The Threshers Are Coming

Memories of steam and threshing on the farms of Michigan


| July/August 2004



Michigan threshing crew

A threshing crew pauses for the camera somewhere in central Michigan, date unknown. The engine is a Nichols & Shepard.

Threshing grain was the big day of the summer on the farm.

The grain was cut and shocked, and if it looked like it might be two or three weeks before the thresher would get to the farm, the grain bundles were stacked. Wood to fire the steam engine was hauled in and piled near where the engine would be belted to the grain thresher.

Threshing day was an exciting day for the children, and everyone was up early that morning. The children would run out in the road to see if the rig was coming, and then there it was, coming down the road to the farm. As it got closer, they could hear the engine puffing and the grinding sound of the iron wheels on the road. Then it stopped in front of the house.

The kids looked in awe at this big, hissing, iron monster. The thresher man stepped down from the engine and walked toward the barn where he met Grandpa. Together, they would look over where the set was to be made. While this was going on, the water wagon pulled alongside the engine and filled the water barrels. Then it was off to the river to pump the tank full of water again.

The grain separator was pulled in place, then it was leveled and blocked, as neighbor men who would be helping with the threshing arrived. The bundle feeder was swung up and locked in place, and the drive belt was laid on the ground and unrolled by the thresher man. He lined up the belt by sight, and then drove his engine up to the belt. The fireman gave the belt a half twist and put it on the belt-drive pulley. The steam tractor backed up, pulling the belt tight. If the alignment looked good, the thresher man yelled “block it,” and a man on each side of the engine set a block in front of the drive wheel to hold it in place.

The thresher man returned to the thresher to finish getting it ready, as grain tallies were set to measure the amount of grain threshed. The blower pipe was swung around and pointed to where the new straw stack was to be made. The bagger was set up, and then there was the last-minute greasing, oiling and checking of belts. While all of this was going on, the fireman was busy greasing, oiling and firing the boiler. Soon, all was ready.

Steam hissing from the pop valve told the thresher man the engine was ready, with a full head of steam. Everyone took his or her place, standing still and silent. The thresher man stepped up on the platform of his engine, gave the whistle cord a hard pull and sent out a wailing shriek that was heard for miles around. Then, with both the thresher man’s hands on the controls, the wheels began to turn and black smoke bellowed high into the air. The steady panting sound of the engine and the hum of the thresher was music to everyone’s ears.

There were 12 to 15 men in a threshing crew, and to get this many men you exchanged help. The neighbor men helped you, and then you helped them with their threshing job.