Editor’s note: This is part two of a three part series.
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 oat, 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, grease-smeared 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.
Larry Scheckel is the author of Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.