We were driving through the countryside some miles east of Kendall County a while ago, and came across a sight that made me want to stop and watch for a while. I couldn’t, of course, given the traffic, so I only got a fleeting glimpse of something we hardly ever see these days.
There, making the rounds in a stubble field was a vintage tractor pulling a genuine hay baler. Bales of golden straw were rhythmically moving off the rear chute, where a muscular young man riding on the rubber-tired hayrack grabbed each with a baling hook and swung it around, adding it to the neat stack. A second, hayrack, already loaded with straw bales, stood on the field’s headland, ready to be pulled who knows where.
To the uninitiated, this might seem like a normal country activity. But in business terms, it would be akin to walking into an accounting office and seeing everyone madly punching the keys on Comtometers or watching giant Frieden mechanical calculators clack and grind through long division problems.
First of all, the kind of hay baler being used in that field was almost a museum piece. Modern balers produce giant rolls of hay (some neatly wrapped in weather-proof plastic), not small bales. Second, straw is seldom baled at all nowadays because modern harvesting equipment tends to mulch it instead of leaving enough to be raked and baled. And third, hardly anyone in the Fox Valley grows the kinds of small grains that produce straw as a byproduct in the first place.
Time was, lots of straw was baled in Kendall County because the kind of diversified farming practiced here until modern specialized farming emerged in the 1960s required it. Farmers rotated crops from field to field, each crop having its place in the farming cycle. Before tractors came into universal use following World War II, oats fueled the county’s horse-powered farms, not to mention the millions of horses that made urban areas function. As a result, thousands of acres of oats were raised each year, along other thousands of acres of barley, rye, and wheat that all had their uses in those long-gone times.
August was harvest time for small grains—as opposed to large kernel grains such as corn. Fields planted in the spring turned a golden color when the grain was ripe. Pioneer farmers had to cut their oats, wheat, and other small grain by hand, using large scythes with attached cradles that caught the ripe grain as it was cut. One man could harvest an acre or two a day using a cradle and scythe. Soon, however, reapers and harvesters were invented that mechanically cut the grain. Later machines called binders cut and bound the grain into bundles so it could be manually stacked in shocks to thoroughly dry.
In pre-mechanized days, dried bundles of, say, oats, were taken to a clean threshing floor in a barn and were beaten with a flail. Flails had long handles to which were attached a shorter flattened piece of wood on a leather thong. The flail was used to literally beat the grain off the stalks. The straw remaining after threshing was then stacked and used as animal bedding.
Starting in the mid-19th Century, threshing machines were perfected. The first ones were powered by teams of horses on treadmills or other mechanical contrivances. As soon as they had enough money, though, farmers pooled their resources to purchase steam engines to power threshing machines. These large self-propelled steam engines were woefully under-powered by modern standards—most were in the neighborhood of 15 horsepower—and so were unsuitable for tilling fields. Instead, they were used to pull threshing machines from field to field and then act as a stationary engine to power the machines.
Threshing machines and their steam engines were expensive outfits, and few farmers could afford them on their own. As a result, they formed cooperative threshing “rings,” so named because the grain of their members was threshed as the machines moved from farm to farm.
In late July and August of each year, threshing rings all over the Fox Valley would swing into operation. Someone standing on a high point could look around the horizon and see the “smokes” from steam-powered machines rising.
As more efficient and more powerful internal combustion engines were developed, more capable equipment followed. The combined harvester, a machine that combined the tasks of the old harvesters and binders with threshing machines, soon became standard farm equipment. By the 1970s, most combines were self-propelled and today, their cabs are air conditioned and equipped with stereos, computers, and global positioning satellite receivers that can produce accurate soil and grain yield maps.
Or they would if many farmers in the Fox Valley still grew the small grains their great-grandparents did. Today, anyone who does grow them is doing it for a special reason; they’re simply not part of the Fox Valley’s modern grain farming scene. Which is why the fellows sweating through baling that straw got my attention. What they were doing was much akin to the Chicago Tribune’s annual publication of “Injuun Summer,” a reminder of times long past.