One of my earliest memories of my Grandmother Antonia Polodna was a time when she set me on her lap and told me a story about my grandfather, the Steam Engineer. He was a lifelong farmer, but when he was younger, she said, he was the man in charge of firing up and running a steam engine. Grandma described the large iron and steel engine, on great steel wheels, and with a huge smokestack. She told how he would get up early in the morning, long before dawn, build a coal fire in the firebox, and check the water in the boiler. After some time, the heated water and steam in the boiler would build up enough pressure to run the engine, and he would climb into the cab and commence the engine’s slow and loud movement. The smokestack belched clouds of black smoke, the steam whistle screeched, and the terrible clanking noise and hissing from the slow-moving monster frightened the livestock and caused the chickens to take wing. She told a marvelous story, and I thought about western movies and TV shows, with Grandpa Charles leaning out of the locomotive cab as his train slowly pulled out of the station!
It was only after her story continued on that I realized that Grandma Toni wasn’t describing a train locomotive at all, but rather a smaller steam engine that moved from farm to farm for the purpose of providing power to grain threshing machines. I remember being disappointed that Grandpa wasn’t a “real engineer.” But in retrospect I can see that his job of maintaining a red-hot, highly pressurized “Iron Horse” under variable terrain and circumstances was not very different from, and likely more difficult and dangerous than, that associated with the railroad steam engines in the movies.
For those of you who don’t know anything about threshing (I was one of them), a thresher (or thrasher) is a machine whose sole purpose is to separate grain (wheat, oats, rye, barley) from its stems, leaves and other light materials (straw and chaff). It was a complicated process (http://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/how-a-threshing-machine-works.aspx) – Bundles of grain and straw (shocks) were pitched into the feeder. A rapidly rotating set of blades broke the twine binding the bundles, tore the bundles of grain apart, and snapped the seed heads from the straw. The straw and seed heads were beaten on a grooved plate which removed the kernels. The straw was separated out on a straw rack, and the remaining, smaller material was passed through a series of progressively smaller shaking screens that separated the grain kernels from the other material. Finally, in the “cleaner,” grain kernels that passed through the last screen were blasted with a stream of air that blew the remaining straw and chaff away. The cleaned kernels were elevated into a hopper from which they were piped into sacks or other storage containers, and the straw and chaff were blown out with a stronger fan onto the straw stack.
A pretty good idea of the whole noisy process can be watched at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DZfESGwXqw
Threshing grain was a noisy, dusty job, especially when the thresher was powered by a steam engine. But it was a huge advance over the way grain was harvested before. In the millennia before the invention of the threshing machine, grain was separated from straw by hand, commonly by beating it with flails (two sticks connected by a chain).
To back up for a minute, threshing was actually the last step in the harvest of cereal grains. It began with another machine called a binder, which passed through the field drawn by horses (and later tractors), cut the standing grain, bunched the grain stalks into bundles, and tied the bundles with twine before dropping them on the ground. Several of these bundles were collected into “shocks” and stood upright in “tipi fashion,” so that the grain could dry for several days before being processed in the thresher. Making shocks from the bundles of grain was done by hand, often by the farm children walking through the fields.
Jerome Čada and Mildred Čada Hamsa with shocks of grain
Oats and wheat were threshed from bundles. A grain binder pulled by horses would cut the oats and wheat and automatically tie it into large bundles of ripe grain and straw. The bundles then were stood up into shocks, six or eight bundles to a shock, with the grain to the top of the shock. Before they were threshed, they were left a few days to dry. – Blanche Čada
As he drove the horses through the field, the binder cut the grain, gathered many stalks together, tied them with sisal twine, and at intervals dropped off bundles of sheaves. Men on foot, usually the farmer’s sons, followed the binder to collect many clumps of bundles to stand them, grain-end up, in near shocks, broad at the base, small at the top, so they could dry. It was hot, dusty, physical labor, but a crew working hard with a good team of horses and binder – the first ones cut six-foot swaths, later ones eight-foot swaths – could bind and shock seven to ten acres a day. – Dorothy Creigh
If you got the bundles out of the row, the shocker would let you know about it, for it made his job just about impossible. He’d be running back and forth collecting bundles all day. – Grant Heilman
A big threshing machine called for a big power source. At first, horses were used for power, and later steam engines and then tractors. The steam engine and thresher rig was a large investment, and its operation needed many hands. Commercial crews would rent out their services, moving the steam engine and thresher from farm to farm over the country roads. Or more commonly, neighbors got together and moved from field to field with a single rig, helping each other with the harvest. And the hard-working men needed to be fed, by an army of hardworking farm wives and children. To me, this community activity is the most interesting part of the hot, dusty, back-breaking effort of grain harvesting at the turn of the 20th Century, and it is best to let the participants describe it…
One great help and surely a step towards progress was when the Novotny brothers purchased a J.I. Case threshing machine in 1873. Threshing jobs were much in demand by settlers and the seasons of operating the rig were long. Threshing season began when grain was in shock and lasted till late fall from stacked grain. At first only John Jr. and my father Frank operated the outfit, but later Joseph, Anton, and Charles went along, too. My father Frank was the only one staying with the machine thru all the years of its operation. Their yearly earnings amounted to anywhere from $700 to $1,000. The machine was operated by a horsepower to which were hitched five teams of horses they walking in a circle generating power which was transmitted to the threshing machine proper by shafts. It is estimated that in the 43 years of continual operation of the machine it threshed about 700,000 bushels of grain. No record was kept but the owners themselves made the conservative estimate. The grain was spouted by the machine into bushel sized containers, which were counted and emptied either directly into a wagon box or into sacks. Sometimes grain had to be put into sacks in cases where the grain had to be stored in a second story bin. The sacks were carried up by hand, emptied, and returned to the machine for another filling. – Charles J. Novotny
Nothing was quite so romantic as grain harvesting – nor such hot work. It began with a binder which cut the grain in the field, tied it in bundles, and left the bundles lying on the ground. Then the shockers carried the bundles into groups, carefully arranged so that the air could dry the grain heads. Next, the pitchers forked the bundles from the shocks onto the rack wagons, which moved them to the threshing machines. The machines themselves were not so monstrous, but the power sources which operated them were the stuff from which myths arise: coal-fired, they belched black smoke, hissed steam, thumped and roared as the grain was separated and the chaff and straw were blown onto huge piles – the delight of farm kids as a playground. Finally the grain was collected in wagons and carted off for storage. – Grant Heilman
A threshing machine greatly eased the burden of harvest for the farmers. The machine would separate the grain from the straw. In the early years the machine was run by horse-power and later by a giant engine that was powered by steam. In 1916 my father (Charles Polodna Sr.) joined a neighborhood threshing crew. There were about 15 or 20 men in a crew. My father, being interested in engines, took care of the Reeves steam engine. He would leave early in the morning to fire up the engine to produce steam for power. Two other men helped, one had to haul water to the engine and the other took care of the threshing machine. The trick was to keep everything in running order, because a lot of things came to a halt when something broke down. – Blanche Čada
Threshing was a time for co-operation. Many of the machines were community-owned, for they were expensive and a threshing operation took at least a dozen men. It was a time to show off expertise, brawn – and pulling together. – Grant Heilman
Threshing started at sunrise and stopped at sunset. The crew took three breaks each day, morning lunch, 1 ½ hour break for noon, and an afternoon lunch. There were times for rest for both men and horses. The women did the cooking and baking. They would get up at 4 A.M. to start the bakery dough in order to have sandwich buns ready for the first lunch at 9 A.M. Ladies went with the crew to cook and help each other. There was no plumbing or running water in the house. We had to carry water from a well close by. Homemade lemonade, coffee, and beer were served. A cave/cellar was used to keep milk and butter cold. The ladies butchered and cleaned chickens early in the morning for that day’s dinner. – Blanche Čada
Mid-morning and mid- afternoon, the girls in the house were dispatched to run out to the field and carry “eats,” thick sandwiches of bread, butter, and meat, and stoneware jugs filled with freshly-pumped water, corked and wrapped with wet burlap to preserve the coolness. In the shade of the threshing machine the men stopped their work to eat the sandwiches and to gulp the water, passing the jug from one man to the next. In the meantime, the women in the house were as busy as the menfolk in the field, cooking for threshers; noontime was dinnertime. In the steamy kitchen they cut up and fried dozens of chickens, peeled and boiled and mashed pound of fluffy white potatoes, stirred gallons of good rich gravy. They piled onto platters loaves of thick-sliced homemade bread still aromatic from the oven, cut pieces from a staggering selection of homemade pies – green apple, gooseberry, raisin. From the windmill cooler they brought bowls of yellow homemade butter with their own distinctive design molded on the top; from the cellar they carried jars of homemade jellies and jams. When the long table, the dining-table with all of its extensions in it, was filled with food, they rang the dinner gong.
One peal of the dinner gong was enough; the men rushed from the field, washed their hands and faces at the pump in the yard, and stomped into the house to the dining table. In the same workmanlike manner with which they performed in the field, the men addressed the steaming mounds of food, piling plates high and filling them again and again. The hard physical labor of the field created huge appetites, burned many calories. While the women replenished the serving dishes from the kettles on the cob-fired cookstoves, the children watched hungrily, hoping there would be something left for them. Finally the men pushed back their chairs and started back to the field. The women cleaned up the table, washed the dishes, and prepared for the second sitting, when the women and children would eat. – Dorothy Creigh
It was a busy day for the children. After seeing the machine well started, the boys stayed around to either watch or help. The girls left to go home to help mother prepare the dinner which was no small task for the women, for it was just as big a job preparing the meal as it was for the men threshing. Childrens’ mouths would water at the sight of all the good food which consisted of all types of pies and cakes and that luscious fresh baking (buns, kolaches, gooey cinnamon rolls, filled doughnuts, etc.), vegetables, and meat (which was generally roast and chicken). Usually by eight o’clock in the morning the meat was cooking so it would be ready for the mid-morning lunch.
Coffee or cold tea was always served, and it was always a treat when someone would bring a cake of natural ice from the ice house in town. Carefully wrapped in blankets in the cellar, it was a welcome treat to have cold ice in the cold tea.
Usually the small children helped by clumsily scraping the thin peel from new potatoes until the milk pail was nearly full, and helped silk the corn, if the farmwife was lucky enough to have some mature at the right time. Sliced tomatoes were a treat and cole slaw or sliced cucumbers fresh from the garden offered variety.
The men washed their sweaty faces and hands in cold water at the well. Only the machine men dared to ask for a little hot water from the tea kettle to wash their greasy hands. If the farmer had any beer on hand, the threshing crew would sit down and relax with a cold beer for a few minutes before going in to eat. Seldom were there fewer than twelve to feed. – Clarkson Centennial Book
[At the end of the day,] as each man left for home or tied his team waiting for supper, some of the younger children would hover near the fascinating steam engine, hoping that the engineer would reward them for their “help” by letting them blow the final whistle for the day. – Clarkson Centennial Book
These clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk (apologies to The Wizard of Oz) were slow-moving and heavy; often too heavy for the bridges that crossed the creeks on rural roads. There was more than one spectacular accident, when a bridge collapsed and dumped the steaming, pressurized boiler, its engineer, and the rest of the threshing rig into the drink. The remains of a steam engine that collapsed a small bridge can still be seen in a creek a mile northwest of Clarkson.
Remains of a steam engine in a creek one mile northwest of Clarkson
American ingenuity ended [the era of the thresher]. The combine came on the market, meaning less capital investment, far less labor, more independence. The steam engines shut down, the straw stacks disappeared, and farm wives no longer had to cook mountains of food for dozens of neighbors. – Grant Heilman
I’m glad that Grandma Toni told me the story of Grandpa Charles’ career as a Steam Engineer, because I never got to see a threshing crew in operation. By the time that I came along, the multi-step harvest using reaper/binders, shocking crews, and threshers had been replaced by combines. In a single pass through the field, a combine cut the stalk off near the ground, separated the grain from the stalk, winnowed out the chaff, dropped the clean kernels into a hopper, and ejected the straw onto the ground (to be made into straw bales later). I used to think that “combine” was a strange name for a machine whose purpose is to “separate” kernels of grain from the rest of the plant. But, of course, the advantage of the combine harvester is that it combined several functions into one.
Most farmers could afford their own combines and could harvest their grain quickly, without assistance from the neighbors. It was a welcome, labor-saving advancement in the speed and efficiency of harvest. But in other ways it was a loss, a step back from the cooperative community spirit that enabled the pioneers in our town to survive and thrive. The era of the thresher was short, lasting from about the 1870s through the 1930s, but it was an essential part of the incredible yields of grain produced in America’s Heartland during this time.
The Old Timers spoke about threshing with mixed feelings. No one wanted to repeat the hard work, but they all looked back on the team efforts in field and kitchen with a good measure of nostalgia.
Blanche Čada. 1987. Grandmother Remembers. Memories of a Farm Wife. Schuyler, Nebraska.
Centennial Book Committee. 1987. The Excitement of Threshing Time. pages 178-180 In: Centennial – Clarkson Nebraska.
Dorothy Weyer Creigh. 1981. Threshing. pages 97-99 In: Nebraska, Where Dreams Grow. Miller & Paine, Inc., Lincoln, Nebraska.
Grant Heilman. 1974. Farm Town – A Memoir of the 1930s. Photographs by J.W. McManigal and Grant Heilman. The Stephen Green Press, Brattleboro, Vermont.
Charles J. Novotny. 1961. Among the Earliest Settlers. Clarkson Diamond Jubilee Book, Clarkson, Nebraska.
The Schuyler Sun. 1995. A Pictorial History of Schuyler in Observance of the 125th Anniversary. The Schuyler Sun, Schuyler, Nebraska.
Photographs courtesy of: Jerome Čada, The Clarkson Centennial Book (1987), Grant Heilman (1974), Charles J. Novotny (1961), The Schuyler Sun (1995), and the Clarkson Museum.