Editor's note: This is the last story in a three-part series chronicling the 67-year career of a California thresherman.
Despite immeasurable odds and a responsibility to support Mother, Father, and little brother, Carl, I turned 20 years old and finally owned a threshing outfit by 1933. I successfully threshed farms around my own Gerber, Calif., homestead, but I made plans to extend the run northward. I was a legitimate thresherman in the eyes of the old-timers as well as my community, but my abilities were still scrutinized as I moved northward on my threshing run. My outfit workers and I usually toiled from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour off for lunch. I threshed by the sack, charging 11 cents for oats, 13 cents for barley and 16 cents for wheat.
After the northern run, I returned home to thresh my own grain. All told, the run lasted 20 days. I don't remember how much money I earned that first year, but I do remember I was happy. I had some trouble collecting some money at one farm, but that's an old story among many threshermen.
My run with the stationary thresher was much larger in 1934. I spent 34 days for hire - even after losing five days from sickness when I inhaled too much dust while threshing smutty wheat. That fall I also established a small run threshing headed milo. Milo was dirty and itchy, but I earned more money per hour charging 10 cents a sack. Not as much grain was harvested that year because many farmers were converting open fields into orchards, but I still had a 26-day run, which I thought was relatively good.
In 1936, my luck again turned bad. Small combines flooded the market, and my threshing run dwindled to 10 days. I bought a 12-foot John Deere 5A pull-type combine to stay competitive, but in doing so I encountered another problem. Threshing help was becoming harder to find and hire, which further added to the stationary thresher's demise. In the years that followed, my stationary threshing jobs fell to just two or three days each year. In 1946, I shut the stationary thresher down for good. I was sad to see those days end, but today I enjoy remembering the times I spent on a swaying thresher, the large crews, the banter at the dinner tables, the togetherness of neighbors and the adventure of a time long since passed.
My reputation on the stationary thresher helped me make the career transition to combines, and calls for work came in from the south. The jobs weren't as numerous as they once were for the stationary thresher, but they brought in extra income. Combining required three men: a cat skinner, a sack sewer and a header man - I usually operated the header so I could supervise the outfit. The charge was $2 an acre, and we averaged 15 acres a day.
The work was always exciting, cutting the different fields and meeting new people. Seldom were we invited in the house to eat - the big gatherings at the dinner table were now in the past - so we provided our own lunch.
In the fall, we harvested milo by the old method. We hand-cut the ears, piled them in ricks, and when they dried, shoveled them into the header. The grain sometimes contained too much moisture to safely store it right away without molding, so we dried it. We also threshed Sudan seed, which is a difficult crop to handle because the seed size is so small. With my John Deere 5A combine, I was twice given the honor of the cleanest grain at the Red Bluff, Calif., grain elevator. The 5A was a great machine, and it seldom gave me troubles.
I fell in love and married my wife, Betty, in 1939. She helped me with the chores and soon operated the Cat 35 Diesel or the John Deere GP that powered the combine. The same year we married, however, another drought arrived, and debts once again piled up.
Grain prices weren't sufficient, but somehow we survived until the war years brought farm prices up. In 1940, we gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Freya, and I was now a farmer with two dependents, and classified as such to avoid war duty. Even so, if World War II had lasted 6 months longer, I would've been called to service.
We came out of debt in 1943, but went right back in debt in 1944 after we bought the 153-acre farm we'd once leased. Never one to stay in debt long, however, I worked almost day and night, and paid for the farm by 1946 -the same year our son, Paul, was born.
The John Deere 5A combine did our harvesting for many years. Although the combine was reaching old age, it seldom gave us troubles and was a plea sure to operate, often combining difficult jobs that other machines couldn't finish. After 26 years of service, 5A parts were increasingly scarse, so we purchased a small, 10-foot John Deere 45 push-type combine. It required only one man for bulk threshing, but the new combine didn't perform well, and the old 5A combine was reluctantly returned to service for another five years until parts became impossible to locate.
Since the 5A was too old - and the 45 wasn't a good machine - we bought a used John Deere 95 rice combine and established a rice run each season to help pay for it. It was quite a thrill to thresh rice once more, but the 95 was far different from the bundle and stationary threshing rigs of 1927. The machine proved good in wheat, barley and milo, too.
In 1968, Paul decided to give harvesting a try and purchased a John Deere 105 harvester. Paul used it that summer for grain and joined me in the rice fields that fall. For the next few years we struggled along at other rice jobs until we joined Terrill Farms outside Gerber, Ca., in late 1971.
Tommy Thomas was the manager of Terrill Farms. A gruff, lanky man, hard and firm in his decisions, he took a liking to Betty and me. We threshed in bulk and were paid in 100-pound increments. Tom gave us the field closest to the rice drier, so we didn't have so far to haul our harvest. As many as 20 machines threshed rice at Terrill Farms, and it was quite a sight. We received a raise before the season was over because my machine did the best job of all the machines at Terrill Farms.
Threshing rice can be very difficult at times. Sometimes it lodges, which means the standing rice bends flat on the ground. It's hard to pick up, and very time-consuming. The rice straw's so tough you'd swear you're running wire through the machine, and steering around corners in deep mud was extremely difficult.
Sometimes the water grass grows so thick it can overtake most of the rice. It's much greener than the rice and can slug and seize the machine. Yet, some times the rice is heavy and perfect, the weeds are few and the ground conditions favorable. The machine's hum is a pleasure to hear, as the grain tank quickly fills with freshly-cut rice.
The next summer, our foreman, Tom, died of a heart attack. In all, Betty and I threshed 10 years for Terrill Farms. The last year we harvested, I celebrated my 70th birthday, but I continued to thresh until the late 1980s.
When I think about all my years as a thresherman, I don't regret a thing. So much has changed since I began threshing in the 1920s, but one thing that always remained constant was hard work and long hours. I was raised to love every thing about the grain harvest - especially the hustle and bustle and the excitement of driving different farm machines. More importantly, I believe nothing is more exquisite and beautiful than a sea of gold en wheat waving in the wind before harvest. I'll always remember the noble sacrifices that myself and others endured as California threshermen.
- Godfrey Humann is retired from 67 years as a grain thresher in Gerber, Calif. He now maintains the South Shasta Model Railroad, a miniature replica of the Southern Pacific line from Gerber to Dunsmuir, Calif, which includes 1/4-inch-to-the-foot reproductions of the trains, track, buildings, bridges and actual terrain of the original line.
Thoughts of my days as a steam thresherman from my boy hood returned in 1961. I made some inquiries and learned that several steam-traction engines were for sale in Junction City, Ore. We found an old 20-hp Advance, bought it and trucked it home.
The old 20-hp steam engine was in sad shape, but after about a year of extensive repair, it was again operational. Later that year, Betty and I bought a 16-hp Russell steam engine in Sacramento, Calif. We also returned to junction City for a binder, Case thresher and water wagon. After I purchased all that equipment, I thought it a good idea to form a public threshing bee. In 1963, we held the first bee, and I was once again on the deck of a swaying threshing machine - what a joy.
I owned many antique tractors through the years, including a Gaar-Scott, Case, Rumely OilPull, and others. We operated a full-fledged threshing bee, and people came from all around to display or use their equipment. We continued the steam-threshing bee every other year on odd-numbered years, with my model railroad show held on even-numbered years. The steam show grew each year, and we operated three different-sized separators, three plowing steamers, horse-powered balers, a flourmill, corn shellers, a steam-powered train ride and a parade.
I was proud to recreate the customs and techniques of farming's past. People from around the world attended the bee and were amazed. Of all the compliments I received, one stands out: An elderly man shook my hand one day - and with tears in his eyes - said he didn't think he would ever see steam-powered threshing again. I was happy to prove him wrong.
Our last steam-threshing bee in 1987 attracted nearly 5,000 people. Sadly, two of our engineers died that year, and the work was overwhelming for Betty and me, so we decided to call it quits. The machines are now in a steel building displayed for all to see.