Threshing Days Remembered

Allis Chalmers and Belle City threshing machine

Bob Caton and his son Matt, with their Allis Chalmers Model U and Belle City threshing machine, bought by Bob's father and uncle 60 years ago!

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The following article, written by Connie Glessner, RD 3, Box 346A, Berlin, Pennsylvania 15530, is reprinted from the Autumn 1994 issue of MEMOS, a newsletter published by the Berlin Historical Society of Berlin, Pennsylvania.

With fields of neatly stacked grain shocks flapping in the autumn breeze, memories of threshing days on the farm bring back visions of hard work, hearty meals and a time to socialize before the snows of winter left many families in quiet solitude.

It was a noisy affair, the threshing machine itself clad in sides of tin that rattled as it was hauled in over dirt roads leading to the barn, and then belched dust as the massive belts shook its conveyors.

The actual labor of threshing usually didn't start until midmorning when the dew had dried, but after it began, only the last sheaf of grain, dusk or the dinner bell signaled it to stop.

It was a break in the daily routine on the farm as a gathering of men were kept busy hauling shocks in from the fields, feeding the machine and carrying away the grain and straw.

For Bob Caton, growing up in a threshing family has provided him with some fond memories and a wealth of knowledge about early rural life that he hopes to pass on to his son, Matt. They are fortunate to own the equipment used by Caton's father, Harry, and uncle, Gene Caton, who were in partnership with a custom threshing business between 1934 and 1960. During those years Bob estimates they threshed over a million bushels of grain, working steadily each fall, September through November.

Starting out with an Allis Chalmers Model U tractor, bought for $900 in 1934, and a thresher priced at $600, the Catons traveled from farm to farm helping people finish their harvests. On a good day they did 500 to 600 bushels.

'Their first thresher was a McCormick-Deering, and what happened was they were coming down out of one of the Fochtman farms, and it was real steep, and the tractor didn't have real good brakes, it only had a brake on the wheel coming out of the side of the transmission. It got away from them and the tractor turned, and when the machine turned, they were very top heavy, it upset. Then they bought the Belle City, I don't know exactly what year that was bought,' Bob remembered.

Usually only one of the brothers went with the machine. While Gene was away during W.W.II, Harry did the threshing. After his return, Gene had a post cutting business that he operated when it wasn't harvest season and Harry worked in the mines.

'Somebody had to tend the tractor and the machine all the time to make sure it was running right,' Bob said. 'You had your people in the field to go out and gather the shocks and bring it in. To thresh a big farm you had to have at least two or three tractors and have a wagon coming in all the time. That's three drivers, and at least one or two guys on the wagon to stack the sheaves, three throwing it on, so you figure there's eight people. Then you had to have at least two guys carrying grain away in bushel measures because the grain was coming out of there as fast as they could carry them out. It kept two guys extremely busy to carry it out. Then you need at least one person in the straw mow. That's twelve men and that's the bare minimum. Now one guy does the whole thing riding around in a combine.'

Most of the workers were neighbors, who helped with the understanding they would be helped on their threshing days. Usually the only person who got paid was the person who threshed.

Fees for the Catons' custom threshing included a five dollar charge to set up the machine when they moved in and then five cents per bushel for oats and seven cents per bushel of wheat. Wheat was harder to thresh and took more gasoline as did rye and barley. The prices and bushel counts can still be seen penciled on the gray galvanized sides of the thresher.

At purchase, the thresher was equipped with a weigher and a sacker. Those accessories were removed because many of the mountain farms where they threshed had small barns, and in order to thresh inside, the weigher and sacker, which sat on top, made the machine too high. In their place, wooden measures with specially slanted ends were used to trip the bushel container and remove the grain.

The larger farming operations had as much as 1500 bushels of grain to process while small homesteads yielded only ten or fifteen bushels. After finishing at one location, they often moved the machine in the evening over the seldom traveled mountain roads.

Some farmers put their grain shocks in the barn to prevent them from sprouting while waiting for the threshing machine to make its rounds. Grain that was tough or green often heated up and had to be stored on the barn floor to dry before it was put in the granary.

'One farmer in particular had a very small farm, and they were threshing buckwheat there at his place. They moved in and set up and threshed a half a day and got just a little over a bushel of grain 'cause the deer had ate most of it. That's the way it went sometimes,' Bob remembered.

The Caton brothers threshed for a circuit of farms ranging from the Deaner and Hostetler enterprises on the top of White Horse Mountain to New Baltimore, Glen Savage, Bard Hollow, Camp Run Hollow and Fairhope.

'They were kept pretty busy, but by 1960, everybody pretty much had their own machines or were starting to combine. It was just about done by then as far as custom threshing was concerned,' Bob recalled.

His appreciation of the hard work involved in threshing comes first hand, as he traveled with the men as a youngster and then worked with the crew during the last years of their operation.

Along with the memories of sore muscles and barns so dusty you couldn't see, Bob also remembers the elaborate meals served to the threshermen by their wives.

'All the wives of the farmers who were helping would come along and help cook. It was terrific eating. Once in a while it wasn't so good, those people were really poor and you got what they had, but there were places you ate until you couldn't eat any more. They'd have a whole table full of pie and cake, you really stuffed your face. It was a rare variety of everything, it wasn't just one particular kind, lemon meringue pie and blackberry pie. But it didn't take long to work that off after you went back out into the field,' he added.

At the close of the day, it was customary for the farmer to serve wine, beer or hard cider to the laborers. These beverages were almost always homemade, and as Bob remembers, usually carried quite a kick.

After the Catons retired from the custom threshing business, the tractor and thresher sat idle in a barn near Dividing Ridge for nearly two decades. In 1979, Bob moved the machinery to the New Centerville Farmers' and Threshermen's Jubilee Grounds where he has restored them to their original condition. They are displayed each year during the festival, and Bob and Matt volunteer their time to help demonstrate the vintage farm equipment.

Bob has been active in the Jubilee for 23 years and said, 'I've always been around these old tractors and stuff like that, I like it, it's a great hobby. It wasn't a great hobby for people who had to use them, it was hard work.'

Bob Caton, his wife Helen and son Matt, are active members of the Berlin Area Historical Society, and live in Meyersdale RD4-