In simplest terms, a threshing machine is a device that beats (threshes) ripened kernels of grain from plant stalks and separates them from husks and straw. Because of this process they were also called “separators.” Although the first machines were small and hand operated, they represented a step forward from using hand flails or animals to trample grain on a threshing floor.
The first threshing machines used in the United States were imported from Scotland and England in the 1780s. The first American made thresher was built in 1792 in Philadelphia, and by the 1830s the two processes of threshing and fanning (separating chaff from the grain) were combined. But technological progress in threshing was limited by the means of power, which was primarily horsepower. The two most common ways of converting the linear motion of animals to the circular motion of machines were the treadmill and the sweep horsepower. The treadmill was limited to the power of one or two horses and dissipated much of that power with its many slats, chains, and belts. The sweep horsepower used horizontal beams, the outside ends of which were hooked to a team which walked in an endless circle. The axle transferred power through a series of gears to a tumbling rod which ran to a gear box on the thresher. Some horsepowers were attached to the thresher gear box by a long belt.
History credits “Wild Bill” Kress with planting the first wheat in Adams County on his homestead along the Little Blue River. W. S. Mont marketed the first wheat in Hastings in 1873. The settlers raised spring wheat (planted in the spring, harvested in the fall) which was often taken to a grist mill to be ground into flour with the miller retaining a portion for his pay. About 1888 winter wheat was introduced in this area, and was immediately popular. It is planted in the fall and matures in early summer before winter and spring soil moisture is lost to the heat of a plains summer. Abe Benedict of Ayr is credited with being the first to raise winter wheat in Adams County. Farmers flocked to his place to see and buy the seed.
Before the wheat could be threshed it had to be cut. Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick both patented reapers in the 1830s, and by the 1850s reapers began the mechanization of agriculture. Even after the invention of the reaper, harvesting wheat required several people: a man to drive the reaper; another to rake off the cut grain; and several more to bind and shock the grain. By the 1870s reapers which could bind the grain (called binders) came on the market, further reducing labor in the harvest fields.
In 1873, Merritt and Kellog of Battle Creek, Michigan, became the first company to manufacture self-propelled steam traction engines which moved from farm to farm under their own power. The first known steam powered thresher in Adams County was reported by the Central Nebraskan in 1878 as being operated on the C. C. Ingalls farm near Hastings. Two men were kept busy feeding headed wheat into the separator, and six men pitched it to them. It was reported that the machine threshed much faster than the ordinary horsepower resulting in saving the boarding of additional hands and teams. The steam engine required about $2.50 worth of coal per day. From 1900 to the 1930s, steam traction engines were the primary power source for grain threshing. The 1905-1906 tax schedules for Adams County list 55 farmers who owned a steam engine and a threshing machine, and 13 farmers who had only a threshing machine–apparently the old horsepower type.
There were many dangers associated with agricultural machinery. Boys usually stood on a platform in the center of the horsepower and employed a whip to urge the horses to walk faster. Standing on this platform with the exposed gears in the center was very dangerous. Eight year old Anton Trausch, son of Thomas and Anna Trausch, died in 1907 from shock and loss of blood after his foot and lower leg were ground in the gears of a horsepower. He is buried in the Assumption Cemetery.
However, the dangers of the horsepower were replaced by the steam engine’s risk of explosion and scalding by escaping steam. Pressure in the boilers could reach one hundred pounds per square inch and explosions were common. Also the fire under the boiler caused straw fires which could destroy the entire crop and escape to farm buildings. In 1897 William Lipps of Hastings was scalded to death when a steam engine exploded southeast of Pauline. The Hastings Daily Republican reported the gory details: “The rushing steam cooked the very flesh on his bones.” In 1884 J. A. Smith was killed northwest of Juniata when his steam engine exploded. He had owned the machine three years. In the tradition of the times, the Juniata Herald reported that his body was “horribly mangled. The engine was blown to atoms, the only piece of any size left being a portion of the boiler weighing perhaps 600 pounds which was hurled over thirty rods, landing in a neighbors wheat field.” (A rod is 16.5 feet) Because of the lurid newspaper stories and because the machines were huge and very noisy, the public was justifiably afraid of them.
In a 1985 interview Albert J. Trausch reminisced: “In 1925 my Uncle Joe [Trausch] bought a used steamer in Ragan [in Harlan County]. We drove it clear to Roseland; took us two and a half days. I was steering and Vet [Trausch] was shoveling the coal. Tony Seiler was the water jack. When we got west of Norman we couldn’t get any water, so we drove up into a farmyard and Tony went up to the house and asked if we could get water from the horse tank. The woman said “No.” Vet said “You go back and tell her we have to have water or the damned thing will blow up.” “Take all you want.” she replied.” And there were other dangers, in 1914 Emil Johnson of rural Juniata fell from a load of wheat bundles onto a pitch fork and died an agonizing death a few days later. He left a wife of one year and an infant son.
World War I increased demand for food products which resulted in higher grain prices. (The US entered the war in April 1917. The war ended November 11, 1918.) Farmers’ sons and farm hands were drafted resulting in a scarcity of laborers for the wheat harvest. The Council of Defense organized Hastings men to work in the harvest fields, and on June 21, 1918 it was announced that 100 men had registered to shock wheat.
The introduction of winter wheat had resulted in a great increase in wheat acreage. In central Nebraska farmers formed cooperative neighborhood threshing rings which provided the teams, hayracks and labor needed for the harvest. Local contract thresher men provided the machinery and some skilled labor. Each spring neighbors got together to organize their threshing ring, which usually included eight to ten farmers.
There were two types of threshing runs, shock threshing and stack threshing. Shock threshing was done shortly after the grain had been cut by a binder and shocked by hand. A shock is a group of grain bundles stood together to dry. Farmers’ wives and daughters often helped shock grain in the harvest field.
Wheat was cut with a binder in July and shocked grain was threshed as soon as it had cured because it was easily damaged or destroyed by rain and hail storms. If the bundles were to be stacked they were thrown onto a wagon and hauled to the stacking area, usually on high ground. The bundles were laid in a circle around a shock, with the wheat heads in and the butts out. Stacks were shaped like a mushroom, bulging a few feet off the ground and tapering to the top. This shape shed water away from the base. Stacks were as high as fifteen feet. Constructing a stack that would shed water and not blow over was considered an art form. Stacks were usually set in groups of four so the separator could be set between them and bundles pitched in from both sides.
On a shock run each member of the ring furnished a man, a team and a hayrack. When your wheat was threshed you furnished one or two grain scoopers and sometimes an extra man for the hayracks. If the grain was scooped into a bin, a man was needed for that. If it was hauled to an elevator, an extra team and wagon–often driven by boys–was needed. If there were only eight farmers with hayracks an extra spike pitcher was needed in the field to help pitch bundles onto the hayracks so the separator could be fed continuously. When a rack was loaded the driver got into line by the separator, pitched the bundles into the separator and then got back out into the field and loaded again. To be fair to all in case of a storm, they threshed one day at each farm and then went on to the next. If someone wasn’t finished they went around again. After a rain the wait was usually two days because the ground was wet and the grain too soft. Neighbors kept the same threshing ring for years; whoever was last to thresh one year was first the next.
Stack threshing required fewer men because the work of picking up the bundles and hauling them to a central location was already done. Grain could remain in the stack several months. Stack threshing usually began after plowing was finished and continued until as late as October.
In a 1984 interview Bert Trausch told of his experiences as an engineer with a threshing crew. The engineer, because of his technical knowledge of the steam engine, was regarded as the lead man of the crew. “Dad [Matt Trausch] began custom threshing in 1924 with a used Baker steamer and a wood frame Rumley threshing machine. I was eighteen years old. We furnished the engine, the threshing machine, a tank wagon which held eight barrels of water and a team to pull it, and the three man crew to run the outfit–the separator man, the engineer and the water jack. I was the engineer. I drove the engine to the farm pulling the separator, put on the belts, scooped coal into the engine–about a ton a day– kept the steam up, and watched for signals from the separator man. Our threshing runs were all the way from two miles south of Assumption to within a mile of Juniata. I wasn’t paid; I worked to help support our large family. In those days kids were considered assets.” The engineer’s hours were long. He was up early to set the fire which built up the necessary head of steam in the engine before the threshing crew arrived.
In the mid-twenties Albert J. Trausch worked on his Uncle Joe’s threshing crew which served the area around Roseland. “I ran the separator, kept it oiled and adjusted, watched the grain, moved the pipe that throws the straw onto the pile. You start out building the straw pile a little on each side then fill in the center. The separator man had more work than the engineer and a dirtier job. I was paid about three dollars a day.”
Bert remembered how hard the water jack worked to earn his three dollars a day. “He had to start early to get his mules ready, scoop the coal the farmer had piled in his yard, haul it to the engine and scoop it into the tender. After the engineer had fed it into the firebox that ton of coal had been scooped three times in one day. Our water wagon held eight barrels (a barrel was about 40 gallons). It had a hand pump on the top and a hose on one end. The water jack laid the hose into a horse tank or cistern and then he got on top of the barrel and manually pumped the water. If he was pumping up out of a cistern he had to work a lot harder. Each water tender on the back of the steam engine held four barrels of water. A hose underneath connected the two tanks equalizing the water. When the water was getting low the engineer tooted the whistle for the jack to come with a load. The engineer siphoned water from the tank wagon into the tenders, then turned the injectors on as needed and siphoned it out of the tenders into the boiler.
We charged four or five cents a bushel for threshing wheat. We could thresh 1,500 bushels in a day if there were several stacks together. Oats we threshed for two cents a bushel. It went faster because it only weighs 32 pounds a bushel while wheat weighs 60 pounds. Oats came out twice as fast so we made about the same amount in a day.
When Dad needed extra help he went up to the courthouse lawn in Hastings and picked out the best looking hobo–they rode the rails following the harvest. He picked one that was sunburned and had calloused hands–a guy with white hands would last about two hours scooping coal or pitching bundles. They worked for maybe a dollar a day.”
Edna Kline Trausch remembered how hard the women worked feeding the threshing crews. “Before noon Mom (Leona Bassett Kline) took a bench, a wash basin and some towels out by the windmill– we didn’t have water in the house. The men were so dirty they washed up out there. The women worked like slaves in the house over the hot cook stove fixing dinner for fifteen hungry men. A large platter of fried spring chickens, butchered early that morning, made one round on the table. Fresh picked green beans and of course potatoes and gravy were served. Pies, cakes, and bread had been baked the day before.” After the men left the house the women and children ate and then the tedious job of dishwashing began. There was no electricity on the farm in those days, so all the water had to be carried in by hand and heated on the cook stove. Afterwards the slop was carried out. No electricity meant no modern appliances. No mixers or blenders or grinders. Everything was done the hard way–by hand. If it was going to be a long day of threshing, as soon as the dishes were done preparations for the crew’s evening meal began.
Threshing machines and their large crews were common on the plains for more than 50 years, but the tradition could not withstand the onslaught of the combine, so named because it combined the work of all other harvest equipment in just one machine.
In the 1920s, the internal combustion tractor began to transform American agriculture, and tractor-drawn combines started to replace binders, grain separators, and steam engines. A. P. Murray operated the first combine in Adams County west of Hastings in June 1921. The days of the large, noisy steam engines were numbered and along with them the neighborhood threshing runs.
In less than a hundred years, the nature of grain production in America had changed from intense hand labor to almost total mechanization. The reason was economic. A farmer who hired a contract threshing crew faced costs of between $80 and $100 a day. Even if neighbors worked together to harvest each other’s wheat, that labor had to be repaid in kind. One man with a combine was a lot cheaper than an entire crew with a threshing machine.
After the advent of the combine the term “threshing” gave way to “combining.” Yet combines didn’t take all the risk out of harvesting. While combines dropped less grain in the field and drastically cut labor costs, wheat cut by a combine had to be dead ripe. Timing was critical because the longer wheat stood in the field, the greater the risk from rain and hail storms, diseases, and pests. Consequently, farmers bought their own machines rather than share with neighbors.
The amount of work one farmer could do exploded in the twentieth century due to power machinery. Technology, however, was both a blessing and a curse. New machines and plant varieties yielded more grain through less work. But the value of grain decreased as the supply increased, causing farms to grow larger and forcing many families off the land. Large farms and expensive machinery often led to large debt loads, sometimes resulting in foreclosures and still fewer farms. In 1950 the Farm Equipment Institute called the development of the one-man combine “one of those occasional milestones which upset the old pattern completely and changed the very course of agriculture itself.” The colorful community threshing days had come to an end.
1984 interview of Bert Trausch by the author.
1986 interview of Albert J. Trausch by the author.
Adams County Historical Society newspaper index.