Harvest will begin in southwestern Minnesota soon. 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 in "bringing in the sheaves" as it does today, but it demanded a great deal more physical exertion. Back then, as now, the end of July or beginning of August the grain was ready to be harvested. Farmers read the Farmer's 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, gran 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 a 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 it 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 or 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 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 collected the bundles. They would use a three-tine 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 with 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 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 haulers, 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 grainery. The sacks were taken back out to the rig where they were used over and over again.
(Continued next week.)