The trials and tribulations of a thresherman

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threshing machine
A threshing machine with a straw stacker that has an endless carrier to bring the straw up to the man on the stack. (From an 1898 Aultman-Taylor catalog in the author's collection)

Years ago, I bought a big stack of American Thresherman magazines from 1924 through 1932. The paper was started by Bascom B. Clarke in 1898, to cater to the many professional thresherman in the country.

Clarke had been a threshing machine and grain binder salesman for several farm equipment manufacturers during the last half of the 19th century and wrote a column for the paper each month that he titled Fifty Years a Machine Man. In his column, Clarke liked to recount stories of his experiences “in the good old days.” Here’s one of them.

Learning to thresh

My first experience with a flail began in 1863 (Clarke was born in 1852), down in Arkansaw (sic), where an old coon-hunter had raised a patch of rye which we threshed with hand-made flails. I can almost feel the bumps on my head that I received before I learned the simple twist of the wrist that brought flail down on the straw flat and that did all the separating.

Afterwards, we cleaned this rye by one man on a bench pouring out grain in a little stream and two others fanning the chaff away by walloping a sheet back and forth, thus creating a breeze that did the separating.

Oh, you Old Terriers, with your 36-inch cylinders, self-feeders, automatic weighers and wind stackers of today (1925), who back up to a 5,000-bushel job and clean it up in a few hours, what do you know about a real threshing machine — the flail? Do you think we performed this arduous labor for our health? Not so you could notice it, Ezra.

If you lived down in Arkansaw, where the chills and fever made you shake for a snort of Hostetters’ Stomach Bitters, where corn bread had been your portion for months on end, with the Civil War in full blast and the rivers blockaded by Yankee gunboats, where you had to dig up the ground floors of your smoke-houses and boil the dirt to get the salt which had dripped from the bacon of other years to season your corn bread, and with a mess of rye biscuits on Christmas morning, made from this same rye that we had flailed out and ground in a hand-mill which required two men to turn the crank, I guess you’d remember it, including the cracks you got on your head while in the awkward squad.

Working my way up

After I reached Yankee Land and was called a ‘dam little rebel’ by ignorant Hoosier boys, my next experience was holding sacks for a ten-horse power threshing outfit that showed symptoms of real work sometimes. Next I was advanced to the position of ‘band cutter,’ the fellow who stood beside the man who fed the machine and cut the bands, not twine bands, Ezra, but those made of straw, for there were no binders to tie the grain for twenty years after I had been dubbed and created a thresherman.

Some of you old-timers remember how it was to stand up on a straw stack where moldy rag-weeds gave you a bad taste in your mouth and where you swallowed enough dust to fertilize a turnip patch. Well, that was my job as soon as I was strong enough to manipulate a three-prong fork.

I remember an old ‘sweep stakes’ horse-power threshing outfit that I worked on back in 1868. The straw-carrier was operated by a long chain from the fan belt to the upper end of the carrier.

I always preferred the ‘tail-end’ of the machine on a straw-stack, for there you had to keep the straw away from the end of the carrier, but you could stand still and let the other flunkies do the tromping around on the stack pushing the straw out and tamping it down, something after the fashion of a dog hunting for the head of his bed.

Water break

On one particular hot day the machine crew were crowding we mourners on the straw-stack to the limit, not stopping to water us more than once in an hour. It was during this hard run that it occurred to me that just a tiny twist of a fork tine under that drive-chain might bring relief.

You know that a feeder that knows his business keeps a close watch on the straw-stack as well as every other part of the machine. Therefore it required fast and surreptitious work to make the move, so I quickly moved my fork and down went the chain, and of course we got the water jug while the overseer was replacing the chain.

We all wondered how in thunder that chain happened to fly off the sprocket! What you don’t know in this world of trials and tribulations won’t disturb your conscience, Ezra, especially if you are a thresherman.

It pays to remember the Biblical admonition of Solomon, King of Israel, ‘Set a watch, Oh, Jehovah, before my mouth and keep thou the door of my lips.'”

It’s rare to read a first-hand account by someone who actually swung a flail and worked on the early horse-powered threshers.

Happy New Year to you all!

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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