Threshing: How It Actually Was

Rt. 1 Nashville, Illinois 62263

Threshing articles are always of interest and there have been
many written which tell us of the general and personal experiences
of a particular writer, their father and/or grandfathers. It is
important to keep in mind that it was the threshing event that was
for generations the one really big event of each year! The farmers
in the last third of the 1800s and through the 1920s, the 1930s or
even into the 1940s, depending on what part of the country it took
place, could get their crops in and nurse them along to harvest
time, including the cutting and binding, but they could not thresh
the grain without that big community threshing effort.

The first of the hobby shows, or reunions as they were first
called, started only because of threshing and the effort to reenact
that event in the form of a reunion. Today there are only few of us
left who were experienced, living members of a threshing crew day
after day. Therefore we should carry the details forward so that
the people of today can see what those events were all about. There
was indeed lots of work associated with the threshing, but the
comradeship, the fun, the food and the really great feeling of
accomplishment offset, many times over, the great effort and hard
work.

It is interesting to note how the threshing articles in our
hobby magazines vary so much. It is easy to tell which of the
writers really had the direct or even indirect experiences, from
those writers who write from pictures or from general conversation
they have heard. However, they are all good! There are too many
articles to comment about but thank you for all of them.

There were differences between the various areas of the country
even though the basics of threshing were the same. There were
variations in the hours per day they actually threshed. There were
large differences in the bundle sizes even with the same wheat
stand, but much more than that there were vast differences in the
length and weight of the straw. Many of the plains and some western
areas harvested much lighter and shorter straw. Even within one
state variations were great. For example, in some parts of western
Kansas near Colorado there was a vast difference in straw from, for
example, the heavy black soils of central Kansas around Wichita and
south into Oklahoma. Actually the stories are endless!! Let us hope
as many of them as possible can be retained for history and future
reading.

The date that combines took over from threshers also varies
greatly. On the plains and in the west, they began a full
generation and as many as 30 years before they did in the
Mississippi Valley and parts of the east.

For details in this article, I turn to the counties east of St.
Louis in approximately a 60-70 mile radius. I share with you a few
words on HOW IT WAS and I am sure it will compare closely to fond
family memories of many readers.

Farms were close together and farmsteads very often less than
mile road travel apart. There were those one mile or more apart,
but not many. The farmsteads themselves were not spread out and the
threshing was usually close enough to the buildings so that the
crew seldom were more than one to one and a half minutes walk from
the mid morning and mid afternoon lawn lunches or the dinner table
in the house at noon.

Speaking of the lawn lunches spread out on the grass in the
shade, they were memorable indeed. There was room for a dozen or
more men to eat at one time and that was enough because the
threshing did not stop for lunch. The ladies were quick to serve
the hot coffee from the large enamel coffee pots for as many
refills as was desired. Also they continuously replaced the cold
sandwich meats, the coffee cake, the home canned fruits and all the
other food that quickly disappeared when these hurried lunches were
eaten. We must not forget that one or two of the ladies were fully
occupied using freshly cut maple twigs with all the leaves
attached, making a spread of maple leaves which they used to keep
the flies from the food as best they could.

The noon dinner was a really big meal inside the house at the
fully extended table to serve as many as they could. Also there was
always a second and third sitting. For dinner the men would wash in
cold water at a large wash tub at least 2/3
full of water. The hard well water was usually provided and hard
water soap generously used. Much spilled on the grass as they
washed and rinsed before drying. It was truly very refreshing and
there were two or three refills in the wash tub that served the
crew for that noon meal wash.

The food was usually superb. Very tasty meats, potatoes and
vegetables were devoured. Then that dessert! It was never one
dessert, but a choice of cakes, pies and canned fruits. Most men
usually had more than one dessert! With all of this activity and
comradeship between everyone, the six or more ladies were scurrying
all around the table making sure all the foods were kept fully
supplied. Of course there sometimes were homes where the food was
not so great, but they were not common. It is added that although
the ladies were very busy providing such a grand meal plus the
morning and afternoon lunches, they too enjoyed much comradeship
and enjoyment playing such an important role in that big event!

The famous painting associated with threshing, ‘When Steam
Was King,’ is an excellent scene showing a great deal. Mine is
nicely framed with an identical miniature frame immediately below
with that well known caption. The location of the straw stack in
that painting was basically wrong. Being that close to the barn was
very rare indeed due to the dangers of fire, even though some of
the farmers put it there.

The fields were not big and the bundle wagons rarely had to load
more than a half mile from the machine. If it was more, then the
rig would usually be moved to those fields and put a straw stack
that far from the stock pens by the barn. In those situations the
ladies usually brought the lunches to the threshing rig.

The threshing ring was made up of 12 to 15 farmers in that area,
and most rigs were individually owned instead of by the members of
the ring. By far the most popular threshing machine size was the 36
inch cylinder with the 58 to 60 inch separating width. Usually
eight bundle wagons would do the job, rarely more than 10. The
frame wagons, until the last few years of threshing, were of the
drop center design with the higher level extending over and beyond
the wheels. The last designs were a flat bed with a slightly raised
edge all around it and often so tight that wheat kernels which had
shattered out from all the bundle handling during the day would
collect, and if the wagon driver drove home with it there would
usually be enough to feed his chickens.

Four pitchers in the field could keep the 8 to 10 wagons loaded.
While the two wagon men unloading at the machine pitched bundles
steadily into the feeder, the four pitchers in the field had to
take time to move from shock to shock and row to row, plus moving
to the empty wagons as they arrived in the field as the loaded ones
left for the machine. One must also remember that a stop for a
drink of water was necessary regularly; while unloading the wagon
at the machine there was no stopping, so the taking of a drink had
to be done either before or after pulling up to the feeder, or
both.

Speaking of the drinking water, it was a full time job for one
person to steadily supply the entire crew. Usually the job was done
by a boy of ten or somewhere in his teens, but often a man or woman
did the job. The crock gallon jugs were used and everyone drank
from the jug. Usually as the jug was passed to the next crew member
he would shake the jug in such a way as to rinse off the opening
with a little water from the jug. Often the jugs were wrapped with
a burlap bag material and by soaking the burlap each time the jug
was filled, the water evaporation would help keep it cool.

The ‘water carrier’ always needed to have two jugs and
sometimes three. It was necessary to keep moving around the whole
operation so all the crew members could drink often. With all of
this the refilling with fresh water from well or cistern was a
steady process. It took a lot of moving around and the water
carrier, or ‘water boy’ was the term commonly used, would
often use a single seat buggy pulled by one horse to move about.
Sometimes he would ride horseback, and in the ’30s he might be
using a car. Seldom could he walk and do the job. It certainly was
an important part of the threshing, as surely the men could not
work long without those frequent refreshing drinks of water.

The uprights at the front and rear of an empty frame wagon stood
well above the head of a man standing. The load would have to be
correctly put on the wagon as it was higher than those standards.
The ‘laying the bundles’ and fitting them together or
‘tying the load together’ was the art achieved from
experience over a considerable period of time. A good man would
have a tight solid load. The side of the frame and the top of the
load would be above those standards. Often he had to reach down
eight to ten inches or even a foot from the top of the load to
reach the top of the standards and get hold of the lines for the
drive to the machine. Not counting the drop center, the top of the
load could easily be seven feet above the frame. For readers not
familiar with the word ‘lines,’ they are the two leather
straps going to the bits in the horses’ mouths. Horse riders
use the word ‘reins.’

During the loading of the wagon in the field, one would not
touch the lines when moving from shock to shock. Instead
controlling horses was done by voice command when to start and to
stop. The horses would move along the row quite nicely at a proper
distance so the pitcher could pitch up the bundles. Only when
changing rows would it be necessary to use the lines, and of course
when going to and from the field.

It was all hard work, but the bundle wagon job was often
considered to be the best one. You were in the open air and
traveling the full area of the threshing operation. Often there was
a little waiting at the machine so a rest and a little joking and
conversation was possible. Also, riding on top of a full load was
smooth and with a good view, both in the field and as you moved by
the engine to get up to the feeder. Standing on the load one would
be well above the engine roof and those constantly changing
exhausts as a good governor did its job were truly music to our
ears. Those governors regulated the r.p.m. closely and with less
percent speed change than nearly all modern tractors regulate their
changing load speeds. That is not to say the modern tractors could
not have such close regulation, because they could, but the
regulation in the new tractors is often purposely at a higher
percent of speed regulation than we had on the steam engines
pulling the threshing machines.

The threshed grain was usually hauled away in high wheeled box
wagons holding 50 bushels. There were also the larger wagon grain
boxes with the top portion wider than the lower part, but they were
rare. The weigher on the machine made it easy to measure this load.
Then two men would scoop the grain into the bin using No. 12 scoops
or sometimes No. 10s or No. 14s. Often that would take place on a
sunny side of the barn or building and if there was no breeze
moving that unloading was really a strain, with much perspiration
generated.

On occasion there were the early trucks which usually hauled to
the elevator, unless the elevator was fairly close by so the horses
could do the job. This job too demanded skill and experience so as
not to spill grain. It allowed some resting when back at the
machine, but if the yields were high it was a rush most of the
time. It must be added that for many years during the earlier days
of threshing, say generally before the ’30s, the grain was
sacked and handled in those filled sacks.

All the crew were absolutely vital to the operation and any
missing men would slow down or even stop the operation. The engine
and separator were the key on which everything depended. The water
wagon then was the key to keep the engine performing.

Some water wagons had the brand name of the engine, and some had
no name at all. A team of horses pulled the wagon and the nearest
creek or pond was used. In this area water was never far away, as
it was in some areas on the Great Plains or in alkali regions. This
job too was hard work, as the hand pump could be a chore indeed. If
the trip took too long the engineer would use three long serious
whistle blasts to signal the need for water and the water wagon
driver would hurry as fast as he could to get back with that vital
need of the engine. It was only those last years of threshing when
the pumps were powered by small gasoline engines and some of the
early trucks hauled the water tank.

In our present age we often forget about the straw stack. The
blower tender could make the belt driven gear box move the blower
to both extremes right and left, or anything in between to make a
stack that was what the farmer wanted. He could crank a worm drive
and cable winch to move the end of the blower up and down. Another
handled wheel lengthened or shortened the pipe, and of course the
rope he used all the time directed the straw as it came out of the
blower pipe.

With a combination of these he could adjust the blower over a
wide range of conditions to make the straw stack as desired. With
all of that however, there was still the need for a man to
regularly go up on the straw stack to properly shape it. We can
remember clearly how he would work back and forth the full length
of the stack to push the straw outwards with his wide special straw
fork. The blower tender would pull the rope fully back to allow the
straw and chaff to pass over the straw stacker each time he moved
under the blower from one end of the stack to the other.

During the teens, the 20s and through the 30s, the threshing
continued as that most important event. Only as combines began to
come in did it slow down and finally disappear in the 1930s and
early to mid 1940s. In much of the west it happened 20 years or
more sooner and some places, as in California where Holt made the
early combines, it took place even sooner, around the turn of the
century. In my case, I was a member of the crew the day I left for
pilot training in the Navy during the war.

Those 36′ machines were mostly pulled by 18, 20 and 22 size
engines and as the years passed the 22 size was quite popular. Also
the later and higher pressure engines going up from the 135-150 to
165-175 pounds, saw the 19 size engines do the same or more work
than the older 20s and even 22s.

In this region all the farmers had milk cows, chickens, usually
hogs, and of course horses to take care of, and those chores kept
them from threshing as long days as was done in some parts of the
country like the Great Plains and into some parts of the Alberta
and Saskatchewan Provinces of Canada.

As I have discussed the ‘Threshing As It Was’ in that
60-70 mile radius east of St. Louis, surely there are hundreds of
readers from other areas who have the same or similar memories. It
was truly a great era several generations long that built American
farming from the hard times before the Civil War to a much higher
period of prosperity, of comradeship and higher standard of living
from the late 1800s up to the second World War. Since WWII there
have been changes in higher power for farm machinery, advances in
chemicals and hybrid seeds, but few new basic machinery inventions
or changes. Even the rotary combine is not new, as at one time
there was a rotary threshing machine.

Some would argue that standards of living have improved, but no
one can deny that the comradeship, the close neighbor cooperation
in and enjoyment of working together have all but disappeared. That
is truly a shame and a tragedy! While instant communications and
television news are with us, we live in a world of more
indifference with less interest in the abilities of people and
their accomplishments, while generally people have less knowledge
of history and our heritage. There are some signs that millions of
people are again desiring some of those values we once had, and
they tend to collect things because they are old, whether of value
or not. Also, many are attending our shows in ever-increasing
numbers, indicating the desire for a connection to the era we
discuss here.

Let us all make sure the details of the important threshing
portion of our heritage are preserved in detail! As the saying
goes, ‘If you are going to put on a threshing demonstration, do
it completely and right with full details. If you cannot do it in
that manner, including proper clothes and hats, then DO NOT DO IT
AT ALL!!’

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