Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

August 9, 1995, Page 32

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 



Good Old Days


Grain Threshing in the Early 1900’s


By Dee Zimmerman


July, August, hot weather and fields of ripened small grain – all bring back memories of the threshing days for those of us who lived on farms back then.


My dad was the owner of a Minneapolis-Moline threshing separator which was powered by an old Case tractor.  Early in the summer, he and other separator owners would start seeing farmers in their areas, getting together threshing rings.  Each ring had nine to twelve farmers, on the average.


After the grain had been cut and shocked, it was time to call a meeting with those within each threshing ring.  The threshing machine operator announced his rules and expectations and asked others within the group to voice their opinions.  Lastly, the discussion was on whose grain would be threshed first, second, etc.  That seemed to take the longest time in deciding.  One of my dad’s rules was that there would be no smoking of cigarettes, pipes or cigars around the threshing site.  The dry straw, highly combustible if ignited, could burn out the many wooden parts within the interior of the separator, as well as start the straw pile ablaze.  Those who absolutely had to satisfy their nicotine craving resorted to a pinch of snuff under the lip or a chew of tobacco between their gums and cheek.  That was allowed.


A threshing machine owner/operator had to be mechanically inclined to be able to maintain the separator.  Most machine breakdowns were repaired on-site.  The early separators had gears made of Maplewood which would eventually wear out and to be replaced.  The shaking vibration would loosen parts that had to be checked often.  There were several belts, some on each side of the separator, which fit over the various drive pulleys.  There were cylinder teeth, cylinder boxes, special cylinders for the different grains, balancing cylinders, concaves which needed certain adjustments, the beaters, grates and check board – all had to be working properly.  The early day belts were hand laced together with leather lacings.  Later they were redesigned with metal lacing.  A metal alligator lacing apparatus was used to re-splice the belts, which came apart eventually. 


A week before the threshing crew arrived at our farm, it was time to clean out the grain bins in the granary.  The floors were swept; walls and floors were scanned for any small holes where grain could fall through.  Mice often discovered the granary and its contents during the winter, chewing their way in to dine on the grain.  A quick repair could be made by flattening out a tin can and nailing it over the hole.


The morning of threshing day was announced with the sound of steel-wheeled grain racks rattling, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and jangling of harness tugs on the rack’s doubletrees as each farmer drove his team and rack into the farm yard.  As soon as the dew was off the grain shocks, the loading of racks began.  The calm, stable teams were used for pulling the racks and wagons.  The fast moving drive belt from tractor to separator was scary for man and beast when they pulled up along side of it.  Grain bundles were thrown onto the separator feeder from both sides at a specified timing to insure all grain being separated from the straw-preventing grain going into the straw pile.  Once, two young fellows decided to see if they could jam up the separator if they threw bundles as fast as they could.  The tongue lashing they received from my dad diminished the enjoyment.


The threshing separator was stationed wherever the farmer wanted the straw pile to be.  Usually, it was near the barn as a convenience and some may have been blown into the hayloft for livestock bedding.  In the 1900’s to 1920’s, many bed mattresses were restored with fresh straw once a year, after threshing.  The old straw was removed from inside the ticking and stuffed with the new straw.  A straw pile often served as shelter for the pigs, which would burrow into it having a cozy retreat from the winter weather.


Teen-age boys and a grandpa or two usually took care of the grain wagon.  Dairy farmers often wanted the grain run into sacks; then hauled to the granary to be emptied.  Securely tying the tops of the burlap sacks was an art, done properly, the sacks could be tossed with confidence that it wouldn’t break open, yet a pull on the twine would release the tie.  Many muscles were developed from hefting grain sacks to the granary.


The hard working crew took time out for meal time.  A large tub of water was set out in the sunshine, near the house.  A wash basin, bar of hand soap and clean towels were placed on a home-made wooden bench near the back door in readiness for the men to wash up before the noon meal.  One man couldn’t or wouldn‘t use soap – this we kids had to watch.  After all, we were told by our parents, “You must use soap when you wash your face and hands, water alone doesn’t get you clean, you wipe the dirt off on the towel.”  We stood watching him, noting it took him much longer to wash.  After he finished, we looked the towel over to see if dirt was left on it.


The day before threshing arrived, dad would ask mom what she had planned for the menu.  After she listed the food items, dad would say, “Sounds good, after all, those fellows will be working hard so they need food that will stick to their ribs.”  Each farm wife had her specialty foods that were remembered by the crew.  Mom’s one specialty was meat loaf, made with the just right portions of ground pork, ground beef, crackers, onions, eggs and seasonings. The meat loaf was delicious and the rich brown gravy poured over the mashed potatoes was very tasty.  Home-made bread, a cooked vegetable or two, cole slaw, dill and beet pickles, finished off with a choice of fresh baked pies and coffee finalized the plentiful meal.  A four o’clock lunch was carried out to the threshing site.  That consisted of sandwiches, pickles, a made-from scratch cake, lemonade and coffee.  Needless to say, the men were well fed.  A neighbor lady and mom exchanged help on threshing day, working together in preparing and serving the food.


There was a great example of neighborliness during those times – neighbors helping neighbors was the only way it could be done.  Everyone worked, doing their part to get the job done.  They visited, teased one another and had fun along with the work.


Steam engines were used before the tractors in doing field work.  This engine was seen in the Shortville area circa 1900.  Left to right: R. Short, J. B. Short, F. Hagie (seated on the engine) and A. Wilding


The Hagie brothers steam engine and threshing separator of the early 1900’s

(Photos courtesy of Mary Lou [Hagie] Meredith)


A threshing scene on an unidentified farm, circa 1900;  The early models such as the above was equipped with a windstacker, the grain was fed, loose, by hand feeders.  Date on barn cupola is 1893. (Photo from Granton Centennial Book)



Steam engine and thresher in action when the “old days” were re-enacted near Neillsville a few years ago.  The steam engine is owned by Max Feuerstein and is on display near W. C. C. N. building.  (Photo courtesy of Max)


(Thanks to Max Feuerstein for his info in writing this article.  This article is also in memory of my parents.)




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