The harvest of years gone by

I have become more interested in seeing the old farm machines of my youth than in the modern machinery of today. It could be nostalgia. It might be that today’s machines are geared for huge operations and I’ll never own one. Or maybe it’s because numerous Old Order Mennonite families have moved into my neighbourhood, and I see them working with horses and steel-wheeled implements such as hay loaders, grain binders and threshing mills – farm machinery we used in the 50s and early 60s, when I was a boy.

Last month a farm buddy and I drove to Decatur, Illinois to see the Farm Progress Show. It’s called the “World’s Fair of Agriculture.” Now in its 62nd year, the show has 400,000 visitors from 50 or so countries around the globe. With 90 acres of exhibitor space and 200 acres of adjoining land used to demonstrate new equipment and farming practices, it’s the largest trade show in the U.S. An estimated $1 billion’s worth of technology is on display. No flea markets, no food concession stands, no gimmicky things. The show’s target audience is agricultural producers. But along with all the new technology, the show also features antique equipment and some entertainment.

I enjoyed sightseeing as we drove through Indiana and Illinois, where huge fields of corn and soybeans stretch across each state. On the way home we took a route through Amish country in northern Indiana. Shipshewana is a small farming community of mostly Amish, and we were there just as the Friday market was closing and saw many, many horse-drawn, steel-wheel buggies on the road among the traffic. The farms in that area are all immaculate and everything is done with horses. Such a different world!

Metal machines

Two weeks later, back home, I attended a local plowing match where an old J.I. Case threshing mill and one of the first automatic tie balers were at work doing their thing. It brought back old memories of the 1950s, when our neighbourhood jointly owned a threshing mill. I was often hanging around nearby; I remember the chaff floating about.

The combine is one of the machines that has revolutionized the way we farm today. I recall the many hours farmers would spend cutting grain with a five-foot binder and stooking the sheaves in rows throughout the field. After a week or so of dry weather the neighbours and their wagons, tractors or horses came together for the threshing day. Sheaves were forked onto wagons and forked into the grinding jaws of a threshing mill. Some threshing machines were equipped with a bagger, which invariably held two bags: one being filled, and the other being replaced with an empty. Bags of grain would be carried up the stairs of the granary until those bins were filled and then they filled the bottom bins. Women made large, hearty meals for the threshing gang on wood-fired cook stoves in the summer kitchen, if they had one. After the meal the men went outdoors to sit in the shade for half an hour before heading back to sweat in their thick, long-sleeved clothing.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the first metal threshing machine was introduced – previously, threshers were made of wood. The metal thresher was introduced in 1904 by the J.I. Case Plow Works of Racine, Wisconsin. The company switched to metal in order to produce machines that could better withstand the strain of operating at full speed. Many companies followed J.I. Case’s lead and began producing metal threshers.  Modern day combines operate on the same principles and use the same components as the original threshing machines built in the 19th century.

This Thanksgiving, give thanks for the hands that harvested your food – whatever technology they used.


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