Editor’s note: This is part one of a three part series.
“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 3 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 of 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 lead to nearest oats field. We watched from afar with numerous admonitions of “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 McCormack-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 4-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.
Larry Scheckel is the author of “Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.”