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Sage District Farm: Chapter 8

Chapter 8 – Threshing Day

Monday morning dawned clear and cool. The clearness would hopefully stay with us but the coolness would be replaced by the heat of the sun as it rose higher in the sky. Morning chores done, Jack and Dick, after tow starting the Studebaker, loaded the milk and immediately left on the milk run.  Dugal, Sally, Alex and I headed for the garden to pick corn and tomatoes for canning.

At this point I must interrupt my story and plead a memory glitch. I will tell this part of the story as I recall it as a nine or ten year old boy. While looking up some facts pertaining to oat harvesting, I started remembering more of the procedure that I had neglected to include. The reaper had cut the oats about a week before threshing day. This allowed the oat grains to dry and ripen to facilitate the threshing process. The bundles of oats were gathered and stacked in bundles of three with one bundle laid across the top to act as a water shed in the event of rain. After the passage of three or four days everyone would gather for threshing day.

So, as it were: Our oats were cut and stacked and ready to be threshed, tomorrow was the big day when the local farmers would come with their teams and wagons and all work together to git ‘er done. We didn’t have a very large oat field so we figured to be done well before night chores. For today there were the usual activities, principally canning. Whatever was in the garden that would provide nourishment through the winter went into a jar and was processed on the wood burning kitchen stove. The hottest day of summer was no deterrent to the canning job.

It didn’t take too long for Dugal, Alex and I to slip off to the shady side of the barn in search of a breeze. I felt a little guilty thinking about Mom, Sally, and Thelma still in the kitchen (but not too much). After all, in those days “women’s work” was women’s work and we men folks had other things to do. Believe me we would all three, pay for that philosophical outlook many times over during our lifetimes. Times HAVE CHANGED.

Eventually we had cooled off enough to wander back toward the house. Dick and Jack had returned from the milk run and were busy inspecting the oats and the water level down in Sage Creek, along with a few other things that would keep them away from that hot box of a kitchen. The big problem was that we were all getting kinda hungry and the only place we knew of where there was food was in the garden or in the kitchen.  Mom looked at us when we walked in.

“Did you get lost between here and the garden?” she asked sweetly. “I’m glad you’re back and just in time too. You boys have got to make four dozen biscuits and four loaves of bread as long as the stove is hot. That will save us a lot of time tomorrow when the men are here. Sally has made bread and biscuits before so you will do as she tells you. I will be right here to so there better not be any problems.”

Three rather crestfallen young men looked pleadingly at their mother and one of them softly said, “Please mom, we’re hungry.” With just a touch of sarcasm she said, “Eat a tomato and get to work.”

Well, yes indeed, Sally knew the fundamentals of bread and biscuit making so with a little supervision from mom and a lot of superior bossiness from Sally, we sweated our way through measuring and mixing flour, lard, salt, baking soda to produce the required number of biscuits.

As the first pan of golden brown fluffy biscuits came out of the oven mom relented a little, “You may each have one.”

“With strawberry jam?” we shouted.

“Yes,” She replied with a smile.

Bread making was a different matter than simple biscuits. Mom took a much more active part in this effort. In an attempt to prepare us for adulthood, even though we were “MEN” she wisely explained what and why things were done in a certain way: mix and set the sponge (Yeast, sugar salt, flour and warm water) and let it set until the yeast started making bubbles and filling the kitchen with the unmistakable aroma of home made bread.

I seem to recall something about saving the water the potatoes had been cooked in for bread making. This time though we did not have any potato water so we used the well water.  At the proper time it seemed like half a barrel of flour was dumped into the biggest bowl we had and an awful lot of mixing took place for a few minutes.

“Take a break” and out the door we all went. It must have been at least 90 degrees out side but it actually felt cool after being in that kitchen. We all walked down to the end of the driveway to the well and pump, under the big yard maple.

Taking turns with the dipper we all enjoyed a cool drink of water and then the boys took turns holding their heads under the water spout while someone else pumped the water.  Oh, did that ever feel, good!

Somewhat refreshed, back to the house we trooped. More work to be done. The canning was pretty much done for the day so Dugal, Alex and I were told to take all the tomato peels, corn husks and cobs along with any other food scraps out to the pigs. Mom and Sally would finish the bread baking while we cleaned up the canning mess. After that we “MEN” would be excused to go swimming at the creek and bring the cows up from the pasture on the way home.

Little did we know of the activity that Jack and Dick had been up to. A few miles away to the west was a larger stream called Deer Creek, and just off the road was an abandoned gravel pit that was now part of Deer Creek.  It had been a hot and dry summer so the creeks were quite low. This caused the fish to congregate in the deeper pools and that gravel pit certainly qualified as a “deeper pool”.

Dick always made sure to have survival gear near at hand so he was able to rig a couple of fish poles with the line and hooks he had in the truck.  By flipping over stones on the stream bank where the soil was damp, he procured fish worms and crickets for bait.

The fish evidently had been trapped in this pool for a few days and were ravenous.

Each cast with the smallest piece of bait imaginable on the hook produced an instant strike and up would come a very nice seven to nine inch bull head. Just the right size for the big black iron skillet.

“Supper comin’ up” yelled Dick as he pulled in one.  Jack whooped, “I’ve got another one too.  A quick count showed an even dozen on the grass.

“Let’s not over do it” said Dick.  “We might want to come back next week for some more.”

“Good thinking” replied Jack.  “We will stop at twenty, which will be plenty for everyone, including mom.”

It’s funny but an almost exact repeat of this fish story happened just about a year later to Dugal and I. We, of course didn’t drive but we did walk to the Deer Creek gravel pit with our fish poles. The results were very similar.

The water was low and the fish were hungry and biting. We had bait with us and soon had all the fish we wanted. As we started to leave I noticed, sitting on the edge of the water the biggest bull frog I had ever seen.

Quickly I put a very small piece of worm on the tip of my hook and dangled it directly in front of “Jeremiah”. His tongue went WHACK and he was mine. I quickly gave him a resounding whack on the head to prevent his suffering and into the feed sack he went. That was a special treat for mom that night. She did dearly love frog legs and fish.

Dick and Jack gathered up their gear and fish, jumped into the truck and headed home to clean the fish before chore time. When they arrived home the bread was just coming out of the oven and it was a little too hot to cut so they cleaned the fish first.  Mom was tickled pink to see that mess of fish.

“Sweet corn, sliced tomatoes and fried bull heads, you can’t beat that for supper” said Mom.

“Don’t forget the fresh bread” added Dick as he reached for the bread knife to cut a slab.

I always thought it peculiar that we liked to visit our cousins in Pulaski because they had store bought sliced bread and they used to like to come to our house because we always had home made bread. They had many other food items that we did not have; Peanut butter was a rarity at our house. Mayonnaise, sliced bologna, cheese and even butter were unknowns to us.  Soda (Coke, Pepsi, Hires, Seven-up) was nothing but words that had no meaning or identification to us. Lack of that which we did not know about, did not bother us. The term that comes to mind was, “Fat, dumb and happy”, but we weren’t fat or dumb …

Slab of bread in hand, Dick looked out the window to see the cows coming up the lane with the three musketeers with stick swords battling along behind. “Chore time,” he announced and headed out the door.

Once again mom excused herself a little early from chores with the suggestion that the three youngsters could help finish up. I have to admit that Alec was an unusual worker. I do believe that if we had wanted to, we could have sat down and watched him do all the work by himself. He was usually quiet, serious and dedicated to whatever the task at hand.

When all was done, we headed for the house. Quickly we washed up and sat down at the table. There was a veritable feast laid out before us. A heaping platter of fried fish still smoking hot from the pan, nicely steamed ears of corn, a plate of sliced red ripe tomatoes, a plate of fresh slabs of bread with a jar of strawberry preserves A jar of home made chili sauce replaced the bottle of ketchup that we never had (or missed).

All in all, it had been quite a day. Much had been accomplished and we were in good shape for the big day tomorrow. Dishes out of the way and the kitchen neatened up it was time for the radio and a little relaxation. I had read everything in the house that had print on it so I had to be content to listen to the Lone Ranger with the rest of them.

I asked Dick and Jack if they could get some old “Street and Smith” paper back books from their friends that liked to read the pulpers (dime novels). I received an affirmative grunt and a “yeah” as the program had started and there were to be no more interruptions.

After the show ended, even though it was not yet real dark, I headed up the stairs to bed. It had been a long day and I was tired out. There were no left over fish as mom ate the last one and smiled. Life was good.

We were all up early the next morning, when I suddenly realized that DG had not come home as scheduled. This was not terribly unusual as he frequently was asked to fill in a vacancy on a shift. Always willing to pick up the extra pay, he would accept the additional assignment. The problem was that without a telephone or other means of communication there was no way to let us know what was going on. We could only wait and see when he would show up. One thing was for sure, He would be very tired.

Morning chores had to be done, the milk had to be taken to Pulaski, chickens had to be killed (increased to four) along with innumerable little side jobs that would crop up. So we went right at it. By the time the cows were let out to pasture Jack and Dick were well on their way with the milk run and the rest of us headed for the house for a quick bite of breakfast. The timing worked out well as the older boys returned in the Studebaker at the same time Jim, the owner/operator, of the threshing machine arrived.

The tractor was, I believe a John Deere with a big side mounted belt drive pulley. I don’t remember if the tractor was on rubber but the threshing monster was on steel wheels and quite noisy on the black top roads. A short meeting between mom, Jack, Dick and Jim determined where the rig was to be set up, where the straw would be blown to and where the sacks of oats would be placed.

This accomplished Jim and Jack started positioning the thresher and the tractor so the power belt would be in good alignment (to prevent run-offs). Dick went to the chicken coop to select four chickens taking Dugal with him for a helper. Hopefully they would select chickens that were slowing down on the egg production instead of good layers. I went into the barn and brought out the good feed bags that would be filled with the oats and placed them on the bag rack by the grain discharge pipe.  Once filled, Jim would quickly tie them off and set them aside.

Each teamster with a load of oats would drive up to the thresher, stopping his wagon in a position so that he could fork the bundles of oats into the feed hopper. This needed to be done in an even distribution to prevent clogging the machine. The feed had to be interrupted to allow Jim to tie off and replace the bags as they filled. The whole job at the machine side was hot, terribly dusty and so noisy it hurt your ears (no OSHA then).

The straw was blown into a pile where it would remain until the first opportunity to transport it to the barn loft. By now the neighbors with their teams and wagons were arriving and getting organized. Dick and Dugal returned from the chicken mission and I reported to mom in the kitchen to help her and Sally with the garden produce, water hauling and any other chores that I could help with. Dick was designated to stay with Jim and tend the machine and Jack would take his place driving Tom and Jerry while Dugal helped as a loader. A couple of farmers had brought hired men with them so we ended up with sufficient manpower to accomplish the job.

Jim decided we were ready to go so he sent the teams to the oat field to start hauling grain.

“Kinda space the loads out a bit, so they don’t jam up,” he said with a grin. “We wantta make ‘er last until after lunch. I hear we’re having chicken ‘n biscuits.”

As the caravan of rigs headed out through the meadow he started tinkering and adjusting various knobs, levers and controls on the tractor. Finally he grasped the flywheel, and with a grunt gave it a mighty twist. He did get a faint pop and a puff of exhaust smoke. Again he repeated the effort with the same results. He adjusted the choke setting and tweaked the throttle and tried again. This time he got two or three half hearted pops and an ALMOST start.

“Once more” he grunted and sure enough with the traditional hit and miss firing rhythm of a John Deere it was running. “We’ll let ‘er warm up a bit then smooth ‘er out”, he said to Dick as he increased the throttle setting a little more. Soon the engine seemed to be settling down to a fairly even throbbing beat with no load on it.

“Time to twist ‘er tail”, said Jim as he reached for the big lever that would engage the drive pulley. “Watch that belt don’t run off and hit you. If she let’s go, just get out of the way. We can put ‘er back on quick enough. Just don’t get hurt.” With that said, he started easing the lever forward.

The strain on the engine was immediately noticeable and as the belt started to tremble and creep the monster seemed to be coming to life. Clanks, groans, slaps jingles and bangs, whirrs and clunks and DUST.

“Smooth as silk”, Jim shouted and grinned. “Guess we’re ready to make oats.”

Just as he said that the first wagon appeared around the corner of the barn and pulled up to the unloading spot. “Feed ’em in easy at first, ’til we get in the swing of it.” Shouted Jim with a nod to the driver.

As the first few bundles passed under the feed flails the noise and dust increased as expected.

“Keep ’em coming, we are doing OK.”

The fist straws started coming out of the straw pipe and the oat bag showed that it was getting the oats. With a nod from Jim the driver increased the speed of his unloading. The machine made more noise and dust but took the strain in stride.

“BAG”, shouted Jim and the driver stopped feeding while the filled bag was tied off and replaced with an empty one.

“OK” and they were running again.

Dick grabbed the full bag of oats and carried it up to the barn floor out of the weather and continued walking around the set up looking for potential problems (mostly the belt wandering on the pulleys). A big iron crowbar had been driven into the ground where the belt crossed itself to reverse direction of the drive. This also lent a stabilizing effect as a belt guide.

Needless to say things were going better than was anticipated. The teams were arriving at decent intervals so there was no time lost waiting for oats. I had been sent out with a couple of jugs of cool switzel for the thirsty, dusty men to refresh themselves. It was hot, dirty repetitious work so I will not bore you with the details.

We eventually made it to lunch time and shut the machine down. The drivers had timed their trips so that we ended up with one load ready for the start up. Each driver looked after his team with water and an oat bag before heading for the well to wash up and cool down. They expected the kitchen to be hot and they were not disappointed.

That old kitchen stove had just been pouring out the BTUs all morning. The table with all the extra chairs and planks on saw horses enabled us to seat the whole crew at once. There wasn’t much extra room but with good nurtured elbowing and lots of laughing they all fit in.

Mom, Sally and I were the wait staff busily carrying dishes, shuffling pots and pans, bring water or whatever was needed or wanted, Big bowls of chicken and gravy were placed within easy reach and piles of biscuits strategically located, Platters of golden sweet corn, plates of sliced tomatoes, pickles and relishes along with the ever present chili sauce. Two large bowls of mashed potatoes were there for those who wanted them and piles of home made bread and preserves were not lacking. Setting on the pantry broad shelf cooling off were several fruit pies made from yellow transparent apples, blueberries and rhubarb.

No one got up from the table feeling hungry, that was for sure. In fact, that was probably the best meal some of them had eaten in several days. Most of them would like to have taken a little nap but that was not on the agenda.

After a few minutes more of joking and conversation Jim stood up and announced, “Back at it, boys” and out they went.

Mom, Sally and I collapsed in the nearest chairs and ruefully surveyed the disaster area that faced us. I never realized we owned this many dishes, pots, pans, tubs and flatware, all in need of washing, rinsing and drying before being put away until Silo-Filling Day in October.

There were no options, so with a sigh mom said, “We might as well get at it and get it over with. Rod you get the slop pail out and start scraping dishes for the pigs. Mind you don’t dump any forks, knives or spoons.”

The dish pan and rinse pan both sat right on the stove with a very low fire a couple of cookie sheets were placed on the cooler side of the stove to stack the dishes until they could be wiped and put away. A small table held the scraped dishes until they went into the dish pan. Mom handled the washing, rinsing and placing on the cookie sheets. Sally was the dryer and stacked the dishes on the wiped down table. I took the buckets of slops out to the pigs and they enjoyed their threshing day dinner. Boy, how they did crunch through those chicken bones and corn cobs.

In the meantime the oat operation was going full blast, things running smoothly when DG’s model “A” pulled into the driveway. He sat there for a minute or two just taking in the sight of the thresher and all the activity. You could tell he was exhausted just from his appearance.

He opened the car door and got out, slowly walking towards the house a deep yawn attesting to his condition. Mom opened the door and said, “Welcome stranger, come, sit, there is a bit left if you are hungry.”

“I might just do that.Then I have to see what I can do to help out there.”

Mom smiled and said, “I think you will be surprised. I talked with Jim at lunch and he assured me things would be all done by three or three thirty. Oats are yielding fair to middling. We should have enough for the horses, chickens and ourselves, if need be. You might want to stop out and say hello to Jim and then I would suggest you get a couple hours of sleep. I’m sure he will agree with me.”

She placed a plate of food in front of him and urged him to “Dig in.” He did.

Finishing his lunch he arose from the table and made his way out the door. As he approached the machine he noticed Jim motion for Dick to come over where he was to take over for him.

Dick had been observing and filling in on occasion so he was capable of handling the job. Together Jim and DG walked a few steps away so they could talk without shouting.

“Man, you look like death warmed over”, Said Jim with a smile. “I think you better get a little shut-eye before you go down in a heap.”

“I’d really like to help out here if I could, gotta get these oats in,” DG said. “Don’t you worry none. With this crew and those boys of yours we will have them all taken care of real soon. That Jack is handy with those wild horses of yours. They were pretty skittish first time up to the machine but he held them real close until Dick went up, held their bridles and calmed them down while Jack off loaded the oats. After that they were ok. You go on in now, we will settle up in a couple of days, OK?”

DG nodded and said “OK, I guess you’re the boss on this crew, see you later.”

Back in the house we were just finishing up the dishes, pots and pans and sweeping the floor. The kitchen looked fairly presentable considering what it had looked like an hour ago. DG headed through his bedroom door and asked to be awakened for supper. Sally and I eagerly stepped out the door into the relative coolness of the fresh air,

“Busy day, huh? Yeah, I’m beat.”

We walked slowly out towards the machinery and clouds of dust.

“Ugh” said Sally, “that hot kitchen was almost better than this.”

We stood as much up wind as we could to avoid most of the dust. The pile of straw looked like gold in the sun with a little green from the ragweed mixed in. The timing was good the last three wagon loads were coming up through the meadow and as each was emptied the drivers waved and started down the road for their home farms. They knew that Jim would keep them informed of the next threshing event on the schedule.

As soon as Jack finished unloading the wagon he drove it around to where it was usually parked. He unhitched Tom and Jerry and drove them to their stalls. Cool fresh water was the first order of business along with a few oats as a reward. Off came the harnesses which were properly hung on pegs.

Grabbing an old feed bag he briskly rubbed both horses down and climbed to the hay loft to dump some fresh hay into the mangers. Proper care of the horses was one of the most important jobs a man could do on the farm at that time.

Jim had shut the machine off and was breaking down the rig for transport. Dick was rolling up the belt and Dugal was securing blow pipes and beater bars. The boys were hurrying a little because in the back of their heads they were figuring on a quick trip to the swimming hole on Deer Creek before chores. Poor Sally was not to be invited as this was a boys swimming hole (skinny dipping only).

Restarting the tractor, Jim jockeyed it around until it was in position to hook up the thresher. Dick coupled the units together and reached out to shake hands with Jim.

“Thanks for the training session”, he said with a grin.

Jim grinned right back at him and said, “If you ever want a job, come see me.”

With a wave to the rest of us he let out the clutch and the noisy dusty monster, started on the road to home. We headed for the Studebaker and the swimming hole. Sally would tell mom where we were headed (grudgingly of course)

This was basically what oat threshing day consisted of. More often than not, it was a day filled with frustration, broken equipment, sprains and bruises, run away teams, broken belts and the threat of rain.

The threshing dinner was surpassed only by the Silo Filling dinner as it was a little cooler then and there was the possibility that there would be some fresh venison or maybe some fresh beef or pork chops.

After the quick swim, chores were done a bite of supper was eaten. A little relaxation and a general review of the day’s events brought the day to an early close. Several times in the past few days I had heard the word “school” mentioned. September was almost upon us. Time to think about wearing shoes again, also shirts.

My usual attire in the summer was a pair of raggedy shorts. I did truly hate the thought of corduroy knickers that whistled when you walked. Maybe, I had outgrown them and they would get passed down to Alex. I could only hope!

Next: Chapter 9 – The School


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