Editor’s note: This is the second part of Jerry Rolefson’s reflections on harvest time. See last week’s The Country Today for the first part.
The real change to harvest time came about 1948 when we got a J I Case combine. The grain binder was no longer needed. There was no grain to shock. There was a more regular milking chore time because Dad was no longer on the threshing route. But mostly, there was no threshing crew and all the things that were part of neighbors helping each other with a major yearly farming task.
It also seemed to end a period when neighbors exchanged help on any job without the need to measure the exact effort or cost. The new period would see help exchange and machine use precisely measured in hours and dollars per hour.
Our Case combine was powered by a Wisconsin air cooled engine and towed by a Farmall H tractor. It was my machine and I was now the threshing crew. Kind-of-like Grandpa Ellingson and Dad had done. After Dad would help set up the combine shakers and wind blinds, I would run the combine and he would haul grain to the granary.
Combining was different than threshing with the Belle City separator in a number of ways. One major difference was the time window available to complete the threshing job. The separator could thresh grain much faster than our combine. A farmer’s entire crop could be threshed in one day with the separator, where as, our crop along with Uncle Tony’s and a neighbors took several weeks. In addition, the grain continued to mature, weeds continued to grow and there was always the possibility of a wind and rain storm to lodge the grain. This all added to the time needed to finish the threshing job.
There was always an urgency to keep the combine working. Start as soon as the grain was dry in the morning and continue until it was too damp in the evening. Some times this was after dark. Lunches were eaten when the combine hopper was emptied into the grain wagon.
Another difference was getting the best result of separating the straw, chaff and weed seeds from the grain. The separator was always set up level so that the threshed grain would spread evenly over the shakers. Grain bundles thrown on the feed apron were always fed grain end first and in an even flow. The combine could do an equally good job on a flat field, but hills, especially side hills could affect the threshing quality.
Lodged grain was another problem as it would often enter the combine in an uneven flow. The remedy to get a satisfactory combining result was to vary the travel speed. For a teenage boy this meant traveling very slow, very very slow or barely moving.
One of the most treasured memories involved Grandpa Ellingson and the combine travel speed. Grandpa stayed with us after Grandmother died and he would often come to the field when mother would bring lunch. He would walk to the edge of what had been combined and wait until I came. When I got near, he would motion to “keep going.” Then he would put his hand under the back hood of the combine and grab a handful of straw and chaff. After carefully removing the straw, he would gently blow on his hand to remove the chaff. If a few grain colonels remained in his hand there was a hand signal to “stop.”
The next step, in this often repeated routine, was to hear Grandpa say “you’re going to fast.” Or sometimes he would suggest an adjustment in the wind blinds.
Weeks after the threshing season was over one could easily see which grain fields had been combined. The telling characteristic was bright green strips, about 6 feet apart, of newly sprouted grain that had passed through the combine. When Grandpa and I would go to town and pass a field with the green strips you knew what he was thinking, “they were going to fast.” I don’t recall him ever saying that, but after passing a combined field it was easy to get him talking about the threshing route, the Case steam engine, the Rumely Oil Pull and the Belle City.
I’m quite sure Grandpa Ellingson could see some advantages in combining. I’m positive that he could not be convinced that the combine could do as good a job separating the grain from the straw and weed seeds as the Belle City.