TALES from the FRONT PORCH
Ringgold County's Oral Legend & Memories Project
Threshing With Steam As I Remember It
author unknown, see below
It all began about the first week of July when you heard your father tell
your mother that he supposed he had better get the threshing coal. He then
hitched the team to the old wagon - the one with the loose tires and the
leaky box - and went to the Elevator or the Lumber Yard in Tingley
(depending on which one had a car of coal on track). If you were hardup
you bought Centerville coal and if you had money and wanted to make the
operator of the threshing outfit happy, you purchased Illinois coal for it
burned better and with fewer clinkers. We usually bought Centerville coal.
When my father arrived home he hauled the load of coal near where he
planned to thresh and left it. We would continue "laying by" our corn and
in the meanwhile watching as our field of Timothy seed ripen.
Usually before the Timothy was ready to be threshed some of our neighbors
would decide to thresh their oats. This was often someone who had no
Timothy to bind so while helping our neighbors thresh we must finish
cultivating the corn and also bind and shock our Timothy. Somehow we would
struggle through this crisis and the threshing season was under way.
We threshed with several different outfits through the years from
1910-1920 but I am going to write of only one.
The owner of this particular outfit was a slender wiry dark complected man
who ran the engine. The separator man was our neighbor Poe Johnston. They
made a good team. The owner of the machine could get mad when things went
wrong but Poe was always good-natured and never became excited. Both had
large families. The engineer's family was mostly girls, with two boys.
Poe's family consisted of six boys and one girl.
The third member of the threshing crew was the water hauler sometimes
referred to as the water monkey. In this case the water monkey was the
engineer's son, Clyde.
The threshing run went like this...oats were threshed first until the
Timothy was ready and when the farmers had both oats and Timothy which
were ready they would be threshed before the machine left that particular
farm. After the farms with oats and Timothy were threshed then the machine
went back and threshed the Timothy which had been by-passed.
When the big day arrived and the outfit pulled onto our farm my father
indicated where the machine was to be set. Poe Johnston, the separator
man, tossed some chaff in the air and watched it drift away. This helped
him decide what direction the wind was coming from and where to set the
machine in order that the dust and dirt would be blown away from those
working around the machine. The engineer then made a circle with the
outfit that would leave the separator in the right position. When the
machine was properly located the separator man would start digging holes
for the wheels to drop into so that the machine would set level. The test
of a good separator man was his ability to dig these holes accurately that
the machine would be level without a second try. Any operator of the
separator worth his salt would claim perfection in this, but I well
remember seeing Poe Johnston digging superstitiously under one wheel when
the chaffers failed to clear properly.
With the separator properly set the engine was uncoupled and the engineer
with the assistance of the water monkey made a half circle that turned the
engine around and lined it up with the belt pulley of the separator. Now
here was the test of the engineer. A good engineer never had to make a
second attempt at lining up. Of course, both pulleys were crowned and the
belts would run OK even if the pulleys were out of line a few inches, but
at 10 years old you didn't really know that.
In the meantime the separator man had raised the blower up and turned it
around, unfolded the feeder and was unreeling the drive belt. When the
belt was unreeled, the engineer got on the engine drive wheel and together
they got the heavy belt onto the giant drive pulley. The next step was to
tighten the drive belt. With the separator man holding the flopping giant
belt the engineer placed the engine gently in reverse - the belt flapped
and flopped like a living thing as it tightened. The water monkey threw
wooden blocks in front of the drive wheels of the engine and they were
ready to start threshing. Grain haulers would start backing tight wagon
boxes up to the grain spot, loads of bundle wagons would be maneuvering up
to the feeder and the water monkey would haul the water wagon up on the
left side of the engine then hitch his team to the load of coal and pull
it up to the rear of the engine on the right side.
The separator man would be busy turning down grease cups (the old time
version of grease guns) and oiling and adjusting the machine. Soon he
would stand up and nod to the engineer who would then open the throttle
and the wheels would begin to turn - slowly perhaps for 30 seconds while
the separator man checked to see that everything was working properly.
Then the engineer would open up the throttle to normal operating speed and
we were threshing.
There was something fascinating about the steam engine. The combined odor
of coal, water, steam, heat and oil produced a fragrance that was hard to
forget. The engine seemed to be alive and breathing. The cacheting of the
oiler, the governor with its tiny belt and the push and pull of the
cylinder made a beautiful picture in the memory. Its power was quiet and
The threshing separators of that day were huge machines. They seemed
almost unlimited in capacity and were noisy and dirty. You were suppose to
feed the bundles in the machine head first but the feeder was so big no
one paid much attention unless the dividing board was in.
Water hauling could be hard and difficult work. The tank which held about
120 barrels of water was placed on a heavy truck set of running gears and
on top of the tank was a double action pump with about 20 feet of suction
hose. This hose was placed in a well and the tank pumped full of water.
The pump was operated with a long wooden handle and it worked hard. Moat
water monkeys spend considerable time trying to "con" someone into going
once. Sometimes he had to go several miles after water and he was under
time pressure for the engine must not be allowed to run low. It was
customary to make fun of the water monkey because he could take a nap and
leaf a little after he had brought the engine its vital water supply, but
in truth, he was one the hardest working members of the crew.
The engine whistle was an important part of the outfit. Each outfit had a
set of signals. One signal might say, "wake up separator man. Something is
going wrong." Another signal would say, "Hurry up grain haulers." While
still another one would say, "Hurry up bundle haulers" and then there was
the blast that told the water money that he must get water to the engine
as soon as possible.
Some farmers stacked the straw, some didn't. In 1910 nearly everyone did.
Before 1910 thresher separators were equipped with traveling carriers
which gently lifted the straw onto the stack. In that day the work was
hard and a little dirty. After 1910 the blower came into vogue and straw
stacking became a very hard disagreeable and dirty job. Timothy and oat
straw was an important part of the diet of the beef cow herd of that day
and the farmer wanted it preserved in the best possible way, but many
farmers were unable or unwilling to pay the price in sweat, breathing dust
and dirt, so more and more the straw was blown into a pile.
The threshermen's dinner was something else. My mother usually worked with
her sister and my grandmother or some neighbor lady. It required many
hours of hard work and planning. The crew might include as many as 30
people and it required 2 or more tables before all were served.
There was friendly competition among the women of the community to see who
could serve the best meal. The food could be, and usually was, out of this
world both in quality and quantity.
Washing for dinner involved washing in cold water out in the yard and
drying face and hands on a towel that soon revealed that those having
washed before had not done a very good job of it. The men having washed
before had not done a very good job of it. The men also combed their hair
before an old mirror hanging from a tree. The men operating the machine
always ate at the first table and there was a lot of fun while eating but
if you were a ten year old boy you did not get to share in it because you
had to wait and eat at the third table with the women. You always wondered
if there would be any food left for you.
Under the influence of so much good food the crew was often slow getting
back to work. In that case the engineer would give the engine whistle a
couple of toots as is [if] to say, "Get on the ball, we're ready to
One year the fun finished at our farm - we were threshing Timothy. It was
after September 1st and I had started to school. It was nearly dark when
the bundle haulers cleaned up around the machine and went home. Our wagons
were piled high with white sacks of Timothy seed. Poe Johnston said to me,
"Sonny, run to the house and see if your mother will let me have her
broom." Flushed with importance I raced to the house, got the broom and
was back in a jiffy. The machine was stopped. Poe carefully swept every
bit of chaff and dirt off the machine They then started up the separator
again and blew out all the dirt that had fallen out of the cylinder - this
done, they stopped, folded up the blower and feeder and coupled the engine
onto the separator and pulled it away from the stack.
The engineer then looked at Poe - they were happy that the run was over.
Poe grinned and nodded at the engineer who then reached for the leather
throng that operated the whistle.
I knew what was coming - this was to be the finishing whistle - a long,
long, long blast that told the world that the run was over. I was
determined not to be a sissy and hold my had over my ears as girls nearly
The engineer pulled the whistle valve open. A wail like 1000 banshees
broke over our valley. On and on it went, my ears began to throb and then
to ache. I decided it wasn't such a bad idea to be a sissy after all and
covered my ears with my hands.
Still this mighty whistle roared on and the sound must have gone west
across Walnut Creek Valley past Wishard Chapel to Crooked Creek and
beyond. To the east it echoed and re-echoed across Gooseberry Creek and
East Grand River Valley over to and beyond High Point Church.
Yes, and the men and women of the day who now sleep in our beautiful
cemeteries listened and looked at each other and said, "It sounds like
Billy McDowell has finished his run!"
NOTE: William Ellis "Billy" McDowell was born June 10, 1876, Tingley, Iowa. He was a farmer and a thresher.
Billy and his wife Euphemia "Eunie" (Ashenhurst) moved with their family to Richmond, California, during World War II, where he worked as
a night watchman at the docks.
NOTE: The author of the following story about Will McDowell's threshing crew
(c1910) is unknown. A xerox copy of the typewritten original was provided
to me by my grandmother about twenty years ago. I do know, it was
published in the September 1990 issue of a periodical by the Iowa
Historical Society. If anyone has further information, please contact me, Michael.
Submission by Michael Cooley, April of 2010
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