Golden sheaves stand ripening
in the setting sun,
Bounty of a fruitful harvest,
A year's labor well spent.
From tinest seed to trees laden
with sweet promise
The earth gives birth to her joy
Franco de la Pena
You would never guess that the materials piled up in junkyards
in the early forties, and sold as scrap iron to be salvaged for the
World War II effort, once played an important role in the development
of rural America. Somewhere in that great mass of twisted and rusted
iron and steel, were the skeletons of two great inventions, the steam
engine and the threshing machine.
great cranes hoisted the clanging iron and steel onto railroad cars
to be transported to smelters for reclamation, the ringing sounds carried
me back to the early part of the 20th Century, to the nucleus of small
farms in the midwest.
those farms was my childhood home, and I was privileged to live in
the era when those marvelous inventions provided the means of harvesting
the grains which helped fill America's breadbasket. Those happy years
were marked by memorable events that ran in order of importance. Birthdays
naturally were first, then Christmas, Valentine's Day, and the 4th of
July. But the major event of the season was threshing time.
Late in July,
or early August, when a dull haze hung in the western sky, and we
heard the locusts drone their monotonous tunes up in the boxelder trees,
we knew it was time for grain cutting.
binder, another great invention, had been oiled and greased. If the
canvas apron was torn, Mamma mended the holes while Papa patched up
the wooden cleats. Stretched out on the lawn, the apron looked like a
giant slab of spareribs. Once repaired, it was replaced on the binder,
ready to carry bundles of grain after they had been automatically tied
with binder twine which trailed from a round tin container on the side
of the binder. A large supply of twine was purchased at the local hardware
store each year in advance of the harvest season, and stored in the
as the golden bundles of grain were tossed from the binder onto the
stubble, the hired man piled them up in rows of teepe shaped shocks.
Shocking grain was considered an art, for there was a certain "knack"
in "setting shocks" as the maneuver was called. Rye and wheat were
set in round shocks, and an extra bundle tossed on the top acted as
a rain cap. Oats were built with 8 or 10 bundles leaned against each
other, and looked like a row of tired rag dolls.
man was neat as well as ambitious, for he carefully placed the shocks
in rows, making them appear like a regiment of soldiers standing at
attention. The grain shocks were a perfect place for children to play
Indian. Pretending they were wigwams, we crawled inside, having great
fun. However, this greatly aggrevated the hired man for he had to
reset the shocks.
Papa (Center) And His Neighbors
was a community effort. Papa "changed hands" with the neighbors, taking
his team and hayrack to make the rounds at threshing time. They in turn
helped him thresh his crop of grain.
a great deal of work to be done in advance of threshing day. A small
tank held water to fill the boiler, and was placed near the spot where
the steam engine was "set."Beside the water tank, and against the garden
fence, a long row of cord wood was piled up, ready to fire the boiler.
In addition to the wood, there was a heap of coal to keep the fires
burning during the night for an early start the next morning.
"threshing crew" owned the steam engine and seperator and moved it
around the community to harvest grain. In fairness to the farmers,
the starting point was changed each year. The schedule was indefinite,
for weather conditions and the size of crops determined their
movements from farm to farm.
they came to the foot of our hill, we heard the puffing and gasping
sounds of the engine as it chugged along pulling its entourage. The
wide iron wheels made a grinding sound on the gravel road and traced
deep grooved patterns in the sand. We smelled the acrid smoke and
thrilled at the fiery sparks spurting up with the black smoke belching
through the sieves as it spiralled from the chimneys of the steam
engine. Leashed behind the engine was another huge beast, the separator,
usually painted bright red, with yellow lettering on both sides. Attached
to the separator by a long wagon tongue, was the water wagon. It wobbled
from side to side and bumped along as if it resented being last on
that train of machinery.
in our yard, it looked even larger than traveling along the road.
The giant "monster" called the separator, which gobbled up the bundles
of grain, digested them, and separated grain from straw and chaff,
was usually set up on the barn floor. It was connected to the steam
engine by a wide leather, continuous belt, which provided the driving
force. The grain stacks, shaped like old-fashioned pointed ice cream
cones, each with a tamarack pole inserted at the top for balance, were
threshed first, and then the machine was repositioned for other work.
at times arose at 4 a.m. As monitor of the "crew," he cleaned the
flues, fired the boiler, filled the water tank, applied rosin to the
belt, and set up the separator in position to thresh. Before coming
in for breakfast, he yanked the cord of the steam engine, and sent out
several loud blasts of the whistle to alert the neighbors he was
ready to start the days work. While waiting for the wagons to arrive,
the "crew" sauntered up to the kitchen for their first meal of the
as the sun was up the neighbors arrived with their teams, pulling wagons
and hayracks. Some came from a distance of one or two miles. Alerted
by the sound of the steam whistle, they whipped up their teams and drove
out into the fields to load grain.
was in his place. Out in the fields, themen, using three tined pitch
forks, tossed the bundles of grain onto the hayracks. One man drove
the team of horses, another systematically layered the bundles, tier
after tier, to a towering height on the hayrack'. There were 8 or 10
wagons loading at all times, driving back and forth from the fields
to the barns. At times the horses, frightened by the spitting and
chugging of the engine, and the rattling of the separator, shied
sideways and spilled a load of grain. After the bundles were pitched
into the hungry jaws of the separator, the teams returned to the field.
It required a continuous train of wagons to keep the equipment in
crew consisted of several men. Two tended the grain chute, one tied
bags, and others hoisted them along the line where they were piled in
stacks or dumped into the wooden bins of the granery. Some farmers
ran the grain from the separator into wagons which hauled it to the
granery. As the golden grain poured from the chute, it looked like a
flowing river. Most farmers chose to handle the operation of the
grain chute themselves, in order to keep an accurate record of the
number of bushels of each kind.
and his assistant fed cord wood into the hungry firepot under the
boiler. This formed a head of steam to drive the belt which propelled
the separator. He kept a constant watch over the pressure guages
regulating the engine, stoked the fires and pumped water from the well
into the auxilliary water tank. His work was most important,for
without power all operations ceased.
or "grease monkey" as he was sometimes called, kept a constant vigil
over the operation of the 34 or 36 inch separator and its intricate
system of belts and moving parts. Covered with grease from head to
foot, his tool of trade was an oil can with a spout about 15 inches
of new straw filled our nostrils as we waded waist deep in the loose
chaff scattered and mounded into banks at the edge of the strawpile.
We were awed at the endless trail of straw shooting from the mouth
of the blower. It reminded us of a circus elephant swinging his trunk
from side to side.
The man in
charge of the straw stack turned up the collar of his blue cambric
shirt, tucked the tails deep inside his striped denim overalls, tied
a blue calico handkerchief around his neck and with pitchfork in
hand, was ready to build the base of the pile. He turned his back towards
the blower, blinked his eyes and braved the blasts of straw spewed
from the blower with great force. Finally emerging from the dust and
chaff, spitting, coughing and rubbing his swollen, red-rimmed eyes,
he made a beeline to the pump for a drink of cold water to sooth his
the ladies, they played one of the most important roles on threshing
day. The week before threshing, a special trip was made to town to purchase supplies.
The large wagon was arranged with two seats near the front for the
ladies, and Papa was at the reins. Coal and kegs of beer were placed
in the rear part of the big wagon; groceries and meat in the egg cases
under the seats; and children were sandwiched between the grownups
or sat on the floor.
of threshers are hard to describe. In addition to three square meals
a day, there were the 10 o'clock lunch in the forenoon, and sometimes
the 3 o'clock lunch in the afternoon, and an early supper to send the
neighbors home in time for evening chores. Work ran from 10 to
12 hours a day for field hands, fifteen hours for the "crew" who operated
the equipment, and as for Papa, Mamma said he slept with his socks on
during threshing time.
at 10 a.m. the engineer blew three blasts on the whistle and stopped
the machinery. That was the signal for the field hands and barn crew
to come up to the house for lunch.
The windmill was in operation all
forenoon to pump cold water over the kegs of beer floated in wash tubs.
There was a chorus of hurrahs when Papa popped the bung on the first
keg and invited the workers to turn the wooden spigot to sample the
they lifted their glasses high and clinked them for a bumper harvest
of grain. The foaming brew bubbled over the edge of the glasses and
left a white ring on "handle bar" mustaches, or dripped down curly
beards. The men strolled over to the house to have lunch.
Out on the lawn, under tall shade trees, clean red and white checkered
tablecloths were spread over wide boards on wooden horses to serve
lunch! Great hunks of Friedel's homemade bologna, platters of sliced
American and brick cheese, bread and butter sandwiches and pickles.
For their sweet tooth, plates of thick molasses cookies, spicy with
ginger, and a large oval tray piled high with Grandma's sugared,
raised doughnuts. As fast as the food disappeared, the plates were
refilled. For those who did not care for beer, there were pitchers of
foaming milk and cool well water.
lunch the "crew" started the machinery; the teams and hayracks began
their trips to and from the fields with loads of grain, and Papa
turned the building of the straw pile over to a neighbor in order to
take charge of the grain chute where the river of silky grain poured
from the separator. He checked on the number of bushels threshed
from each of his grain fields, compared the yield against last years
crop and recorded the current figures on the square wooden posts on
the barn floor.
everything was buzzing back in the hot steaming kitchen, where the
Majestic range was the center of interest. Thick, juicy apple pies,
baked early in the day, were set the window sills to cool.
tables were cleared and the twenty-five pound beef roast in the big
Savory roaster, required basting and turning. Vegetables were prepared
and stored in the warming oven at the top of the stove. Large kettles
of potatoes were peeled, waiting their turn to be cooked on one of
the six griddles of the stove. Mamma checked the woodbin, stoked
the firepot and kept the heat at a proper level at all times, and of
course the coffeepot sat on the back of the stove ready to fortify
the cooks if they found a spare moment.
room table was stretched out and extra leaves were added to accomodate
as manypeople as possible. It required two or three sittings to feed
the threshers and the kitchen workers. In addition to the regular
dining room chairs, the six cane seated parlour chairs were pressed
into use. To add additional seating space, two wide boards were placed
across two sturdy kitchen chairs. Children were served the very last
and sometimes bemoaned the fact that all the pies had been consumed.
before noon the delicious aroma of roast beef, savory vegetables and
hot breads, wafted its way from the kitchen to give the children hunger
pangs which were always appeased by several of Grandma's thin, white,
had to be ready when the engineer blew the steam whistle at noon to
call in the field hands, for threshers had ravenous appetites. The
men strolled up to the house from every direction; some checked the
time by pulling their Ingersoll watches from the pockets of their bib
overalls; others stood around, spitting, cussing or chatting about
the weather, prices, cattle and crops.
dinner the wash tubs were set up on wooden benches out in the yard,
with wash bowls and pitchers and pails of warm cistern water, soap
and towels. The men lined up and took turns as they scrubbed their
dusty faces with their hands, rubbing most of the dirt off on the towels.
Eager to satisfy their appetites, they filed into the dining room
were heaped high with thick slices of roast beef, fluffy mashed potatoes
and they spooned generous helpings of brown gravy over all. Nothing
was served in courses, and they reached their long arms out in every
direction to supply their needs. Bowls of crisp cabbage salad, baked
beans, and home cured dill pickles dipped from the crock beside the summer kitchen door, were placed in the center of the table The men usually
held slices of buttered bread of biscuits or Johnny Cake in one hand, and with the other cleaned up two or three plates of food in short order. Large wedges of apple or lemon pie were passed and served from the tins. Rice pudding, swimming in cream, dotted with plump raisins, came to the table hot from the oven.
made the rounds of the tables with the big blue and white granite
coffee pot. Aunt Etta kept refilling the bowls with food, and Mamma,
dripping with perspiration, kept everything going at an even keel
while presiding over the cook stove, slicing juicy slabs from the
huge beef roast and dishing up extra potatoes and gravy.
long afternoon of threshing some of the men went home early to do
their evening chores, while others worked until dark and stayed for
supper, thus there were less men around the table for the evening meal.
Sometimes if it was late in the day, the kerosene lamps were lit.
They cast their rosy glow overall and gave the rooms a cozy feeling.
banquet table could equal the variety of tempting food, the hospitality
andwarm friendliness of the threshers eveningmeal. If the young Rhode
Island roosters were large enough to kill, the supper menu might include
delicious fried chicken. In that case Papa would chase up the roosters
before daylight, catch and kill them, for that was not ladies work.
Back in the summer kitchen, the chickens were plucked, dressed out and
placed in cold water until later in the day when they bubbled away merrily
in rich butter or lard in the big cast iron frying pans on the kitchen stove.
What a tasty delight!
with the fried chicken there were platters of sliced, home cured boiled ham, bowls of potato salad, cottage cheese, apple sauce and beet pickles. For dessert, Jello with real whipped cream skimmed from the milk cans the previous day. Papa knew his milk
test would surely go down with Mamma using so much cream.
cakes for threshers was like a baking contest at the county fair. The
ladies baked all their old favorites and tested others that were
copied from magazines. Along with the usual jelly-roll dripping with
rich fruit filling, there were sponge cakes. Lady Baltimore with a
nutty topping and the old family favorite, white layer cake topped
and filled with a thick layer of whipped cream. The cakes were cut
in generous slices, but grandma always left a quarter of each cake
unsliced in hopes the cooks would get a taste. When the cake was passed
to Uncle George who had a huge appetite, he would take the quarter of
cake, saying "Gosh Delia, you sure do cut some big pieces of cake."
of the work completed, there was time for fun, and the engineer invited
the children to climb aboard the steam engine. What an experience!
They sat up on the engineers seat under the big canopy, studied the
guages, the oily pistons and valves and as a special treat were invited
to give a tug or two on the steam whistle. It's piercing sounds
frightened the children as well as some of the teams of horses tied
at the fence during suppertime. They jerked and stomped, pulling the
wagons sideways, jingling their harness, and tearing the flynets as
they reared up in the air.
threshing was finished and all the neighbors returned to their homes.
Papa settled with the "crew" and they moved on to the next place to
thresh. We joined him after supper as he carried the lantern down to
the barns to survey his symetrical straw stack. Pleased with the harvest
and the shape of his nice strawpile, he did not feel the ache in his
tired bones or the itching and scratching of dust and chaff under his
everyone gathered around the kitchen table to relive the day. The
ladies, confronted with all the leftover food, phoned friends and invited
them to dinner the following day, for nothing ever went to waste.
"days of yesteryear" our neighborhood consisted of people of several
nationalities; English, Irish, Polish, German and one Norwegian, our hired man. All emigrants,
or sons of emigrants, this beautiful blend of people spoke in various
tongues and brogues. With names like Hayes, McInnis, Polinski,
Anthony, Bauman, Longley, Friesch, Mattke, Brendos and Baneck,
their conversation, at times, sounded like the Tower of Babel.
Industrious, tolerant of each other and grateful for the privilege of
freedom of speech and religion, they worked shoulder to shoulder using
the implements and machinery of the new age, to develop our great country,
their chosen homeland. Looking back on the scene, I realize that it
was truly an early American United Nations, where the common man helped
to build the foundation for tomorrow.
Featured Music: "Fields Of Gold"