Threshing Bee: Early Mechanized Harvest on the Family Farm

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By Capper's Staff | Feb 9, 2012

Many communities today schedule old-fashioned threshing bees so the younger generation can see how oats were harvested on family farms in bygone days.

In the “good old days” of 50 or so years ago the threshing crew was called a “ring,” because it made a circuit of a number of farms. Each farmer furnished labor, and in order to get the necessary number of men, those having more acres of oats to be threshed had to furnish two men, or in a few cases, three men with teams of horses and racks.

There were bundle haulers, who loaded the oat shocks onto a rack, hauled them to the threshing machine, then pitched them into the machine. The grain haulers had to take care of the threshed grain. Some farmers had elevators to unload the grain; others did not, so the oats had to be put into the granary with the scoop shovel method. Many nights after the chores were done (and darkness had descended) my dad would scoop off at least one load of grain.

Some of the farmers stacked the straw, so a good stacker was always in demand. His job was extremely dirty and hot. All day he worked in the straw stack, arranging it neatly so it would stay in place. At other farms the straw was left in a pile as it came from the blower. There always seemed to be a bit of prestige involved if you had a straw stack instead of just a straw pile.

The big, old steam engine used to power the thresher was a wondrous machine. My earliest memories are of a steam engine -was it a Hart Parr?-so large it was deemed unsafe to cross the old wooden road bridge. My dad had to take down the fence so it could be moved across the pasture and cross the creek where the banks were shallow. It moved so slowly that it might take almost half a day to move it from one location to another and get it set up ready to work again.

There was a whistle on the old steam engine that was used to give signals, such as time to start, quitting time, etc. One of the greatest thrills was for some of the older boys to sneak out at night after all was quiet and use that last bit of steam to blow the whistle. The engine operator always seemed displeased about the prank, but surely it was all part of the game.

The fireman who had to fire up the engine and keep the steam pressure under control often would stay with the family where the machine was working, so he would be on hand before 5 a.m. to get things started. A timekeeper was appointed who kept track of the hours worked at each place. At the end of the season there was a threshers’ meeting, when all the families involved got together. The hours were figured and payment was made accordingly. It was customary for the man who owned the threshing rig to furnish ice cream for all. What a delight that was! Remember, this was long before most farmers had electricity, so ice cream was a rare summer treat.

One could almost hear a collective sigh from the farmers and their families when this job was finished for another year. They knew that there would be a breather before the hard labor of corn picking began. It’s hard to imagine the energy, muscle power and stamina necessary to accomplish this annual task.

Oat harvesting was hot, hard work for the men. But consider the women’s work. There was no electricity, hence no refrigeration. There was no fresh meat unless a woman went to the butcher shop in town early in the morning or dressed about five or six chickens so they could be cooled in water from the deep well, which was cooler than water from the house well.

The large crews would have 20 to 24 men to feed, plus the women and children. Neighbor women and relatives would band together to prepare all this food as there were dinners, afternoon lunches and sometimes suppers to be served.

The cooks would vie with one another to serve the best and most tasty meals. Each lady had her specialty. She might be famous for her pies, one lady made a delicious white cake, another’s meat loaf scored a hit. At our house pie was always served to the men on a set of beautiful hand-painted china pie plates. To my young mind, it always seemed strange to serve the men on these lovely delicate plates that were used only for “special company” otherwise. There were at least two kinds of pie to choose from; often a small piece of each was served.

With that many men to feed, there were always two tables of 12 to be waited on. Guess who got to do the running while the women were dishing up the food, then washing dishes for the next table? And before all the dishes were done, some of the cooks were preparing the lunch, which was taken out, so the men could eat in shifts and not stop the machine.

Since almost all bread was baked at home, along with the pies, cakes and cookies, the old cookstove was going from early morning until at least 8:30 each evening. Can you imagine how hot the house would get! Guess by the time we fell into bed at night, we were so tired we never noticed the temperature. Another job for the kids was hauling cobs and wood to be fed into the kitchen range. Oh, the delight of picking up corncobs in the hog yard!

And then there was the uncertainty; if it would rain suddenly and the men all went home, the cooks would have mountains of food prepared and no refrigeration to keep it. Or, after a rain the grain might be dry enough to start an hour before noon, hence a wild scramble to get dinner on the table.

Farming was not specialized in those days. Each farmer had hogs to feed, cows to milk and chickens to tend, so there were chores to do morning and night. Lots of farmers’ wives and children got to do all the chores during the threshing season. There were gardens to tend also, as nearly all the food was grown at home. Then, too, many housewives had a rigid schedule for the housework: wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, etc. It was always our fervent hope that the threshers wouldn’t come on Monday, as the washing just had to go on.

Oh, the good old days-when men worked from sun to sun, but women’s work was never done! For my part, I’ll settle for electricity and all the modern conveniences we enjoy today!

Maxine A. Steele
Sutherland, Iowa

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.

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