First time milking a cow
Dad had two or three cows at this time. On numerous occasions I had requested to help him milk the cows. This seemed to a 5 year old to be an interesting thing to do. The answer was always that I was too young or too small. One day, in the springtime, Jesse and I were out where one of the cows was staked out on a ditch bank. The temptation was too great to resist. That cow had to be milked to prove it could be done. The only thing at hand to use for a container was Jesse's cap. After a few minutes the cap had a pretty good sized pool of milk in it. Triumphantly we trudged to the potato cellar, where Dad and Mom were cutting seed potatoes, to show off this new found skill. The elation was short lived as I was greeted with cold stares and harsh words for wasting milk and ruining a milk-dripping cap.
Living in the Depression
This was depression times and I was somewhat aware that money was very hard to come by. In spite of the trying circumstances I don't ever remember being hungry. I do remember Dad, on occasion, complaining about a steady diet of potatoes. Sometimes a hog would be butchered or a steer would be slaughtered. Then for a while we would have meat on the table There was no freezing of meat then so meat had to be bottled or used up quite rapidly. On special occasions there sometimes would be homemade ice cream. Seldom would there ever be any ready-made desserts or anything else. Most of my clothing at that time was made at home.
Dad had an old car but no money with which to buy gasoline. I remember walking on the road to church and sometimes being picked up by a neighbor, Axel Johnson. He had a truck and we would ride in the back of it. The church was about three miles away.
When it came time to harvest the grain, it was cut by a machine called a binder. This machine had a reel over a cutterbar with canvas drapers behind the cutterbar. These drapers would carry the grain, stalks, heads and hall, to the side of the machine. There it would accumulate in a cradle until there was enough to make a bundle. Then it would automatically put a twine around the middle of the bundle and tie it similar to a hay baler. Then the bundle would be kicked off into another cradle. When there were four or five bundles in the cradle, it would be dumped by a foot pedal. On the next round the operator would dump each time next to the accumulated dump from last round. This way the bundles were more or less windrowed into piles.
Then workers would go through the field and “shock” the bundles. This was accomplished by picking up the bundles, one at a time, and standing them on their cut ends. Two would be stood together and the tops would be leaned together. Then another and another would be stood up in a circle around the first two. Each bundle would have the top leaned into the two first ones all the way around the “shock”. Generally twelve to fifteen bundles would be in each “shock”. Each bundle was probably twelve to fifteen inches in diameter at the place where the twine went around it.
The grain was cut when it was still somewhat green so it would not shatter out. After several days had elapsed and the grain had dried out sufficiently, the threshing crew would come. This was really a sight for a young boy to behold.
The thresher was a machine that was towed from place to place by a large tractor. It was then parked in a place where the straw could be blown into a large pile. After the thresher was located, the tractor would be driven to a location about fifty feet in front of the threshing machine. This would be on the opposite end from the blower pipe. The tractor would be lined up in a position so that the belt pulley on the side of the tractor would be directly in line with the drive pulley on the thresher. Then a long endless belt would be connected to the two pulleys. This sometimes took quite a while. If the pulleys were a little bit out of line, the belt would run off.
Then the tractor would be backed up until the belt was tight. The blower spout would be cranked around so that it pointed directly away from the back of the thresher to start the strawstack. Now the machine was ready to start receiving bundles to thresh.
Nearly all the tractors were big iron-tired machines with only one cylinder. They were very slow on the road. Probably four or five miles to the hour maximum. They turned over so slow with the one cylinder that you could easily count the revolutions per minute. I never did see one like that do any field work. However, it was said that some places they were used to pull gang plows.
It varied a little bit just how the thresher crew was made up. However, a typical crew would consist of the operator, who was usually the owner, and about four men that were hired by the machine owner to pitch bundles in the field. They were hired for the season and worked as long as there was threshing to be done. Sometimes the sack sewer would also come along with the machine.
The rest of the crew usually was made up of neighbors. They would help one another on each other's places to finish out the crew. Depending upon how far it was from the field to the thresher location, there were usually four to six wagons drawn by a team of horses. These would be owned by neighbors and they would drive and load their own wagon
My earliest recollections were of wooden wheeled wagons with steel rims on the outer edge of the wheel. Later, after more automobile tires and rims became available, most farmers changed to rubber tires. The rubber-tired wagons were much quieter, faster and smoother riding. Loads were not lost so often due to vibration on the rubber rigs.
With the crew in place they were ready to start threshing. There would be two wagons in the field loading and two at the thresher unloading. The others would be in transition between the field and the machine. One loaded wagon would park on each side of the machine. The one on the side where the belt was had to have a pretty gentle horse next to the belt. Otherwise the horse may get spooked by the fast moving belt.
There was a feeder conveyer that led to the throat of the thresher. With a wagon parked on each side, each man took turns throwing bundles in. They were thrown on the conveyor so that the heads went into the machine first. It was thought to do a better job of threshing if the heads went in first. The inside of the thresher looked much like a modern combine. As the bundles started into the thresher, some vertical knives slashed down to cut the twin on the bundles. Then the material went into the concaves. After that it was separated onto straw walkers and sieves. The chaff and straw went into a blower that fed into a long pipe that ended with an adjustable elbow on it. This deflected the straw down or out depending upon stack size or wind.
The threshed grain dropped through the sieves and was elevated up a leg to a metering bucket. This bucket was adjustable to weight. Depending upon the crop being threshed, it was set to the proper weight. Sixty lbs for wheat, forty-eight for barley and etc. When the bucket reached the proper weight it would dump and the grain would gravity feed down to a sack filler. This would hold two one hundred lb. Burlap sacks. One would fill while the other was being changed and sewed. All this was done by hand. Then the full sacks would be loaded on a flat bed truck for hauling to the elevator or to the granary. The metering bucket counted each dump so that the operator could tell how much was threshed each day. Each day they tried to see if the record could be broken.
For an idea how much was accomplished each day, I remember asking one operator how much could be done in one day. He told me that the best he had ever done was threshing oats. On one particularly good day, they had threshed almost eighteen hundred bushels. This probably involved a crew of twelve or thirteen men. Nowadays there are combines that are advertised to thresh a thousand bushels per hour and are operated by one man.
Women's role in the harvest
This was very hard, physical work. The women were also involved very deeply. Each farm was expected to “feed the threshers.” this always involved two meals and some crews expected three. When you hear that there is “enough for the threshers”, it is literal. Some of the neighbor ladies would work together to accomplish this task but not as much as the men. It was a huge job because each man worked very hard physically and had ravenous appetites. Also, each wife knew that her cooking would be compared to all the other neighbors. So the competition was keen to be known as at least as good a cook as the neighbor.
Most of these meals consisted of meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables, homemade bread, butter, jam or jelly, and pie or cake or both. And the quantities were immense. That was the ultimate error-to run out.
Another thing that made it so hard was the fact that it was hard to judge just when the thresher would be there. If twelve o'clock came and there was only one load left to thresh, you had the threshers. But if things went a little faster than expected and they finished and got to your place at eleven forty-five, you had the threshers. There was a lot of checking progress of the threshers so that the determination could be made where they would be.
I saw my mother stew and fret a great deal over this, but she always had one of the best meals prepared of anyone on the circuit.
Climbing on the straw stack
One of the real no no's for the kids was to climb on a freshly made pile of straw. Partly because of the danger and partly because the straw was considered a valuable commodity. If it was climbed on before it settled, there would be pockets where rain and snow could accumulate. In those spots water would not run off. It would penetrate the stack and cause it to spoil.
When I was about five years old I had been warned not to climb onto the fresh strawstacks. My folks had gone over to a neighbors place for a visit one afternoon. The neighbor had a real fresh strawstack. They also had a boy a couple of years older than I. As we played outside there was a real desire to climb on that strawstack. I remember climbing to the top of it with the neighbor boy. After we had stood there for a few moments he jumped to slide down the stack. He hit a seam, where the straw had slid down after piling up from the blower, and disappeared. I hollered at him several times. When there was no answer, I hurried down from the stack and went to the house. I told them that the neighbor boy had disappeared. Everyone jumped and ran to the strawstack. I showed them where he had disappeared. Luckily they were able to find him before he suffocated. I couldn't understand why they were praising me. I thought I was in big trouble for climbing on the strawstack.