Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette


                                    THE OLD HARVEST TOOK TEAMWORK 


                                           By Forest J. McComb


A new harvest is just around the corner, and the combines will be running in the fields.  The combination of technology know-how, from the laboratory to the factory to the farm has made this possible, and it represents a modern-day miracle – that one man can go out by himself and harvest a field of grain efficiently and fast!


This machine must now be compared with primitive man’s efforts when he stumbled onto the volunteer ripe wheat stalks, and being without tools, he broke them off by hand and carried them home to see what might be done with the kernels found in the heads. 


But today’s combine is so commonplace that it hardly receives a second glance from the occupants of a car speeding by the field.  The reason is:  the combine is not as spectacular as the old threshing machine it succeeded.  The steam threshing machine indeed was spectacular! 


When the big, lumbering engine, with smoke pouring from its stack and towing a separator, pulled into a farmyard, even the housewife was “glad to see it come,” although it meant she’d be loaded with the task of feeding 14 to 20 hungry men until the threshing was done.  For this was the moment of truth!  The day the amount and quality of the grain would be determined.  The family had waited a long time for this day to come, over nine long months since the wheat was planted, and it meant new shoes and clothing for the kids, the promised new dress for the lady of the house, and maybe a new suit and some new machinery for the hard working farmer. 


                                    Harnessed Steam Used To Pop Off


There was a tremendous amount of powerful steam harnessed in the boiler of the engine – 175 pounds to the square inch – and perhaps it would “pop off” the excess and hiss mightily as the steam shot skyward.  The engine had a smell all its own, too, of smoke mixed with steam and lubricating oil, and if the engineer was a jolly fellow he laughingly blew the whistle long and loud to let the world know he was here and ready – much to the delight of the kids!


The farmer showed the engineer where he wanted the strawstack, the separator was leveled and blocked, and the heavy belt rolled out, placed on the large drive wheel and the engine backed up until the belt tightened;  then the actual work of threshing could start.


It took organization to do the job correctly, but the farmers were trained to the work and could be depended on.  Besides the crew of engineer, separator man, and water boy, who all came with the machine for a stipulated fee of so much per bushel, which the machine counted, there were about 15 to 18 men needed to keep the thresher busy.  These were obtained by exchanging labor with neighbors.  There were three major jobs.  Teams to haul from the field, men to pitch bundles in the field, and a crew to put the threshed grain in the granary.  If the farmer wanted the straw stacked carefully, he did it himself, as it usually was a dirty job.  When the water boy wasn’t busy hauling water for the engine, he ran the blower to help make the strawstack.


The effort of every worker was bent toward getting the crop safely in the granary.  Only fire and flood could prevent it, and sometimes these extremes did happen.  Grain could be lost in the field by heavy rain even though the threshing machine was on the farm, and I know of several barns that burned during threshing time.


                                    Threshing Rings Well-Organized


The old adage of “Many hands make light work” applied to threshing.  The well organized help kept the loads of grain coming to the separator on time, the threshed grain was taken away on time, the water boy kept the engine supplied and the women had dinner on time.  And what dinners they were!


Nothing was considered too good for the threshing crews.  The women folk, too, exchanged help with the neighbors.  It was a welcome chance to join the excitement, catch up on the latest recipes, and help prepare a dinner “fit for a king!”  The white linen tablecloth was put to use, and on it was heaped the best the farm, and garden, and general store could provide.  This ranged from country fried chicken, roast beef and cured ham, new potatoes and beans and peas, to fresh apple, cherry, and berry pie.


I sat at a lady’s first table one day.  I’d gotten in late and the other men had eaten and gone while I was still on my dessert.  These were new people in the neighbor-hood and the wife wanted to be able to “hold up her end.”   Coming into the dining room, she glanced at the table and said in alarm to her helpers, “I’m afraid something is wrong;  I don’t think those men ate much!  What could it be?”


Seeing her agitation, I laughed and asked, “Should I tell you what’s wrong?”  “Yes, please do.”


“You have a splendid dinner, ma’am;  but there’s so much food on the table those fellows couldn’t even make a dent in it.  I’m sure they ate all they could hold.”  She went back to the kitchen relieved and smiling. 


The owners of the early threshers were in the habit of favoring the larger farmers.  They liked to work the biggest jobs first, and did so with their system of “promising.”  This brought about the organized “ring.:  A group of farmers bought a machine, and each man owned one share.  Threshing bills were paid the same as always, and employees were paid out of the income.  One very important rule was in the bylaws—the machine couldn’t pull past any shareholder if he were ready to thresh.


A good engineer was important.  Everything revolved around him, and he was easily identified, because he wore the greasiest clothing.  We were lucky to have two in our ring – WILLIAM (Bill) SHULER, and DELPHOS PION.  Neither of these men had much formal schooling, but they were natural mechanics who mastered the steam engine through their love of it.  Both are deceased.


Bill was the oldest and had the most experience.  He knew an engine upside down and inside out.  His threshing career started at 16 when his father purchased a Nickols and Sheppard machine, and took Bill along as water boy.  Of course, Bill was fascinated by the engine and practiced with it at every opportunity, under the watchful eye of his father.  One day the father failed in trying to push the separator into a difficult bank barn.  He became rattled and the harder he tried the worse it got.  Bill thought this was his opportunity, and asked if he could try it.


The father looked at Bill, and saw just a boy, but was getting desperate.  “Do you think you can do it?” he asked.  “Yes, I think so.”  “All right, William, you can try, but be careful!”


Bill made a few maneuvers, lined the machine up straight with the barn floor, and to his father’s surprise pushed the separator into the barn on the first attempt.  Bill brought the machine back down, lined up for the belt, and they started to thresh.  His father came around wiping sweat from his brow.


“All right, William,” he said “from now on, you’re the engineer, and I’ll haul the water!”


Bill, guarding that engine like a hen with one chick, soon learned what every moving part was for and made the necessary repairs to keep it in good running order.  He was now educated to the steam engine by the school of practical experience.


He was still a young man when the Nickols and Shepard Company at Battle Creek, Michigan, hired him to demonstrate an engine at the Indiana State Fair at Indiana-polis.  They’d made a ramp out of plank and heavy timber that would take the engine high in the air where it could easily be seen by the crowds.  It was good advertising, and Bill’s job was to fire the engine and run it up and down the ramp twice every day.  They paid $10.00 per day for this, which was big money at that time. 


“Was there anything built in the ramp to stop you, in case you went too far?”  I asked when he told me about it.  “No,” he said in his slow drawl, “there just wasn’t nothin’ up there!  I had to know when to stop!  But when I came down, people crowded around to pat me on the back, shake hands, or give me cigars.  I enjoyed it!”


Bill ran a threshing engine most of his life, and was engineer on the twin cylinder 18 horsepower Rumley engine for our ring, one year – then gave way to DELPH, a younger man.  Delph was a hard worker, on the job early and late, and taking his meals with the family wherever the outfit happened to be.  I’ve seen him work his way out of many precarious situations on various farms where he was called on to set the machine.

He needed to do some work that entailed tearing down the engine.  Delph doubted his ability to retime the engine, so he got Bill to help one day when the rain had stopped the threshing.  Bill “timed” the engine, and when the work was done Delph jumped to the ground, grabbed the axe and started to split kindling wood.  “What are you doing?” Bill asked.  “Why we will have to fire it up and try it won’t we?”  “No, Delph,”  Bill said, “we’d just be wasting our time.  You might as well throw that axe down and go home for the day.  It’ll be all right!”


                                                            And it Was!


Yes, the combine is an advancement in harvesting, and when we gain something we also must lose something!  The old romance of the threshing machine is gone, and much of the enjoyable friendliness of neighbors exchanging help is gone, and the big threshing dinners are gone.


But all is not lost!  People who loved the old threshing machine, try to recapture the days by putting on shows where these powerful machines once more “strut their stuff.”  The engines drive separators and usually some threshing is done.  Others power saw mills and wind mills to demonstrate their ability.  Some haul people, and some climb inclines.  One of these shows is a “close to home” annual event on the JAMES H. WHITBEY Farm.


The show attracts thousands of people and at least one Radio Station, WOWO.  It starts this year on Wednesday, August 13th, and runs through Sunday, August 17th.  There is a special Sunday church service to accommodate folks who don’t want to miss service. 


These giant engines will once more demonstrate about the smoothest power of all time, in man’s conquest of the world.