Bringing in the sheaves Part II
Those who worked in the harvest fields ended up with sore muscles, blisters on their hands and black dust on their faces. There were no showers at the end of the day, unless an innovative farmer rigged up a makeshift shower in the back yard or took a dip in the stock tank to rinse off the dust. The men wore the same dirty clothes all week long, and only took a bath on Saturday night.
In order to bring in the harvest as quickly as possible it was often necessary to bring in extra hands to help complete the process before the weather turned bad. Sometimes neighbors worked together, moving from one field to another. Often the farmer would go to the “bum camps” that could be found in every town and village and hire the men to help. These men received a small wage, which was agreed upon before they came out to the farm, where they received all their meals and slept in the haymow.
The farmer’s wife fed the threshers sometimes three meals per day and two field lunches. The breakfast, which was attended by the farmhands and “bums,” consisted of fried potatoes, salt pork, eggs and many slices of homemade bread, butter and fresh jelly. Noon lunch (more commonly known as dinner) consisted of either beef roast, roast pig, or chicken with boiled potatoes, fresh vegetables, and more bread and butter, topped off with homemade pie and coffee. Supper would not be as big a meal, sometimes consisting of hash (made from the leftovers of the noon meal), which was put through a food grinder and fried in lard. Women often tried to outdo each other in preparing meals for the threshers – and prided themselves in being known as “the best cook” during threshing season. Although the story of one young farm wife (fresh from the Twin Cities) is still being told by the old-timers, of how she served fancy cut open-faced sandwiches at noon to the threshing crew.
The noon meal was served outside on a makeshift table consisting of boards set on top of sawhorses, which were set with dishes and eating utensils. A big washtub was filled with water and set up on two chairs for the threshers to wash off their sweaty, dirty faces and hands. There would be a good supply of homemade lye soap and a hand-brush for scrubbing. The towels were snow-white before the wash and grimy afterward.
Morning and afternoon lunches were packed in a large dishpan, which was lined with a pure-white square dishtowel (embroidered in one corner) that covered meat sandwiches, freshly baked cookies and frosted cake. Fresh-squeezed lemonade would be carried in an empty, covered syrup pail. Children often went barefoot in the summer – but they always found a pair of shoes to protect their feet from the cut grain shocks if they were helping to carry the lunch out to the field. Even with shoes on the children would suffer pricks to their ankles from the sharp shocks. The farmer’s wife and/or daughters would walk out to the field with the lunches, set them up in the shade of the threshing rig and wait for the men to finish eating before returning to the farmhouse to begin preparing for the next meal.
Harvest of the grain fields and the garden produce often fell at the same time, so the farm wife and children would have to pick the produce, clean and prepare it for canning, sometimes in between the daily food preparation duties.
The temperatures during the harvest season were usually in the 90s. The hot prairie wind would blow the dust and chaff into the eyes and nose. Back in the farm kitchen the temperature would top well into the 100s. There was no escape from the heat, except by retreating to a somewhat cooler cellar. The flies would cover the kitchen screen door, drawn by the fragrant smell of bread, cakes and cookie cooling on the table. Before opening the screen door the housewife would beat the screen with a dry towel, swishing it furiously at the flies, as visitors ducked under the flaying arms and into the house. Heaven help the youngster who opened the door and let a swarm of flies into the house. He usually paid for his misdemeanor by being handed a fly swatter and put to work swatting all the flies that were hiding wherever they could to avoid certain death.
Threshing crews worked at least a 12-hour day for several weeks. Depending upon the weather, harvest could continue until Labor Day.
The threshing machines were used exclusively up through World War II and beyond, until the 1950s when farmers began buying combines which “combined” the harvest process into a single machine (cutting the grain, separating the grain from the straw, and routing the grain to the hopper while the straw was returned to the field). The combine made the threshing machine and all of the old process of harvesting obsolete. But you can still see demonstrations of the threshing procedure if you attend the annual Pioneer Power Threshing Show held each August at Hanley Falls. It is a fascinating procedure to watch – causing the viewer to give thanks for the 20th century that we live in which does not require farmers to “bring in the sheaves” in such a grueling manner.