Old Threshers Reunion
text and photos by Khoke & Ida Livingston
One day last summer, our neighbor Jordan Hale told us of an event he heard about in eastern Iowa. Old Threshers Reunion is a 5 day Labor Day weekend event that hosts a series of horse demonstrations. Among the demonstrations were a Case thresher run off of a 6-sweep horsepower, a smaller thresher run by a 1-horse treadmill, a buck rake and Jayhawk swivel stacker, a grain auger and horse powered sawmill, and more. We were definitely interested in checking these out, so we rode along with Jordan who nabbed Ammon Weeks to ride along as well.
When we paid our admission fee to enter the grounds, it quickly became obvious why it was a 5 day event. It would take that long to see everything. The Old Threshers’ museum operated two locomotives that gave rides. One was steam powered, the other was diesel. There was equipment by the acre. Tractors and steam engines of all kinds. Demonstrations taking place at regular intervals. Live music, food of all kinds, parades, vendors and a couple barns full of horses. Speaking of horses, we had to remember that’s why we went and we headed over in that direction.
When we showed up, the hay demonstrations had already begun. A bale had been unrolled and kicked loose. Then Joe Miller came along with his excellent team of Belgian geldings on a forecart pulling a rake/tedder combo. This unique piece of machinery could be engaged as a tedder fluffing the hay or as a rake to make windrows.
Buck Rake and Jayhawk Swivel Stacker
Once the hay was in windrows, Joe separated his team to attach them to the buck rake. They still worked together but had the span of the forks between them. It was here that they really shone, showing how very well trained they were. They drove, backed and turned flawlessly.
The buck rake took loads of loose hay down to the Jayhawk swivel stacker where Joe released his load onto the stacker forks. A crew with pitchforks made sure the stacker forks were loaded correctly. Then a young man named Jonathan Moore operated the haystacker guide, brake and release mechanisms.
When the forks were full, a handsome Suffolk Punch team driven by Michelle Burgmeier began to gently pull perpendicular to the stacker. They were pulling a rope attached to a pulley that lifted the forks off the ground and up to the correct height. From here Jonathan guided the forks so they hovered over the haystack that Josh Winkler was building.
Jonathan would release the forks to dump their load, which usually landed on Josh. After Josh shook off the hay, he forked it evenly around the hay stack and tamped the pile by walking in circles around the top of it.
Once the forks were empty, the Suffolks Pete and Joy backed up so the forks could be lowered. Jonathan swiveled and returned them to the ground to be ready for Joe who was coming with another load on the buck rake.
Horse Powered Corn Grinders
A really cute demo was watching the little ponies Mickey and Milo power the corn grinders. For the morning demonstration they walked a horsepower track operating a corn grinder that ground corn meal. Tasha Allen drove the 8 and 6 year old ponies whom she had trained herself.
Later in the day, for the next set of demonstrations, Tasha hooked them to the other corn grinder that ground animal feed. These were very docile ponies that worked together well.
While people were watching the ponies grind corn, several teams were being assembled at the sawmill. This circle saw was operated by Joe Miller with 6 teams running the horsepower. Just running the saw was easy enough but when that blade bit into the log, then the horses had to really lean into the pull.
The 12 foot long tongues seemed almost too short. Ryan Martin’s big, beautiful, 18.1 hands Percherons were almost knocking their knees on the tongue in front of them. At one point in the demonstration, one of the tongues broke. This may be inconvenient during a demo, but having things break sometimes is a fact of life.
When the teams were pulling on this horsepower unit, a couple of things came together that caused the tongue to break. One was that not all the teams were pulling evenly. One team had the tugs slack even when the other teams were in a hard pull. If the pull rods had been adjusted correctly, uneven pulling shouldn’t have broken the tongue.
A tongue should only have compression, never sideways pressure. This will break a tongue. There is a metal pull rod connecting the outer end of the tongue to the unit. It is this pull rod that actually takes the pull strain. If this is not tight enough then it puts sideways pressure on the tongue and causes it to flex. Too much flex and it will split.
Also, while the unit was in motion, Khoke noticed that the tongues were bowing up, likely the horsepower unit was set a little too low and as the team pulled, they were pulling the tongues up as well as forward. Regardless of what actually broke the Herculean Percherons’ tongue, it was fixed in time for the next round of demonstrations.
The Well Digger
From the sawmill, I walked over to watch the horsepowered well digger. This required only one horse, a very nice Spotted Draft named Delilah. She worked so well, I don’t think she even needed lines. In the morning she was driven by Kelsey but for the afternoon demo, Candy Patterson, Delilah’s owner, was able to be there to drive her.
The whole platform on the well digger turned. At least it was slow enough that the operators standing on the platform showed no sign of dizziness. As they dug, they’d stop every few minutes to pull up the 10” diameter auger to empty out the soil in it.
Threshing With Horses
While Delilah was digging a hole, 6 teams were being assembled at the horsepower unit that operated a Case thresher. A wagonload of wheat bundles sat beside the thresher. As the teams were readied, Drake Christe climbed on the horsepower platform to be the strawboss. It was his job to oversee everything, making sure the equipment behaved and the horses were working well. He also told them when to start and stop.
The thresher was fed by Joe Miller. He fed the bundles directly into the concaves since there was no conveyor to carry them into the thresher. This thresher also didn’t have a blower. Instead it had a conveyor that carried the straw out and dumped it into a pile. The 6 teams had no trouble running this thresher. They pulled with relative ease.
The Treadmill Thresher
Nearby was another thresher. This one was smaller and run off of a one horse wooden treadmill. The horse was a Morgan. Ed Minert operated the horsepower brake while his grandsons operated the thresher. This is the smallest threshing machine I had ever seen.
This thresher ran easily off of the one horse treadmill. This treadmill was a very old one and not nearly as efficient or easy to use as a modern treadmill horsepower unit but it definitely worked. It was very interesting to see an early representative of the evolution of treadmills.
The straw piles from the threshers were then fed into a hay press. This predates a hay baler and was manufactured 1908-1937. A hay press has no knives, it is literally a press. The bales can be tied with twine or wire.
Richard Davidson and his sisters Jennie and Martha oversee and operate the hay press at Old Threshers Reunion every year. Richard said the hay press was bought and donated back in 1999 and brought in two bushel baskets full of parts. These were assembled and painted to become a featured part of the demonstrations ever since.
This International McCormick-Deering hay press was powered by a Belgian named Shelly and driven by Gabby Burton. As a couple pitchforks loaded the wadboard, Richard would catch a fork full and with a quick twisting motion, make a straw wad that was then fed into the packer. How well the wad is made determines how nice the bales look. If forked in any old way, the bales may show some wild whiskers. Feeding the packer without a pitchfork is a good way to shorten fingers or an arm.
The packer packed the straw into bales that were hand tied by a couple people on either side of the chute. These two fed and tied the wire on each bale. The bales were pushed out by the bale being built behind them. These bales were then caught and stacked off to the side.
Richard told of a horse named Lorna who used to run the hay press. He said she was so good that she operated the track without lines and could tell by feel how to adjust the pull. And if the bales weren’t being kept up with and pushed out into her track, she’d reach down without stopping to catch the bale with her teeth and flip it out of the way.
Having missed the grain auger in the first round of demonstrations, we stayed to see it in the afternoon. A well matched pair of Belgians stepped up to the horsepower unit and were driven by Shane Lee. This unit operated an auger which augered corn into the top of a wooden grain bin.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the operation was the wagon hoist. This was a frame that the wagon was pulled through. Then the back of the wagon was chained to the top of the frame. The gear that operated the auger extended out to also operate the winch to hoist the back of the wagon up. Instead of shoveling corn into the auger, the grain wagon was tipped so the corn could be dumped in when the side was opened.
The Corn Sheller
Next to the auger was a two sweep horsepower unit with a couple Suffolks hooked to it. You could see just a touch of nervousness as they were being hooked up. It wasn’t the crowd, the noise or the machinery. Their ears indicated they were hearing the drone flying above them. Though the drone was high enough that I couldn’t hear it, they could. When it came down lower, I could hear why the sound alarmed them. It sounded like a swarm of bees or large horse flies.
The drag saw is not used for making lumber, rather for cutting logs into firewood rounds. As Brady Harp hooked his team of Halflingers Baby and Belle to the horsepower unit, John Davis explained the saw. He told how when the drag saw was first set up there at Old Threshers, it sure seemed to go through the wood slow. Then one day a gentleman who was watching asked if they knew that they were running it backwards. Most horsepower units run counter clockwise. When doing this with the drag saw it works harder by cutting the wood on the up stroke. When they changed this horsepower unit to turn clockwise it cut the wood in a down stroke and went through the wood much faster.