Volume I, No. 4, Summer 1974
The yearly job of threshing grain has always been a cooperative effort of men swapping work in the fields and at the separator and women cooking for the men when the owner of the machines would pull into the neighborhood. Very early man's ingenuity discovered more efficient means of separating the grain from the straw than beating it out by hand.
An early method was a small separator powered by a horse or mule on a tread mill. Although faster than by hand, very little grain could be threshed in a day by this method.
Soon bigger, more efficient separators came into use which required more power. Ellis Wedge remembers his father telling about using ten horses for power to operate a separator such as he later powered with steam.
The horses in five teams, one in front of the other, were hitched to a pole which turned gears and a tumbling rod attached to the cyclinder shaft of the separator. The horses were handled by a man in the middle on a platform. The teams walked in circles stepping over the tumbling rod.
The first steam engines that came to the Ozarks about 1894 for use in threshing were called bull and tongue, requiring oxen or horses to move them from place to place. Ellis' father, Charley, unloaded the first traction engine in the county in 1898. The arrival of the self-powered traction engines ushered in an era that lasted well into the 1930's; 1934 was the last year Ellis operated his steam engine to thresh. He was then economically forced to go to gasoline and diesel powered engines, though he much preferred steam.
Gasoline tractors could move faster from place to place; steam engines would only go about two to two and a half miles an hour. The cost of labor increased. The four men it took to operate a steam engine and separator was reduced to two men for gasoline power. People stopped getting the wood needed for steam because gasoline was cheaper, only 7 1/2¢ a galloon in 1932 and diesel fuel was 6¢, Ellis remembers.
Then in the early fifties people stopped threshing in this area altogether. Ellis explained that the government paid farmers not to raise wheat during the times of huge wheat surpluses, resulting in not enough business to pay Ellis and others to operate the big machines. Farmers were put on wheat allotments based on a percentage of their usual acreage. The grain fields in the Ozarks were always small, eight, ten, or twenty acre fields usually. Most of the grain raised was for the farmer's own consumption. With acreage further reduced, some to five acres or less, the cost of equipment to raise grain and the effort involved made it impractical.
Most farmers quit raising any grain. The independent nature of the farmers was that if the government was going to tell them how much they could raise, they'd raise something else.
The ones who did want to continue raising grain tried using combines. Threshing machines had continued to operate in the Ozarks long after combines replaced them on the western fields. Ellis tried combines, but he said, "A combine will never be successful in this country. It is too damp here. Your grain won't dry out." The heads of grain must be completely dry to thresh. In the Ozarks the grain standing on the stalk would not be dry enough to combine often until late in the day. The grain needed to be cut and shocked to dry out thoroughly. Today very little grain is raised in the Ozarks.
"If I was to thresh today," Ellis said, "I wouldn't know how to go out and thresh for people. I wouldn't know how to charge them to make any money at 50¢ a gallon for gas. In 1934 I charged 10¢ a bushel for wheat. Years before my father did it 2¢ for oats and 3¢ for wheat. On a good day I'd thresh an average of 1000 bushels. I have threshed 2000 bushels a day beginning as soon as you could get in the fields and thresh as long as you could see. But I never even thought of threshing on Sunday. I did it one time only and Preacher Patterson said no man would ever go wrong with that I done that Sunday. After a long wet spell, we, got to threshing at my place on Saturday. We lacked just a few wagons finishing on Saturday and before a rain come up Sunday morning, I cleaned off those wagons."
The separators improved over the years as did more efficient means of power. Before the self-feeder became standard equipment on separators, the bundles were fed in by hand, requiring four men--two at a time and two men to relieve them for a man couldn't stand more than an hour at a time feeding into the machine. One man cut the band on the bundle and the other pulled the bundles on to the cyclinders and spread out the straw.
Before the machine was equipped to weigh and tally the grain which was released in half bushel amounts, it took three or four men to operate the measuring and sacking of grain. The machine would auger out the grain in a little stream from the separator into the half bushel measure. When this got full, the men slid it out. That tripped a tally box. The men then hand sacked and loaded the grain. In later separators the grain fed into a weigher with a pair of scales which would automatically trip the tally. The machine kept track and dumped the grain into a wagon or sacks whichever was wanted.
"One important thing in running the threshing machine," Ellis explained, "is keeping the people in good humor. One farmer would want to thresh right now and another'd want to thresh right now and I'd have to make a decision which place I went. A lot of people they'd cook for us, you know, and some folks would try to figure out how to keep from cooking. Then sometimes we'd finish one place at eleven o'clock and dinner would be about ready and we'd go to another where they wasn't expecting us. But we couldn't sit around with hands hired and work to do while the weather was right. We'd move on."
Today with drastically reduced grain acreages and high labor costs prohibiting crews of over
twenty men, the thrashing about the Ozarks is done only at special demonstrations and old
threshers conventions where old and young alike gather to remember or experience for the first
time the excitement felt by all when someone yelled, "The threshers are coming!"
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