Man of the House

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Threshing grain crops
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Track-type tractors
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1930 cover

My family’s journey from Nebraska to the Pacific lands of California lasted three weeks. I was only 14 at the time and suddenly had a man’s responsibility with Mom, Dad and little brother, Carl, age 5, as my passengers. Yet, I successfully navigated our new 1926 Chevrolet Sedan westward toward the Golden State. Our southern route took us across many rivers, mountain passes and expansive deserts, but we finally reached our destination of Gerber, Calif. There, we settled on a small 27-acre farm of bare land.

‘How was grain threshed in this new land?’ I wondered. I soon learned that no steam rigs existed in the area. Instead, huge combines unheard of in Nebraska harvested a big part of the acreage. These combines were pulled with 26 to 30 horses or a gigantic Caterpillar tractor. Smaller acreages were still harvested with a binder and stationary thresher. Those wonders were just the beginning of my California adventure.

A meager subsistence

Our first grain crop was a meager 5 acres of barley, and we hired someone to bind and thresh it for us. Such a small outfit didn’t compare to the huge steam-threshing rigs I once operated, but our land was threshed just the same.

Our little farm struggled along, but there was never enough money to go around. We needed to find more work until Dad and I could  plow some more of our land. We heard stories of rice fields to the south of us, so Dad and I went to see about a job. Fortunately, we both were hired to thresh in the rice fields. The pay was 35 cents an hour for 10 hours a day – including Sundays – and we got no time off, except for rain days.

The Samual Ranch was large with about 800 acres planted in rice. Six binders were employed in the operation: five were pulled with horses and the sixth was powered by a 2-ton Caterpillar tractor. Our job was to shock the rice, eight bundles to a shock. Fifteen men were employed in each group, and Dad and I worked with a singing Mexican with a very large sombrero and a rangy cowboy with a big hat as well. These two characters stood out from the other men, the former fellow constantly singing, and the latter dude telling dirty jokes that certainly educated me about the facts of life well before my time.

I loved to shock wheat for short periods of time, but Dad and I were working 10-hour shifts, seven days a week. As the days went by, I grew weary and finally fell sick. I told Dad I wanted to go home. We were staying in a cabin in Willows, Calif., for a dollar a day, and each morning we drove 4 miles to the Samual Ranch. We bunked at the Samual Ranch, but the mosquitoes drove us out the first night. That first mosquito-filled, sleepless night was what made me sick. Despite my pleas, Dad stoically told me that we had to finish our job. He suggested I take some Castor oil, and in the morning I felt a little better.

The days wore on at the Samual Ranch. By the 10th day, the boss – a big man on a saddled horse – rode out of the tales where he was hiding. I’d seen him twice before, and each time he only said a few chosen words such as ‘You can pick up your check tonight,’ which meant someone was fired. So, when the big man rode up to Dad and me, we feared the worst. Unexpectedly, Dad was offered a job as a field bundle pitcher, and I was offered a job to drive a team pulling a bundle wagon.

As the boss addressed me, he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Kid, how would you like to drive a bundle wagon?’ Still shy and bashful at the time, I mumbled, ‘Sure.’ The promotion meant almost 12-hour days instead of just 10, because the horses had to be fed, groomed and harnessed each morning and subsequently attended in the evening. The work got harder by the day, but I never quit.

I hauled rice bundles for 21 days and loved every minute. I especially enjoyed pitching bundles into a huge wooden separator, which was driven by an enormous Caterpillar 75 tractor with a tiller wheel in front. The exhaust noise from that four-cylinder engine was loud and distinct. Four men fed the separator, with two spike pitchers and a man on each side of the feeder. The separator man was a tall, rangy fellow and kept an eye on the pitchers. I caught him looking directly at me a time or two, but I never gave him an excuse to find fault because I held up my end along with the grown men.

End of harvest

As Dad and I continued to thresh, a growing number of straw piles dotted the landscape. Rice fields are usually wet, and my horse team got stuck in some places. The threshed rice was sacked using two sack sewers and a jig. We seldom had a breakdown, and the only time off from work was when it rained. My 15th birthday arrived on Oct. 28, and I celebrated it right there in the rice fields pitching bundles. Time passed through the first half of November, and the last bundle abruptly disappeared into the combine about noon one day, so we all quit and went to dinner.

As is the custom in the Midwest, our crew sat at one large dinner table. Instead of several housewives, our outfit included a Chinese cook. His dishes were always splendid, and no one ever complained. I well remember the dinner-table remarks from the men in my outfit. ‘Kid, pass the spuds,’ or ‘Kid, don’t keep all the pie to yourself,’ were common sayings from my famished coworkers.

Thirty-one days of rice harvest had come to an end. The hot days, the hoards of mosquitoes, the rice itch and stifling dust were over. Samual Ranch paid $217 for our efforts. Thirty dollars went for our cabin in Willows, which left $187 to take home to our family. The money was more than we could have earned elsewhere, so we were happy and elated with our seemingly meager earnings. We planned to use the payment for lumber on a new home, but I managed to keep 35 cents for a picture show.

Cultivating our land

I didn’t harvest rice the next year, because I enrolled in high school at Los Molinos, Calif. Dad went to the rice ranch, however, because we needed the money. Meanwhile, we acquired four workhorses and some machinery for our modest farm.

During the spring of 1929, Dad became ill while I was in school. More and more work passed on to me, so I left school. I plowed the land with our horses, and Dad helped whenever he could. We soon purchased an old Fordson tractor and leased more land. I believe I spent more time cranking the old Fordson than I did on the work it accomplished. We also bought a 6-foot rice binder in Willows that was a joy to use.

Our farm grew too large for the Fordson and our four horses by 1930, so we purchased a new John Deere Model GP tractor with 10-20 hp. That was the best tractor we ever bought, and I still own it today, after 67 years of heavy service. The tractor did just about anything: plowing, cultivating, threshing, etc. – and it always worked.

In 1931, a severe drought descended upon California. We planted about 115 acres of grain, but only 75 acres were harvested. In 1932, abundant rain finally gave us a good harvest. We leased more land, and a second GP tractor arrived. Until that time, we hired someone to thresh our grain. But in 1933 we purchased second-hand a 22-36 Case stationary threshing machine from Clifford Ross, the man who did most of our threshing harvest. I was excited because I could again do my own threshing. I gave our new thresher a good overhaul and became familiar with its working parts. After our purchase, we bought another binder and both were pulled in tandem behind the steel-wheeled GP, the back binder equipped with a special steering setup.

A reputation is earned

Word soon spread that I owned a thresher, and I established a sizable run mostly in the Los Molinos and Dairyville areas. For my first threshing job, I planned to finish my own acreage south of Los Molinos, and then work north to Dairyville and beyond. First I would harvest my own grain out of the shock. I needed four wagons, two field pitchers, a sack sewer and a jig for the jobs. Not counting myself, I formed a crew of eight men – a big responsibility for a lad of 20 years.

My John Deere tractor handled the separator rather beautifully, but some field pitchers tend to become a little wild at times. To keep an eye on the operation, I backed the John Deere into the power belt that connected to the thresher and climbed up on the separator. I surveyed my outfit, the wagons in the field and the sack sewer doing his job. I also kept an eagle eye on the bundle pitchers. The cylinder sped with that special hum, the blower sang with a much higher pitch, and the machine moved with the gentle sway that meant all was well. Noon came and went, and the straw pile grew. The sacked barley grew likewise because the yield and quality was good.

Circling to the back of the machine, I discovered my thresher was, ‘throwing grain over’ as the threshermen would say. A sound from the blower sounded like gravel, which meant that grain was being wasted on the ground. I hadn’t recognized the sound because I wasn’t yet an experienced thresherman. I attempted to adjust the separator, but the result was no better. I tried another adjustment, and still no luck. Grain sprayed in the straw pile, and some of the men noticed and laughed at me. I was in trouble and didn’t know what to do. If I was going to be a thresherman, this could never happen again with someone else’s grain. I was almost in tears from the frustration, but we continued threshing the rest of the day.

That night, I contacted Clifford Ross and told him my trouble. I asked if he would come in the morning to work on the thresher. The next morning, Cliff took one look and told me my chaffer sieve was open too wide, which allowed straw to fall in the opening. This restricted the flow of chaff and made it come out in chunks, which contained the desirable grain. Setting the sieve at a 45-degree angle let the chaff pass over in a thinner and more-even layer. That lesson stuck with me through my entire threshing career, spanning many different threshing machines.

I finished my own harvest without further trouble and promptly began my first job for hire. I was nervous, but vowed I would persevere because I wanted to be a good thresherman. I set the machines, checked the levels, blocked the machine, strung the belt to the faithful John Deere, and in due time the separator hummed away.

Several people came to watch since I was the new thresherman in the community – and just a kid. How would the old-timers take it? Could I satisfy them? They watched, and they checked the straw pile and the back of the sieves. The speed was normal and the machine ran freely. The old timers checked the chaff again, but said nothing. I wanted to know how I was doing, so I mustered the courage to asked one of the old men. He remarked, ‘You’re doing all right, kid.’ Those were the nicest words I had heard in a long time, and I knew from that moment on that I was on my way to being a real thresherman.

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a three-part series chronicling the 67-year career of a California thresherman. This article deals with his first threshing experiences in California after his family moved from rural Nebraska.

– Godfrey Humann is retired from 67 years as a grain thresher in Gerber, Calif. Now, he maintains the South Shasta Model Railroad, a miniature replica of the Southern Pacific line from Gerber to Dunsmuir, Calif, which includes 14-inch-to-the-foot reproductions of the trains, track, buildings, bridges and actual terrain of the original line.

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