Custom Threshing Circles Swept America’s Fields at the Dawn of the 20th Century
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.
From the 1860s through the 1870s, portable steam engines were used increasingly for threshing in the East, the states of the Midwest and South. Barn threshing was preferred on smaller farms in the eastern and upper southern parts of the U.S. where mows were large enough to contain the straw. Bundles were stored in the barn and threshed there during the fall and winter. Farmers stored grain not only in barns but also in separate granaries. In western parts of the westward-expanding Midwest, farmers increasingly relied on custom threshermen, who hired their own crews and who placed less and less reliance on farmers’ labor. Vast farms in California demanded bigger and bigger machines. Straw-burning engines were popular wherever fields were large, coal and wood were hard to come by, and there was more straw than needed for livestock. Threshers having a vibrating mechanism slowly eclipsed the endless-apron models.
From the 1870s to the turn of the last century, the opening of new farmland to cultivation in such states as Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas boosted steam-powered threshing. Throughout these locations, threshing occurred in the open field. In the western parts of the Midwest and especially on the Great Plains, custom threshermen hired multiple crews that often worked far apart from one another. The custom threshermen and their workers frequently did not hail from the area where the threshing was done. Custom threshermen usually expected landowners to provide a barn or other shelter for the crew and their horses, but, particularly in the western Midwest and on the Great Plains, custom threshermen bunked the crew in a wheeled bunkhouse, or sleeping car. The crew’s meals were prepared in a wheeled cook car (also known as a cook shack, cook wagon or chuck wagon).
During the late 1870s, various Midwest farmers began to prefer fall-seeded wheat. Also, stack threshing – with bundles stacked before threshing – became a popular method in many places. Meanwhile, the Bonanza farms of the upper Midwest became nearly mythic for the vast scale of their operation.
Engineers called for larger threshers and more powerful engines. Mechanical self-feeder attachments replaced the need to hand-cut the bands of bundles and to hand-feed the bundles into the thresher. Eventually, the pneumatic-tube wind stacker edged out conveyor-belt straw carriers. As readers of Steam Traction are well aware, horse-guided traction engines became popular; then self-steering traction engines were perfected.
In western sections of the country, grain was bagged for hauling to railroads. As increasing acreages came under cultivation in the East, the eastern Midwest, and parts of the South, grain was bagged and hauled to markets. In various sections of the country, company runs started to appear. In this arrangement, farmers pooled their money to purchase a steam outfit to thresh the company’s grain. Tall elevators to store grain lined major transportation arteries. Grain was hauled directly to these elevators by wagon.
In California, in other locations in the West, and in regions within the Great Plains, headers pushed by horses cut off the heads of grain and deposited them in header-boxes or wheeled barges. Grain was not bundled but was hauled loose in the barges and fed directly into the thresher. In various places, derrick threshing from stacks of headed grain offered a novel variation on the theme of threshing. A derrick lifted headed grain onto a table, from which the grain was fed into the thresher. In Kansas and other parts of the Great Plains, winter wheat was prominent.
By this time in the East, eastern portions of the Midwest, and parts of the South where grain was threshed, rings and custom threshing were in full swing.
From the turn of the last century to World War I, agricultural steam engines became increasingly large and carried ever-higher pressures. Big engines typified threshing in the western portions of the Midwest and in the West. In various sections of the West where vast acreages of grain had long been grown for commercial purposes, the use of combines was becoming more common. A combine was so named because it combined harvesting, or reaping, with threshing, or knocking the grain loose and separating the grain from the straw.
On more recently developed farms in the Midwest, threshing in open fields was popular. New barns had mows too small for the straw, and it saved one step to thresh directly from shocks rather than first storing the bundles in a barn or in stacks. At this same time, more and more grain was handled in bulk by wagon, not in bags. In the eastern Midwest, the straw for livestock was stacked in the open field. In the western Midwest and parts of the West, where cropland acreages were much larger, the straw was burned because it was not needed for livestock.
In the Midwest around World War I, numerous company runs developed. The rings continued to be strong. They varied in size between fewer than 15 and more than 50 farmers. Usually, the rings had at least two presiding officers: a president and a secretary. Often, the president owned the threshing rig and also served as treasurer. The ring with which I am most familiar is the one for which my great uncle ran a Reeves steam engine. In that ring, any farmer having less than 40 acres of grain contributed a team and wagon to make the round of all the farms on the circuit. When a farmer became disabled, he employed a driver. Any farmer having between 40 and 80 acres supplied a team and wagon and hired a man in addition to the teamster. A farmer having more than 80 acres to thresh furnished two wagons and teams and three men. Most of the wagons were for hauling bundles from the fields, but a few were for hauling grain. At the end of the season, the farmers gathered at the home of the president for “settle-up day.” My great uncle’s ring celebrated the occasion with an ice cream social. As engineer, my great uncle earned five dollars for threshing oats and six dollars for threshing wheat for each day of labor.
In this same time period, the West experienced a growing reliance on combines. More and more kerosene or gasoline tractors powered threshers, which were becoming smaller. At first, the tractors were large, but successful manufacturers soon recognized the need to build small tractors. Also, firms began to produce small tractor-pulled PTO combines that one person could run. Collaboration among neighbors during the threshing season gradually diminished. On the Great Plains, combines enjoyed increasing favor. Throughout the grain farming regions of the United States, small combines pulled by tractors become more and more popular. Farmers combined their grain independently of one another. It is no secret to Steam Traction’s readers that, during World War II, literally tons of steam engines were scrapped while others became derelict.
This all-too-brief summary of the history of American threshing suggests why it is unwise to generalize.
In an ideal world, we would have thousands of threshing account books enabling us to understand prices and yields throughout the steam-power era. But lacking such records, we have only government reports to give us knowledge of the national picture of agriculture in earlier years. The yearbooks published by the United States Department of Agriculture occasionally contain relevant documentation.
A few collectors have handfuls of threshing record books, but I have only two. One of mine measures 4-1/2-by-7 inches, is entitled Catalogue No. 5 – 1886, and was produced by Reeves & Co. of Columbus, Ind. The other, entitled Thresher’s Record Book, measures 4-by-6-3/4 inches and was issued by the Threshermen’s Association of Iowa, the County Farm Bureaus, the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, and the Agricultural Extension Department. In the former, the earliest handwritten date is 1887; in the latter, the handwritten date is 1919. The Reeves booklet has a dark red, leatherette cardboard cover simulating Moroccan binding. The Iowa booklet has a plain card stock cover. Neither has carbon-copy capability or an envelope for mailing information to a state agricultural office.
The owner of the Reeves booklet noted that wheat was worth 4 cents per bushel in both 1887 and 1888. The owner of the Iowa booklet noted that wheat was worth 6 cents per bushel and that oats were worth 3-1/4 cents; as he frequently listed gasoline prices, he may not have been threshing with steam.
The thresherman who used the Reeves booklet switched to a different account book for the second half of the 1887 season and the first half of the 1888 season. That ledger is missing. Consequently, I can derive no totals from those seasons, but the booklet does report totals of 7,434 bushels of wheat and 3,628 bushels of oats threshed in 1889. The amounts varied greatly among farmers listed and ranged from 17 to 1,529-1/2 bushels. The totals for oats were far lower – nearly insignificant amounts in comparison to the yields of wheat.
The thresherman who had the Iowa booklet recorded yields of oats far in excess of the yields of all other small grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. His totals for oats ranged from 377 to 1,820 bushels. In 1889, the Reeves booklet owner threshed for 38 farmers between July 17 and Oct. 1. The Iowa booklet owner threshed for only 14 farmers between July 29 and Aug. 28.
Dwight Seman asked about the Ohio State Board of Agriculture, which was formed in 1846. At the turn of the last century, the head of the Ohio Department of Agriculture was the secretary of the board. While I do not know why Ohio collected threshing statistics in 1918, it could be that the board was interested in reporting the results to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for possible publication in its annual yearbook or for a similar purpose. I doubt that there was any penalty for a thresherman who failed to submit information. I do not know if threshing records from the early 1900s are still housed in Columbus.
Dwight has asked many of the right questions about threshing. As may be seen from this article, the answers are either complicated or obscure. I thank Dwight because it is only through asking questions that we may bring historical truths to light, and I can think of no better employment than preserving history for the edification and enjoyment of future generations.
Contact steam historian Robert T. Rhode at: firstname.lastname@example.org