988) quotes Harold Pointer of New Unionville,
Indiana:

‘… I wanted the heads to be in the wagon, to be facing the
middle so that when I went to the separator they wouldn’t fall
out. Any of that grain that shattered out then would still be in
the wagon. I used to say, ‘If the heads are out, the rabbits
get fat.’ So I wanted that pitcher to work just right. He had
to stick that fork into the bundle and then move it around, had to
get it up to me just right. The heads would come down in the middle
if he laid it on right. You know, you had to be pretty quick to get
the hang of that . . . you see, also, as those shocks came off of
the binder, they generally had a certain shape to them that the
binder made when it tied them up. They had a tendency to wrap them
bundles so that they were flat, the binder flattened them out along
a side. And so if you were loading on the wagon then, if you were
up there, you would want those bundles to get up there with that
flat side down, on the bottom of the wagon. Then the load up there,
which got quite large, would ride better. Them flat sides there
would give you more supportand if they wasn’t pitched up that
way, why I’d have to bend down then and turn them over to get
them just like I wanted. I didn’t want to have to do that,
because then I wouldn’t be able to keep up with those bundles
being pitched up there so carelessly-like.’ (67-68)

Rikoon next quotes from an interview with Merwin Winer of St.
Marys, Ohio: ‘Then you always want to put the bundle in front
of the guy that’s a-loading it. Always want to put it in front
of him when you two work long enough together you know how to put
the bundle up there, put the head up, so that it lays down there
for him. When you’d know that you was going to go to the far
side, you’d put it up there with the butt. You know he could
just grab that and put it on the wagon. Then when he was on your
side, you’d put the head up to him first.’ (68)

My father stated, ‘As a hauler, I didn’t want the
pitcher to guess where I might like a bundle to go. I preferred it
when the man on the ground carefully pitched the bundles in front
of me with the heads toward me. That way, I could stick my fork in
that bundle and turn it right or left to put it in place. I would
have to touch it only once.’ Efficiency called for a minimum of
wasted effort.

Dad described a poor job of pitching: ‘A beginner might toss
up a bundle so that it fell sideways or, worse, with the butt
toward the hauler. The hauler would have to touch that bundle more
than once, before he could get it situated where it
belonged.’

On the other hand, an excellent pitcher could ‘lift bundles
to the center of the wagon. The hauler could leave some lie where
they fell and just tramp on them without having to touch them
again.’ As Dad put it, ‘A hauler could be a bit less
careful with the positioning of bundles in later layers, but the
first layer needed to be exact.’

Occasionally, the pitcher would help the hauler by assembling
the first row of bundles along the edge of the wagon. As the
hauler, Dad preferred to have the pitcher hand him the bundles,
which Dad would arrange in the initial row. ‘It was hard for
the pitcher to see where he was actually placing the bundles,’
Dad reasoned. ‘I didn’t like it too much when the pitcher
built the first row because the bundles might be too far back or
too close to the edge. The first layer of bundles had to be put on
just right, or else the load would be uneven and
unbalanced.’

Other helpful pitchers would show off by tossing three or four
bundles onto the wagon simultaneously. Dad related, ‘Some
bundle haulers were most adamant about having pitchers give them
only one bundle at a time. If a pitcher tossed several at once, the
hauler might start throwing them back on the ground!’

A well-constructed shock had nine bundles. Dad recalled,
‘The first year that I was pitching on a run, one farm had
shocks made by itinerant laborers who didn’t care and who did a
quick job, got their money, and left. Some of those shocks had over
thirty bundles in them! That straw and grain didn’t cure out
very well, and there was plenty of mold.’ As a pitcher, my
father liked to upset the shock by inserting his pitchfork
two-thirds of the way up and pushing it over on its side. ‘Then
the bundles came loose easily,’ Dad stated. ‘This was much
easier than taking off the cap and lifting each bundle. After a
shock had been standing for a long time, the individual bundles
would stay put, standing upright even without the capping
bundle.’ To separate a tight group of upright bundles was
difficult.

When bundles were loaded, the heads of grain needed to be toward
the center of the wagon. Dad said, ‘The head end is heavier.
The bundles will fall off the wagon if they’re turned the other
way, with the butts toward the center. A big bunch would slide off
when you bounced over the field.’

The butts of the bundles needed to extend six to ten inches
beyond the edge of the wagon. My father explained that, if he were
beginning to build a load, he would put three or four bundles on
one side of the wagon then three or four on the other side.
According to Dad, ‘On a bundle, the butt end is fluffed up, but
the heads lie flat. I would weight down the heads of the bundles I
had placed on the wagon by putting the butt of another bundle on
top of the head of one of the bundles I already had on there.’
These bundles on top are said to ‘tie down’ the bundles on
the bottom. When the steel-wheeled wagons moved from shock to
shock, the bundles would bounce around, some toward the center of
the wagon, some out. ‘You didn’t want to leave bundles
untied. You needed to tie down those first bundles fairly
soon,’ Dad said.

The length of bundles varied from crop to crop and from year to
year. If the bundles were short, there would be six rows of bundles
across the wagona row on each edge of the wagon bed, a second row
tying them down, and a third row tying down the second row. The
heads of the third rows would meet. Dad commented, ‘Usually,
though, there’d be four rows, two on a side, and then you’d
lay a row of bundles at right angles to them. This new row would go
down the middle in the low spot down to the floor. You’d lay
two or three bundles with their butts toward the back of the wagon
and two or three with their butts toward the front of the
wagon.’

Next, the hauler would add layers. ‘You had to be real
careful about that outside row every time,’ my father said.
‘You needed to bring the load up very straight. Now, some guys
would put the outside bundles of successive layers farther out then
draw the sides back in again higher up. By so doing, they had room
for a few more bundles, but I never had the nerve to try that very
often. Sometimes, you’d see them lose part of their load when
the wagon hit a bump.’

Long ago, loads were taller. ‘When I was a boy,’ Dad
recalled, ‘the farmers built a load five layers higher than the
stakes. It took craftsmanship to do that! Then when I first began
to help with the threshing, we were putting three layers above the
top of the racks. Eventually, we went only one layer above the
height of the endracks. That way, we saved the horses
somewhat.’ Loads could be built up higher when the fields were
larger; generally, the longer the distance to the thresher, the
higher the load.

My grandfather, Seymour Rhode, was regarded as a champion at
building a load. In his generation, many haulers did not use
pitchforks to position bundles on the wagon. Seymour lifted each
bundle into place by hand. He employed a fork only to unload. By
Dad’s day, haulers were using pitchforks for loading. Also by
my father’s era, wagons had become standardized at a width of
seven feet and a length of fourteen feet. A few people built them
sixteen feet long and complained about how much harder they were
working to load their wagon.

Once the bundle wagons had pulled to either side of the
thresher, the hauler displayed another skill involving practice and
grace unloading the bundles into the feeder. As Dad instructed,
‘It’s very important for the heads to go in first so that
the bundle is lying straight on the feeder and so that the heads go
straight into the cylinder.’ In the nineteenth, century, before
threshers were equipped with mechanized feeders, the man
hand-feeding the bundles always fed them heads first into the
cylinder. In Dad’s generation, farmers knew to preserve that
worthwhile tradition.

‘It was easier to get the bundles to go in headfirst if the
feeder had a feeder board, which divided the feeder into two narrow
channels,’ Dad said.’ ‘Even a guy who was doing a
fairly poor job of pitching could barely get a bundle turned
crossways on a feeder with a feeder board. In fact, you could just
stick the tines of your fork under the heads, turn them to fall
onto the feeder, and trust the weight of the heads to line up the
bundle straight against the divider board.’ The divided feeder
spared the men a little exertion.

Pitching bundles into the feeder required a watchful eye and a
steady hand. ‘If the butt of a bundle hit the feeder chain
first,’ Dad remembered, ‘then there was the possibility
that the bundle would stand up, topple over, and go into the
thresher with the butt first. You needed to make the heads hit the
chain so that the bundle would go in headfirst. This orientation
saved the grain and made for the cleanest job of
threshing.’

Once, after a magnificent threshing dinner, the crew began to
boast for the supposed benefit of the women working nearby. Dad
told the rest of the story:

‘The heavily-muscled hulks were bragging about how they
could get the engine ‘up in the collar’ which meant making
the engine work hard by feeding the thresher so fast it would
choke. A wiry man cut short their banter: ‘You don’t have
to be big to slug the cylinder. All you have to do is put two
bundles side by side butts first and one across them on the
feeder.’ Later on, a man pitching bundles into the thresher was
hoping to get a little rest, and he took the wiry man’s
suggestion. It slugged the cylinder all right. It didn’t make
the separator man very happy, though.’

For convenience and elegance of feeding, threshing machines
needed long, low feeders. ‘For the kind of wagons we used and
the kind of threshing we did in northwest Indiana, the lower
feeders especially were easier on the crew,’ Dad said. By the
same token, wide-diameter steel wheels on wagons were easier on the
horses. ‘When the smaller, rubber-tired wheels came in, the
pull was not as steady, and the horses rubbed sores on their
necks,’ Dad recalled. ‘In the field, the rubber tires would
struggle to climb a ridge but would roll quickly down the other
side. These constant alterations in the draft were hard on the
horses. The changes to more modern ways were not uniformly
good.’

At antique-machinery shows through the years, Dad has paid close
attention to how people feed the thresher, and he has ‘pitched
in’ to help. As he summarized, ‘Threshing is an art, like
anything else.’

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