The Good Old Days of Steam Bundle Threshing
That was the most wonderful way in the world to harvest. To bind and thresh and haul the sacks with grain teams to the sack warehouses beside the steam railroads.
It looked so good to see that threshing outfit in the setting out in that big field of grain shocks. I always thought a shocked field of grain was one of the most magnificent and thrilling sights there was with those rows upon rows of shocks marching in beauty and dignity over rolling hills, golden in the sunlight.
To see that grand steam engine laying back in the long one hundred and seventy-five foot drive belt turning the many wheels and pulleys and belts of the magnificent grain separator with its extended feeder and high-flung blower building a great golden, fragrant straw stack while the steam engine was melodiously huffing, chuffing the most beautiful thrilling music amid the pleasant hum of the separator (alternating we would hear the sounds of these two great grand machines as we approached them on our saddle horses as we rode over the golden stubble fields “to watch the thresher run,”) and cascading a column of sweet-scented straw smoke high in the summer sky, while teams and pitchers and bundle wagons moved along the rows of shocks in the field, bringing the grain-laden bundles into the every-hungry thresher and its singing engine while the water buck strung out across the field with six or eight head of horses snaking out in front of his water wagon with leather lines to bridles of his horses glittering in the sun. The cookhouse wagon setting up on the side hill some place, smoke pouring from its cook stove and smoke-pipe, while busy cooks inside were getting meals ready for thirty or forty hungry harvesters.
The roustabout and hack and team would be off for groceries, fresh meat at the village store and the separate butcher shop. Axle grease, thresher oil, cup grease and crank pin and steam cylinder oil, new pitch forks (three-tined bundle forks,) harness rivets, harness leather, rubber packing for the hand-holes of the engine’s boiler, or spiral packing for its tireless piston rod, or a new water gauge glass perhaps. What ever it was he, the roustabout, that indispensable man, and his team and buggy got it!
The busy sack sewers in the “dog house” alongside the threshing machine, flashing their sharp needles and with fragrant linen twine dropping double half-hitches over the ears of fragrant new grain sacks faster than the eye could follow, then sewing up tight, even, neatly spaced stitches across the top of the jigged sacks of grain, pouring from the separator at a tremendous rate, smoothly and evenly done and flipped up to the knee and carried (135 pounds) to the five-high sack pile faster that it takes to tell it by wonderful bib-overalled men in blue shirts and red or blue bandanas around their necks and wearing gunny sacks laced around their overall legs to keep them from wearing out by all the rubbing of the heavy grain sacks on their knees; around two thousand sacks in a twelve-hour day being put out by some of the big efficiently run outfits of the Palouse.
There were usually a few men and visiting children lounging on the luxurious comfort of the sack pile resting a few minutes, joking, laughing and talking so cheerfully and well as only happy harvesters cold so well do. While there might be a few lay visitors, mothers, or awed town curious people come to see the great threshers run.
Up on the vibrant high steel deck of the great thresher, watching and caring expertly for it was the separator tender, watching the feeding of the machine as the bundle drivers and spike-pitchers flipped a steady stream of grain bundles, be they heavy fall wheat, or lighter spring wheat, or barley, or oats, or rarely a little rye or flax, from wagons on either side of the evenly and slowly moving chain slatted feeder to the devouring whirling or oscillating knives cutting fragrant binder twine and spreading out the grain in an even layer before it disappeared inside to be separated, grain from chaff and straw, between stationary concaves and whirling cylinder teeth, then flowing out onto internal oscillating vibrating, shaking straw racks, sifting the flow of kernels down onto the series of oscillating sieves where the fan housing blew away the chaff and the glean grain flowed into the spiraling augers to be carried up the high Dakota elevators and down spouted to the bagger and the sack sewers, while the beautiful undulating hum of the blower poured a splendid arching golden stream of straw onto the stack!
Occasionally the separator tender would adjust the blower at the control wheels, moving it to right or left, or telescoping, or raising or lowering it to make a well formed, rain resistant straw stack of good symmetrical form for any rancher or thresherman to take pride in! He’d also be watching boxing for possible “hot boxes” on that laboring, mighty machine. The oilier would be down below, walking around, carefully attending to oil holes on pulley shafting and grease cups on heavy, rapidly revolving journals. Should a belt be slipping a little, the separator tender could be seen “putting on a little belt dressing,” or, maybe he would be pouring a cooling stream of water on a “hot box” or brushing chaff and dust from some separator sill. At noon shut down, or quartering time when men stopped a few minutes to eat a sandwich brought out by the cooks, or at closing down after the days run, the separator tender could be seen loosening belts for the night or lacing them expertly as needed, and looking over the machine.
A little white plume of steam from the engine’s safety valve near the whirling governor balls and very little smoke from the stack showed the fireman was an expert on firing with straw and keeping up steam, holding his water level in the boiler, meeting continuously the demands of that racing, pulsing steam cylinder piston, crosshead, cranking connecting arm and flashing crank disc and smoothly rolling fly wheel for power, power, power to meet demands of that every hungry, humming, laboring thresher at the other end of that long, swaying, sawing, graceful drive belt!
Yes, those were the grand and glorious harvest days of yore we knew so well thrilled to their pageantry, and love with all our hearts and souls; and sorrowed forever after, after at their passing, attacked and driven out by the usurping, smelly, clattering, ugly, unromantic, ubiquitous, “pip squeak” gas engine. Which had it never been invented, we would not have lost that best-of-all ways of life— the age of horses and steam power. They were made for each other— the harmony of draft horses and steam engines and happy lusty crews of men working together to bring all that joy we used to know.
Oh, give us the days of steam, of horses, of binding and threshing, grain hauling once again; and plowing with big plow teams of seven to twenty head of horses, depending on the location. Horses pulling harrows, disks, grain drills, mowers, rakes, corn planters, corn cultivators, wagons, buggies, road graders, road drags, garden cultivators, and lawn mowers.
Yes, our farm life, the way Dad and Mom and uncles and aunts, grandparents and neighbors ran their farms in those days was most wonderful land good; and I’m so grateful and glad we got to grow up in that true rural way of life and in that most beautiful of al natural lands—nothing like nature and farming on those canyon ridges and high rolling plains amid pleasant small canyons and deep awesome canyons and sheltering, surrounding evergreen mountains, of unspoiled nature, coursed by great rivers and smaller creeks and streams and springs everywhere. The best of climates and the rich loamy Palouse silt loam soil that can’t be equaled. The most desirable country on all the earth, extending roughly from Pendleton, Oregon eastward to the Lolo Pass, northward from Spokane, Washington and south to about Cascade, Idaho. The mighty Inland Empire to me! Your Utah director of W. S. F. A., but who was really never weaned away from that wondrous land to the north! A hearty “hello” to all you fellow friends!