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Contributed Article

Grain Threshing in the Early 40's
by Pat Browning

The setting is rural Wisconsin, halfway between East Troy and Elkhorn, on Hodunk Road, our nation was at war, and I was 6, 7 and 8 years old.

George was our "threshing neighbor." He was the one with the threshing machine, a JI Case on steel wheels, and he pulled it to our farm with a JI Case standard tractor also on steel. In those days, steel wheeled implements were common. The roads were general gravel, so the lugs cutting into them wasn't a problem. George would set up the thresher, stake it down really good, block the wheels, and level the machine -- everything just so. And he was good at it too, taking in the neighborhood of an hour in almost any circumstance. After all was stable, he would drive the old Case Tractor around in front, connect the long "hammermill" belt between the thresher and the tractor, align & back the tractor up until the belt was nice and tight, and set the brakes on the tractor. He would then engage the belt pulley to operate the thresher at a slow rate of speed. As the thresher idled along, George went around inspecting all mechanisms of the thresher to verify its operation was in accord with "the book." There were at least six or seven minor belts to inspect while in operation, and a myriad of grease cups to turn. In those days, grease cups were used in place of grease fittings in lots of applications. A sort of a shank was tapped and screwed firmly into the collar of a bearing surface. And down onto that shank would fit a threaded cup filled with grease. During the day, the operator would turn each cup a revolution or two to force some more grease to the bearing surface. Grease cups were widely used in the 30's. This is but one of the gems of engineering when you consider the times those designers were working in.

The thresher was no simple machine; bundles of grain were tossed in one end, straw and chaff were blown out the other, and the kernels of grain were collected either in bags or into a wagon at one side of the thresher. An important thing here, grain could be taken from either side of the thresher. The choice was made on a day-to-day basis depending upon which way the winds were blowing, with the grain wagon placed "upwind" so aerial trash would not be blown into the wagon with the grain. Lots of things needed to be checked to ensure the thresher was indeed ready for use. It would be well into the morning before the big machine would begin to do its stuff! Meanwhile, the other farmers in George's threshing community were arriving, one-by-one with their wagons and teams of horses, heading for the fields to begin collecting the dried bundles of grain which had been out in the fields in what we called "shocks." The grain shock was the method used to dry the grain so the thresher could separate the grain from the straw & chaff.

A grain shock was made up of approximately 15 - 20 bundles of grain stood up on their butts with several bundles laid across the top to form a weather cap. The bundles were made by grain binders which would be drawn by a special team of three horses. The binder would cut a six or eight-foot wide swath of standing grain. Using a series of rolling canvas belts, wide ones, and chains with prongs on them, the stalks of grain were firmly collected into a "bundling area" where special tying devices with large needles and knotters would tie binder twine around each bundle or sheaf of grain. A bundle generally weighed in around 20 pounds when freshly cut. Diameter of the tied area of a bundle would usually be about 10 inches. As the binder operator went around the field, he operated a bundle carrier. Grain bundles would, of course, be kicked out of the binder as grain was accumulated. The carrier would hold three to five bundles, depending on how heavy they were. Every so often, the operator would lower the carrier to the ground, releasing the accumulated bundles. From an airplane view, the 'droppings of bundles' would seem to form non-uniform rows in the field. This accumulation of the bundles in the field was a big help for the manual labor which is what it took to assemble grain shocks from all those bundles!

Meanwhile, back to George: When the first loads of bundled grain began coming in, George would throttle the old Case Tractor up, powering the threshing machine at its objective operating speed. As the farmers tossed bundles of grain into the feeder, George would watch from atop the thresher. There is a 'walking platform' up there from which he could see everything -- sort of like God watching over our lives! Those bundles needed to be thrown into the feeder lengthwise so that the first feeder knives would cut the binder twine that held the bundles together. If bundles were tossed in crosswise, the binder twine wouldn't be cut, bringing about some concerns; (1) not all of the grain will be reaped while the bundle traverses the "straw-walkers," (2 the bundle may form a clog, and (3) those uncut binder twine loops had a knack of ending up in shaft bearings and would need to be cut out by hand. So, George would gently scold those who were careless in feeding his thresher! George run a tight ship, but not one person in the groups ever had a bad thing to say about George. He was just one of those really super people you felt fortunate to have known.

I was finishing first grade when my Dad moved onto the Browning Farm on Hodunk Road. Farmers usually moved early in the year back then; on or about March 1st. Moves were correlated to the "crop year." Our farm was about 3/4 miles south of George's. There were usually eight to ten farmers in a "threshing ring" as they were called in those days. The Henning Brothers lived farthest away from George, probably three miles, and that's a 'far piece' for a steel- wheeled tractor to pull a steel-wheeled thresher. Hennings were the "end of the line," and from there, George would dedicate an entire day to bring the thresher home.

It didn't matter if you had ten acres of grain to thresh, or fifty -- all members of the threshing ring worked all jobs equally until all grain acreage was threshed. That's the way it was back then. George was paid for his threshing by measuring the number of bushels of grain at the thresher; and while I do not remember the rate, it may have been something like 1 or 2 cents a bushel plus fuel to run the tractor. The equipment each farmer would bring to the threshing operation was a wagon & team of horses; and of course, a pitch fork! The host farmer would provide hay & oats for the teams of horses to eat at lunch time.

The host farmer's wife would put on a hearty farm dinner prepared in a kitchen equipped with a wood stove! Oftentimes, the ladies would work as team much like the men did. Groups of perhaps two or three ladies got their talents together to do the job each day, starting almost as early as the men! Those dinners were feasts! Roast beef, roast pork, roast duck or goose, or really great fried chicken prepared in iron skillets, mashed potatoes and gravies, real stuffing made entirely there in the kitchen, and fresh vegetables to no end. The pies -- you would just think you were in heaven! Those pies were good beyond description. And make no mistake -- each of the host farm wives would not want to serve a meal of less goodness than the next, so everything was at its very best.

As I mention above, each farmer would bring his wagon & team. I was too small for most of the regular tasks. Therefore, I would get one of the farmers to let me drive his team of horses in the field with the sole objective of "earning" a seat at those feasts. If you haven't been there, try to envision bundle after bundle of barley or wheat, with those really sharp beards, coming at you two and three at a time from the farmer's fork as he pitches them onto the wagon -- all that for the wonder meal!

Then there came the last load of bundles to the thresher. All of the farmers waited with some anticipation for that one, and plenty of help was available in pitching the last of the bundles into the thresher feeder apron. It was usually at this point that the "end of thresh-out" treat was served. The host farmer would have two or three cases of that great Milwaukee Beer -- always the local brands like Foxhead 400 or Gettlemen's -- great beers! They would have been put into the milk-cooling tank early that day, and were really cold, around 50 to 55 degrees which was as cold as beer was served back in those days. For us young whippersnappers, there was always a variety of cold sodas like Cream Soda, Royal Crown Cola, or Cherry Coke and Orange Crush. And after the cool beverages, a pipe of mild tobacco and some chat about the thresh-out, alas the farmers would have to set out for home to bring in the cows and get them milked, not to mention caring for their teams of horses plus any repairs that had to be made on wagons or harness parts. Then too, the next farmer in line may have some other last-minute details to attend to such as patching the granary floor! Depending upon the time of day the party broke up, George would either go on to his farm to do his milking chores, and come back the next day for the thresher & tractor; or take the rig onto the next farm, then go home to attend to his dairy chores. Those were the days! (e-mail: patnyvonne@aol.com).

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