Ch. 4 Harvesting


Harvesting – as I recall it

My most vivid memories of harvesting have a good deal to do with the Nicols and Shepherd “Red River Special” 28-46 threshing machine that was owned by my Uncle Walter Smith. It was used to thresh the wheat, order oats and barley on his three-quarter section (480 acres) farm 5 miles north-east of the Town of Oak Lake during the late 1930s and through the ’40s. By the early 1950s pull type and self-propelled combines had pretty well replaced the labour intensive threshing crews. Our farm was 3 miles north of Uncle Walter’s and after he and his twin brother Ralph had finished threshing their wheat, for sale they would move the “outfit”, as it was called, to our farm. Wheat was usually always threshed first, being the most valuable crop. 28-46 refers to the 28 inch width of the spike-toothed revolving cylinder and 46 is for the 46 inch wide body of the threshing machine. The 28 inch cylinder removed the grain from the heads of the wheat plants tied together in sheaves fed into the machine by the harvest workers.

This Red River Special was not the first threshing machine I recall. There was an older Case 28 inch machine, a “high bagger” that the Red River Special replaced. Grain separated from the straw in a “high bagger” was elevated to a height above the machine where gravity would take it to a waiting wagon or a wooden granary. The newer machine, a “low bagger”, augered the grain out and away from the threshing machine. 

There were earlier threshing activities known to me only through the writings of Walter Smith (Uncle Walter) when, in the 1980s, he wrote the Biography of the R.K.Smith Family and referred to his father (my grandfather) as having “a horse driven machine in 1889 that was replaced by a steam engine in 1890. By 1895 he had two steam threshing outfits and did custom threshing as far south as Souris and north to the Harding area.” That’s a distance of some 50 kms. The reference to a horse driven machine must mean that several horses were hitched to some kind of device and walked ‘round and ‘round in a circle to turn a pulley of some sort. Steam powered, of course, means that a steam powered engine with a pulley and belt provided the power. “R.K.” later scaled down his threshing operation – he listed too many breakdowns as the reason.

There are so many aspects of the actual threshing scene it is hard to know where to start. Let’s ignore the soil preparation and seeding of the various crops on the farm, usually in May, although a lot could be written about that part of farming as well. By August, if the weather was favourable, and we had avoided grasshoppers and/or a hail storm, there would be fields of wheat, oats and barley ripening in various fields on our 320 acre half section farm. The wheat was mainly for cash sale to the grain companies, primarily Manitoba Pool Elevators. Their grain elevator was 7 miles away in the Town of Oak Lake. Barley and oats’ acreages together were probably a bit more than the wheat acreage. For example, on our 320 acres, 100 acres would be in wheat, 150 acres combined in barley and oats, the balance in pasture and hay land and our homestead (barn, house, etc.). Barley and oats would be binned separately at harvest time and ground up (we called it “crushing”) during the winter months to feed to our small herd of dual-purpose cattle and our pigs. 

First of all, with a horse-drawn binder (4 horses), the crops were cut, the grain stalks tied with twine into bundles by the binder, and these sheaves dropped in rows in the grain field. In later years (after 1939), when Dad bought a brand new John Deere “B” tractor, we replaced, with the tractor, the 4 horse team. It is interesting to recall that the tractor – brand new – from Roy Carlisle’s John Deere dealership in Griswold, cost $700 plus the money from the sale of two of our horses. That amount of money wouldn’t begin to pay for just the air-conditioning on a present day tractor. The “B”, of course, had no air conditioning, fenders or a cab to keep the operator safe and out of the elements.

Those rows of sheaves I referred to earlier were then “stooked” by hand. Men, and boys like me, would pile the sheaves together, heads of the grain up, of course – usually 6 to 8 sheaves to a stook. The grain would dry in this position until the actual threshing time, which could be up to 3 weeks later, depending on the weather.

I was perhaps only 6 or 7 years of age (in 1937 or ’38) when I first fully realized the thrill of harvest time. Maybe it was the big machines, the roar of the tractor, the long drive belt, and the humming pulleys. It was heaven for a kid! I can recall the excitement of knowing that the wheat field had all been harvested at Uncle Walter and Ralph’s (always referred to by Dad as the “home place”) and they were moving the “outfit” to our place.

First we would see the stook teams – each team of two horses pulling a rack – emerging with their driver from the bushes just south of the southeast corner of our farm. After the 4 or 5 teams came the tractor pulling the separator, its long blower pipe resting along the top of the machine. Uncle Walter, who was usually behind the tractor’s steering wheel, would drive into the wheat field to a spot quickly cleared of stooks by the first one or two stook teams. He would stop the tractor and getting down from the seat, would pick up a handful of dirt and throw it up into the air. That’s how he knew the wind direction and how to “set” the machine, because threshing the crop and trying to blow the straw against the wind would be foolish. So the machine was positioned to allow for this. Two holes were then dug in the ground immediately in front of the threshing machine’s two rear wheels and the machine was pulled forward to settle gently into these holes. This minimized the rocking motion of the machine when it was operating as the straw “walkers” that moved the straw along inside the body of the machine had a back and forth motion to them. 

Next the drive belt, carefully wound onto a holder near the front of the threshing machine, was unrolled and dragged out in front. Then came the real test of a good operator. Could he (usually Uncle Walter) line up the tractor the first time, so that when the belt was looped over the tractor’s drive pulley it would be in exactly the right spot? If it wasn’t, the belt wouldn’t stay on the pulley and you would have to re-align the tractor. Alignment completed, the tractor would be backed up slowly to tighten the belt. The belt already had a twist in it to make sure the big pulley on the threshing machine would rotate in the right direction. The drive belt was around the big Rockwood pulley connected to the 28 inch wide cylinder, 18 inches in diameter, studded with steel teeth. This cylinder revolved, designed to just miss a stationary set of fixed teeth called concaves. The main separation of the grain from the straw happened here – maybe that’s why the threshing machine was often referred to as the “separator”. You really knew that things were well on their way when my Dad turned the two big geared devices at the back of the machine to put the straw “blower” into position. The first gear raised the blower (a metal pipe about 12 ft. long and 18 inches in diameter) off its holder, the other swung the blower around to point back up and away from the machine. Of course, a granary had to be in place to hold the grain separated from the straw. 

Uncle Walter would then throttle up the tractor (at first, as I recall, a McCormick-Deering 15-30, but later on an International Model M Farmall), and slowly let out the clutch. All the belts and chains would slowly start to move until the machine was humming. My Dad’s job was to grease oil and adjust all the moving parts – no small assignment in those days with the equipment’s few sealed bearings. An unattended shaft or chain would soon wear out if not receiving a regular squirt of oil from Dad’s oil can.  And so it went.

While the set-up of the machine was going on, the hired men were busy getting that first load of sheaves on their wagons. It was a badge of honour to have the first load ready after a separator set-up. If the two horses hitched to each wagon were skittish, driving the load of sheaves up beside that noisy machine that first time could be a challenge. By the end of the day the horses usually stood quietly in the dust and noise, maybe because they were so tired.

Then there were the “spike” or “spite” pitchers (I never knew which was the correct term). They were the men who stayed out in the field, walking from one wagon (they were called racks) to the other, helping that person with his load. They didn’t have a team of their own, but were usually the strongest, ablest men. They knew better than anyone how you had to maneuver the team of horses from one side of the row of stooks to the other during loading in order to keep the load of sheaves balanced.

As well as portable granaries to hold the grain, we often used two grain wagons which held about 60 bushels each. While one wagon box was being filled, the other was driven to the yard and unloaded. This was often my job. I was maybe 15 or 16 years old. I drove into the yard and backed the horses and wagon up to the granary in the barnyard and shoveled 60 bushels of grain (usually barley) through a small window into a bin in the granary. Try THAT sometime! Then I drove the empty wagon back to the machine and quickly switched the grain delivery spout over, unhitched the team, hitched them to the already full wagon and repeated the whole operation. Granaries on site at the threshing machine made things easier for me, though I was often in that granary as it gradually filled up. I shoveled the grain back as best I could until the shingle nails on the underside of the roof dug into my back. Then I crawled out a small window and we had to find somewhere else to put the grain.

But who were these men who brought the loads of sheaves to the threshing machine? They worked hard, very hard, for $5 a day – later $6 a day. I can remember Dad wondering how he could ever afford to pay the last harvest time wages I can remember – $7 a day. 

And this was a 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. job with the harnessing and unharness-ing of the horses and other jobs outside of those hours. We often hired men from the nearby Sioux Valley Indian Reserve – Jimmy Elk, Gordon Bone and others. Harvesters from Ontario with their funny – we thought – Ottawa Valley accents came out West on subsidized “Harvester Special” trains. There were others, too. People like Lee Jolson from somewhere in central Saskatchewan. He came to us for several threshing seasons. A powerfully built man, he would amuse us kids on “off” days (when it rained) by placing a 4” nail between the fingers of his clenched fist and driving that nail right through a 2 x 4.

Off days were difficult – not for us kids, but for Dad, and especially for Mother. The men still had to be paid (but the daily rate dropped to $4.00, as I recall), but there was only so much that could be done and, if the rain continued, only so much harness repair and barn cleaning. Mother, without help, still had to provide 3 meals a day to the 3 or 4 men hanging around. Walter and Ralph went home to their own places. I don’t think that on rainy days, she had to produce the mid-afternoon lunch that was a “must” during active threshing days. Our house had no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. Everyone washed up before lunch. A small enameled basin on a table beside the rain barrel was the washroom. There was soap and a towel and the dirty water was thrown on the flowers that grew beside the house. Then the next guy took a turn to get cleaned up before sitting down to eat. And those guys could eat! A pie was never cut into anything but quarters. How my Mother did all that work I will never know. If I could somehow deliver a medal – posthumously – I would dearly love to bestow one upon her.

But back to the threshing. Sometimes it became necessary, as more and more of the field became cleared of stooks – particularly the area around the threshing machine – to move to another location in the field. Sometimes it was because the granary was full or maybe the straw pile had become too big or there was a major shift in the wind. Larger fields usually had 2 or more straw piles. And we always set up for a full day’s threshing in the yard, with the blower blowing the straw through an open door into the loft of the barn. Why haul straw to the barn when you can have it already there, ready to provide bedding for the cattle and horses in the winter time? But the straw had to be forked back – my Dad’s job – and I recall him heading into the loft with a big straw fork, wearing no mask or protective clothing, to move the straw to allow for more to be blown in.  I was always so scared of that, and so relieved when he emerged, covered in dust and red-eyed, a half hour later. Weeks later, in the late fall, we ploughed a guard strip around the straw stacks in the fields before setting fire to the stubble. Burning stubble was probably an unwise practice when you consider today’s soils conserving methods of stubble mulching and zero tillage, but burning the crop residues in those days made seeding easier the following spring and probably killed a lot of weed seeds. Sometimes, if the outfit had finished the wheat at our place, the crew would stay and complete the barley and oats, saving a move back to Walter and Ralph’s.

No description of harvesting in the old days would be complete without some mention of “lunch time”. This wasn’t the noon meal – always referred to as “dinner time” – it occurred around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. and was usually delivered by my mother, who hitched up the horse and buggy and brought the lunch right to where the machine was set up.  Lunch was often tomato sandwiches on homemade bread, something sweet and pots of hot tea. There was always the big pottery water jug with a wet burlap bag wrapped around it, sitting in the shade of the tractor wheel, but sweet, hot tea at 4:00 p.m. was special. The men, as they came in with their load of sheaves, helped themselves, while Dad or Uncle Walter (or me, in later years), unloaded their rack – the machine never stopped.

My Dad was someone I really respected. Honest to a fault. So you can imagine my surprise, almost dismay, the evening I saw him turn his Westclox Pocket Ben watch back 10 minutes and assure one of the men that there was plenty of time (it was really 7:00 p.m.) to unload into the separator that last load of sheaves. A small bending of the truth by Dad – something I never witnessed again as long as he lived.

That kind of harvesting was the norm over 60 years ago. In the early ‘50s the pull-type and self-propelled combines took over and threshing machines became instant “dinosaurs”. Swathers replaced binders and the stooking operation was no more. All those harvest workers disappeared as one person could now do it all. Not only that, but in this second millennium (year 2000+), one farmer operating a modern combine with help from a grain truck operator, often a spouse, can straight combine, no binder, no stooking, not even a swather – twice as many acres in a day as the old 10-man threshing crew could do. As well, today those 4000 to 5000 bushels would be safely stored in a metal, aerated hopper-bottomed grain bin. Today, the $300,000 today’s farmer has invested in that high-tech, computerized combine for use rarely more than 3 weeks a year would be enough money to buy outright 10 half-section family farms of the ’30s. Today’s yields are double, or more than double those of the 1930s or ’40s – probably due to better weed control, newer varieties of grain and more fertilizer. Thirty bushels to the acre of Marquis or Redman wheat was then thought to be good; today’s bearded wheat varieties yield 60 to 70 bushels per acre.

Thinking back now, old-time harvesting was a fascinating series of activities in spite of all the difficulties and hard work. I am glad I was there to take part in it.