a process of separating cereal grain seed kernels from the remainder of
the plant. Over the centuries beyond the start of the Agro-industrial ages our species
have tried, experimentally improved, designed, manufactured, discarded, and adopted
dozens of specific ideas. When reduced to the minimum, whether the crop is from a
chef's window box or a 50 section wheat field all of these ideas adopt the same basic
Cut the plant stalks (above ground) from root (below ground). This is referred
to as "reaping".
Gather the stalks and prepare for transport or separation.
Transport as required.
Slightly bruise or slightly wrinkle the stalks. Way back in time, this was
accomplished by stomping on the dried plants by man or beast of burden.
Shake and sift the seeds separating them from the hulls, straw, and "chaff".
Introduce moving air at various process steps to efficate the separation.
All that said, we have just past through one of the more dramatic steps in this evolution.
That is the nearly complete elimination of manual labor. American agriculture turned
this historical leaf in the middle of the twentieth century. This story I am about to tell
describes the scene as it was happening. Many others have described these events
but this is a first hand account as I remember it at ascertain time and place.h
Setting the scene
We lived in the Township of Hartland, in the County of Pierce, and the state of
Wisconsin. The area abstract shows the township divided into mostly regular one mile
square sections. By the math, a section contains 640 acres. Typically, these sections
are subdivided into 160, 80, 40 acre parcels or farms. Not to say there were not
exceptions especially when encountering rivers or other geographic anomalies.
For the most part, roads of some type separated the sections. It follows that the
farmstead for the farms would be arranged along these roads. Indeed, looking at the
abstract will reveal an average of a little more than two (family) farms per section side.
Additionally, most of these farms were occupied by families having two or more kids and
most of these kids could be engaged in the harvest.
All of this bit of table cloth engineering is intended to set the stage for an understanding
of the life culture and economics of the community. Our farm was located along the
side of one section and next to the corner of another section. Our family operated 200
acres comprised of 160 acres in the home section and 80 acres in the adjacent section.
The farm was divided into tillable acres and wooded pasture. Our farm was about 60%
tillable of which 35% was in clover or alfalfa, 30% was corn or soybeans, and the
remaining 35% in a feed mixture of oats and wheat. Oats and wheat were of a more
traditional variety than the dwarf hybrids favored by today's farmers. The stalks were
about a yard high just as they ripened.
Each farmer either grew or purchased the feed grains required for the farm's livestock
through the year. A small percentage of the crop was saved for seed in the following
year. Any surplus could be sold to a local feed mill or to other farmers. Farmers
monitored grain markets on the radio in order to price out these transactions.
So here we have a sort of typical farmer with 40 to 50 acres of ripening grains that need
to be harvested -how do we do it? Just before the great change the grain stalks were
cut just above ground level and bundled using a horse or tractor drawn machine called
a grain binder. These bundles were manually arranged and stood in "shocks" to dry.
Once dry, the shocks of bundles were gathered up and transported to the location of the
threshing machine or "separator". The threshed grain was, in turn, transported to
storage. The chaff was blown into a pile to be used for animal bedding through the
The whole effort was very labor intensive. Moreover, it was fraught with vast
opportunity for loss starting with the decision to cut the crop. As the crop grows it is
always subject to knockdown by hail or wind. In fact, well ripened grains may fall under
its own weight. It becomes critically important to cut and bind the crop when it is ripe
but before it literally tips over. If the grain goes down it can be especially difficult to get
the cutter bar under the grain heads. If the cutting takes place too early the grains will
be green with a high moisture content and immature formation. High moisture can lead
to mold and spoilage. Timing can be everything.
So we have the shocking step designed to give the grain bundles time to air out and dry.
The shocks are out in an open field subject to the vagaries of the weather. If rained on,
the shocks may take a few extra days to dry out. Shocking is all manual as is the
loading of bundles for transport and offloading the bundles into the separator. And,
more opportunity for loss; the stalks a pretty dry by now and a certain amount of grain
will be shook loose in all of the handling.
The threshing machine itself had evolved into a trailer mounted, metal housed collection
of rotating bars, shaker tables, blowers, fans and elevator chains all driven by exposed
belts and pulleys. These were big machines standing 10 feet high and four or five feet
wide by 25 feet long. The front of the machine was fitted with a dragline trough into
which the grain bundles were pitched from the bundle transport wagons. Chaff and
straw was blown out the back of the thresher through a directional tube. Grain
collection is made at the bottom of the machine about 2/3 of the way back where it is
lifted by a chain elevator to a high point on the machine. Gravity takes over as the grain
is tripped through a measuring basket and flows to the next transportation mode be it
gunny sack or bulk.
Threshing can also be a source of loss. The machines are not perfectly efficient and
there is always the problem of accidental spillage. Great care was taken to make sure
the machine was level both side to side as well as fore and aft.
Change in the wind
The great change in the evolution of grain harvest was facilitated by the introduction of a
machine that integrated features of the grain cutting device into the threshing machine.
The combination was known as a combine. Combines are towed or propelled directly
through the field of ripe grain. The crop is cut and threshed by a single machine while
all most eliminating added manual labor. Straw and chaff was dropped in the field and
grain was temporarily stored in a hopper on board the combine. The advantages of
the combine over the old threshing machine seem persistently obvious but new
technologies usually drag along some disadvantages real and imagined. Chief among
these problems is the cost of acquisition. The new combines were expensive and
required a tractor of adequate strength to power the machine as well as drag it through
the fields. In the meantime improvements were arriving almost with the seasons as
various manufacturers competed. Big operators with huge acreages were the first to
see wide spread adoption of these new machines but, by the 1930's smaller machines
were being manufactured and began to be adopted by some family farms in the
Change was in the air and this change was rapid to the point where threshing machines
came to be relics of the past in less than 75 years. The height of this change in our
family's community occurred in 1950. I was privileged to be able to participate and
observe the old ways before they disappeared.
Organizing the community
Getting the grain crop harvested and put away took some spontaneous organization.
The intense manual labor requirement coupled with a limited time window dictated
cooperation among the farmers. This organization tended to revolve around availability
of the big threshing machine. The processes of cutting/binding and shocking were
relatively lonely activities in that the process could be effectively accomplished by one
or two persons. But, the efficient use of the threshing machine demanded a sizable
crew to load and unload wagons, transport product, and maintain the threshing site.
The first step is cutting and binding. The mid sized farms, 80 acres and above, usually
owned a heavily used, older grain binder and were able to get their own grain down on
their own schedule. When their own grain was accounted for the reaper machine or
grain binder could be hired out to a smaller farm. A typical tractor drawn binder could
cut and bundle 15 or more acres per day.
Most binders included a trip basket that carried the tied bundles so they could be
dumped in a convenient quantity for shocking. Shocking seed grains is a laborious,
almost mind numbing activity. Each shock was comprised of six bundles stood up and
leaned against each other so that the seed ends were high in the air. Then a seventh
bundle was slightly spread out on each end and laid across the other six to help shed
any rain that might occur. The shock would stand in the field for 2weeks to a month
before it was threshed.
The task of shocking meant walking from pile to pile of bundles and making the shocks.
Each bundle weighed about ten pounds, was frequently laced with thistles or other
weeds, and was maybe a little damp. Usually, the sun was blazing overhead and stalks
wanted to get inside your clothes. A good hat, Bib overalls, a closed but loose long
sleeve cotton shirt, and high top work boots made up the costume of the day. A jug of
water was a welcome companion. And, be prepared to sweat. Even in the face of
chores to be done, the end of the day was welcome.
The picture of a field of row upon row of neatly shocked golden sheaves of grain is
mostly just a memory these days but a memory to be savored. The picture is especially
treasured in this part of Wisconsin with rolling hills and fields following the contour of the
The individual fields are ready - it is time to bring on the thresher. I have already hinted
about availability. Only the larger farmers could afford such a machine and, then, only if
he could hire it out beyond his own use. Indeed, if it was only for his own use, he
needed access to a big crew to get the job done. Well before the harvest, there was
discussion among all the participants to arrange convivial relationships for the upcoming
harvest. Estimates of acreage, operations costs, and schedules were traded
culminating in an organizing meeting. In our case, the meeting was held in the dining
room of the family who owned the machine. I began attending these meetings with my
Dad when I was about eight years old.
I don't ever remember anyone involving "Robert's Rules of Order" but the meetings
were very orderly probably because everyone had the same desire to get the job done.
One thing I do remember and I think it affected my whole life. That is this. Invariably,
there would be someone who sat quietly through the meeting and then could be heard
bitching about something when we were out in the field working. I never understood
such behavior and vowed to never keep my mouth shut. For the most part it has served
The attendance at these meetings could be rather large including folks sitting on the
floor and standing in doorways. Farm owners and some of their older kids were
represented as well as a few farmhands looking for work. Eight to ten farms might be
involved adding up to 20 or 25 attendees.
Decisions and announcements concerned machine costs, labor costs, and schedule.
The route to be taken usually alternated clockwise or counterclockwise from year to
year. Exceptions to order could be made but were to be avoided if possible to keep
threshing machine movement to a minimum.
In those days the farmers were expected to supply tractor and driver at a buck an hour.
Laborers such as the field (bundle) pitchers got $.75/ hour. Tractor drivers who were
mostly kids between 9 and 12 made $.25/ hour. (For reference, the minimum wage was
$.75 in 1950 and increased to $1.00 in 1956.) A flat rate was established for moving
and setting up the threshing machine. Charges for the machine itself was based on the
number of bushels that were delivered through. All other labor and hourly rates were
based on the hour meter on the thresher called separator hours. Of course that means
if you are in the field pitching bundles but the threshing machine is down for
maintenance, no one is getting paid. Alternatively, all of the farmers were anxious to
minimize hours so no slackers were tolerated especially if your work involved feeding
That brings up another memory. All kids who reached the age of 13 were expected to
advance above tractor driver status. For my part I was a skinny little kid that had not
really begun to develop. I also had developed an extreme allergy to rust and dust on
grain. I was scared of taking this next step yet it had to be. My dad tried me out on the
load of bundles to be pitched off the wagon into the mouth of the thresher. After the first
load I was hopelessly behind and was relegated to the field pitching crew. There, out in
the clear air, I was just fine and grew to rather like the work.
Any special work such as bagging the grain or baling the straw was the responsibility of
the farm owner. He supplied the extra labor and made sure he didn't slow things down.
The final agreement had to do with nutrition although I doubt we had such a
sophisticated term for it. Each farm was responsible for feeding the entire crew for
dinner at noon and supper at the end of the day. Most of the Farmer's wives got
together and shared this activity. More on this later but please note, we ate good.
Machinery and Equipment
There were few new machinery articles in our 1950's community. Most of the draft
horses were gone, replaced by small row crop style tractors. But the vast majority of
these tractors dated back to the late 30's with a few post war examples. The farm
implements towed or pushed by these tractors were frequently modified horse drawn
devices. There was, in fact, a large variety of manufacturers and styles of equipment at
use in the fields.
The tractors represented an example of this variety. Starting with the old International
McCormick Deering 15-30 that pulled the thresher. Of the 15 or so tractors listed, all
saw service at one time or another on the harvest.
McCormick Deering 15-30 standard. - 26.67 drawbar HP ( increased to 30 HP in
1929), 3-speed transmission, Maximum speed 4 MPH
McCormick Deering Farmall F12 - (belonged to my Uncle John) 3-speed
transmission, maximum speed 3.8 MPH. This tractor had been modified with
electric starter and lights. I seem to remember it having some kind of overdrive
transmission that gave it a much higher road speed - maybe 8 or 10MPH.
McCormick Deering Farmall H - 24 drawbar HP, 5-speed Transmission,maximum
speed 16 MPH
McCormick Deering Farmall M - 33 drawbar HP, 5-speed Transmission,maximum
speed 16 MPH,
Allis Chalmers WC - 23 drawbar HP, 4-speed transmission, maximum speed 9
Allis Chalmers WD - 34 drawbar HP, 4-speed transmission, maximum Speed
Oliver 70 - 28 drawbar HP, 4-speed Transmission, maximum speed 5.9 MPH
Oliver 77 - 33 drawbar HP, 4-speed Transmission, maximum speed 11.5 MPHy
Oliver Super 88 - 47 drawbar HP, 6-speed Transmission, maximum speed 11.8
Case DC, 33drawbar HP- 4-speed Transmission, maximum speed 10 MPH
John Deere B (styled) - 18 Drawbar HP, 6-speed transmission, maximum speed
John Deere A (styled) - my Dad's tractor, a 1939 model, 26 drawbar HP, 3-speed
transmission, maximum speed 6.3 MPH.
Ford 8N - 22 drawbar HP, 4-speed transmission with 3 speed over/under drive for
a total of 12 speeds forward. Maximum speed 23.1 MPH. The auxiliary
transmission is called a "Sherman Combination Transmission" and is very
desirable in today's antique tractor trade.
Minneapolis-Moline R (belonged to my Uncle Ernie) -20 drawbar HP, 4-speed
Transmission, maximum speed 13.2 MPH
Minneapolis-Moline U (belonged to my Uncle Ernie) - 28 drawbar HP, 5-speed
Transmission, maximum speed ?.? MPH
The array of tractors was a total fascination and sometimes a challenge to me as a
young driver. I learned to drive on a John Deere with its hand clutch, forward to go fast
throttle, and excellent brakes. The foot clutches on most Farmalls and Oliver's were the
first challenges quickly mastered. The Allis Chalmers had hand operated brakes that
took a lot of getting used to when trying to steer straight ahead. The Ford was fun
mostly because it was speedy. Don, the guy that owned it, always had the wheels set
way out so you could dump it into a slide on a gravel road without fear of tipping.
The reapers or grain binders most of the farmers used were getting old and were
probably on their second or third owners. They consisted of a sickle bar above which a
large reel helped position the stalks of grain to fall on a platform when cut. Canvasses
moved along the platform and up to the top of the machine. From there, gravity helped
the grain stalks slide down into a twine tying mechanism. The knotter was almost
universally a "Deering head" patented by Deering and licensed to other manufactures.
These machines were designed to be horse drawn. An iron seat was mounted high in
back to allow the operator to guide the team of horses while keeping an eye on binder
operation. Three manual controls were available: cutter bar height, reel height, and
reel position fore and aft. Other adjustments such as twine and grain positioning
mechanisms could not be made while the machine was running. The grain stalks falling
through the tying area piled up against a barrier until sufficient to make a bundle. Then
the tying mechanism was tripped, a twine bearing needle rose up to the Deering Head
where a knot was made and the twine was snipped off. The tied bundles dropped into a
basket attached to the side of the binder. The operator kept track of how many bundles
were in the basket. When the desired number was ready the operator used a foot
control to dump the basket.
An operator was still on the grain binder even when it was being pulled by a tractor.
Power for grain binder operation was gained from a main drive wheel set under the
heavy part of the machine. As the binder was drug through the field, the wheel turned.
Gears and chains translated the movement into sickle bar motion, reel turning, canvas
movement, and tying head motion.
Grain binders were too wide to be transported on a public road between fields. Auxiliary
wheels were provided for transport. One wheel in front and one to the back allowed the
machine to be towed sidewise from one end.
Special note: my Dad bought a used grain binder from a farmer in Minnesota. I can still
remember going with him to get it and towing it home behind his 1939 Ford. We
crossed the Mississippi river over the old spiral bridge at Hastings MN.
I've already hinted at some of the peculiarities of the threshing machine. It was late in
their development, designs were mature and fairly common across the array of
manufacturers. Some of the intrigues between companies are interesting to reflect on.
For instance, a chief investor in the Belle City company was a first cousin of J I Case,
another manufacturer. Belle city in turn supplied other manufactures such as
McCormick-Deering. Even John Deere got in the game after they had already
successfully fielded combines of their own design. They bought a dying company and
moved production into the same operation where combines were being produced.
But, all of this history made little difference to me in those days. Threshers were big and
noisy and came with lots of dust, dirt, and blowing chaff. The machines always seemed
to sit in a cloud of debris that made breathing and seeing difficult when ever one got
close. Slapping belts, chain drives, augers, pulleys and exposed gears were
everywhere just waiting to grab anything loose. Ladders and steps were mounted to
allow access to the top of the machine in the midst of all this cacophony and chaos.
The operator was constantly about with his grease gun and oil can trying to anticipate
the needs of a fine running contraption.
Other implements besides the tractors, reapers, and thresher we're required. The
bundles had to be picked up and transported to the thresher. For wheel "hay racks"
were pulled by tractors for this task. These wagons were fitted with flat beds and
sported a "standard" at both ends. The beds were about 7 feet wide and 15 feet long.
The standard stood five to six feet high. The beds and standards were made of wood
much of which had been harvested from the farms themselves.
These were slow speed farm wagons but I was quickly learning the ins and outs of good
wagon design. The front axel on these wagons was solid with steered wheels on either
end. The wheels were steered by rods connected to the towing tongue. When the
tongue was turned the wheels are supposed to turn and track the towing vehicle.
Obviously, the geometry of the wheel steering has to be correct to prevent under or over
steering. In addition, just like a car, things such as camber angle has to be just so. An
improperly configured wagon could begin to whip back and forth even at the low speeds
of some of these old tractors. Still a good wagon would pull true even behind that Ford
at near 25 MPH.
The grain was usually hauled away in a box wagon and transported to some form of
elevator. Most of these wagons were just boxes with a port in the rear endgate. There
was no lift and the grain had to be shoveled or pushed through the portal into the
elevator. But, we had one neat solution. My Uncle John had cut up a vintage dump
truck and saved the manually hoisted box as well as the frame and rear axle with dual
tires. The frame was shortened and a hitch had been fastened in the front. Now we
could crank up the box on this trailer and avoid having to shovel.
Cranking up the gear driven hoist was not so difficult. I can remember doing it a lot
when I was eleven or twelve. I suspect the secret was again in the geometry. A good
percentage of the loaded weight was aft of the pivot point. I always liked using this
And, finally, just a word about grain elevators. Most were of a linked chain drag line
style. Paddles on the chain pushed and encouraged the grains up the sloped bed of the
elevator. Variations included wood construction as well as all metal units. Typical
elevators were 25 to 30 feet in length and could lift grain as much as twenty feet
vertically. Auger style elevators were in use but much less common in the middle of the
On the Run
The calendar moves on. We are in the early days of August, our grain crop is cut,
bundled, shocked and dry enough to thresh. All preparations and planning are in place.
There are eight farms in this years "run". The largest farm will take three days or more;
the smallest farm will take about 4 hours. With favorable weather, the run should be
over in two weeks just in time for the annual county fair. The days will start at eight am.
Bear in mind that these farmers will have to get cows milked and chores done before
showing up for a day's work in the field. Moreover, they will have to return to their
homes faced with cows to be milked and chores to be done at the end of the day.
The separator has been towed into place and "set" level. The big old 15-30 has been
backed into the drive belt powering the thresher from the tractor. The machinery is run
up to speed and all looks well for the start. Individual tractor and wagons head to the
field carrying a field pitcher or two and a kid to drive the tractor while bundles are
loaded. The tractor and wagon move slowly among the rows of shocks while the field
pitchers toss the bundles onto the wagon. The bundles are carefully laid up on the
outsides of the wagon to hold the load in the center in place. The load is ready in about
15 or 20 minutes so the driver and field pitchers head to the next wagon rig. In the
meantime the load heads off to the thresher.
Loaded wagons line up on either side of the thresher for the unload. The hour meter is
recorded and the work day officially begins. Bundles are pitched in and start to flow
through as evidenced by wisps of straw starting to exit from the big directional tube at
the back of the machine. More bundles go in and the old 15-30 barks as the tractor's
governor calls for more power. The sounds settle into a symphony of stresses and
strengths. Dust picks up and the sound is punctuated by the periodic dumping of the
grain metering bucket.
A man near the back of the machine climbs a ladder to access the straw blower tube
and adjust for a small wind that has picked up. This straw boss will make sure the straw
is piled properly and make sure the grain transport is coordinated. This responsibility
tended to fall on the farm owner. The owner appointed a surrogate to run his tractor
and bundle wagon while his crop is being worked.
Soon the flow is established and the process moves along steadily. The field pitchers
move through the shocks in the first field and on to the next and the next. Wagon after
wagon depart the fields. Straw piles up and wagon boxes of grain are hauled off to be
stored in the barn or granary. The sun creeps higher in the sky. Drinking water is kept
plentiful as the various workers sweat through their clothes.
Custom in this region calls for a mid day dinner break. Dinner is served in the dining
room of the farm house. Dinner service is staggered slightly in order to get the whole
crew served. Service is family style and focuses on traditional meat and potatoes with
copious sides of vegetables, salads, and, eventually, desert. This community is made
up of second and third generation immigrants in the mold of Scandinavian, German,
and Irish heritage. Cooking was a prized skill; threshing time was an opportunity for
these skills to shine.
Timing is everything and so it was with these spreads. Frequently gardens were
brimming with fresh tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, and sweet corn. Spring
chickens were just the right size to make a perfect meal. I can honestly say that every
dinner was a treat.
Following dinner, the typical crew sat around on the lawn and talked, smoked or
snoozed. The break was a rough hour before the pitchers hitched a ride to the field, the
15-30 was lifted from idle and the work day resumed. The sun continued to shine and
everyone continued to sweat. The day wore on. At some farms a special treat in the
form of kool-aid and cookies arrived in the field in mid afternoon. Anything to break up
Workers on the crew talked a lot whenever they were away from the noise and dirt of
the thresher. They were all friends-they were a team. There was little time for bitching. Complaining
and whining were not tolerated. Any complaint quickly became a target of
ridicule. The team went on about the work.
A second meal was served at the end of the day. Usually not as elaborate as dinner, it
would have impressed any visitor. The end of the day could be somewhat chaotic as
timing and effort was adjusted to finish the effort on one farm before advancing to the
next. It was important to allow time for the thresher man to knock down the setup, tow
the machine to the next farm in rotation (at four mph), and setup for the next farm.
Ideally farm to farm movement took place at the end of the day. To that end, any given
afternoon might be a little shorter or longer to meet the schedule.
Those really small farms where only 3 or 4 hours were required would be scheduled in
the morning so the machine and crew could be moved over the noon break. But, of
course, all of this planning and scheduling was at the whim of the weather. More than
once I can remember high-tailing it out of the field to avoid getting drenched. Everyone
There were also equipment breakdowns. I remember once when word came out to the
field that we were shut down because this or that was broken and someone would have
to be dispatched to St. Paul to get a new one. My dad came to the rescue. He allowed
as how a temporary fix could be achieved using a couple wraps of baling wire. Sure
enough we were soon back running while waiting for the new part. Everyone cheered
and Dad was given a new moniker, "Haywire Bill". He was my hero. The name stuck for
the rest of his life.
And so it went. Hopefully we were done by the time the county fair rolled around. And,
soon enough, it was over. It was time to settle up- time for another meeting. In 1950
settling up meant shuffling money around. The "books" we're kept pretty current
throughout the run. There was little reason for argument when it came to settling
matters. Consequently, the settlement meeting was accompanied by a case or two of
I remember walking away with $15 to $20 when I was driving tractor and as much as
$125 for a season as field pitcher. As a driver, that $15 was a big deal. I could use a
few dollars to go to the county fair and save enough to buy family Christmas gifts. The
pitcher wages were even more important as I started high school about then.
Final thoughts and Observations
In the last year our threshing machine owner bought his own combine but kept the run
going one more year to let everyone have a chance to make new arrangements. He
also bought a new Oliver 88 which powered the thresher on that last run. The following
year, my Dad bought a new John Deere model 30 combine and never looked back. For
us it was the end of an era.
Over the years since 1950 the amount of US acreage devoted to grains has remained
almost constant. Acreage allocated to corn, soybeans, wheat, and oats has rippled a bit
especially since ethanol has demanded evermore production. While acreage has
remained relatively constant, production yields have gone up dramatically. Some of the
improvement is due to new grain hybrids as well as intense fertilization and weed
control. But estimates suggest as high as 93% of the improvement is due to improved
Farms in the area of our old farmstead have been consolidated to where anything less
than 1000 acres are mostly gone. Any remaining 20 or 30 acre plots are considered to
be hobby farms with the owners traveling off to jobs in the "cities". Even parts of our old
farm have been subdivided for residential plots. Life goes on -it is just different. I feel
very fortunate to have experienced some of the old ways.