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Saturday History: Wheat Threshing During the Great Depression

Threshing and Plowing With Steam Tractors courtesy of eltechno

Wheat Threshing During the Great Depression

by Letty Owings

If Christmas made the rest of the year worthwhile as the Peanuts poster in my classroom declared, the wheat threshing time made at least a few days of summer turn to pure bliss for me.

Much fretting about weather and planning for the dinner served the men the day our crop was to be threshed made for fever-pitch stress and excitement. The noisy machine moved from farm to farm. When the big day came for our crop to be threshed, we had to furnish the noon meal for all the workers. My poor mother had a couple of disadvantages working against her at such times. She was a perfectionist. Every dish she served had to be the best in the neighborhood. That was really no problem because she was the best cook and bread maker in the area, but it still threw her into a nervous tizzy. All the bread had to be fresh baked and the desserts made just so. This was long before “boughten bread” made its appearance in rural Missouri.

In order to accommodate the hungry farmers for a meal, my dad set up “saw horses” covered with planks to make one enormous table in the front yard, under the maple trees. Mom had to accept the help of neighbor ladies in serving the crew, and she in turn helped them. It pained her days ahead to think one of the neighbors might set foot inside our house and see how poor we actually were or catch sight of a grain of dust. I doubt that ever happened. We never, ever socialized with any of our neighbors, including my father’s half-brother and his wife who lived only a quarter of a mile from us.

One of the rare treats at the threshing dinner was ice for the tea Mom made on that special occasion. Tea and ice were never anything we could afford. The day before our turn for the dinner came, my dad always let me ride along to the town ice plant where for a dime we bought a chunk of ice. We hurried home with the treasure and put it in a metal washtub and wrapped it in gunnysacks to keep it from melting. Of course, it melted anyway but not before chips could be put in the drinks for the men. They took expensive sugar and butter from came from cream that could be sold. All this unusual food and drink appearing in our kitchen was part of the magic of the day for me.

Before the threshing day came the wheat cutting and shocking. A binder pulled by a tractor went through the wheat fields row by row, cutting the grain and depositing it on the ground tied in bundles. Then came the shocking. That meant men taking four bundles and standing them on end so they stood upright. The shock was completed by laying a bundle across the top of the ones standing. The wheat was then allowed to dry before it was run through the threshing machine. I feel a bit foolish describing such a simple task as wheat shocking, but the process became history as soon as combines came into use.

On threshing day I got up at dawn, after a sleepless night of anticipation, so I could get the full benefit of the excitement. Here would come Harry, driving the steam engine that would pull and activate the threshing machine. Harry was a character who thoroughly enjoyed his role as important person. He pushed his straw hat back on his head at a rakish angle and pulled the rope on the engine to make the whistle heard for at least a mile or two. Women whispered among themselves about Harry’s many lady friends and how he hit the bottle now and then.

When the steam engine chugged its way to the back of our farm, Harry chose a spot where the men could bring the bundles of wheat they had gathered and loaded on wagons pulled by horses and mules. The wheat bundles were then forked into the machine that then separated out the grain. A big straw stack emerged from the straw that was blown out of the machine after the grain had been removed by the separator- aptly named for the job it did. All kids loved straw stacks. They smelled good and looked good for climbing and sliding- until rain came and made them moldy and hard.

As the men on the wagons supplying the bowels of the machine forked the bales, they were forever sweaty and thirsty. This is where the water boy fit into the operation. One too young or too old to be handy with a pitchfork was a “water boy.” Old Bud Sherrow was a garden-sized wheat field and a bossy wife. The neighbors could not expect a day’s work from Old Bud since he was not up to it and only had a dab to thresh. His role became water boy, the one who drew cold water from a well into a bucket, hung a dipper in the bucket and carried the water to the thirsty men. Since the job was too much for Old Bud, my brother Duthile, who was too young to pitch wheat, was recruited to help carry water. The two bucket carriers became Old Bud and Young Bud. For my brother, Bud became his name from then on. He welcomed the name change and no wonder. Only a few prissy aunts even said “Duthile.” He was “Ducie” to our immediate family and “Doots” to most other folks. When he met the girl he married, he called himself “Bud.” I assume Duthile appeared on his marriage license, and it is carved on his tombstone. Our immediate family learned to call him Bud. Old Bud Sherrow never lived to know the kid who helped him carry water to the threshing crew became his namesake.

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