Gone from use is the old-fashioned threshing machine together with the crew of sweating men, who worked amidst great clouds of chaff and dust to separate the grain from the straw. But back then what a time and labour saver it was over the cradle would flail that had to be used when Colonel Talbot first opened up his settlement here! Ordinarily, the flail would knock out seven or eight bushels of wheat in a ten-hour day. There still remained the job of winnowing, where a considerable percentage of the grain was lost in the chaff and straw.
Steam-engine threshing was a job that required the help and cooperation of most of the farmers in the neighbourhood. The thresher would usually have it planned so he could go down the road with his chugging engine, going from one farm to the next. The farmer knew if he was not ready then that it would probably be quite a time before he could get the machine back to do his job.
In busy seasons the thresher might only get home on week-ends. He would stay overnight and be up about four am. to get a “head of steam” up before breakfast. His bed that night would usually be made up with grey blankets, as he had neither time nor place to have a bath. Breakfast the next morning would be a hearty meal of porridge, meat, potatoes and hot biscuits or pancakes served with maple syrup.
It was the farmer’s responsibility to have ready a huge pile of fire-wood sometimes supplemented with soft coal, and a large tank kept filled with water in order to make steam for the power. The steam-engine was then joined to the separator by a long flapping belt, a whistle sounded and all was ready. This whistle could mean many things: one short “ready to start”, two short “need more water”, and one long that they were finished and ready to move on to the next farm.
For the threshing some of the men were placed according to their experience and ability to do the job well. One of the most important tasks was on the feeder, the sheaves must be fed at a steady pace, not too slow or not too fast. If the separator became plugged then the whole works was shut down. Precious time would be wasted digging out the machine before they could proceed.
Another job that required skill was the handling of the straw. One man ran the blower from the machine while another was busy on the stack. Together they would build a perfect stack that must be weather-proof to preserve the straw for later use. If, after a few rains, the stack turned green the farmer would know that he had a poor thresher, his machine had let much of the grain go out of the blower.
Two hefty men tended the grain. They carried it by bushels to the bins where another man was kept busy shoveling it back. Those bushels had to be kept counted since the thresher was to be paid so much per bushel, the wheat, oats, beans, etc. each being a different price.
There were many hair-raising experiences with threshing in those days, but for all that, there were few accidents. The thresher was in command. There was no smoking on the job and no drinking, except for the cool drink of water that one of the youngsters brought around from a nearby spring, served from a pail with a dipper. What a welcome drink that was to those thirsty men!
For the farmer’s wife it was a busy time too. Preparing food over a hot wood-stove for ten to twelve men, usually for two meals, wasn’t easy. No matter how tight money was at that time her meals had to be the very best. One of the first questions a wife would ask her husband when he came home from threshing was, “What did Mrs. So and So serve for meals?” Each woman tried to outdo the other.
She would start preparing the food the day before, making her bread, applesauce, cakes, tarts and cookies. From her garden came the tomatoes and cucumbers for slicing, beets for pickles, potatoes for mashing and vegetables for creaming. The roast was in the oven at day-break on threshing day so it could be removed long enough for the pies to be freshly baked. She would then pop the meat back into the oven where it would be kept warm and get nicely browned.
Before coming in to eat the men washed up, as best they could, outside on the porch. Here there were big wash tubs filled with warm water, plenty of soap (sometimes home-made) and roller towels hanging from the clothes line.
What a sign of relief the wife must have given when she saw the last man finishing his dinner! But then there was that huge pile of dishes still to be done (no dishwashers then) and perhaps even another meal to prepare before that day was over.
The threshing season would start about the middle of July and run until nearly Christmas, if it happened to be a wet late fall. The thresher never had a holiday. Even if it rained the time was spent greasing, oiling, tightening loose belts, checking a hot boxing etc. The thresher tended his machine like something human, seeming to listen to its very breath and heart beat.
That was an era that will not soon be completely forgotten. For each farmer it was a time when the neighbours joined together for one cause, a time of joking over a well-laid table, and a time of thanksgiving for another harvest completed. Then, there was always tomorrow of course, when they would have to empty out the old straw-bed mattresses and fill them again for another year.
This story of threshing was told to us by Ellen Smith, wife of a thresherman John Smith, formerly of Morpeth. Other threshers of the area that one might remember are: Otis Woods, the Earlys, John Dell and Smith Ransom.