Threshing in the Corn Belt

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The Avery up-side-down.

Earl ham, Iowa

I am a regular reader of the Iron-Men Album and look forward to
the arrival of each copy. I enjoy the pictures of old threshing
rigs and engines manufactured before the turn of the century as
well as reading the letters that you publish in each issue.

I thought you might be interested in an historical sketch of
threshing in the ‘Corn Belt’ that shows quite conclusively
that Iowa, and the other corn producing states of the middle west,
was at one time the scene for many threshing crews where large
acreages of wheat, oats and barley were grown and some of of the
largest crews operated the largest separators manufactured by any
of the companies in business during the first half of the twentieth
century. Steam predominated through the nineteen twenties and then
the gas tractor began to appear. These rigs compared in size with
those pictured so often in the plains states of Nebraska, Kansas,
Montana and the Dakotas.

Gradually custom threshing was replaced by rigs owned and
operated by a ‘company of farmers’. Later smaller
separators were purchased by individual farmers who pulled them
with their small tractors that were becoming useful for plowing and
to pull binders and other equipment on the farms. Still later the
combine became a part of the equipment needed on almost every farm.
Today one can drive for miles through this same corn belt and
seldom see the cloud of dust and chaff coming from the blower of
even a small separator — so universal has become the combine of
today.

My interest in engines dates back to about 1907 when a neighbor
who owned a 12 hp Gaar Scott engine and a 32 x 54 Gaar Scott
separator would pull his rig out of the shed and begin to make
repairs and preparations for the run in our neighborhood and a
second run that consisted largely of stack threshing.

My brother, who is two years younger, and I would spend every
minute of the day that our parents would permit watching him work
and were more than thrilled when he would start the engine to try
an adjustment on either the engine or the separator. The great
thrill was when he asked me if I would shut her down when he
signaled from the separator. I was about twelve years old then.
Prom that day to this I have never lost interest in steam outfits
and, frankly, I would like to be firing one today instead of using
the combines that are in our country.

Another early recollection I have was to sit on the engine when
he was sawing wood for the neighbors, usually in the winter when
those good old Iowa mud roads were frozen hard enough to hold up
the engine. Each of the neighbors would cut the willow and maple
trees on their farms to use for firewood in their cook stoves and
also for heating the house because coal was too expensive and, of
course, gas or electricity were unheard-of in rural communities.
Our neighbor had built a saw outfit on wheels for this purpose,
pulled by the 12 hp Gaar Scott, and the sawing was an all-day
affair to get a supply to last until the next winter. If this job
happened to be on a Saturday, or during the Christmas vacation when
I was not in school, I was in my seventh heaven because I could
carry sawed wood to fire with and he would let me fire some too. He
did custom shelling and feed grinding with a portable sheller and
grinder and another opportunity was available to watch the engine
run and listen to its sharp bark when the load was heaviest.

When our neighbor told my brother and me that he had traded off
his old Gaar Scott outfit for a new Avery return flue 16 hp engine
and an Avery Yellow Fellow separator we could hardly wait to see
what it would look like for we had never seen a return flue engine
and couldn’t imagine an engine with the smoke stack on the back
end of the boiler instead of in front. We lived about a mile from
the Rock Island railroad and could clearly see every train that
passed. When the local freight came puffing up the grade that June
day, after school was out, and on a flat car an engine with the
smoke stack obviously on the back end of the boiler, and with it a
bright yellow separator we knew a new day had arrived. We both ran
to our neighbor and told him it had arrived and ‘when was he
going to unload it?’ In spite of the fact that it was right in
the midst of corn plowing time, which we were trying to get laid by
before time to start harvesting the oats and barley, we persuaded
my father to let us go to town, a mile away, to see at least a part
of the unloading. When we got there the engine was already off the
car and he was just ready to unload the separator by hooking a long
cable to the tongue and extending the cable to the opposite end of
the flat car where it was coupled to the engine. The engine eased
the separator slowly down the incline that had been built at one
end of the car with heavy railroad ties and planks. Soon we were on
the way home and the thrill of riding for a mile on that new rig
will never be forgotten. Needless to say, my father had a bad time
getting us to work each day because we wanted to see that new rig
tuned-up for threshing so just as soon as we could get our part of
the chores done in the evening (and sometimes before) we would
scoot over to just look at that beautiful engine and separator.

When I was eighteen years old my father let me take a team to
haul water for the outfit for the entire season during which I
learned to run the engine. The same summer my brother talked the
neighbors into letting him run the blower to help the men who
worked on the straw stack because all the farmers diligently
stacked their straw for feeding purposes. That was the beginning of
our careers in running the threshing outfit for what had become a
‘company of farmers’ who bought out the original owner when
he quit farming.

When World War I came along in 1918 I was drafted into the
service on July 1st so did not get to fire the Avery 16 hp that
summer. Upon my return I was again ready to take over the engine at
threshing time and my brother had hauled water during which time he
had learned to run the separator. Over a period of twenty years the
company owned and operated the Avery 16 hp return flue engine with
a 32 x 60 separator; another Avery 16 hp engine with a 36 x 60
Yellow Fellow separator and a Minneapolis 20 hp engine with a 32 x
60 Yellow Fellow separator. Both of the Avery 16 hp return flue
engines were fine engines but a little hard to fire up on a cold
boiler. The Minneapolis engine was the finest, easiest to handle I
have ever pulled the throttle on. Our company was partial to the
Avery Yellow Fellow separators and I must say it really could eat
the grain and do as fine a job of cleaning as any separator I have
ever seen. On several occasions we have threshed over two thousand
bushels of wheat in one day and never stopped except for dinner at
noon when my brother and I would take turns oiling both the engine
and separator while the other ate. Some seasons when the grain was
short, with less straw to handle, we used ten bundle wagons to haul
in from the field and four pitching into the separator. The Avery
16 hp engines would really bark under the load but the Minneapolis
20 hp handled it comparatively easy.

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