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Bringing in the sheaves in the age of steam

“Threshing Day” with the aid of steam-powered engines was a community event on Iowa farms a century ago.

(CN) —  Jefferson, Iowa, farmer Nick Foster inches his century-old steam-powered tractor into position several yards away from a threshing machine while farm hands attach a long belt to the thresher. Once in place, farm hands with pitchforks toss bundles of oats onto a conveyor belt that feeds them into the thresher where oats separated from chaff are pulled by an auger through a long shaft to an awaiting wagon.

This is “Threshing Day” in the age of steam on an Iowa farm.

Between the late 1800s and World War II, this was a common sight on many Iowa farms — and elsewhere in farm country — when horsepower and manpower were assisted by hulking iron engines that powered threshing machines, saws, and other tools and in some cases pulled farm implements through fields on steel wheels as tall as a man.

On this day in early August, a steam-powered threshing demonstration is taking place at Living History Farms on the west side of Des Moines, where visitors witness firsthand how agriculture progressed from 16th century Native American gardens using wood or stone tools to farming in the industrial age using newly patented labor-saving implements.

In the early 1900s, farmers used horse-drawn plows, planters, cultivators and other machinery in their fields. Horse-drawn reapers were used to mow down oat plants that were then bound into shocks with twine and stacked in sheaves to dry before being brought to threshing crews on horse-drawn wagons.

Although Iowa farmers also grew and harvested wheat and timothy hay, mostly for livestock feed, oats were a significant crop. In the days before internal combustion engines, farms powered by horses or mules, and they were fueled by oats.

In the days before mechanized threshing machines powered by steam tractors, farmers threshed — or “thrashed” as some called it — the oats out of the dry plants by hand in a back-breaking process. The mechanized threshers were huge labor and time savers, but not all farmers could afford to buy them. So they shared the machines and in the work associated with using them with friends and neighbors.

Threshing Day was a major event in rural Iowa between 1870 and 1930 with as many as 30 or more men and as many horses gathered on a farm to do the job, with such titles as “engineer,” “separator man,” or “water hauler.” Children often were allowed to help by carrying jugs of drinking water to the workers, or if old enough, drive the water wagon. Women and girls worked in the kitchen preparing the threshers dinner.

As one Iowa farmer said in a letter in 1856 to his relatives back East, “I have been a thrashing this week. Harvesting we had [115] bushels wheat. they use thrashing machines here. it requires 8 horses and ten men to tend them and will thrash from 3 to 5 hundred bus [bushels] a day. they put me in mind of a cotton hopper but make a heap more noise and its a right smart machine.”

Dave Hauge (left), a Living History Farms worker in Des Moines, Iowa, holds a shock of oats cut and bound by a horse-drawn reaper in August 2022. Josh Grabner (seated on reaper) is working a summer intern at Living History Farms. (Rox Laird/Courthouse News)

On the August demonstration day at Living History Farms, there were roughly a dozen workers and volunteers helping out.

Among them was Bob Nesselroad, who was standing on the back of Nick Foster’s steam tractor, keeping a blazing fire going in the fire box, which registered 700 degrees at one point, and regularly oiling moving parts on the iron behemoth. Either wood or coal could be used for fuel.

Threshing Day would begin early in the morning, with the engineer firing up the steam engine to build pressure in the boiler that creates steam to power the piston that drives the fly wheel. Throughout the day, water had to be hand-pumped from a well into a water wagon to refill the steam engine boiler, which could consume a thousand gallons a day, according to Foster. A steam whistle on the boiler signaled the water hauler for more water or for other needs depending on the number or duration of whistle blasts.

A threshers dinner was served at the 1900s farmhouse consisting of ham, scalloped potatoes, cucumber salad, green beans, apple cake and custard pie prepared and served by Living History Farms staff. In the 19th century, women prepared dinner for the men working in the field. Then, the steam whistle might call the men back to the field where they were at it often until after dark.

Like all historic periods, steam powered threshing eventually disappeared.

Nick Foster of Jefferson, Iowa, stands on his antique steam tractor at a threshing demonstration in August 2022 at Living History Farms in Des Moines, Iowa. (Rox Laird/Courthouse News)

“Technology and crop choices put an end to communal threshing,” Leo Landis, state curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa told Courthouse News. “Threshing oats was necessary as long as horses were the power supply on the farm. As tractors came into common use in the 1920s and combines were developed in the 1930s, it became more affordable and practical to own a combine. It cut, threshed and separated the oats or wheat.”

Thus, it “combined” all three processes.

Also, Landis said, “the need for productivity in World War II, and the aging out of older farmers in the 1940s meant fewer and fewer farmers used horses.”

Living History Farms workers and volunteers in Des Moines, Iowa, prepare to put shocks of oats onto a conveyor belt on the threshing machine that will separate the oats from chaff in August 2022. (Rox Laird/Courthouse News)

The number of tractors increased by 100,000 from 1940 to 1950 in Iowa, Landis said, quoting from a federal agricultural census. Horses declined by over 875,000 animals in the 20 years from 1930-1950.

Today, one farmer using a diesel-powered combine that might be steered by satellite GPS can do the work of 30 men and 30 horses in a few short hours.

Something has been lost in the sights, sounds and smells of Threshing Day, however.

“There was something fascinating about the steam engine,” an Iowa man wrote about his experience as a 10-year-old boy in 1916 working with his father on a threshing crew. “The combined odor of coal, water, steam, heat, and oil produced a fragrance hard to forget. The engine seemed alive and breathing. The racheting of the oiler, the governor with its tiny belt, and the push and pull of the cylinder built a beautiful picture in the memory. Its power was quiet and uniform.”

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