Threshing time in the thirties

by Everett Fleming

Only those who lived on a farm in the first half of the twentieth century can have any understanding of threshing time, particularly in the eyes of a ten year old boy. It was by far the most exciting event of the year.

To set the stage, it was not economical for every farmer to own his own threshing machine, and some enterprising farmer would invest in a machine and rent it out to his neighbours. This led to threshing gangs in which all farmers would rotate their services, usually with a team of horse and wagon or a hired hand, and meet at whichever farm was scheduled for the threshing machine. Of course, the grain in the field had already been cut and bound into sheaves by the “binder” and then stoked into standing bunches, for good draining, and ease of loading.

For me the day began watching for Frank Puckrin coming along the highway in his huge Rumley Oil Pull tractor, pulling the massive threshing machine, and behind it a wagon with extra straw blowing pipes,  fuel, etc.  This was no ordinary tractor.  It was huge, with the driver encased in a wooden shed, massive cleats on the wheels twice my height, and great flywheel. It sounded and looked a lot like a steam engine coming up the lane, and on up the hill, where the threshing machine would be carefully positioned to blow the straw right up into the loft of the barn. Needless to say, every last details of preparation was observed by me. Perhaps the most sensitive task was to properly line up the tractor some fifty feet from the threshing machine, so the belt providing power from the tractor would be perfectly in line. By night time, everything would be ready for the big day ahead.

Next morning all the horse teams would arrive, along with the extra hands mainly for pitching sheaves onto the wagons. There was, however, need for two men in the loft of the barn to tramp and distribute the straw. It meant a full day of dust, probably enough to shorten the life of anyone foolish enough to take it on. Fortunately, there was always one old guy who volunteered, leaving Dad for the second one. At lunch time they would come out with totally blackened faces, and red eyes hard to find. Of course, their faces had been covered with a cloth to help breathing, but how much help could that be?

With all  jobs assigned, off they all went. Farmers with the wagons would build the load, with one or two pitchers assigned to each wagon. When the loaded wagons came alongside the threshing machine it was the job of the farmer on the wagon to feed his load into the machine. While they went off, Frank Puckrin set about getting the big Rumley Oil Pull started. No automatic starter, or even a crank. No, to start this brute one had to come up to the flywheel, brace your foot on the tractor, and give the flywheel a mighty heave. First try would result in a couple of PMMMF’s. The machine would catch on the second or third try with a frightening accelerating series of PMMMF’s, that only moderated when the governor finally cut in. Once going, that great beast would run the thresher all day long smooth as a water slide. You could hear it settle down to a steady pmmmfn – pmm – pmm – pmmmfn all day long. Frank’s job was to go around both machines with an oil can, and be there for any emergencies, or if necessary to adjust the straw blower pipes. By far the easiest job, and I made a mental note that this would be the job I would seek come threshing time in the future.

The threshing machine itself was a wondrous thing to behold. In full motion its throat seemed like a giant tiger with its flashing teeth grabbing any sheaf that got near it and instantly devouring it. The principle of the threshing machine is to shake the sheaf so severely that all the kernels of the grain fall down while the straw is blown by a huge fan either onto a stack, or in our case, into the barn loft. This model, I think, was either a McCormick or Massey Harris. It was definitely not a John Deere. Its wooden sides were a maroon colour. In action, all kinds of levers on the sides could be seen in rapid motion, while the wheat or oats fed down a chute that split in two, so that one bag could fill, while the other was being tidied up and piled in a stack. This was the second best job, I thought.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, that is the farmhouse, furious activity was apace in the kitchen, preparing for lunch, which would be laid out on a huge table on trestles set up on the lawn. This was no ordinary lunch. After all, mother’s entire reputation in the community was at stake, and she could not possibly be seen to do any less well than Mrs. Harris, or Mrs. Carruthers whose noon hour dinners were held in high esteem throughout the community. There had to be pots roasts of beef, ham, chicken, mashed potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, tomatoes, beans, peas, relishes, gravy, bread and butter, all in huge quantities. These were ravenous appetites to assuage, and they must not go unfulfilled. And then the pies! Can she bake a cherry pie? You bet she could, and apple and blueberry too, with milk, coffee or tea to wash it all down. Of course, she had help. This was all on top of taking care of five children.

Our threshing usually took two days, sometimes three, with some 50 acres or so to bring in. One prayed for dry weather, as rain can ruin grain for threshing until it is quite dry. I might mention my last threshing experience. It came when I twenty years old, and was working in Toronto. I volunteered to help Dad, probably on a Saturday, and my job was to handle our wagon and build the load. There were two pitchers, and they saw a great opportunity to embarrass the city slicker boss’s son by feverishly tossing the sheaves at a pace I could not up. The basic rule in building a wagon load of sheaves is to keep the butts out. This way, any grain that shakes loose will fall into the wagon and not on the ground. I did my darnedest, but I know that those loads of grains were far from properly built.

Those traditional threshing machine gangs and days are mainly now a memory only, with combines now largely doing the job. Small 200 acre dairy farms such as ours are no longer economical. I was filled with emotion recently, as I investigated a subdivision being constructed on the very fields that grew that grain, and which I had cultivated in my early teen years. It seemed sinful, somehow, to see such productive land covered in concrete and asphalt. However, for me, nothing can erase the wonderful memory of threshing time.

One Response to Threshing time in the thirties

  1. Shirley Lamb Keyes

    I actually got to experience-enjoy this once when I was about 14 on my Uncle Walter Fleming’s farm in rural Manitoba I say fun because I got to stay at it only as long as I felt like it, not for the many hours it took. It was an experience I will always remember.