The Old Fashioned Threshing in
Green's Coolly, Wisconsin
by Hamlin Garland
Life on a Wisconsin farm, even for the older lads, had its
compensations. There were times when the daily routine of lonely and
monotonous life gave place to an agreeable bustle for a few days, and
human intercourse lightened toil. In the midst of the dull, slow
progress of the fall's ploughing, the gathering of the threshing crew
was a most dramatic event.
There had been great changes in the methods of threshing since Mr.
Stewart had begun to farm, but it had not yet reached the point where
steam displaced the horse-power; and the grain, after being stacked
round the barn ready to be threshed, was allowed to remain until late
in the fall before calling in a machine.
Of course, some farmers got at it earlier, for all could not thresh at
the same time, and a good part of the fall's labor consisted in
"changing works" with the neighbors, thus laying up a stock of unpaid
labor ready for the home job. Day after day, therefore, Mr. Stewart
and the hired man shouldered their forks in the crisp and early dawn
and went to help their neighbors, while the boys ploughed the
All through the months of October and November, the ceaseless ringing
hum and the bow-ouw, ouw-woo booee-oom of the great balance wheel of
the threshing-machine, and the deep bass hum of the whirling cylinder,
as its motion rose and fell, could be heard on every side like the
singing of some sullen and gigantic autumnal insect.
For weeks Lincoln had looked forward to the coming of the threshers
with the greatest eagerness, and during the whole of the day
appointed, Owen and he hung on the gate and gazed down the road to see
if the machine was coming. It did not come during the
afternoon—still they could not give it up, and at the falling of dusk
still hoped to hear the rattle of its machinery.
It was not uncommon for the men who attended to these machines to work
all day at one place and move to another setting at night. In that
way, they might not arrive until 9 o'clock at night, or they might
come at 4 o'clock in the morning, and the children were about starting
to "climb the wooden hill" when they heard the peculiar rattle of the
cylinder and the voices of the McTurgs, singing.
"There they are," said Mr. Stewart, getting the old square lantern and
lighting the candle within. The air was sharp, and the boys, having
taken off their boots, could only stand at the window and watch the
father as he went out to show the men where to set the "power," the
dim light throwing fantastic shadows here and there, lighting up a
face now and then, and bringing out the thresher, which seemed a
silent monster to the children, who flattened their noses against the
window-panes to be sure that nothing should escape them. The men's
voices sounded cheerfully in the still night, and the roused turkeys
in the oaks peered about on their perches, black silhouettes against
the sky. The children would gladly have stayed up to greet the
threshers, who were captains of industry in their eyes, but they were
ordered off to bed by Mrs. Stewart, who said, "You must go to sleep in
order to be up early in the morning." As they lay there in their beds
under the sloping rafter roof, they heard the hand riding furiously
away to tell some of the neighbors that the threshers had come. They
could hear the cackle of the hens as Mr. Stewart assaulted them and
wrung their innocent necks. The crash of the "sweeps" being unloaded
sounded loud and clear in the night, and so watching the dance of the
lights and shadows cast by the lantern on the plastered wall, they
They were awakened next morning by the ringing beat of the iron sledge
as the men drove stakes to hold the "power" to the ground. The rattle
of chains, the clang of iron bars, intermixed with laughter and
snatches of song, came sharply through the frosty air. The smell of
sausages being fried in the kitchen, the rapid tread of their busy
mother as she hurried the breakfast forward, warned the boys that it
was time to get up, although it was not yet dawn in the east, and they
had a sense of being awakened to a strange, new world. When they got
down to breakfast, the men had finished their coffee and were out in
the stock-yard completing preparations.
This morning experience was superb. Though shivery and cold in the
faint frosty light of the day, the children enjoyed every moment of
it. The frost lay white on every surface, the frozen ground rang like
iron under the steel-shod feet of the horses, the breath of the men
rose up in little white puffs while they sparred playfully or rolled
each other on the ground in jovial clinches of legs and arms.
The young men were anxiously waiting the first sound which should
rouse the countryside and proclaim that theirs was the first machine
to be at work. The older men stood in groups, talking politics or
speculating on the price of wheat, pausing occasionally to slap their
hands about their breasts.
Finally, just as the east began to bloom and long streamers of red
began to unroll along the vast gray dome of sky, Joe Gilman—"Shouting
Joe," as he was called—mounted one of the stacks, and throwing down
the cap-sheaf, lifted his voice in a "Chippewa warwhoop." On a still
morning like this his voice could be heard three miles. Long drawn and
musical, it sped away over the fields, announcing to all the world
that the McTurgs were ready for the race. Answers came back faintly
from the frosty fields, where the dim figures of laggard hands could
be seen hurrying over the ploughland; then David called "All right,"
and the machine began to hum.
In those days the machine was a J. I. Case or a "Buffalo Pits"
separator, and was moved by five pairs of horses attached to a power
staked to the ground, round which they travelled to the left, pulling
at the ends of long levers or sweeps. The power was planted some rods
away from the machine, to which the force was carried by means of
"tumbling rods," with "knuckle joints." The driver stood upon a
platform above the huge, savage, cog-wheels round which the horses
moved, and he was a great figure in the eyes of the boys.
Driving looked like an easy job, but it was not. It was very tiresome
to stand on that small platform all through the long day of the early
fall, and on cold November mornings when the cutting wind roared over
the plain, sweeping the dust and leaves along the road. It was far
pleasanter to sit on the south side of the stack, as Tommy did, and
watch the horses go round. It was necessary also for the driver to be
a man of good judgment, for the power must be kept just to the right
speed, and he should be able to gauge the motion of the cylinder by
the pitch of its deep bass hum. There were always three men who went
with the machine and were properly "the threshers." One acted as
driver; the others were respectively "feeder" and "tender"; one of
them fed the grain into the rolling cylinder, while the other, oil-can
in hand, "tended" the separator. The feeder's position was the high
place to which all boys aspired, and they used to stand in silent
admiration watching the easy, powerful swing of David McTurg as he
caught the bundles in the crook of his arm, and spread them out into a
broad, smooth band upon which the cylinder caught and tore like some
insatiate monster, and David was the ideal man in Lincoln's eyes, and
to be able to feed a threshing machine, the highest honor in the
world. The boy who was chosen to cut bands went to his post like a
soldier to dangerous picket duty.
Sometimes David would take one of the small boys upon his stand, where
he could see the cylinder whiz while flying wheat stung his face.
Sometimes the driver would invite Tommy on the power to watch the
horses go round, and when he became dizzy often took the youngster in
his arms and running out along the moving sweep, threw him with a
shout into David's arms.
The boys who were just old enough to hold sacks for the measurer, did
not enjoy threshing so well, but to Lincoln and his mates it was the
keenest joy. They wished it would never end.
The wind blew cold and the clouds were flying across the bright blue
sky, the straw glistened in the sun, the machine howled, the dust
flew, the whip cracked, and the men worked like beavers to get the
sheaves to the feeder, and to keep the straw and wheat away from the
tail-end of the machine. These fellows, wallowing to their waists in
the chaff, did so for the amusement of the boys, and for no other
They were always amused by the man who stood in the midst of the thick
dust and the flying chaff at the head of the stacker, who took and
threw away the endless cataract of straw as if it were all play. His
teeth shown like those of a negro out of his dust blackened face, and
his shirt was wet with sweat, but he motioned for more straw, and the
feeder, accepting the challenge, motioned for more speed, and so the
driver swung his lash and yelled at the straining horses, the pitchers
buckled to, the sleepy growl of the cylinder rose to a howl, the wheat
rushed out in a stream as "big as a stove-pipe," and the carriers were
forced to trot back and forth from the granary like mad, and to
generally "hump themselves" in order to keep the grain from piling up
around the measurer where Ellis stood disconsolately holding sacks for
old man Smith.
When the children got tired of wallowing in the straw, and with
turning somersaults therein, they went down to help Rover catch the
rats which were uncovered by the pitchers when they reached the stack
bottom. It was all play to Lincoln, just as it had once been to the
others. The horses, with their straining, outstretched necks, the loud
and cheery shouts, the whistling of the driver, the roar and hum of
the machinery, the flourishing of the forks, the supple movements of
the brawny arms, the shouts of the threshers to one another, all
blended with the wild sound of the wind overhead in the creaking
branches of the oaks, formed a splendid drama for his recording
But for the boy who was forced to stand with old Daddy Smith in the
flying dust beside the machine, it was a bad play. He was a part of
the machine—of the crew. His liberty to come and go was gone. When
Daddy was grinning at him out of the gray dust and the swirling chaff,
the wheat beards were crawling down his back, scratching and rasping.
His ears were stunned by the noise of the cylinder and the howl of the
balance-wheel, and it did not help him any to have the old man say in
a rasping voice, "Never mind the chaff, sonny—it ain't pizen."
Whirr—bang! Something had gone into the cylinder, making the feeder
dodge to escape the flying teeth, and the men seized the horses to
stop the machine. The men then hailed such accidents with delight, for
it afforded them a few minutes' rest while the crew put some new teeth
in the "concave." They had time to unbutton their shirts and get some
of the beards out of their necks, to take a drink of water, and to let
the deafness go out of their ears.
At such times also some of the young fellows were sure to have a
wrestling or a lifting match, and all kinds of jokes flew about. The
man at the straw-stack leaned indolently on his fork and asked the
feeder sarcastically if that was the best he could do, and remarked,
"It's gettin' chilly up here. Guess I'll have to go home and get my
To this David laughingly responded, "I'll warm your carcass with a
rope if you don't shut up," all of which gave the boys infinite
But the work began again, and Ellis was forced to take his place as
regularly as the other men. As the sun neared the zenith, he looked
often up to it—so often in fact that Daddy, observing it, cackled in
great amusement, "Think you c'n hurry it along, sonny? The watched
pot never boils, remember!"—which made the boy so angry he nearly
kicked the old man on the shin.
But at last the call for dinner sounded, the driver began to shout,
"Whoa there, boys," to the teams and to hold his long whip before
their eyes in order to convince them that he really meant "Whoa." The
pitchers stuck their forks down in the stack and leaped to the ground;
Billy, the band-cutter, drew from his wrist the string of his big
knife; the men slid down from the straw-pile and a race began among
the teamsters to see who should be first unhitched and at the watering
trough and at the table.
It was always a splendid and dramatic moment to the boys as the men
crowded round the well to wash, shouting, joking, cuffing each other,
sloshing themselves with water, and accusing each other of having
blackened the towel by using it to wash with rather than to wipe with.
Mrs. Stewart and the hired girl, and generally some of the neighbors'
wives (who changed "works" also) stood ready to bring on the food as
soon as the men were seated. The table had been lengthened to its
utmost and pieced out with the kitchen table, which usually was not of
the same height, and planks had been laid for seats on stout kitchen
chairs at each side. The men came in with noisy rush and took seats
wherever they could find them, and their attack on "biled taters and
chicken" should have been appalling to the women, but it was not. They
smiled to see them eat. A single slash at a boiled potato, followed by
two motions, and it disappeared. Grimy fingers lifted a leg of chicken
to a wide mouth, and two snaps laid it bare as a slate pencil. To the
children standing in the corner waiting, it seemed that every smitch
of the dinner was going and that nothing would be left when the men
got through, but there was, for food was plentiful.
At last even the "gantest" of them filled up. Even Len had his limits,
and something remained for the children and the women, who sat down at
the second table, while David and William and Len returned to the
machine to put everything in order, to sew the belts, or take a bent
tooth out of the "concave." Len, however, managed to return two or
three times in order to have his jokes with the hired girl, who
enjoyed it quite as much as he did.
In the short days of October only a brief nooning was possible, and as
soon as the horses had finished their oats, the roar and hum of the
machine began again and continued steadily all afternoon. Owen and
Rover continued their campaign upon the rats which inhabited the
bottom of the stacks and great was their excitement as the men reached
the last dozen sheaves. Rover barked and Owen screamed half in fear
and half from a boy's savage delight in killing things, and very few
rats escaped their combined efforts.
To Ellis the afternoon seemed endless. His arms grew tired with
holding the sacks against the lip of the half bushel, and his fingers
grew sore with the rasp of the rough canvas out of which the sacks
were made. When he thought of the number of times he must repeat these
actions, his heart was numb with weariness.
All things have an end! By and by the sun grew big and red, night
began to fall and the wind to die down. Through the falling gloom the
machine boomed steadily with a new sound, a sort of solemn roar,
rising at intervals to a rattling yell as the cylinder ran empty. The
men were working silently, sullenly, moving dim and strange; the
pitchers on the stack, the feeder on the platform, and especially the
workers on the high straw-pile, seemed afar off to Lincoln's eyes. The
gray dust covered the faces of those near by, changing them into
something mysterious and sad. At last he heard the welcome cry, "Turn
out!" The men raised glad answer and threw aside their forks.
Again came the gradual slowing down of the motion, while the driver
called in a gentle, soothing voice: "Whoa, lads! Steady, boys, Whoa,
now!" But the horses had been going on so long and so steadily that
they checked their speed with difficulty. The men slid from the
stacks, and seizing the ends of the sweeps, held them; but even after
the power was still, the cylinder went on, until David, calling for a
last sheaf, threw it in its open maw, choking it into silence.
Then came the sound of dropping chains and iron rods, and the thud of
the hoofs as the horses walked with laggard gait and down-falling
heads to the barn. The men were more subdued than at dinner, washing
with greater care, brushing the dust from their beards and clothes.
The air was still and cool, the wind was gone, the sky deep, cloudless
The evening meal was more attractive to the boys than dinner. The
table was lighted with a kerosene lamp, and the clean white linen, the
fragrant dishes, the women flying about with steaming platters, all
seemed very dramatic, very cheering to Lincoln as well as to the men
who came into the light and warmth with aching muscles and empty
There was always a good deal of talk at supper, but it was gentler
than at the dinner hour. The younger fellows had their jokes, of
course, and watched the hired girl attentively, while the old fellows
discussed the day's yield of grain and the matters of the township.
Ellis was now allowed a place at the first table like a first-class
The pie and the doughnuts and the coffee disappeared as fast as they
could be brought, which seemed to please Mrs. Stewart, who said,
"Goodness sakes, yes; eat all you want. They was made to eat."
The men were all, or nearly all, neighbors, or hands hired by the
month, and some were like members of the family. Mrs. Stewart treated
them all like visitors and not like hired help. No one feared a
genuine rudeness from the other.
After they had eaten their supper it was a great pleasure to the boys
to go out to the barn and shed (all wonderfully changed now to their
minds by the great new stack of straw), there to listen to the stories
or jolly remarks of the men as they curried their tired horses
munching busily at their hay, too weary to move a muscle otherwise,
but enjoying the rubbing down which the men gave them with wisps of
straws held in each hand.
The light from the kitchen was very welcome, and how bright and warm
it was with the mother's merry voice and smiling face where the women
were moving to and fro, and talking even more busily than they worked.
Sometimes in these old-fashioned days, after the supper table was
cleared out of the way, and the men returned to the house, an hour or
two of delicious merry making ended the day. Perhaps two or three of
the sisters of the young men had dropped in, and the boys themselves
were in no hurry to get home.
Around the fire the older men sat to tell stories while the girls
trudged in and out, finishing up the dishes and getting the materials
ready for breakfast. With speechless content Lincoln sat to listen to
stories of bears and Indians and logging on the Wisconsin, and other
tales of frontier life, and then at last, after beseeching, David
opened the violin box and played. Strange how those giant hands became
supple to the strings and bow. All day they had been handling the
fierce straw or were covered with the grease and dirt of the machine,
yet now they drew from the violin the wildest, weirdest strains,
thrilling Norse folk songs, Swedish dances and love ballads, mournful,
sensuous, and seductive.
Lincoln could not understand why those tunes had that sad, sweet
quality, but he could sit and listen to them all night long.
Oh, those rare days and rarer nights! How fine they were then—and how
mellow they are growing now as the slow-paced years drop a golden mist
upon them. From this distance they seem so near that my heart aches to
relive them, but they are so wholesome and so carefree that the world
is poorer for the change.