Childhood Memories from the Days of Steam
Above: Young boys on the thresher proudly stand for the camera with a threshing crew, date and place unknown. The engine is a Huber. (Photo from the collection of John Davidson.)
The month was July; the year was 1938. Dad and I hitched the team, Maud and Pearl, matched Belgian mares, to the grain binder and pulled it out of the storage shed. The humped-back machine needed some repairs. The canvas conveyor belts needed slats riveted, both on the platform where the cut grain would fall and the elevator canvas that carried the cut grain over the hump, and dumped it into the bundle gathering arms where it was collected and tied. The tying mechanism was metal fingers. They tied the bundle knot and cut the twine. This was the only precision unit on the binder and the most finicky. We oiled the machine, sharpened the sickle sections and examined the guards. Then the team pulled the binder to the wheat field where we removed the tongue from the end of the binder and positioned it on the side for operation. Finally, we lowered the bull wheel, a large drive wheel that powered the binder.
Dad sat in the operator's seat and drove the team while I shocked the bundles. I'd grab two bundles, and holding the tops together, jam the straw ends into the ground so they would stand. Then I'd collect a few more bundles to prop up the original two. Taking another bundle, holding the cut ends against my waist, I'd bend the grain heads down. This bundle would be placed on the top to shed rain, if it came.
Day after day I would shock wheat until they dotted the field. Later we would bring a wagon equipped with a hay frame, pick up the bundles and haul them to the place where the threshing machine was to be located. There we made two stacks about 20 feet high and 8 feet between them. The threshing separator would be pulled into this space.
Some shocks were left in the field. These would be picked up on threshing day by neighbors with their wagons. We announced to our neighbors that the threshing machine would come on a certain day late in July. About a half dozen of them showed up with their wagons and families.
I rose early on threshing day, while the dew was still on the grass. Dressed in my homemade denim overalls and shirt, I went outside and sat on a large tree root, wiggling my toes in the dirt, waiting for the shrill whistle of the old steam engine. It was too wide for our country roads and too high for the tree limbs, so the neighbors had to take down a section of their barbed wire fences in the pasture fields and lay them flat. Then the engine and threshing machine could move across the valley.
By this time some neighboring families began to arrive, walking or riding wagons with hay frames. The men carried pitchforks, and the women hustled baskets of food - fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs, ham, fresh garden radishes, onions, peas and lettuce. There were desserts of wild blackberry pies, chocolate cakes and other sweets. Each woman had her mouthwatering specialties, and they expected compliments.
Mother had tables set up under the big elm tree in our yard. We provided a washtub with a 50-pound block of ice from the icemaker in town. The ice water would keep churned buttermilk and other dairy products fresh, and iced tea cold as well as the several large watermelons. I'd walk around those tables, feasting my eyes, with my mouth watering.
The steam engine pulled the separator between the two bundle stacks. Chunks of wood were placed on both sides of the separator's steel wheels. The steam engine was positioned for the belt. It was nearly a foot wide and about 30 feet long. The operator put belt dressing on it, so it clung to the pulleys. The belt was stored on top of the separator, and it took two men to handle it.
The engine operator put the machine in gear and it started with a chug. The separator reminded me of a dog panting - the sides were moving in and out and the whole machine was shaking.
"The engine operator put the machine in gear and it started with a chug. The separator reminded me of a dog panting - the sides were moving in and out and the whole machine was shaking."
The chaff and dust flying from the threshing was too dirty and itchy for the men to remove their shirts. Some tied a large bandanna, soaked in water, around their necks to keep the chaff away from their skin. They sweat profusely in the heat, often soaking their clothing.
Boys my age vied for the water boy job to bring water from the spring to the thirsty men. I was competing for the water boy job with visiting neighboring boys, but because my Dad was hiring, I had an edge. I could make 50 cents, a lot of money in those days, long, long ago. Grown men would work all day for a dollar during the Depression.
I grabbed two of the gallon jugs, wrapped in burlap, took them to the spring, wet the burlap thoroughly so the water would stay cool, filled the jugs and took them back to the threshers. About every hour I'd take the jug and go among the workers, who would tilt the jug and the water gurgled and gurgled as they drank. After two or three rounds I'd have to return to the spring for refills.
The Perkins twins had wanted the water boy job, and when I got it they began to pester me. Finally, I told those city boys there were turtles in the spring and I'd give them a dime if they'd get rid of them. They disappeared and the next time I went for water I found them throwing sticks at the turtles. I then told them the mossback turtles were actually greenback watermelons, bobbing in the current. Finally, I told them I'd give a nickel to each if they'd carry the melons to the ice tub by the tables Mom had set for dinner.
That's when the whistle blew for dinner. The shrieking whistle hurt my ears and scared Dad's team. They began running. Dad couldn't hold them. He rolled off the wagon. At a forked tree in the corner of the pasture, one horse went on one side and the other the opposite. The wagon tongue went through the fork of the tree. That stopped the horses. Dad turned the mares loose and came to dinner.
Dad asked our minister to return thanks. He said, "Lord, thank you for providing this food for the nourishment of our bodies. Thank you for our good neighbors. Thanks for the good women whose hands prepared the food. And protect us from all evil. Amen, let's eat."
The table was loaded with food: Creamy potatoes, big Buff Orpington's fried chicken, baked yams, garden fresh green beans, salads and a separate table with pies, cakes and fresh breads. There was wild honey, molasses, jams made from peaches and berries, and fresh churned butter. One burley man said he ate 12 loaves of bread - he meant biscuits.
After dinner, some men lay on the grass, others sat leaning against the trees, still other men, and the boys and girls, started a watermelon seed-spitting contest. The girls won.
In a short while the whistle blew, and the men returned to work. The separator panted and the wheat came pouring out. Albert Graves was the wheat sacker. He'd fill a sack, take an 8-inch piece of binder twine, gather the top of the sack with one hand and wrap the twine with the other, leaving his little finger out of the way until the last lap, which went over the finger and under the last wrap of the twine. He never had a sack come open and spill. I admired the way he did it.
By mid-afternoon the whistle blew and the threshing was completed. The men mopped their brows. Soon everyone in the crew was headed for the swimming hole at Big Creek. One young man was very careful to line up flat rocks so when he left the water he wouldn't get sand from his feet in his pant legs. He rinsed himself and got out, stepping on the stones he had arranged. No sand was on his foot as he slipped it into his trouser leg. Soon, however, he was hopping all over the sandy beach with one foot half way through a trouser leg. Everyone then began laughing at his predicament. Later some of the boys admitted tying a knot in his trouser leg.
After the threshing machine left to go to another farm, the fence restored and the neighbors gone, quiet settled over our farmyard. The threshing bee was over until next year.
Well, next year never came. The way of farm life was changing. We sold the Belgian mares and bought a tractor. By the next harvest we had a combine. As the name implies, that machine cuts the grain and threshes it, all by the labor of one man. Long gone are the threshing bees.
Lordy, how I miss those threshing feasts!
Contact steam enthusiast Jim Boan at: 609 W. Bloomfield Ave., Bloomfield, MO 63895.