A Kernel of Wheat
This is a true account of two farming community events during the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 87
Author’s note: For those of you following the current drought, here are some corn and soybean pictures I snapped yesterday, in Western Tennessee, at the Kentucky border. Thrashing of the wheat, an activity that is one of the subjects of this post, is something I had to ask my mother about. I was not sure when they did this, because we are not seeing much wheat these days.
A Kernel of Wheat
Western Missouri, 1932
Of all farming activities we performed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, two were notable because they involved the whole community: thrashing of the wheat, and butchering the animals. Summer thrashing of the wheat was the most exciting time of the year because it was a social time rolled into sustenance activity.
The thrashing machine, or, in modern spelling, threshing machine (or simply thresher), was a machine first invented by Scottish mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle for use in agriculture. It was invented (c.1784) for the separation of grain from stalks and husks. For thousands of years, grain was separated by hand with flails, and was very laborious and time consuming. Mechanization of this process took much of the drudgery out of farm labour.
Farmers looked at the sky to determine when the wheat was ready to cut. If the dryness was right for thrashing on a Sunday, the farmers waited until Monday, figuring that God had good reason to wait the extra day. When the dryness was right, a horse-drawn binder (also called a reaper) cut and automatically tied the wheat into bundles weighing 50 pounds or so. The farmer would then pick up the bundles and put them in a shock. A shock of wheat consisted of four upright bundles together with one bundle on top. The shocks of wheat were left for some number of days to dry.
Only one person in the whole community owned a steam engine pulled thrasher, and his name was Harry. Each farm set a day for the thrashing of the wheat. The thrashing of the wheat was special, dramatic, and planned in advance, almost as if the whole community was planning a state fair. The women all wore their best starched aprons and set their finest tables outside for the men to eat the finest meal of the year.
Each woman had a specialty, be it baked bread, custard, pie, butter, beans or canned goods, and all was brought forth on this day. The meat consumed was kept from the year before, unless they killed a chicken for thrashing day. This was also the only day of the year for ice. A man would travel to the ice plant, get a hunk of ice, and put it in a gunny sack in a washtub. Then, each man at the table would chip off a piece of ice for his drink. On thrashing day, I woke at 4 AM, to listen for the steam engine. Children were on their best behavior, and they spoke only when spoken to. There was much bragging and comparing about whose wife could cook what the best.
The other community affair that involved mostly men and was not joyous was the butchering. The animal to be butchered was chosen in advance, and it had to be done in the late fall, so that the cold would preserve the meat. The man in the community who was the best shot would do the killing, so that the shot would not miss and the animal would not suffer. That man was usually my father. The community custom was that the man who helped with the slaughter got the best cut of meat from the animal, and that cut was usually the heart.
The women made the sausage, and in those days the intestines were used because there was no casing. The women cleaned, washed and boiled, then stuffed, the intestine casing. Butchering was not a social function as was thrashing the wheat. Aside from making sausage was a practice called “frying down the meat.” This involved layering grease, then ground fried meat, then grease, ending with a top layer of grease. The mixture was compacted and kept cold in a shed. The supply of fried down meat lasted all year. My mother canned beef but this was not really a usual practice. Sealing wax was a real mess; jar rubber was, in the end, a great invention.
There was never any idle time in those days. We grew cotton and sheared sheep for our materials and in our spare time, such as it was, we either picked apart the cotton or the wool with our hands. Wool smells awful, and I once complained to my dad because I was dirty and tired of the work. He stopped what he was doing. He stopped and he said, “You did nothing to earn this. Everything is a gift from God.”
My father owned one suit. He was buried in it. He lived by these words and he lived up to these words:
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.