Threshing old photo 092618

A 1920s threshing crew typically had wagons, buggies, a steam engine, combines and other equipment, as shown in this photo circa 1920 from Manitowoc County.

Harvesting small grains was always a major task each summer for farms not only in Manitowoc County, but throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest. 

Farmers needed to cut the wheat or oats, tie them into bundles, and when dried, load the bundles onto horse-drawn racks to bring to the threshing machine. 

Threshing crews traveled from farm to farm with these large machines that would thresh the wheat and oats, separating the grain from the straw. Crews would spend several days at each farm, working long hours. Threshing season was a time of hard work, but it also presented an opportunity to visit with neighbors, share food and let children play together.

In 1976, the Manitowoc County Historical Society newsletters included reminiscences from members of the Manitowoc Senior Center’s creative writing class. The September newsletter featured Lorraine Herman’s recollection of threshing in the 1920s:

“With the machine there would be six crew-men,” she wrote. “Four of the crew-men worked in the grain mow, throwing bundles from the far side of the mow. They threw each bundle, from one to another, chain line fashion, until the last one threw it onto the table.

“The table, a platform, built of high, sturdy uprights, with heavy planks thrown across them to form the table, stood between the grain mow and the separator. Standing on this platform the ‘table-man’ pitched the bundles individually into the intake of the separator.

“The separator, an ingenious device for that time, separated the grain from the straw, dropped the grain onto oscillating screens below, which dropped the smaller weed seeds through, and moved the grain on to a measuring bin, while it blew the straw over into a large pipe, and out onto the straw stack. A man sat on the pipe on the outside, and by moving it from side to side, directed the straw onto the stack.

“Set to measure two or three bushels, whichever size bag was being used, the measuring tripped automatically when full, dropping the grain into a chute, where a bag was attached to catch it. Five men termed ‘bag carriers’ each in turn fixed his grain bag to the end of the chute, and waited until it was full. The next man stood ready to place his bag under the chute. The man with the full bag threw it onto his shoulder, carried it to the granary and emptied it into the proper bin, then returned for a refill. 

“A continuous line kept coming and going. In this way a couple of thousand bushels of grain were threshed in a long 10- or 12-hour day.”

Demonstrations of threshing from years gone by were on display recently at the Mid-Lakes Thresheree at Pinecrest Historical Village west of Manitowoc. The event, which featured an array of farm equipment and related activities, was presented by the Manitowoc County Historical Society and Mid-Lakes Rustic Iron Club.

The goal is to educate the public and future generations with demonstrations of vintage agriculture. This cooperative effort brings to life Wisconsin’s rich agricultural heritage with popular displays, field demonstrations and countless activities for visitors of all ages.

Alexandra Brendemuehl is the program coordinator for the Manitowoc County Historical Society.