417 Brown Road, Mayville, Michigan 48744
Ruth Uhl demonstrates carding and spinning wool on her antique spinning wheel.
Since our eldest son subscribed to The Iron Men Magazine for my husband, and the first issue arrived about three weeks ago, I have had no peace! Clinton insists that I must write to you about the annual 'happening' here on our old-fashioned 40-acre farm. So being a dutiful wife (at least part of the time) I'll try to get everything in that my husband will expect me to tell.
First, I must explain that everything that has happened was accidental. We don't live from the farm. Clinton is an attendant nurse at a nearby State Hospital to provide a living for our large family. But he was born and raised on the farm, and his first love is farming - in the old fashioned way. He just could not see going into debt to have a few acres of grain combined by a neighbor. And when a friend, who was moving into town, offered him the old grain separator that he used to thresh with years ago, he accepted it gratefully. Then very shortly, our daughter-in-law's father had a grain binder in almost perfect condition which he offered for sale. Of course, Clinton bought it! Going through our small village on the way home with it, our funeral director, Lloyd Black-more (also an ex-farm boy) followed him home.
'What', demanded Lloyd, 'are you going to do with that?'
'Thresh my oats', Clinton answered logically.
'Mind if you have some help?'. Lloyd asked next.
'More the merrier', agreed Clinton.
And that - five years ago this August was how it started.
Before we realized what was going on, Lloyd had contacted Mayville's Fire Marshall, Merritt Mathews, who had built a half scale model steam engine and water wagon. Merritt belonged to the Eastern Michigan Steam Association, and was most interested in using his little engine in a real Threshing Bee. Old time farmers were visited or phoned by Lloyd and invited to bring horses (if they owned teams) or forks to pitch bundles with, and come to the Thrashin' The day was set for August 5th - only two weeks from when Lloyd first came out to the farm. And more than 500 neighbors and friends showed up to help us thresh! We found ourselves in all the newspapers. And throughout the next year people asked if we were going to have the 'Thrashin'' again. Because of TV and news publicity, we couldn't have got out of it if we'd wanted to -which we didn't. And in the three following years, it has grown until we are astounded at what has developed. Parents bring their children because they want them to see what they remembered 'on grandpa's farm'. Old farmers pitch into a job with gusto, when it used to be hard, tiring work. That first year, one old farmer came up to me with tears in his eyes and said huskily, 'You know, I never thought I'd see this again'.
Each year more 'interests' are added, due to Lloyd Blackmore's enthusiasm for finding participants. The second year, Mark McCarty and Robert Deo from Ubly brought in their big steam engines to do duty on three separators -one, an antique with a conveyor table instead of the blower. One of the engines had an upright boiler, and looked something like a teapot. Our young twin sons were absolutely enthralled with it! Steve (one of the twins) had any boy's dream of a lifetime come true when he was allowed to ride at the head of the parade on the huge Advance Rumely engine. Oh, yes! Threshing Day always begins now with a parade of all the old time machinery and displays. They come out of town and down the hill to the farm - about two miles. And you'd be surprised at the crowd which gathers just to see the rig pull into the yard, 'like it used to do when I was a kid', they say.
While the teams and wagons head for the field to get their loads (with enough 'helpers' to have a load with one bundle each!), the engines are jockied into place and the belts fastened. You can actually hear the huge sigh when the engines start puffing and snorting with the effort of separating. The straw belches out of the blowers and the stack begins to grow. This is what the thousands of visitors come to see and the sound of their satisfaction is just wonderful.
Along with the steam engines at work on the threshing, we have friends who bring such items as a cider mill, an old wood buzzing rig, a spinning wheel (these were brought and demonstrated by Ruth and Clayton Uhl), an old grain cradle - which was used, along with our binder to show spectators how grain used to be cut - and this last year, a portable saw mill to which the large engine was attached to saw logs into boards. Beneath the huge canopies in the yard, antiques of all types are displayed. I have a number of family keepsakes (including a set of R & S Prussian china -a chocolate set) which we show in our front window. One man, Joseph Ernst from Pontiac, brings a display of his hand carved miniature engines. Harry Monroe from Lapeer, brings cases of tiny scale model tools and implements of years past. Lloyd Finch brings a pick-up truck of antiques of all kinds, from horse collars to cylinder-type phonographs.
At noon, the rigs shut down while the men all wash up in the tub set on a crate under the tree, and then come to the long tables where dinner is waiting. The women always help me prepare the real 'threshers' dinner', and we serve it on red and white checked tablecloths while cameras click by the dozens. While the men eat, long lines of hungry visitors are served barbecued chicken dinners, or lunches of hot dogs or other snacks. The barbecued chicken is prepared by the Firemen and their Women's Auxiliary at a very modest charge. Other Mayville organizations provide tea and homemade cookies, etc. to help solve the problem of lunch for families. There's plenty of picnic space for those who bring basket lunches.
During the lunch hour, an area minister speaks briefly, bringing a spiritual overtone to the day's efforts.
Very soon the engines are fired up and the loads of grain continue their journeys from fields to separator to bins. It makes a full day - and a busy one. People continue to come well into the evening and even into the next day. Last year, it was decided to have the threshing later in August so that there would be no doubt that the grain was ready. So on August 16th again this year we will be planning for thousands of guests again.
I was not raised on a farm. I was a minister's daughter, but many of my vacations were spent on the farms of my uncles or my grandparents, and somehow - after preparing meals for eight children of my own, and their friends - it wasn't too much more work to fix dinner once a year for three or four dozen hard-working threshers! Women come dressed in long, old-fashioned dresses and sun-bonnets (as the girls and I always do, too), and ask to be put to work helping with dinner. We have three old wood ranges. One is permanently installed in our dining room, and is used regularly in cold weather for preparing meals. The other two are used on threshing day - set up out in the yard to cook scalloped potatoes, ham, baked beans, coffee, etc. The first year, a woman with a camera watched me lift the lid of the range and put in several pieces of wood, replace the lid, and set the old coffee pot back to continue to boil. She walked around behind the stove (sitting out in our yard for service during the day) with an odd expression on her face, and suddenly she exclaimed, 'Why ... it does really work!' We tried to serve all comers, bean soup and coffee - but when we suddenly found ourselves with thousands of visitors, that had to end. Now we just serve the Threshers' Dinner. We do not charge to see the threshing. With eight children, we know only too well what it is to have to miss good times because we can't afford them. So our threshing is free, so that large families can come and enjoy themselves. We ask a small parking fee (in the hay fields) to cover the cost of transporting the steam engines, and the few other bills. But this day is for fun - and we enjoy meeting the families who come from every corner of the country, yes, and Canada, too, to help us with our threshing.
It takes some time to get back to normal after that day. Cars stop all day Sunday, and people visit with us while looking at the new, golden straw stack, or prowling around the huge engines. We invariably find guests in the yard when we come from church. But we love talking with them, because we have found that there are thousands and thousands of people just like us, who like the old-fashioned way of living - even if it's only for a day.