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Old-time photographs of threshing scenes capture such details as engines belted to threshing machines, teams pulling wagons, and crews wearing broad-brimmed hats. Such testimonials to the past also show a most important but largely overlooked tool the pitchfork.
Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic depicts a pitchfork in the hand of an unsmiling farmer, but little has been said to commemorate the implement which lifted the wheat bundles of yesteryear. In the early days of harvest, pitchforks were made entirely of wood and had two prongs. Before long, manufacturers fashioned the tines from iron. The handles continued to be made of wood, preferably hickory or ash.
A two-tined pitchfork would lift bundles (also called sheaves) or loose hay, but only an expert could prevent material from falling through between the tines. Workers with less skill could use three-tined pitchforks more conveniently. Certain three-pronged pitchforks were made of wood, but most had iron or steel tines.
The pitcher standing on the ground beside the bundle wagon used a pitchfork with a long handle. The bundle loader standing on the wagon used a pitchfork with a short handle. The short handles were approximately four feet in length. The long handles ran between four and a half and five and a half feet.
Pitchforks had relatively straight handles. According to Joseph C. Rhode of Pine Village, Indiana, 'the advantage in a straighter handle was that the bundles would slip off the tines more readily. They would tend to stick on the tines if the handle had too much curve. I've seen a few people with forks where the handle was perfectly straight, although the tines were curved slightly.'
Earlier pitchforks featured a metal strap up the front and a corresponding strap up the back of the handle, and the socket (called a shank) just above the tines was only a couple of inches deep. A tall, strapless shank characterized later pitchforks. Although it made the handle stronger, such a deep cylindrical shank unfortunately added to the tool's weight.
Rhode says, 'The metal shank on a new pitchfork was painted silver or gilt usually, though sometimes, especially later, the tines were painted blue or red or any color. Oftentimes, paint was allowed to come down partway on the tines.'
The pitchfork got its name from its use in pitching bundles. True pitchforks had two or three tines. Forks with four or more tines were not designed to pitch bundles and, technically speaking, were not pitchforks. They were called simply forks or manure forks. If the tines were spread widely apart, the fork was known as a barley fork or straw fork.
Rhode relates this anecdote: 'I heard of a man who brought new straw forks to his crew. They were cleaning out the straw which had over wintered on a straw shed for cattle. The stuff was heavy. The men were using regular forks and had about all they could lift. A straw fork would hold twice what a regular fork could hold. One man said, 'Let me see them new forks. I want to get the best one.' Then, while the boss's back was turned, the man broke their handles against the spokes of a wagon wheel.'
There were forks having four, five, or six tines. The greater the curve to the handle and tines, the more likely hay or other loose material would stick to the fork. Such adherence was desirable in lifting hay.
Silage forks looked like a grain scoop in size and general shape, but the 'scoop' consisted of a dozen or more tines. Their short handles ended in a loop of wood for the user to grasp. Incidentally, there were also silage scoops which were true scoops but with slatted bottoms. They were useful in shoveling out ear corn. The shelled corn would drop through and could be gathered later for chicken feed.
Few readers will know that the word pitchfork can function as a verb. Many, however, will recognize the phrase to rain pitchforks, which refers to a heavy shower. In the threshing era, it rained pitchforks, in the sense that every general store carried a full line of them. Thousands were needed. In any harvest season across North America, pitchforks lifted every bundle of wheat or other grain. Pitchforks made a back-breaking job a little easier.