WHEN WE THRESHED WITH STEAM


| May/June 1984



Kennedy, Minnesota 56733

The old steam engine days of threshing remain with me in many a nostalgic memory, and all the more vividly because I had an uncle who was a steam thresherman. My earliest recollections of the fall grain threshing date back to about 1912 or 1914, the years just before World War I. Incidentally, the word is 'threshing' and not 'thrashing,' as it is sometimes misspelled and mispronounced. If I misbehaved I got 'thrashed' but the grain was always 'threshed.'

How I used to look forward to the fall threshing, when in the dark of early morning or late evening, I would hear the shrill but musical whistle of the old steamer, announcing the beginning or the end of the day's work. As threshing time neared, my eagerness and anticipation mounted. When the great day dawned, I was out long before day break rounding up the cows for the milking. I wanted that chore out of the way so that I could be free to watch the threshing. A long blast on the whistle told us that Uncle was coming, though he was still half a mile away.

Down the road he chugged, the big steam engine towing the grain separator and the spare water tank behind. Through the alley between the stacks he drove, and in a few minutes the machine was all lined up and ready to start work. Slowly the great belt between the steamer and the separator began to move and with a mounting roar the machine went into motion. The men on top of the stacks, usually two in each, began to throw down the bundles and soon they were falling steadily into the feeder of the grain separator. I would stand in the wagon box waiting expectantly for the first dump to come down the grain spout. There! The tripper up by the scale tilted upwards, and the hard slippery kernels shot through my fingers and down into the box.

I didn't stay there long. The fire under the boiler of the engine was fed with straw, and sometimes when the fire was going good and steam was up, the fireman would let me handle the fork for a few minutes. What fun it was to push the straw down the chute and into the roaring firebox, or watch the 'waterman' pump water into the boiler, the huge belt bobbing up and down in smooth, rhythmic motion. Up on top of the engine the governor, with its two round balls, spun around and around so fast it was just a blur. From the blower of the separator poured a steady stream of golden straw that accumulated into a large pile as the day wore on. After nightfall, I loved to watch the sparks fly upward from the smokestack of the engine, dance giddily hither and thither for a moment, then fade into the black of the night.

Farm boys in those days had no dreams of becoming astronauts when they grew up. They had never heard of the word. Few of them even had any desire to be aviators, though airplanes and flying were then becoming known, a completely new ' thing which did seem romantic and exciting. We were all going to 'fire steamers.' The fireman was a hero, though he had to get up at four in the morning to clean the flues, empty the ashes and clinkers from the firebox, then get up steam and make ready for the day's work.