The only actual work that I ever saw my Granddad Beck do, was what they called “Open The Field”. Grain, during the 1920’s was harvested with a Binder. That machine cut the grain and tied it into bundles. Those bundles were then discharged to a carrier that held them until you reached the point where you intended a row of shocks to be. It was important that the bundles were shocked in relatively straight rows, because that helped when they were gathered to be taken to the thrasher.
The binder was too wide to transport when it was set up for cutting grain, so when it was moved from field to field, it was pulled endwise. In order to do that, a set of auxiliary wheels was attached underneath and a team of horses was hitched to the outboard end. The binder was then pulled to the next field that was to be harvested. You can imagine the amount of grain that would be trampled down and lost while getting the binder through the gate, turning it around, getting the transport wheels out, and all of the other things necessary to get ready to go. This was especially wasteful, because normally there would be no more than ten acres in the entire field that was to be harvested.
In an effort to reduce this waste, Granddad would take his cradle and open the field. That meant that he would cradle all of the grain that would otherwise be knocked down during the untrucking operation. I was only a small boy, but it was fascinating for me to watch him do that. I could tell that he knew exactly what he was doing and that, all of the time, he was thinking back to the time when they did not have modern machines like the binder and he would be doing the entire field with the cradle.
When Granddad went to open a field, he always took a one gallon jug of water with him. The jug was wrapped with a very thick layer of burlap, and each time that he took a drink he would splash some of the water onto the burlap covering. He would then set the jug on the top of a fence post, in the hot sun, and leave it there until the next drink. I did not know, at the time, and I am sure that he didn’t know that it was the latent heat of evaporation that was keeping his water cool. He only knew that the water would remain cooler if he put the jug in the sun than it would if he put it in the shade.
Harvesting wheat, in the 1920’s was quite an operation. The binder had been sitting out in the orchard, under an apple tree and hundreds of sparrows since it was last used, the year before. During the day of July 4th. or the day after, Dad would go out and give each moving part a squirt of oil and put the canvases on. These were the devices that carried the grain across the table and up to the knotter. After a bundle had been formed and was tied, an arm would come up and toss it out to the carrier. This carrier would hold the bundles until the point where a row of shocks was to be set up and then it would be tripped by the operator. In most cases, when the crop was cut and shocked it was allowed to remain in the field until the thrashing rig came around.
The actual thrashing of the grain was a cooperative enterprise, everyone helped everyone else so that the only exchange of money was between the farmer and the owner of the thrashing machine. Quite often the thrasher would be paid in grain, rather than cash.
The separator that did the actual thrashing was powered by a coal or wood fired steam, traction engine. The power was transmitted from the engine to the separator by a very long flat leather belt.
On one occasion Dad put the bundles in the barn instead of leaving them in the field. While in the process of getting the separator pushed up into the barn, and amid all of the shouting and waving instructions, our little Beagle hound became as excited as the people. One of the men was all hunkered down, watching the undercarriage and in his excitement, the little dog ran up and grabbed a mouth full of the, tightly stretched, back part of the man’s britches. Judging from the man’s reaction I got the impression that the dog had gotten hold of more than just britches.
This method of thrashing grain continued until about the early 1950’s. It was about then that the combine replaced the Nichols and Sheppard engine and the Red River Special separator. This take over was effective with all of the farmers except for the Amish. I believe that many of the Amish still, in the early 1990’s, use the old binders and the belt driven thrashers.
It was not until the late 1920’s that I became directly involved with the thrashing process. To me, the most memorable aspect of the whole thing was the meals that were set out for the thrashing crew. The women got together with the meal preparation the same as the men did with the thrashing. You, never in your life, saw such food and so much of it.
When the crew came to the house for dinner (the noon meal was then dinner) there would be two or three wash tubs of water that had been setting in the sun to warm. This was the bath room where the men washed up. By the time that we were all washed the water looked like, and was about the consistency of weak split pea soup. Threshing was hard, hot, dirty work, but I would wager that if you were to ask anyone that had done any amount of it, they would tell you that they would like to give it another go. I know that I would. I also think that if the same camaraderie and cooperation existed today that did 75 years ago, we might be living in a better world.
Among the many thrashing memories that are brought to mind, one seems to stand out. It happened during the depression while my brother and I were following Henry Hackenberg on his thrashing circuit. Henry owned a good sized rig and, at that time, did most of the thrashing in our area. Andy Meyers also had a rig but he served the area that was west of Centreville. The two Thrashers appeared to have an agreement that their areas would not overlap.
When I say that Elwin and I followed Henry Hackenberg’s rig, I mean that we would go to the same farms that Henry did and we would usually get hired on, at the rate of a dollar a day and our dinner. We never knew what we would be doing, and it didn’t matter to us. It could be pitching bundles onto the wagons, in the field, carrying grain from the separator to the granary, stacking straw from the blower or driving a team on one of the bundle wagons. It all payed the same and we had done enough of it so that all of the farmers knew that we would, and could do almost anything that might be required.
The event that I particularly remember was the year that we helped to thrash Henry Schweitzer oats. Henry was a big Dutchman and a real good farmer. His oats produced an exceptionally good yield, that year, and wouldn’t you know, Elwin and I were assigned the job of carrying grain. It was only a short distance from the separator to the granary, but those oats were coming out of that machine so fast that there was hardly any time between one dump of the metering device and the next. As a result, Elwin and I were running back and forth between the separator and the grain bins, in the barn. I have no idea how many bushels of oats we carried and/or spilled, that afternoon. However, I am convinced that if, at that time, it had been known that oats could reduce or control cholesterol, we handled enough in those few hours to have saved the life of at least one half of the people that have since died from high blood pressure and heart attacks.
It was on this same day, at Henry Schweitzers that Elwin met with a accident, only because he couldn’t yell loud enough to be heard over the din of the thrashing rig and the clatter of a Model A truck, operated by a half deaf old man. I am sure that there must have been people in Three Rivers, a mile and a half away, that ran out into their yards to see what the screaming was all about.
The half deaf truck driver was old Phil. Walls. Phil. had an old Model A truck that he used in combination with a home made, single axle, trailer to haul logs from the woods to the saw mill. During the thrashing season he would mount a tank on the bed of the truck and haul water for Henry’s steam engine. He would get the water from the Portage River at Annie Skinner’s bridge. Phil had just delivered a load of water and was apparently trying to turn his rig around. Why he was back there near the separator, I don’t know but then, no one ever got very far trying to question the thinking of Phil Walls.
As I have previously mentioned, Elwin and I were both deeply involved with the oats and didn’t see the back end of the truck approaching us. The first indication that we had of impending disaster was when the back of the truck bed struck Elwin. That was also the time that the screaming started. Elwin, quick turned around but he was unable to get away from the truck. He was pushed backwards against the blower belt that burned a big, painful, streak on one of his arms. Those were the days before OSHA, Casualty Insurance and Workmen’s Compensation, so as I remember, Mrs. Schweitzer coated the burn with iodine, Elwin screamed some more and we went back to work.