The Threshing Ring
by Larry Scheckel of Tomah, WI
“And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely.” — Leviticus 26:5
It’s early August 1945. Farmers were standing near the entrance to the granary filled with oats. It could have been about the time the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I was three years old growing up on the Scheckel farm outside of Seneca, Wisconsin in the heart of Crawford County. It was threshing time, and the granary was full of oats. Oats, held back by boards, were spilling over the front granary door. It was late afternoon and the men were standing around talking.
Our neighbor John Payne said, “By God, Alvin, you got yourself a big oats crop here.” Dad replied, “It’s a good start.” John Payne said, “I thought we’d have this place threshed out in less than a day. By God, it took a day and a half.” John Payne had a jolly laugh with a lot of “by Gods” thrown in.
The Payne farm was east and adjacent to our farm. John and Mildred Payne were swell neighbors. John was fairly short and stood with his shoulders and head back, hands in his bib overall pockets. He always had a smile, talked loudly, and laughed easily. The Paynes would come over to visit or buy garden strawberries from Dad and Mom. He wore the same straw hat every year.
Mildred was much quieter than John. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, and her head shook slightly. She might have had a mild case of Parkinson’s disease. My siblings and I looked forward to the Paynes coming by, and we also enjoyed going over to visit their farm.
On this occasion we also hosted the Bernier brothers. Joe and Bill Bernier lived a quarter mile to the north of us. They were Irish bachelor farmers. Dad once said that Joe Bernier was the best friend he ever had.
That neighborly spirit was strong during the threshing season. Threshing crews were common and necessary in the 1930s through the 1950s. Our Oak Grove Ridge had about 12 to 15 farmers that were on the threshing ring. Frank Fradette owned the threshing machine whose sole purpose was to separate the golden kernels of oats from their stalks. The stalks were spit out a big pipe by a powerful blower and formed a straw stack. The oats kernels were hauled to a granary for storage. Frank Fradette pulled the threshing machine with a big orange Minneapolis Moline tractor. His father, Louis Fradette, lived over on Shortcut Road. We boys called him “old Louie Fradette.” He owned the blower or elevator that put the oats in the granary.
The most exciting day of the whole year, with the exception of Christmas, was the day the threshing machine and crew came to our farm. As little kids, our main job was to “stay out of the way” on strict orders from both Dad and Mom.
The threshing machine was huge, about 30 feet long, 8 to 10 feet tall, and about 5 feet wide. Brothers Phillip, Bob, and I watched it come up the road from the Bernier farm moving 2-3 miles per hour. Threshing machines had steel wheels, and the roadway was gravel. The feeder apron, where the grain bundles were fed, was hinged and tucked under so as to shorten its length.
The belching Minneapolis-Moline tractor, painted a distinctive Prairie Gold, pulled the huge thresher. Dad walked between the tractor and thresher, talking to Frank Fradette, who was turned sideways in the tractor seat. Frank was alternately looking at my Dad and the pathway ahead. The thresher was pulled past the big tree near the house, past the chicken coop, and through the gate that led to the nearest oat field. We watched from afar with numerous admonitions to “stay out of the way.”
Frank Fradette maneuvered the thresher to the spot designated by Dad. The direction of the wind determined the orientation of the thresher. The crew did not want the wind blowing the straw, chaff, and debris back onto the thresher. A farmer unhooked the tongue from the tractor. The wheels were dug in and blocked. The thresher had to be leveled and staked down. One man went around the machine carrying the grease gun, filling all the zerks. Several other fellows got all the belts out of the cavernous rear compartment, where the straw was blown out of the pipe.
The McCormick-Deering manufacturer made steps along the side of the thresher, built into one of the side elevators, so a person could climb on top of the thresher. The big straw pipe was stored and transported lying lengthwise across the top of the thresher and the end was nestled in a cradle. The pipe was a foot in diameter, held in place by a strap. Gears with handles operated the long straw chute. That always reminded me of those movies we saw of gunners aboard Navy ships that would steer the guns back and forth and up and down.
The large pipe was cranked around. Another gear extended the length of the pipe. Fradette’s machine could be set, so that during operation, the big chute pipe would slowly oscillate back and forth to provide a semicircular pile of straw, rather than a single mound.
A four-inch diameter auger pipe moved the threshed grain to a wagon or pickup truck. The oats could be loaded from the thresher to a pickup truck from either side of the machine. The side was dictated by the wind. The grain wagon was placed upwind, of course, so chaff would not blow back onto the wagon.
The grain bundle feeder chute, tucked in during transport from farm to farm, was unlatched, hinged up, and fastened into place. The feed chain was inspected, making sure the chain was firmly around the cog gears that drove it. Fradette drove the big Minneapolis Moline around to face the thresher, and the hammer mill belt was attached. It took well over a half hour to get that big contraption ready.
Other men, horses, tractors, wagons arrived at the farm. An early start meant a farmer’s grain could be threshed in one day. Some farmers got their instructions from Dad, who directed them out to a field to start loading the shocks onto the wagons.
The men’s names were Bernier, Kozelka, Ingham, Sutton, Larsen, Sales, Mahan, Rosenbaum, Payne, Aspenson, and MacAvery. They wore bib overalls and straw hats, and some smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. A few smoked a pipe clenched in their teeth. They were German, Norwegian, and English. A few had accents.
By ten o’clock, with the dew burned off by the blazing sun, the loads of bundles started arriving from the fields. There were six or seven teams of wagons and horses. Some farmers brought a tractor and wagon. These were small tractors, typical for the time of the late 1940s and 1950s. Farmall H, Ford 8N, Allis Chalmers C, and the John Deere “Johnny Poppers.”
Years of experience had taught farmers how long it would take “to do this farm.” They mentally counted the fields of shocks. They gauged the crop yield by the spacing of the shocks. Close together, good yield, threshing is going to take some time. Shocks spread out, threshing will go fast.
A half dozen wagons with a team of horses, called “rigs,” could keep the hungry threshing machine busy. Shutting it down was wasted time, and time was everything. They only stopped between loads for a quick greasing of all the zerks and another time for noon lunch.
Fradette opened the throttle of the big Minneapolis Moline, and smoke belched out the three-foot exhaust pipe on top. The thresher came to life, the big claw teeth at the end of the tray chute started to move, gulping up bundles. The tray chain moved, and the belts and pulleys started turning. The beast was rising from the dead once again!
A farmer had already driven his team and wagon into position, just inches from the feed apron. The thresher was up to speed, and Fradette signaled for the first bundles to start down the feeder.
Bundles were thrown in grain heads first, stalk end last, and lengthwise. Feeder knives attached beneath the claws cut the binder twine. Uncut twine meant that the grain would not separate from the stalk, which would clog the thresher. If that happened, the thresher would have to be shut down and valuable time would be wasted. In addition, twine could get wrapped around the shaft bearing and would need to be cut by hand with a jack knife.
Hour after hour, the big contraption roared, bellowed and throbbed, as if to say “I’m the king of all machines.” A farmer climbed atop the thresher to check the weight of the oats being collected in the half-bushel dump bucket. He lifted out a handful, juggled it for heft two or three times in his hands, then shouted down to Dad, “Them’s good oats, Alvin.” Decades of threshing had taught any farmer that “good oats” are heavy, the kernels filling out plump and meaty. Every farmer wants the kind of oats that Quaker or Kellogg or Post would buy and make into breakfast cereal.
Another farmer opened the side of the galvanized hinged door by the blower fan and inspected a handful of straw, checking for any kernels that might be escaping up the blower pipe instead of being sacked or going into the grain bin.
Frank Fradette was paid by the bushel for threshing grain. Three to five cents a bushel was the going rate. Threshed oats went up an elevator on the side of the big machine, and the oats dumped in a receiver cup. This receiver was counterbalanced by a weight, and when full, the buckle opened and dumped the grain into an auger that took it to a waiting wagon or pick-up truck.
At the same time, the dumping buckle operated a geared counter that kept track of the number of bushels threshed. Two dumping trips of the bucket equaled one bushel of oats. The counter had three “windows” and operated like the counters used to keep track of the amount of electricity one used.
Every farmer has pride, and wants to be well thought of by his neighbors. A farmer could not hide his operation from fellow farmers. The threshing crew walked his fields, witnessed the gullies, sand dunes, and reddish or yellowish soil where the blackened topsoil had been washed away. Fellow farmers observed how weedy his cornfields were, with the corn about three feet high at threshing time. They noticed the hay seedlings growing in the fields from which the shocks were being removed.
A farmer’s barns and silos, his cattle, horses, harnesses, machinery, the condition of his fences, buildings, the house, lawn, and gardens were open for inspection. Farmers knew who had good, strong, healthy teams of horses and who had nags that could barely do a day’s work.
You could judge a man and his farm. Nobody ever said anything, at least not out in the open, certainly not around threshing time. Those conversations and remarks might be made over a beer at Sullivan’s tavern in Seneca. But everyone knew who the “good” farmers were, who took care of their cattle and machinery, who was the hard worker and who was the slacker. Everyone knew who supported their church and who didn’t, who didn’t even go to church, which of course, was unthinkable. How could you be a farmer, an American, a decent human being and not go to church? That was the thinking of the Scheckel boys.
There were no Porta Potties on farms. Threshing crew farmers were not about to go into the clean farmhouse in their dirty, sweaty, greasesmeared clothes and use the bathroom. Many farms, especially in the early years, did not have indoor plumbing. An outhouse was the “port of call.” A Sears catalog was toilet paper.
Those threshing times provided an opportunity for neighbors to visit. Farmers gathered information on new crop varieties coming out, the cost of new machinery, how to solve a problem with the binder or hay loader. That comradeship and the social aspects were important to farmers. It bound them together.
The host farm family provides dinner for the threshing crew. And let me tell you, those farmer could eat! The task was impossible for one woman, so several farm women showed up to help. It was expected.
The meal preparation was done on wood-burning stoves. A few farm families had propane-fed gas ovens. There were few electric stoves and no microwave ovens at that time.
Like the men in the field, the women worked as a team. Pies and cakes were prepared ahead of time by the host housewife. Neighbor wives brought food. Women arrived early, just like the men. A few came by car. Some arrived with their husbands, who drove a wagon pulled by horses or a tractor. It was a chance for housewives to exchange gossip and socialize. Farm kitchens were a beehive of activity.
Those threshing dinners were feasts, feeding as many as 30 men. Usually the food was laid out on tables in the front yard, close to the house. The threshing machine was shut down. The thresher men unhitched the teams from the wagons, drove them to the water tank, or secured buckets of water. Bridles were removed and replaced by halters. A rope was attached to the halter and the other end tethered to a fence post, wagon, or tree. Farmers tried to provide shade for their team. Horses were fed a pail of grain and a few bunches of hay. Men tended to the horses before joining the lunch line.
There was a table set up with a washbasin, soap, and towels for the farmers to “clean up” before the meal started. As little kids, it was our job to set up the washbasin, carry buckets of clean water, stacks of towels, and bars of soap.
The sweat-drenched farmers came by, rolled up their sleeves, bent over the washbasin, and scooped up water with both hands to splash their faces. The lower part of their faces were sunburned; the upper halves, shielded from the sun, were whiter.
No self-respecting housewife wanted to be outdone by a neighboring housewife. It was unthinkable for a meal to be less than a previous feast provided by a farm down the road. And what a feast it was! Chicken was the staple meat, perhaps roast beef, maybe ham. There was heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, along with gravy, stuffing, carrots, peas, homemade bread, and dinner rolls. Cole slaw, pickles, and beets were spread out. Milk, coffee, lemonade, and water for drinks. For dessert, there were several choices of pies: apple, chocolate, peach, mincemeat. These pies were already cut when out on the table. Big pieces, too, not those dinky slices you get in restaurants today. There would be some cakes, pastries, and cookies.
These feasts were beyond description. And always, housewives would be imploring, “Come get seconds.” Food was served buffet style. Farmers would grab a china or ceramic plate, utensils, go down the line, and scoop up whatever food and whatever quantity of food they desired.
Farmers would eat sitting on the grass. A few chairs were provided. Some farmers set out planks supported by two large pieces of firewood. They ate and talked and swapped ribbing jokes. Some would lie on the grass or sit up against a tree in the farmyard for awhile. A few would smoke a cigarette, sip coffee, discuss farming, reminisce about past times and long-ago people. Talk of politics was rare. No one talked about religion unless it was about a past minister or priest.
Larsen said, “Gettin’ dry for early August.” Jack Ingham had a lisp, a result of being kicked in the face by a horse when he was a kid. “Surz is,” he agreed. John Payne said, “Hogs are down to $18. Can’t make money on that.” Ken DuCharme added, “Barely covers the cost.” Floyd Sutton said, “I heard the Hintz place on Taylor Ridge is for sale. Wants fifteen thousand.” Bob Ingham, “Ain’t no way he’s goin’ get fifteen thousand. Lucky if he gets nine or ten thousand.”
Phillip, Bob, and I listened to the talk. Farmers reminisced about years past. The price of cows, pigs, beef, sheep, and chickens. The men grumbled about big government, carping about banks and bankers. The hiring of a new teacher perked up our ears. We’d be going back to Oak Grove School in four weeks.
No hour-long lunches for threshing crews. It was back to work for the rest of the afternoon, in the hot July, early August sun. Threshing ended when all the grain shocks were run through the machine. It would be about five o’clock, but could run as late as seven if they figured they could finish up a farm and go to a new one the next day.
The threshing machine would be “put to bed.” The big straw pipe is telescoped to its shortest length. The big gear turned so the straw pipe was atop and parallel with the thresher, then gently lowered by gearing it to its cradle.
All the belts were taken off and stored in the back of the thresher, where a hinged door was unlatched and chained up to keep it open. Threshers of this size had around ten belts. The long hammer mill belt was removed from the pulley of the thresher and the pulley of the tractor, laid out on the ground, and rolled up. It, too, was stored in the voluminous bin in the back of the threshing machine.
The front hinged feeder gate was tucked under. The tractor is attached to the tongue. The threshing machine is pulled away from the huge newly created straw stack, pulled out of the field, and taken out on the Oak Grove Ridge gravel road and on to the next farm.
If you had a small farm with not much grain in production, you were expected to be on the threshing crew for several days, but not the entire season. On the other hand, if you were a farmer with lots of acres in oats, you would be expected to be on the road almost every day.
Farmers did keep track of such stuff. There was no paper record or written ledger involved here. This was all mental stuff. Not much verbalized. But no farmer wanted to be known as a shirker for not doing his expected share.
The host farmer often kept a few cases of beer cooling in the milk cooler or on ice in a barrel or calf water tank. At the end of the threshing day, farmers were offered a few beers. Soon the farmer would be on his way home. He had his own chores to do; milking, feeding cattle, tending to hogs, chickens, horses, and sheep.
These the long, hot, dog days of summer. The farmers on Oak Grove Ridge were following the Biblical admonition, “Ye shall earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow.”
Larry Scheckel is the author of Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.