Bringing in the sheaves

Part I

This time of year is payback time for farmers, the culmination of all their hard work during the crop season. Fifty years or more ago brought the same feelings of excitement to “bringing in the sheaves” as it does today, but it demanded a great deal more physical exertion. Back then, as now, at the end of July or beginning of August the grain was ready to be harvested. Farmers read the Farmers Almanac and watched the sky in hopes that severe weather would not damage or destroy the precious crop before it could be brought safely into a bin. It has been said that farmers are the biggest gamblers in the world — and they mostly do it with all of their earnings — in an attempt to bring their crops to a final payoff. Harvest is that payoff. If all goes well, there is a holiday-type of excitement that prevails as the threshing machine, grain racks and men carrying pitchforks pull into the first field.

The threshing rig itself resembled a monster (right out of the dreams of childhood) that stood puffing dust and roaring with such a tremendous noise that the volume became an ear-jarring pain. The only way to communicate while standing on or near the rig was to yell as loud as you could. When it broke down — which if often did — the silence was also deafening because with it ran the fear that it could not be repaired quickly enough before the weather turned bad. One man, usually one of the older men, would stand on top of the rig to oversee the entire operation of haulers pulling up and pitching grain bundles into the feeder, keeping track of the grain as it filled the wagons, as well as a keen eye on all the spinning gears and belts of the rig itself. Workers stayed clear of the machine in case one of these belts snapped or rolled off in a crooked fashion.

A few hours before the threshing rig was set up, probably on the preceding day, the ripe grain was cut down and formed into twine-secured bundles with a binder machine. A work crew of young boys, and sometimes farm wives, would follow the binder in order to pick up the bundles and set them up in groups of six to eight shocks with the heads of grain on the tops. The stronger workers would grab two bundles at a time to set up against each other.

They needed a lot of water for drinking during this hot season, and the water wasn’t always cold. It was often stored in jugs or cream cans and set inside the shocks. Young boys would often send thirsty workers to a wrong set of bundles to get water, and then they would giggle at the frustration of the men hunting for the water jug.

When the threshing was ready to start, bundle haulers would go out with a wooden rack, usually pulled by a team of horses and collect the bundles. They would use a three-tined fork to pitch the bundles. Loading bundles on a rack was not as simple as it looked. The bundles were thrown in haphazardly until the main part of the rack was full, then the rest of the load was built up with more care. The bundles were stacked on the sides with the heads facing in. As the load grew the center was always kept a little lower than the sides, which kept the bundles pinned down in case the rack hit a furrow at an angle. Not until the load was topped off was the center filled higher than the sides.

When a filled rack-load of bundles pulled up to the rig, the hauler then pitched the bundles into the feeder. Experience taught this “pitcher of sheaves” to reach for those that were free and unrestrained while trying to get to the bottom somewhere on the rack as soon as possible, so that he had a flat, stable surface to stand on while pitching off the rest of the load.

The grain would come out of a spout on the side of the separator where the grain would be collected in heavy canvas sacks by two men who stood in a wagon holding the sacks until filled, and then moved them to the ends of the wagon. The grain hauler, whose job was to pull wagons up to the spout and out from under it when the wagon was full, would then take the wagon up to the farmyard where the grain was dumped into the granary. The sacks were taken back out to the rig where they were used over and over again.

Out of the back of the threshing machine the straw would make a steady curving stream from the rig, depositing the straw into a pile. The straw spout would be hand-moved in order to form a huge straw-stack cone. The threshing operation would usually begin in the farmyard at a spot where it was convenient to have a stack — then the rig was moved into the field where an additional straw stack was made. When the farmyard stack was used up, the straw from the field would be hauled in racks to the barn where the straw would be pitched into the haymow on the floor of the barn and used all winter long as bedding for the animals.

Some of the straw was used to fill mattresses, which consisted of a bed-sized pillowcase, filled with the fresh, fragrant straw and tied together on the side. When this mattress was put onto the bed it would be a huge puffy oval that children would jump on top of until it was somewhat flatter. By the time harvest came again the next year, these mattresses would be flatter than a pancake and probably less comfortable. On occasion things other than straw would end up in these mattresses. My grandfather used to tell the story of one of the first harvest seasons after emigrating from Norway. One early morning he was passing through his sister’s bedroom when he heard her softly groaning and saw her clawing at her neck. He quietly walked over to her bed and removed a snake, which had curled itself around her neck and was tightening its hold.

(To be continued next week)