About this time of year during our great-grandparents’ era, as “small grains” including oats, wheat, barley, and rye were rapidly ripening, the threshing season on area farms was just getting ready to begin.
Threshing outfits were too expensive for average farmers to buy on their own, and required far more labor to operate than a single farm could supply. Not that there weren’t a few individuals who owned them, of course. Irvin Moyer, who owned a machine shop that catered to local farmers at the intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Douglas Road here in Oswego Township, owned a threshing machine and a huge Aultman-Taylor gasoline-powered tractor. Moyer did custom threshing for many area farmers with his rig, as did Clarence Shoger from over Naperville way and Thad Seely on the west side of the Fox River.
But most farmers formed cooperative threshing rings of as few as four and up to a dozen farmers. Each member bought one or two shares in the ring and then participated in the annual harvest, with the threshing rig and the participating farmers and hired hands traveling from one farm to the next around the ring.
The Woolley Ring, for instance, operated on farms mostly located in School District 6 in the Woolley and Collins Road areas east of Oswego, while farmers on the Oswego Prairie along Wolf’s Crossing Road formed the East Oswego Ring. Farmers throughout the rest of Kendall County formed similar cooperatives in their neighborhoods.
The East Oswego Ring owned an Aultman-Taylor threshing machine; a 20-40 Rumely Oil Pull kerosene-powered internal combustion tractor bought about 1918; a 100-foot drive belt; a canvas tarpaulin big enough to cover the threshing machine while it was stored between harvests; four big tarpaulins used to cover loads of grain in case of rain and overnight during the threshing process; and an equipment storage shed located on the Burkhart Farm. The engineer (who operated the tractor powering the threshing machine), the separator man (who operated the threshing machine itself), and the blowerman (who had to skillfully direct the flow of straw after it was stripped of grain kernels into neat straw stacks) were appointed at the ring’s annual meeting.
Farmer members of the ring were expected to supply the labor for the less skilled jobs in the ring including bundle haulers, bundle pitchers, and grain men. Unlike the skilled jobs, men and boys who filled the other positions usually rotated because some jobs were more desirable than others. Pitching bundles of grain into wagons from the field was considered a choice job, while grain men working in the heat, noise, and dust of the threshing machine itself were less likely to enjoy their work.
At each ring’s annual meeting, generally called at about this time of year, right before threshing started, the jobs, labor rotation, any equipment purchases, and maintenance schedules were all laid out. Within a day or two, the threshing machine was taken out of storage and thoroughly checked, as was the giant belt that powered it. The ring’s tractor, whether steam or internal combustion, was serviced and readied for work. In rings with steam tractors, the engineers and firemen checked their machines carefully, because of the danger of bursting a boiler or some other equally serious accident could cause permanent injury or death.
As these preparations proceeded, the work of binding grain was wrapping up. Horse drawn binders cut and bound stalks of small grains into bundles a foot or so in diameter, each bundle, depending on the brand of binder, secured with either twine or wire. From the time of their invention until the 1920s, teams of horses pulled binders through the fields.
Afterwards, increasingly affordable and dependable gasoline-powered tractors pulled them. However they were powered, the machines were the first step in the harvest process, as the binder dropped tied bundles of ripe grain on the ground The bundles were then stacked by hand into shocks of 20 or so bundles for further drying. Skillful stackers gave each shock an artful weatherproof roof of grain bundles to thoroughly dry and await threshing.
Moving threshing machines from farm to farm on the poor roads of the era was not easy, and stories abound of tractors and machines getting stuck or worse.
On Nov. 26, 1890, the Kendall County Record reported one such major mishap involving a steam traction engine and threshing machine in Bristol Township:
“The steam thresher outfit of the Leighs, of Oswego, has been for some days on the west side of Blackberry Creek doing clover hulling and threshing; Monday afternoon they left Fred young’s place for home and attempted to cross the Blackberry creek at the mouth over the bridge near the mill. The thresher and the traction engine were coupled together. There were two men riding on the engine, Mr. Leigh and his engineer. The engine had passed about 12 feet on the bridge when a needle-beam pulled out of the bolts by which it was attached to the bridge chords, and the engine fell with a great crash through the bridge floor into the creek below, a distance of about 12 feet. The men on the engine jumped as the bridge gave way; one landed in the deep water just under the dam, the other lit on the rock bottom of the creek on the lower side, breaking four ribs, a collar bone and being badly bruised in his fall. The injured man was Mr. Fred Leigh Jr. one of the owners of the machine. He was taken to a house and Dr. Kinnett repaired his injuries and from thence to his home near Oswego. The outfit was new this season and is quite a loss. The separator did not follow; a timber in the front end caught a plank on the portion of the bridge which did not fall and it hung there on the brink.”
The East Oswego Ring’s Rumely pulled their threshing machine from farm to farm, and the rings with steam engines for power also had to make sure the water and fuel wagons were brought along, too.
Siting a threshing machine was an art in itself. First, it had to be positioned so that the exhaust from the steam or internal combustion tractor, and its attendant sparks, would be kept away from the grain, dust, and straw produced by the threshing process. The 50 to 100-foot belts that extended from the power take-off of the tractors helped, but prevailing winds also had to be kept in mind, as did the likely location of the straw stacks that were the byproducts of the process. Straw was necessary for raising livestock (as both bedding and fodder), so it was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Creating a compact stack of high quality straw was one more technical skill that had to be mastered.
Running the giant belt, eight to 10 inches wide, 50 to 100 feet from the tractor to the threshing machine was also a high-skill job. Both machines had to be level with each other to avoid undue belt wear and to make sure the belt wouldn’t be thrown off the machines’ pulleys. “Setting” a threshing machine and its tractor was no job for greenhorns.
And after all that work, it had to be done again and again and again as the crew moved from farm to farm, often working 10 hour days, until all the grain in the ring had been threshed.
Today, farmers use giant combine harvesters to do the same job it took more than 20 men and boys, plus a half-dozen or so farm wives in the kitchen at each farm to do. The harvest ritual is still with us, but it’s a lot different now than then. Which pretty much sums up history in general, when you stop to think about it