Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Threshing Time

(from the Sept. 29, 1993, Lowell Tribune, page 10)

Threshing (or thrashing) is the process of separating the grain or seed from the straw, and at harvest time, it was one of the processes a farmer used to 'bring in the crops.'

'Threshing Time' was one of the last traditions of the pioneer period, when neighbors banded together to carry out a job too big for one farm family to handle alone. Today many farmers in Midwest communities are 'turning the clock back' to engage in old-fashioned threshing, using carefully preserved steam traction engines and restored threshing machines from yesteryear in these exhibition runs.

Primitive methods included the beating out of the grain with a stick, or by treading it out with oxen. After the separation, the chaff and dust were removed by "winnowing," or tossing the grain into the wind. The pioneers used a 'Flial' instead of a stick; it is a pole with a shaped rod, free swinging, tied to the end. Threshing was later replaced by a threshing sledge.

In 1786 an inventor laid out the basic idea for the threshing machine, and improvements were made through the years.

In the days of the "threshing ring" in Lake county, great wonders were seen by small children. One eight-year-old boy was too young to be handed a pitch fork, but old enough to run around the farm to take it all in. To him, threshing time was a county fair...the Fourth of July... and a visit to a busy workshop all rolled into one.

The farmer had cut his grain days before, using a horsedrawn reaper and binder which gathered in the tall grain, rolled them into a bundle, bound them with twine, and dropped them onto the field. The bundles were then stacked up in shocks by men on foot.

Then the excitement began for the small boy. One afternoon, there was an odd noise heard along the gravel road that bordered one side of the farm. It sounded like the puffing of a fast-moving train, but also included clanking sounds. An odd-looking affair, something like a small railroad locomotive but with big, flat steel wheels behind and smaller ones in front, was coming. Smoke blasted from the stack, as the engine with its chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff noise dragged the long boxlike threshing machine behind.

The operator turned his "train" into a front pasture, rolled through some timber, crossed a shallow creek, then halted behind the barn. With the threshing machine in position, he unhooked the engine, and steamed around in a wide circle to face the thresher about 40 feet away. He took a long belt nearly a foot wide, and stretched it from a small power wheel at the side of the thresher. Satisfied that all was well, the operator banked the fire in the steam engine and walked toward home.

He was actually the advance guard of what was known as the "threshing ring" -- a group of farmers who owned the equipment as a cooperative venture.

The little boy got up early the next morning to see strange hayracks from neighborhood farms arriving, and soon the threshing began. The boy watched as the steam engine was shooting a steady column of black smoke into the air and the thresher was making noises like many gears grinding.

Then the wheat was seen pouring from a long spout into a box wagon, as the straw was building up into a barn-high stack. The chaff, the hulls of the grain, were billowing around in clouds, and settling like blanket of snowflakes on the ground.

Many jugs of water and lemonade helped to cool the workers during the hot, hard work of threshing, and hearty appetities were welcome, for there was plenty of fine food. In some rural communities, "lying table" was a lively competition discussed all winter long. No wonder the women of the household had been up half the night.

Too soon, the men were on the porch washing up, and the ladies were rushing around the kitchen mashing potatoes, stirring gravy, checking the oven, fixing desserts, and getting the main course of fried chicken on the table.

"You must have worked your head off to get a meal like this," said one admiring thresher. The lady of the house beamed and replied "No trouble at all."

Men have never eaten as well as did that threshing crew, but did they know all that had gone on the make such a meal? The neighboring farm wives had not been idle either and had a noon meal ready that included all sorts of covered dishes. Besides the chicken there were roasts, hams, sausages, sweet corn, deviled eggs, all kinds of pickles, along with an assortment of breads, jellies, cakes, pies, puddings and, to wash it down, plenty of coffee, tea, lemonade and milk.

All this was relished by the threshing crew, while the ladies spent the afternoon cleaning up after the huge meal.

Threshing usually lasted a couple of days at one farm, and the wagons and the machines would then move on to the next farm in the circuit, and the host farmer also moved on to help his neighbors, as they had helped him. Left behind were new straw-stack, wagon tracks, the deep path of the engine, and a pile of ashes on the pasture grass.

Soon the steam engine was seen in fewer places, replaced by a much smaller gasoline-powered tractor, and later combines began to come on the scene, and the threshing rings lived only in memories. Thanks to historical groups and threshing buffs, some of the old steam engines and threshing machines have been preserved, and somewhere an elderly gentleman fondly remembers those threshing days on the farm and watching the strange machinery at work when he was just a boy.

Last updated on April 21, 2007.

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