Volume I, No. 4, Summer 1974
"Hey, kids, the threshers are com-in'!" George hollered at Annie and me. We left our game and raced after him into the house to help break the news. "Papa, Mama, Charley! Hey, Ernie, girls, the threshin' machine jest turned in the front gate!"
After alerting the family that July afternoon in the 1920's the three of us raced back out to the yard gate to watch Sam Davis and the separator man drive their huge steam engine slowly up our lane. Hitched close behind was the gray separator trimmed down now for moving. Dwarfed by the huge machines was the water hauler's wagon far enough behind to keep out of the dust. Papa, Charley and Ernie soon joined us to welcome Sam and help him get the machinery set up for the next days' threshing.
My parents, brothers and sisters and I were all glad Sam had finally come, for the hot, dry weather was perfect for threshing our principal feed and cash crop. But we each watched his approach with different reactions.
Mama hurried into the kitchen to begin the days of cooking. She knew the engine crew would be there for supper and would stay each night until they finished in two or three days. Though probably some of the most arduous days work during the year were ahead of her, she did not think much about it, for she worked hard every day. At least she'd have ample time to visit with her sister-in-law Essie and good neighbor Mrs. Nichols who would help her cook for the twenty men.
My older sisters groaned aloud. Mary was a feminist ahead of her time and complained loudly that we should have to cook for and wait on these men. "Why can't they go home, or bring their own dinners?" she asked. Mama said nothing to such heresy except to send her to the smoke house for a piece of meat for supper.
Papa was greatly relieved to greet Sam. He had worried the past two weeks of wet weather that the shocked wheat might ruin before the threshers got there. He and the boys had already gotten everything ready--the ranks of wood, cut and stacked where he planned to place the engine, the two teams' shoes were tightened, the grain bed put on one wagon and the hay racks on the other. He'd already arranged for the crew, swapping work with the neighbors. He only needed to let them know when Sam came.
That was something Ernie could do. He ran to the kitchen to call on the party line those he could reach. A couple men didn't have phones, so he cranked up the old model T truck to go tell them. Threshing was still exciting to Ernie. Just old enough to be counted as a hand along with the men, he looked forward to the threshing season. Like Mama he enjoyed companionship and he looked forward to working with all the men, but most of all he enjoyed the wonderful dinners served every day. This year Papa said he could follow the thresher in the community as long as there was work. After we repaid the neighbors with our labor, he could work probably three more weeks at a dollar a day.
Charley had the biggest stake in this year's crop. He and Papa put out more than usual so that there would be enough extra for him to begin college. Very anxious to get started, and having worked in threshing crews for several years, he was all seriousness and business, well aware of the long hours of strenuous, uncomfortable work ahead.
My little sister Annie and I saw Sam approaching with unconcealed glee. We never tired of watching the big engine, wondering at the mysterious insides of the separator and eating up the attention we got from all the men. For us the next few days would be one long party, with lots of food and people around all the time. And then there would be that wonderful grain to play in and fresh new straw stacks to slide down. For we were at that wonderful in-between age--too young to have working responsibilities, but old enough to have freedom to come and go as we pleased. Unlike our older sisters Mary and Clara who had to help Mama all the time in the kitchen, and our brothers, who each did a man's work--even George this year had to carry drinking water for all the men--our only jobs were to set the table and wait on the men while they ate. We even liked that, for during dinner, the action was in the kitchen and on the screened porch where the table was. Our greatest worry was that the men would eat up all Aunt Essie's homemade noodles before our time to eat, since we had to wait and eat with the women after all the men had eaten--even after George! I guess I had something of Mary in me, for I surely did dislike waiting on him.
George was especially thrilled to see Sam come. This year Papa stopped treating him as a child and gave him responsibilities. To facilitate his job as water boy he had spent hours rigging up his saddle with a rope carrier to hold a jug of water on either side. He could hardly contain his impatience to begin.
Papa had Sam set up the separator just behind the barn so that the straw would be handy to use next winter in the barn and later on the garden. This year with so much grain, he'd move the machine a couple times, making more than one fresh stack.
The next morning I was awakened by empty wagons rattling down our drive. Long before that Mama had fed Sam and his crew and started dinner. Mrs. Nichols and Aunt Essie were already in the kitchen. Aunt Essie was dressing chickens. Mrs. Nichols had her arms up to her elbows in bread dough while Mama and Mary were making pies. Clara was washing uP the breakfast dishes and spied Annie and me as we started out the screen door.
"Whoa, there, kids. Eat your breakfast." She was always looking out for us.
"Why didn't you wake us?" we asked disappointed that we might have missed something.
"You'll have enough before it is all over."
The heat from the iron wood stove made the kitchen warm even this early in the morning. Mama already had two pies in the oven while Mary was putting the crusts on two more. I like Mama's pies the best the way she made little bird feet designs on the top crust. Mary just made holes any ole place to let the steam escape. "That's good enough for threshers," Mary thought. Mama's pies were made as carefully as always.
Mrs. Nichols had the mountain of dough on the bread board kneeding it. Expertly she rocked back and forth, her arms, hands and body in rhythm as she worked the dough. I watched her fascinated as the dough changed from a floury, lumpy sticky mass to a shiny, smooth satin finish. She gave it a slap or two, testing to see if it was ready, then set it in a big crock to rise, covered it with a cloth and put it out of the way.
Appealing as the kitchen was, the activity outside was more exciting. We'd seen Mama make bread and pies hundreds of times. But the threshing was only once a year and in our young lives that was forever. In our attempt to escape once more through the screen door, we were stopped this time by Mama.
"Put on your bonnets."
I wanted to dress like my brothers, in overalls and straw hat. That still seems to me to be the best way to dress around a threshing machine, but Mama wouldn't allow it.
"Girls don't wear pants," she said firmly. "A sunbonnet will keep out the sun and protect your hair."
"They're too hot," we complained, but didn't win. We left with the bonnets tied under our chins, though it wasn't long before we both had them off. We ran through the barnyard to the threshing machine, the bonnets flying behind us as we hung on to the straps.
Sam had the engine fired with enough pressure built up to turn the separator. He and the separator man unrolled the long belt, put one loop over the pulley at the engine and gave it the needed twist so it wouldn't come off, before slipping the other loop over the pulley on the separator. Sam backed the steam engine just a bit to tighten the belt. He cautiously pushed the lever to turn the pulleys, checking to see if the belt was working. The separator came to life, mumbling and creaking with its innumerable parts moving.
"Okay, she's ready. Let 'er roll," Sam hollered over the noise of the separator. Rather than hearing his words, Charley and Ernie perched high on the wagons loaded with bundles, saw his arm motion and began pitching bundles on to the self-feeder of the separator.
Before this the wagons had been out in the field, one man on the ground pitching up the bundles from the shock as another on the wagon stacked them. When one shock was loaded, the stacker simply clucked his tongue to the experienced team which pulled the wagon, to the next shock. By the time Annie and I got to the field, two wagons were already loaded and waiting one on each side of the separator. With six wagons there would be two wagons unloading, two wagons in the field loading and two on the way, keeping the thresher always supplied. The stackers on the wagons and the pitchers in the field were glad if they got ahead, for it gave them a chance to rest.
As soon as my brothers on the first wagon had finished unloading the bundles one at a time on to the moving belt which carried them into the jaws of the machine, they pulled out. Another wagon pulled up behind them ready to unload. Ernie got a good drink from George's jug of fresh water, before returning to the field for another load.
"Hi kids, wanna ride?"
Annie and I didn't like to ride the bundles wagons even though we usually loved to follow Ernie around. The wagons were bumpy, the field was hot and the stickery bundles too heavy for us. Besides, it was much more interesting at the machine.
"No thanks," I said as we ran over to watch the first flow of wheat into the grain wagon.
Arriving early to bring his wife to help with the cooking, Mr. Nichols was the first to back his wagon to the separator, until enough grain spilled into the wagon to need shoveling to the front, he just leaned against his wagon or hunkered down in the shade of the machine visiting with one of the engine crew. His team hung their heads waiting.
"How's the crop been this year?" he asked over the noise.
"Tolerable. Better'n you'd think considerin' the dry spring and wet harvestin' time," Sam answered.
He grabbed a handful of the golden grain as it spilled out. He rubbed the fat grains together and bit into one. "This here grain is good. Looks of the flow comin' out, I'd reckon this'll make better'n twenty bushels to the acre."
"Hello there, girlies," Mr. Nichols noticed us and smiled a welcome as we knew he would. "You gonna hep me drive my wagon agin this year?"
We climbed in to let the grain flow over our bare legs. We couldn't wait until there was enough grain to play in. We kicked at the little pile and ran our hands into it. Every few minutes about a half bushel of grain would spew out all at once. In between spasms only a trickle would jiggle down the constantly shaking trough from the quaking and trembling machine.
In the mysterious and hidden insides of the separator, the bundles of grain were shaken, the heavy grain separated from the straw and chaff which was blown out the blower pipe at the other end of the long machine. The threshed grain spilled down a movable metal trough into the waiting wagon.
It wasn't long until we had our shoes off wriggling and squirming deep into the cool smooth grain. We lay there buried in grain to let still more grain spill on us.
Mr. Nichols shovelled the grain to the front of his wagon. When it was almost level full, an empty wagon backed beside us. He moved the trough to the other wagon, crawled to his spring seat, and clucked to his team to drive to the granary, Annie and I still with him half buried in the grain. By this time the sun made the top layer hot, but as we burrowed in we felt the smooth coolness of the clean wheat kernels.
He pulled up to the side of the granary, took out the wooden window above him and began shoveling the wheat into the bin which Charley and Ernie had earlier cleaned out. Inside the scoops of grain would rain down, slowly filling the bin. This bin full was what we'd need ourselves for family use. The grain after that would be taken to town in the truck bed to be sold for Charley's college money.
Annie soon made friends with the water hauler, so we rode to the river with him on his next trip after water. He let me put the hose in the river while he filled his tank with a hand pump. It kept one man busy watering the mechanical beast and another man feeding wood into its bowels.
When we got back to the thresher about mid morning, George, just returning to the field with fresh drinking water from the well at the house, told us Mama needed us.
The kitchen was quite hot now with wonderful smells of baked bread, pies, boiling chicken and potatoes all mixed together. We sampled a bit of icing Clara was spreading on a cake before helping Mama prepare the tables on the porch. We put in extra leaves in our dining table and helped bring in the old table out of the smoke house to lengthen it for the extra men.
Covered with fresh oil cloth with designs of strawberries and leaves, we set the elongated table for ten men. We put on toothpicks, seasonings, jellies, butter, slices of the fresh bread, pickles, onions, cabbage slaw, fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes, because Mama remembered Mr. Nichols couldn't eat fresh vegetables.
Clara sent us up to the garden after lettuce and radishes. We helped her to prepare the wilted lettuce salad. I followed Mama into the cellar to help her bring back things we'd need. She hesitated over the one remaining jar of pickled beets, then brought it, too. We put on the table Mama's corn relish, opened a jar of sauerkraut and one of apple sauce, peach butter and strawberry jam. All this was put on the table before the cooked food was ready. These were just the extras.
"Why have so many different dish-es," Mary complained.
"Meat, bread and potatoes are enough."
But Mama had the reputation of setting a good table. Papa never had trouble getting hands to work for him for they were assured of a fine dinner. Mama cooked and served the men with pride. She knew that each man had different tastes and the variety was to assure each man had something he'd like. That's why she made boiled chicken with noodles and fried chicken; she sliced off some ham from these hanging in the smoke house and fried it along with canned tenderloin. She prepared mashed potatoes, potato salad and sweet potatoes as well as cooking the ever present dried beans. She opened jars of green beans, corn, peas and carrots. For dessert she had fresh blackberry cobbler, apple and cherry pie, chocolate cake and fruit salad, a sweetened mixture of whatever canned and fresh fruit she had.
Mama ignored Mary's objections as she surveyed the table to see if anything was missing. "Annie, where's Papa's pepper sauce?"
George galluped his horse to the yard gate and tied him to a post. "They're coming in," he announced.
Mama sent Annie out to the pump with wash basins, combs, towels and soap for the men. Annie loved this for the men made over the pretty, vivacious little girl. I went to the pump to draw a fresh bucket of drinking water. The women dished up the hot food, poured water into the waiting glasses and coffee into the cups.
Smelling of straw, dust and man sweat, ten men trooped in. Their faces and hands glistened in contrast to the dirt on their necks and arms. Their foreheads, usually covered by their hats, gleamed white under the slicked back hair. Most wore overalls and blue or gray chambray shirts. Some wore jeans that we called overall pants.
Without ceremony they passed around the food, or helped themselves to what was close to them. It was my job to see that the food was passed to everyone, to refill dishes and pour water and coffee. The first few minutes the men were silent, but as their hunger became satisfied, they talked more.
Because the day was so hot, I couldn't keep them supplied with enough water. The bread plate was forever empty. The dish of noodles needed filling twice and this was just the first table!
As soon as the first group finished, we cleared their plates, Clara washed them, we re-set the table and refilled all the bowls before Mama sent Annie after the second group of men. Papa, the boys, Sam and Mr. Nichols were in the last group. The men from the first table rested under the big elm trees in the lawn.
Papa and Sam talked about the progress of the threshing. Charley and Ernie dug into the food enthusiastically. George aggravated me by asking for everything he could think of to make me wait on him. I was tempted to pour some water on him after refilling his glass the fourth time, but Mama's frown and imperceptible shake of the head made me bide my time. What really burned me was that he ate the last of the noodles.
"It's goin' good," Sam said to Papa. "Unless we break down, we should get you done day after tomorry." Turning to Mr. Nichols, "We oughta move to your place Thursday sometime." Mr. Nichols nodded. "How' s your corn?"
"It's laid by," Papa answered. "We finished the last yesterday jest afore you came."
"When we git this round of threshing done, I aim to git me in some fish-in'."
"I'd sure like to. I promised the boys we'd fish the Big Bend Eddy soon's we git time."
When the last group of men left, some of the first group returned to the field. Papa and Sam rested a few minutes before returning to the engine.
In the kitchen once again Clara and I washed the dishes and set the table, this time for us women. We put what food was left on the table and ate and visited leisurely. The women were in no hurry now, for their job was done-until supper and evening chores. We sat at the table that still held a feast before us though greatly depleted. Aunt Essie's chicken and noodles and blackberry cobbler were gone, but there was still enough of everything else. The mashed potatoes by this time were cold and stiff and the slightly congealed gravy was spilled all around the rim of the bowl from many servings, but we enjoyed our meal at long last.
The women visited for an hour telling one another all the latest news. Mary and Clara, anxious to get out of the kitchen for a while, started once more washing dishes. They put all the food in the center of the table, covering it with a clean table cloth ready for supper. Usually our suppers in the summers were simply uncovering the table and eating cold what was left from dinner, but I knew tonight with Sam and the two engine men staying, Mama would heat up the food and perhaps fry some fresh meat.
When Annie and I were free to return to the field again, we could hardly believe how big the straw stack had grown. The blower pipe was moved occasionally to send the straw to different parts of the pile to form a compact stack. By now there was a breeze so that it was uncomfortable to be down wind from the stack. Even in spite of our care, we soon had straw in our hair and down our necks. Maybe Mama had something there about sunbonnets.
I kept watching George for a chance to get even with him. Later in the afternoon I caught him off his horse.
He had set one of his jugs on the ground and had leaned back against the wagon wheel in the shade, talking with one of the young men who was waiting his turn to unload. George didn't notice me grab his water jug and sneak up behind him. Before he could stop me, I poured water all over his bare head and disappeared behind the wagon to stand innocently beside Papa, safe for the moment.
About six o'clock when a wagon finished unloading, Papa sent the driver home. From then on empty wagons would rattle noisily down the lane as the teams, knowing the day was over, trotted home with more spirit than they had shown all day. Before he shut off the engine and closed down for the night, Sam moved the separator to another field ready to begin a new straw stack the next day. Everything ready for the morrow, the men walked to the house to repeat the washing and eating ritual. Only this time there were only three men in addition to our own family of three boys and four girls. Everyone but Mama and Clara sat down to eat, this time leisurely for the day was over for all but Mama.
When Annie and I washed and crawled into bed, we agreed it had been a wonderful exciting day. We were soon asleep happily anticipating at least two more days like it. My sisters skillfully disappeared after washing supper dishes.
Exhausted Ernie and George went to bed early while Charley and Papa talked about tomorrow. By nine-thirty everyone was in bed except Mama who was still in the kitchen dressing a hen for a head start on tomorrow's dinner.
All of us were asleep before she finally came to bed. She sank back into the feather bed beside Papa satisfied that everything was ready, not dreading tomorrow as Mary and Clara did. She and Papa both felt a deep sense of accomplishment in one more crop being safely gathered. Feed for her chickens and for the hogs was assured, and if the corner forty would hold out as well as the fields threshed today, Charley's college was assured.
She turned over and slept soundly.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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