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THE SEBEWA RECOLLECTOR of the Sebewa Center Association,
October 1979, Volume 15, Number 2. Submitted with written permission of Editor Grayden D. Slowins :
THRESHING TIME IN SEBEWA 50 YEARS AGO by Zack York
With the end of summer and the approach of fall as we drive through the country, there’s only the clean expanse of amber stubble to remind us that the harvest season for wheat and oats is once more over. When I recall the harvest days of my childhood, 50 odd years ago, I remember that we children always hoped the threshing would be finished in time for us to go to the Ionia Free Fair. Fair week was a welcome vacation from the seemingly endless sequence of farm work seasons that kept us occupied from the time school was out in early May til it began again after Labor Day in September. Haying was scarcely over before wheat harvest was upon us. In between there was cultivating beans and corn, hoeing in the garden, and picking strawberries. Sometimes we’d pick raspberries even on the Fourth of July, although we’d put off cutting the wheat in order to celebrate the holiday. If rain interrupted grain cutting we might work in a day of huckleberrying. Every day, regardless of the season or the weather, there were the chores to be done---milking the cows, feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, getting in the kindling, the wood and the coal, filling the reservoir in the wood-burning range. On and on, there was no end. These activities were only the preface to the day’s work, which for all self-respecting farmers began when they arrived at the field at seven-thirty. At noon we knocked off an hour for dinner and at one were back in the field until we called it a day and quit for supper at six. Often we’d return to work after supper if rain threatened in haying time or if, in harvesting, it was hot during the middle of the day. It was easier on the horses to work in the cool of the evening. Such a shift in schedules meant that my sister and I were left to do all the chores while Dad returned to the field with the team and worked til dark.
When a field of grain was opened up for cutting, Dad would ride the horse-drawn binder and cut a swath around the outside edge, dropping the bundles as they were kicked out of the binder, one at a time into the standing wheat. The scattered bundles would have to be picked up and carried to the edge of the field so that on the return trip the field was clear for the cutting bar. One could carry four bundles at a time, usually, one under each arm and one in each hand. Sometimes the automatic knotter wouldn’t work and a bundle of grain would be dropped untied. I remember how proud I was when I learned how to make a band from the loose straws. One grasped a handful of straw near the heads, made a simple twist and the heads, held securely in the right hand, while one thrust the left arm under the bundle of loose straw, grasped half of the free ends of straw encircling the bundle and transferring it to the other half of the band in the right hand, gave it a twist and tucked it securely under the band below the twist. If done correctly it held as tightly as any machine tied knot!
After a couple of trips encircling the field, Dad flipped out the carrier and soon bundles were lying in windrows, ready for me to shock. It took twelve bundles to make a shock. Three pairs of bundles were stood up, butts separated and heads leaning together, forming a little tent. The bundles were anchored to the ground by socking the butts into the stubble of the cut grain. Two more on each side were leaned against the six and the ten bundles were then capped by two more bundles. Each cap bundle was held in the left arm and the straw bent and fanned out by the right arm, then slapped on the top of the standing sheaves to provide a roof for the shocked grain, protecting it from the rain. The overlap of the cap, if well done, exposed only the heads of the grain in one bundle to the elements.
Oats were never capped; they were shocked two by two in long tent-like shocks. It was a long and tedious job to shock a ten or twenty acre field alone; over and over to stoop, carry, place each bundle in the prescribed architecture of the shock. When the field was done, it looked like a large village of grass huts of some aboriginal people pictured in my fourth grade geography book.
Once the field was shocked, we left the grain until it had dried and the threshing machine got around to us as it moved from farm to farm during the late summer. Because it would sometimes be weeks before the threshing rig showed up, some farmers hauled their unthreshed grain by wagon to the farmyard where it was either stored in their barns (if they weren’t already filled with hay) or stacked in big round stacks nearby. Although we never stacked our grain that I can remember, Grandpa Grieves usually did and we have pictures of threshing at Grandpa York’s from stacks of unthreshed grain.
There were three threshing rigs that worked in our area of Sebewa. They were owned by Jimmy Creighton, Frank Cassel and Clarence Sayer. We used only the last two. We first used Frank Cassel’s rig, which was powered by a big old steam engine, then later Clarence Sayer’s machine, powered by an oil burning Advance Rumley tractor.
My first memory of threshing was the arrival of Frank Cassel’s threshing machine, usually with him at the wheel and Nig (Asa), his brother, standing by, ready to thrill us by pulling the cord on the whistle, which would emit a shrill blast, shattering the summer evening already noisy with insects and croaking of frogs from our pond. Showers of sparks would fly up into the night out of the smoke stack and the monster would rumble and puff by, hauling the separator. It was followed, in turn, by Old Perry with the horse-drawn water-wagon.
Preparations had been made ahead of time for the setting up. The farmer had to decide where he wanted his smoke-stack to be placed. He had already hauled in a supply of coal for stoking the boiler, which provided the steam for power. The coal had to be dumped near the fire box for the stoker, whose job was to keep up the steam!
Holes had to be dug to seat the big wheels of the engine to stabilize it when the pulleys began to turn. The drive pulley on the engine moved a huge belt, which moved the pulleys operating the separator. When all was set and a wagon load of bundles arrived, the pitchers forked the bundles onto the canvas conveyor belt. The belt would slap as the pulleys turned and the canvas feeder would begin to move. The knives of the arms would claw and slash as the bundles disappeared into the great maw of the separator. The whole operation would be accompanied by tremendous shaking, grinding and groaning as the metal monster began to thresh the grain, screening the wheat from the chaff and straw, which would come spewing out of the long neck of the blower.
The stacker on top of the separator would direct the flying straw onto the stack. Some farmers, not wanting to expose themselves to the dirt and discomfort of stacking the straw by hand, would simply manipulate the cranks and pulleys of the blower and pile the straw as best they could by remote control. That was a bit shiftless, however, and the farmer who prided himself on a well shaped strawstack that would stand up over the winter would stack his own straw by hand rather than ask any one else to do it. It was a job that was hot and dirty, especially if the grain was smutty as it sometimes was back then.
Another dirty job, but one less shunned because it was an easier one, was tending bagger. All that was entailed here was operating the switch handle which directed the grain from one of two spouts at the end of the grain chute into waiting grain sacks hooked to the openings. The grain would accumulate at the tally mechanism at the top of the chute and periodically dump a half bushel of grain, which would then cascade down the chute and out of one of the two bottom spouts into the grain sack. Usually three dumps would be load enough to be hand-carried to the nearby granary or a waiting truck or wagon. The bagger attendant would switch the lever directing the next flow of grain to a bag already attached to the other spout. He would then unfasten the filled bag, give the top a neat twist and set it back where it would be picked up by the men who were carrying grain.
Nig Cassel usually took care of Frank’s machinery maintenance, stoking the fire, keeping the steam up and oiling the moving parts of the machine. Old Perry hauled the water for the steam, carrying it in a wooded water wagon with a hand operated pump installed on the top and drawn by a span of dappled grey horses. He used to let me ride with him to get the water, sometimes from one of the two ponds on our farm and sometimes from the gravel pit on Florian Kenyon’s farm a mile north of us. Perry Rogers was an “old batch” and often the butt of jokes and pranks engendered, not so much from a dislike of the man, but from the delight his teasers took in hearing him cuss. He could swear a blue streak when properly provoked. Surprisingly, Mother let me go with him after water because he’d be away from the men and if people left him alone and didn’t plague him, he kept a decent tongue in his head.
Partly because the men were sometimes rough talking and partly for safety’s sake we kids were not allowed around the machinery and were ordered to keep out from under foot. Occasionally we were needed to work in the bins in the granary to shovel the grain back when the bins were filling up and adding of a bin board made it hard to throw the bags up and dump the grain. If Nig Cassel were about, we’d clear out because he chewed tobacco and like to hector us by spitting tobacco juice on our bare feet and legs. This amused him mightily and the discomfort and indignity of this prank was far more wounding to our pride than, say, being sent after a left handed wrench or stepping on a “Dutchman’s razor”. There was always a good deal of joshing and joking among the men and we kids were an appreciative audience, all ears and eyes.
The neighbors “changed work” and although it was usually hot weather at threshing and we sweat a lot, the air of festivity and holiday spirit of the occasion made the labor light. Everybody was expected to hold up his end and usually the individual took pride in maintaining his reputation for being a good worker. I pitched bundles in the field for a farmer who failed to measure up! He’d lay his first bundles flush with his rack and didn’t extend them to the band as I had been taught, in order to provide a broader base for a larger load. He then tossed the bundles loosely into the middle and gave no mind to systematically and compactly overlapping and layering the bundles. To do so was to build a respectable load where each bundle was “marked for future reference” so that unloading was accomplished with orderliness and ease. I observed that because he “blew up” his load by tossing the bundles loosely into the middle we were soon ready to fall in line. We were thus assured of a nice rest before unloading our “jag” as such a load was contemptuously called. Most of the farmers had this man’s number and he wasn’t often asked to bring his team and wagon but was given the easier job of tending bagger.
Earlier, before I was big enough to work in the field, it was my sister’s and my job to set up the facilities for the men to wash up for their meal. We’d put two wash tubs on benches in the back yard and fill them with water from the cistern. We’d set out two cakes of Fels Naptha soap and hang a mirror on the woodshed along with half a dozen towels on nails. Mother made hand towels from old flour and feed sacks and I can still remember their stiffness and rough texture. After the men had washed up, it was our job to carry the water in pails to the garden and water the cucumbers and squash. If we were lucky enough to have the threshers for another meal, we’d refill the tubs and get things ready for the supper wash-up. The men always made a great splatter and splash in washing up and often ducked their heads into the water to cool off. They didn’t seem to mind being wet to the waist. Mother said it often seemed as though they left more dirt on the towels than in the tubs of water.
One reason every one enjoyed threshing time was the food. Every housewife prided herself in setting a good table. The women outdid themselves and nothing pleased them more than to see the quantities of food they had prepared over a hot stove disappear with gusto and pleasure. To this day a good cook knows the compliment intended when any one sits down at her table, surveying the generous spread, says, “You’ve got enough for threshers!”
There was always a variety of food and lots of it. Women kept track by questioning their men about what they had to eat at the places before threshers were ready at their tables so they wouldn’t repeat menus. There was always meat and potatoes. The meat was chicken, canned beef or pork. Before lockers and refrigerators came into the picture, Mother always “put up” her meat either in glass cans or “put down” her pork sausage and ham by frying it and packing it in crocks and pouring melted lard over it. Kept in a cool cellar, it lasted all winter and well into summer with the last crock set aside for the threshers. Too, there was always smoked ham and meat loaf was a standby. Everybody had a big garden in those days and there was always new potatoes. (One lady was criticized because she served her potatoes with the jackets on but was observed to have time in the afternoon to sit on the porch tatting and visiting with the neighbor women in to help!) plenty of vegetables of all kinds, pickles, relishes, jams, jellies and preserves; lots of home made biscuits and bread; pitchers of iced tea, rarely lemonade but lots of hot coffee or tea (no instant!). Pie for dinner; cake or cookies and sauce of some kind for supper, usually canned. Pick from strawberries, applesauce or rhubarb; peaches, plums or raspberries. Every housewife canned and the cellar shelves were well stocked.
In all the time we ate around the threshing time, I never had a meal that wasn’t tasty and generous to a fault. My father used to tell about one stingy housewife who set a spare table. She craftily conserved butter consumption because it was a cash item when she went to do her trading. She’d make balls of butter for threshing time, chill them in the cellar and at meal time put them on a warm plate. As the men tried to cut off some butter from the cold ball it would turn and slide on the hot plate until the embarrassed soul gave up and ate his bread unbuttered.
At all the tables in our neighborhood there was always plenty and often supper had warmed up items from dinner added to the new array of fresh things for the evening meal. Old Perry liked to delay getting back with a load of water so he could eat late---with the women and kids. He was willing to risk a ribbing by the men in order to enjoy a respite from the plaguing. There was no custom of quiet characteristic of lumber camps of earlier times. There was always a lot of laughing and joshing among the men. But my mother was alert to the tone of the conversation and she permitted no profanity or off-color jokes at her table. It took only a “Now! None of that!” or “Watch your tongue!” to squelch a transgressor. She didn’t mind certain gouche conduct or crudities of expression such as Frank Cassel’s “Pass the cow” (cream for coffee) or “Let’s have some of the dead hog.”
Nig Cassel complimented the cooks by eating more than one dessert. He always said he liked “only two kinds of pie; hot pie and cold pie!” The coos sometimes served the pie on individual pie plates to control the greedy appetites but it could be controlled as well simply by delaying the appearance of the pie. If the whole pie was put on the table too soon, the greedy pie eater would eat a slice before the meal and one at the end as well. But even if some one ate two pieces of pie, it was considered more of a compliment than a breach of etiquette. Some of the men were short on manners, but it was always apparent to the cooks when the men appreciated their efforts: they put away a lot of food, cleaned up their plates and although some wouldn’t know how to voice a compliment, they would belch healthily and suck their teeth as they smacked their lips over the last morsel of pie or swished the last of their cold tea around in their mouths as they pushed themselves back from the table.
About the time I left home to go to college the day of the threshing machine and the custom of work exchange was waning. The threshing rigs soon disappeared and the whole system of harvesting changed. Horses gave way to power driven machinery; binders and threshers gave way to the combine; and exchanging work became a thing of the past. Wagon wheels now mark entrances to driveways or serve as chandeliers in restaurants, taverns and lobbies of summer theatres. Wagon hubs minus their spokes are converted to quaint lamps in family rooms and countless old tools, from pitchforks to cutting bars have become collectors items and sell for ridiculous prices at country auctions or in antique shops. The extension table loaded with the hearty food of the farm wife’s culinary skill at threshing time is long gone. We may look back at those times with nostalgia, but what farmer really wants to return to the “good old days”?
Last update November 16, 2013