WHEN WE THRESHED WITH STEAM

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.

Sometimes the most fascinating part of the day’s threshing
was the talk around the table in the evening when the crew had come
in for supper. Stirring tales of coulee crossings, getting stuck in
soft fields, of rivalry between different threshing crews as to
which could do the most work in a day, of safety plugs blowing in
and a lot more. The stories went back to the ‘good old
days’ even then, back to the days of giants, both men and
steamers.

Or, as the kerosene lamp flickered from its bracket up on the
wall, a lively discussion might ensue as to the relative merits of
various makes of engines. Uncle’s steamer was a Buffalo-Pitts,
but in an earlier day he had worn out one Northwestern and one
Coline, for he was an old hand at the threshing game. There was
always someone in the group who championed the big engine on
account of the extra power it had. A neighbor was also a
thresherman, and he had a Gaar-Scott, a much larger machine. Case
was another make. Uncle preferred a smaller outfit, because being
lighter, it was more mobile and easier to maneuver, with less
danger of getting stuck in soft or sandy ground.

So, of course, the Buffalo-Pitts was my favorite, and I defended
it warmly in debates with other boys. There were many makes of
grain separators toothe Rumely, the Avery, the Minneapolis, the Red
River Specialall these were well known in our region and the
objects of as many arguments over the coffee cups as the iron
monsters that made their belts and wheels turn.

Another exciting time was when the rig moved from farm to farm.
Sometimes a youngster was allowed to ride in the straw carrier,
perched more or less precariously within two or three feet of the
ponderous rear drive wheels that turned over slowly and
majestically, leaving large wide tracks in the soft earth. This was
a joy undiluted, something to be remembered for days afterward.

During my early boyhood every thresher in the country around was
a steam powered rig. Other boys had uncles and fathers with steam
engines. We came to know each one by its whistle as they varied
slightly in tone, and each engineer had his own style or way of
pulling the whistle cord. Uncle’s was easy to pick out, for he
had installed a two-toned whistle that was distinctive and very
musical and pleasing, in my opinion by far the finest of all.

In the morning the steam rigs around the neighborhood made music
with their whistles. There was sometimes rivalry between the
firemen as to which one could get up steam and be the first to
sound the .whistle. There was more to firing a steamer than just
pushing the straw into the firebox, and there was a trick even to
that. Small forkfuls fed steadily was the best way to keep an even
fire and hold the steam at the right level. Too much straw at one
time tended to quench the fire and slow it down. It took half an
hour or so each morning to clean the flues and otherwise get the
machine ready.

One could also tell by the whistle what an outfit was doing. It
was a signal system, and not just a music-maker. The code may have
differed in various parts of the country, but in our area two sharp
toots from the whistle meant they were getting low on straw for the
enginehurry up and bring some more! Three was a warning to the
water hauler to get a move on and hustle back from the spring with
another load of water. A series of quick toots indicated the grain
tank by the separator was filling up and for the grain hauler
unloading at the granary to come on the double quick.

A fireman rated higher in our estimation than a bundle pitcher.
He was paid more too, at one time receiving $1.75 a day, compared
to the $1.50 a day for the men who forked the grain bundles into
the feeder of the separator. And, remember, that a fireman’s
day began at four in the morning and didn’t end until eight or
nine in the evening sixteen to seventeen hours. The engineer
received a little more; his day was slightly shorter as he
didn’t have to get up as early. But he was the boss, he ran the
outfit.

Steam power had the best of the gasoline engine in some ways,
but there were disadvantages too. Steam was simple and cheap to
operate. The steamers had no clutches, but there was only one speed
ahead and one in reverse the throttle controlled the speed of
movement. Going from one place to another was slow work, especially
if straw was used for fuel, for the rack behind the engine had to
be refilled twice or even more on each mile traveled. On long moves
cordwood or coal was occasionally used.

In later years farmers banded together into what they called
‘shock gangs’ and the grain was hauled directly from the
shocks in the fields to the threshing machine by team and wagon.
Eight, ten, and even twelve teams and wagons were used depending on
the size of the rig. Sometimes extra field pitchers were used to
help load the wagons in which case the number of teams could be cut
a couple or so. The shock gangs did away with the work of stacking
the grain, but it increased the size of the crew.

The farm women who had to cook for the large crews of men,
sometimes twenty or twenty five, viewed threshing with a distinct
lack of enthusiasm. There were other disadvantages as well. The men
had to get up early in the mornings, especially when threshing
outlying parts of the ‘gang,’ and they kept on late in the
evening when the weather was dry. This left the milking and other
morning and evening chores to be done by the women and younger
children at home. Threshing was hard, dusty, dirty work, no matter
how you looked at it.

Practical jokes and horseplay among the crew livened up things
at times. I remember an evening when one of the crew, who had a
penchant for tricks, saw great possibilities in a pile of rails. He
was one of the first to finish unloading; therefore he was one of
the first to come in for supper. Quietly leaving the table after
his companions had come in to eat, he slipped out and carefully
threaded rails through both rear wheels of wagons other than his
own. Then he left quickly for home. When the others came out and
headed for home in the dark they found that their vehicles had been
equipped with, if not hydraulic, at least with automatic brakes.
The rear wheels wouldn’t turn around when a rail had been
inserted through them. After much toil and broil (expletives
deleted) and some broken wheel spokes, everything got more or less
straightened out.

But as one of the crew remarked the next day after tempers and
cooled somewhat’They have bounties on pocket gophers and foxes
and wolves and other nuisances; there ought to be a bounty on guys
who do things like that!’

Then there was the day when the safety plug blew. On every steam
engine there was a plug, usually at the front of the machine, that
would blow if the steam pressure ever got so high as to create a
danger of the boiler exploding. One day, on a neighboring farm, the
plug went out on a steamer, enveloping the vicinity in a
mushroom-cloud of hissing, swirling steam. Every team of horses
around the outfit at the time bolted, and several wagons were
smashed in the runaways. One team got home with only the collar and
hames left of the harnesses; everything else had been torn to bits.
If the old time steam engine meant long days of grueling work in
threshing time there were also times of wild excitement.

About the mid-1920s the old steamers reached the end of the
trail, and a long and colorful one it had been, going back well
before the turn of the century. On the smaller farms there was
still another decade to go before the combines took over the
threshing chores, and this gap in time was filled by the gasoline
tractors. Actually, most of them burned kerosene, but of course the
principal involved was the same.

Many of those used in this region were Rumelys’Advance
Rumely Oil Pull’read the label on the side of the smokestack.
There were a number of models and sizes; the one used by a neighbor
for a decade or so was a ’30-60′. ‘Old Bucky-Bucky’
we called it, for more than one reason. Laboring along, steadily
turning the belt that ran the separator, the exhaust sounded like
the words ‘bucky, bucky, bucky’, repeated with monotonous
regularity. On a frosty morning too, it sometimes ‘bucked’
and refused to start, having somewhat the temperament of a mule or
bronco. But the tractors never had the ‘charisma’ (to use a
word popular today) of the old steam engines. For one thing they
stunk. No other word can describe the smell of burning kerosene,
the kerosene exhaust. Steam was clean, and though there was a
little odor of lubricating oil around the engine, especially after
it had warmed up, this wasn’t unpleasant.

For years after the old steamers were gone, my field cultivator
would dig up chunks of bluish-black material, unmistakably
‘clinkers’ dating back to the days of steam threshing. I
could just see the old steam rig and a fireman dragging out the
ashes from the firebox with his long-handled scraper on some frosty
October morning, cleaning out the machine for another day’s
threshing.

The combines that succeeded the steamers no doubt made the work
of threshing a bit easier, but they are sadly lacking in color. At
least to those of us whose recollections of the old days are
perhaps a little encircled by a halo.

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