Editor’s note: This is part three of a three part series.
The host farm family provides dinner for the threshing crew. And let me tell you, those farmers 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. The bridle was removed and replaced by a halter. 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 on 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, “Getting’ 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.