Wheat Harvest In The Twenties, ILLINOIS STYLE

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Sr. 17424 Rock Creek Road Nevada City, California 95959

From time to time, I have been asked the old question, ‘What
was it like living on the farm when you were a boy?’

Considering the current estimate that only one person in five
remembers World War II, how can I relate in any way to the folks of
this generation how it was on the farm in the 1920’s? However I
will do my best.

Although the tractor was rapidly becoming an important farm
tool, we were still basically horse and mule dirt farmers, and
would continue to be so well into the 30’s.

I will not bore my readers with all the hardship stuff. Instead,
I would like to picture that one big event, the culmination of our
year’s work, the grain harvest.

Traditionally the hard-core Midwest states, Iowa, Illinois and
Indiana, were best known as the corn producers. However it was the
harvest time for our wheat, oats, and barley that seemed to bring
out the best in us as a working community and left us with so many
wonderful memories.

I would say, without a doubt, that the centerpiece of this whole
operation was the old steam tractor. Later on, many farmers would
experiment with small tractors driving small separators, using one
man bundle wagons, etc. But then there suddenly appeared those awe
some giants, the combines! And so Goodbye steam engine, reaper and

So back to our story, the wheat harvest and how it was done. By
the end of June we would have organized what we called our
‘run’. This would establish just how many farms would
participate with what kind of equipment and how much manpower each
would contribute, and in what order we would proceed from one place
to another. And most important of all, whose rig would do our

In our particular area we had a choice of about three crews to
go with. The Crawford boys ran a J.I. Case outfit, Henry Mosley an
Advance Rumely, and a new kid on the block had a Rumely Oil Pull
tractor. At one time or another I worked with all of them, my
favorite being the Advance Rumely. I think it ran either an Avery
or Red River separator.

On the farm there was no particular age at which a boy began
doing a man’s work. If you could lift a bale of hay, you
stacked hay bales and if your feet reached the stirrups you plowed
corn. Pretty much the same today I would suppose.

I broke into the harvest bit at about age of twelve. I and one
of my friends acquired an old broken down horse and buggy and
hauled water to the men in the field. We got a buck a day and our

A typical work force would usually be something like this: about
six or seven hay racks for bundle wagons, maybe six men we called
pitchers who tossed the bundles up to them, and enough box wagons
to haul to the nearest elevator. Some folks still bagged their
stuff but not many.

We used the McCormick Deering reapers that cut and tied into
bundles and then we shocked our wheat and let it stand for a week
or two.

Then there was the horse drawn water wagon that kept the engine
supplied. It had a hand operated pump on top and the water came
from wells.

Finally, the engineer and separator man and, oh yes, the water
boy who tried to keep everybody happy.

As for fuel, wood being quite scarce in the prairie land, coal
was the next best option and due to our proximity to the soft coal
mines of southern Illinois, it was relatively inexpensive. I
understand that in the big wheat states such as the Dakotas they
actually tried straw burners but I never saw one myself.

As I recall, farm wages ran somewhere between $30 and $50 a
month; however, at harvest time a good man could make three to five
dollars a day with board and keep.

The day of threshing began just as soon as the morning dew began
to disappear and lasted as long as there was daylight. We worked
right through Sundays as there was always the fear of rain.

I would say the highlight of the whole operation must have been
that great tradition, the thresher dinner. Believe me this was no
box lunch! When they pulled the whistle on that old engine we all
made tracks for the farm house where we were greeted by a bunch of
perspiring ladies (no air conditioning) loading the tables with
roast beef, chicken, potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, I could
go on and on!! How we ever managed to stagger back out to the
fields in blistering heat and not fall on our collective faces I
will never know. On the farm we probably consumed more calories at
breakfast time than most city folk would all day.

At age eighteen I was considered a pretty competent mule skinner
and I usually wound up driving a grain wagon to the nearest

On one occasion I recall having been given a team of young, big,
and somewhat skitterish Missouri mules. We called them jug heads
but they were really beautiful animals. Weighing in at about 135
pounds, myself, I felt quite important driving into the little town
with all the girls watching me.

I guess the mules must not have been acquainted with the
elevator routine and I soon realized I was going to have my hands
full! Anyway, after using my trusty buggy whip and a lot of bad
words, I succeeded in getting up to and into the big elevator

So far so good, but the best is yet to come!!

With the wagon wheels properly aligned, the elevator man would
trip a big handle which tipped the whole wagon up and dumped the

However, off to the right was the engine room where a giant make
and break Fairbanks Morse gas job produced the power.

Just as my wagon reared up, that old engine fired off with a
bang like a cannon!

Off went the mules dragging the double trees of the wagon tongue
and yours truly hanging onto the reins for dear life!! They, or
should I say we, went charging right out the back ramp, finally
coming to a halt against a wire fence. One good thing about a mule,
he will never hurt himself as a horse would.

Well, gentle readers, that’s pretty much the way we did it
on the farm in the 1920’s. Not too many of us left anymore, but
I still remember the smells of our steam engine and I can still see
the faces of my dear friends as if it were yesterday!

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