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THRESHING CREW COOK

Author Photo
By Loretta Fiegel Aaron

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Steam engine and separator are shown in action in June of 1929 at Loyal. In top photo Lester Henricks of Lampasas, Texas, and Kenneth Fiegel of Loyal stand beside the cook shack.

Kenneth Fiegel, Route 3, Box 14, Kingfisher, Oklahoma 73750.
Reprinted with permission James N. Standard, Managing Editor, The
Oklahoma Publishing Company

The grand finale of the parade was the old Case steam engine,
driven down the paved street with Kenneth Fiegel at the helm. At
intervals the whistle would be blown. As the shrill whistle pierced
the air, jet planes on loan from Vance Air Base in Enid roared
overhead. The old Case engine that had been retired in 1933 had
been restored, and now it came rumbling down Main Street in
Kingfisher, much to the delight of a generation that had never seen
such a contraption.

Directly behind the steam engine came the cook shack better
known to an earlier generation as the beanery. The cook shack was
pulled with a team of mules, and all details were authentic, with
the old horse collars shined and ancient fly nets covering the
mules.

I watched the passing of the old cook shack with mixed emotions,
for in the short minutes of this July parade, 34 days of my life
were brought back to memory. It was the same old cook shack, now
fully restored, that I had worked in one summer back in 1937 as a
teen-ager. I was assistant cook for the threshing industry. I still
remember how excited I was to have landed that job for the pay was
fabulous$2.00 a day! It was a day that began at 4:30 a.m. and ended
at 11:30 p.m.

What was it like then, back in the summer of 1937? Average wage
for most farm work was $1 a day, less for domestic help. The rigors
of the depression had eased somewhat, but the economy was still
strained. In just a few short years this was all to change, as the
nation was to be plunged into the horrors of World War II, and the
migration to the defense plants would begin.

But, for then, in the summer of 1937 $2.00 a day was BIG money.
I planned to use the money to finance my second year at Central
State College. The job as head cook paid $4.00 a day, but that job
required a woman with previous experience feeding a threshing crew,
which generally numbered around 24 men.

The cook shack was called the beanery for good reason. Beans
were a part of the daily menu. A cook shack was a kitchen on
wheels, a dining hall by day, and a bedroom by night. Two hinged
flaps were raised on the sides for ventilation, with screens on the
inside to keep out the flies.

If we were lucky, the cook shack might be parked under a clump
of cottonwood trees. Generally it was parked out in the open, for
trees were a scarce commodity in that area. The relentless sun
would beat down on the uninsulated roof. It was at least a hundred
degrees outside, and not much less inside.

Boards, covered with oil cloth, built along the sides, served as
tables. Long, narrow benches were used for seating. All eating
utensils were tin. They had to be unbreakable. Sometimes two moves
were made in one day to different farms. At night, two Coleman
lanterns were suspended from the ceiling for light. Portable wooden
steps led to the interior, which had an inner screen door. No
matter how far out in a field, flies soon found the cook shack, and
these did create a problem.

After supper was over, and the dishes put back in the old wooden
cupboard, the window flaps would be lowered, doors closed, and the
interior sprayed with an insecticide called Fly-Tox. We would then
retreat to the outside for 30 minutes, and peel the potatoes for
the next morning meal. (Yes, potatoes for breakfast.) Before
calling it a day, we would re-enter the cook shack and sweep up the
dead flies.

If the fields to be threshed were large, we might spend one
entire day in the same location, which was then an easy day for the
cooks. When a move came, the cooks were transported by pickup to
the new location, and a team of mules came for the cook shack.
Before leaving, the cupboard doors would be nailed shut, so the tin
dishes did not fall out. Always with us, ahead of the cook shack,
we took our buckets and potatoes, and out in the open or under the
shade of a tree we peeled our potatoes for the next meal.

When the steam engine whistle blew at high noon, it was a signal
for all work to cease, and all workers came to the cook shack.
Horses were watered and allowed to rest for an hour. The bundle
wagons, grain wagons, everything was horse-powered. One hour was
allotted to the men to eat and rest a while, then at 1:00 p.m. the
whistle would blow again.

Meals were cooked in one end of the cook shack, on an old
cast-iron stove heated by coal. Fresh homemade bread was part of
every meal, except breakfast; then it was hot biscuits. It was my
job to mix a gallon of peanut butter and a gallon of dark Karo
syrup every three days. This was used as a spread on the hot bread
and biscuits. (Jimmie Carter would have liked that.) At that time,
it was against the law to buy oleo (called margarine now) that was
already colored. The coloring came in a separate capsule in powder
form. This was sprinkled over the hard white loaf of oleo. It took
vigorous stirring to have it come out evenly yellow and not
streaked with orange.

The final whistle would blow again at 6:00 p.m. unless a rain
storm was imminent, and then work would continue until rain began,
even if it was around 7:00 p.m. The 40-hour week was unheard of
during harvest season. Sunday was not a working day for the crew,
but the cook shack was open seven days a week. It was a light day
as part of the crew were local men and boys, and they went home
over Sunday.

The men carried their bed rolls with them from job to job and
slept under the stars. Should a summer rain storm come up, they
would move to the barn and bed down on the straw. Around midnight
the cooks would set up their folding cots in the aisle of the cook
shack and call it a day. Even after the Coleman lanterns were
extinguished, we could hear the buzzing of the June beetles
attracted to the screens by the lighted cook shack.

There were some pleasant aspects to this rigorous life. After
the evening meal and the sun went down and the air cooled somewhat,
the men would gather around the cook shack and spin yarns. In a
short while someone would produce a guitar. Some would join in the
singing, others would just listen.

I know I listened to ‘Lamp lighting Time in the Valley’
for 34 nights in a row. When the last strains of the guitar faded
into the warm summer night, cicadas would then take up their
nocturnal chorus.

When a move was made to a new location, everyone in the farm
house would come out to watch the lumbering steam engine take its
place where a straw stack was wanted. The straw stack served as
feed for range and dairy cattle and also protection from the
elements. Few trees grew in that area, and the straw stacks were
often the only shelter for livestock.

That summer of 1937 was the only year I was a member of the
threshing crew, working as assistant cook. In another two years the
cook shack was put into mothballs along with the old Case steam
engine.

Imagine my delight that beautiful summer day last year, in again
seeing the old cook shack, fully restored, being pulled down the
paved streets of Kingfisher. The very same one I spent 34 days with
back in that hot summer of 1937.

One could almost smell the beans cooking!

Published on Sep 1, 1978

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment