The Multi-faceted Business of Threshing

Custom Threshing Circles Swept America’s Fields at the Dawn of the 20th Century

| Winter 2005

In the November/December 2005 issue of Steam Traction, Dwight Seman raised fascinating questions about old-time threshing circles. Few of us who have studied threshing feel comfortable generalizing about a subject with so many facets. About the only truism I am willing to offer is that the circles were generally called rings or runs. Beyond that fact, chronological and regional variations in threshing make generalities rather meaningless.

Near my hometown in northwestern Indiana during the decade of the Roaring Twenties, three distinct types of threshing organization existed simultaneously. First, there was the ring, a group of farmers, usually neighbors, helping a hired thresherman, who had his own steam outfit (engine, threshing machine and water wagon), with meals prepared by the spouses of farmers. Crews long remembered the best of these dinners. Next, there was the bucket run, a group of farmers who brought their own food in a dinner pail and who tossed bundles into a wagon equipped with basket racks. They did not have a pitcher on the ground pitching bundles up to the bundle-loader on the wagon for careful stacking; instead, they tossed the bundles into the basket racks and let the bundles fall topsy-turvy. Third, there was the company run, a group of farmers who contributed financially to purchase a steam outfit to thresh small grain on the farms of company members.

To respond more fully to Dwight’s questions, I have relied on several books to help me make a series of well-documented observations about threshing: Allan G. Bogue’s From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century, Hiram M. Drache’s The Day of the Bonanza, Thomas D. Isern’s Bull Threshers & Bindlestiffs: Harvesting & Threshing on the North American Plains, J. Sanford Rikoon’s Threshing in the Midwest, 1820-1940 and Reynold M. Wik’s Steam Power on the American Farm.

To begin, in the generation preceding the Civil War, farmers in the East (the so-called “western” states of Ohio through Illinois, and parts of the South) used a flail to separate the grain from the straw – an intensive job done by hand. On the larger farms, it was typical to designate a barn floor as the threshing floor and to have oxen or horses tramp the grain loose from the straw. The grain then was winnowed, or cleaned of chaff, by hand. The farmer stored the grain in the barn or granary. With the advent of hand-cranked groundhog threshers with toothed revolving cylinders, farmers mechanically knocked the grain from the stalks on which it had grown, but they still cleaned the grain by hand. In the mid-1850s, spring wheat began to be favored on prairie land in the Midwest. Endless-apron threshers struck the grain loose from the straw and separated the chaff from the grain – all in one operation. Significantly, it was around this time that neighboring farmers began to cooperate in threshing.

Treadmills (also called tread powers) for up to three horses powered the thresher. Sweep powers for eight to 14 horses ran larger threshers. The horses were hitched to poles, or sweeps, radiating from a gearbox in the center of the sweep. While the horses traveled in a circle, the gears turned, spinning a tumbling rod, which communicated its motion to the cylinder of the thresher.

With the appearance of such technological improvements, threshing rings formed. Before long, custom threshing developed. The custom thresherman, who owned the equipment, threshed farmers’ grain for a fee – typically with the farmers contributing part of the labor. The custom thresherman was usually from the community where the threshing took place. Various custom threshermen threshed for a ring, but others did not thresh on the ring principle. Toward the end of this period, portable steam engines began to power a few threshers.