As I Saw It

By Staff
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Rolland E. Maxwell
30-60 Pioneer Tractor at Rollag Show, owned by Norman Pross, Luverne, North Dakota. Courtesy of Rolland E. Maxwell, Route 4, Huntington, Indiana 46750.

Hunting-ton, Ind. Rt. 4 46750

(Threshing As It Used To Be) – Back in the good days of steam
threshing it was the hope and aspiration of most farm boys to some
day own and operate a steam threshing rig. Not only to boys but to
their elders also. There was a certain inspiration in the smell of
smoke, and the noise and bustle attached to the operation. Now who
owned and operated those rigs? There were two classes of operators.
First, the farmer who owned a machine and operated it in connection
with his regular farming, doing the threshing for a group of his
neighbors too. Second, there was the so-called custom operator. He
usually lived in a small town and had two or more outfits
consisting of steam engines, separators, corn shellers, clover
hullers, silo fillers and a hay baler. Usually his sole income came
from the use of this machinery, plus any extra hedge pulling or the
moving of buildings or road grading. Because he had to charge for
his work, many people thought he was making so much money or making
too much money, but was he? Many did not keep books of any kind,
and all they knew was expenses and receipts. In central Illinois
where I was raised, I estimate that seventy percent of the
threshing was done by farmer owned outfits and the balance by
custom operators. Did they make any money? My answer to that is
that very few of them ever made very much, and those that did were
the farmer owned rigs. In talking to an A very salesman once that
subject came up. He said that it was his opinion that thirty
percent made a little. E. W. Hamilton who used to write for The
American Thresherman, said that his opinion was that three fifths
lost money and the other two fifths made a little. My observations
were that most of the operators were operating on credit, whether
it was with a machine Co. or the grocery store.

Now why didn’t they make a fortune like the glorious reports
put in the advertising of most of the Threshing Mach. companies?
Some times small crops, failure to make collections, price cutting,
and excessive overhead. This overhead was invariably interest and
payments on the unpaid balance on the machinery, plus whatever crew
he had to hire for wages. The Threshing Machine Co.’s carried
on a very aggressive advertising campaign. The advertising in the
trade magazines and at all agric. fairs ran into the hundreds of
thousands of dollars for all of the companies involved. About the
time a man had his machine well broke in, a salesman would proceed
to sell him a new improved outfit; whether or not the improvements
justified the trade was usually a debatable question. It always
seemed to me a thresherman was a sucker when it came to trading.
What made it worse was the liberal credit and terms offered by the
machine companies. Competition was keen. What one Company did the
rest had to do in order to keep in the rat race. The Threshing
Machine Co.’s would have been better off if they had stuck
together and kept credit tighter. What percent of the operating
machinery was a 100% paid for would be a guess. A salesman for
Huber about 1916 said they almost had to close their factory once
because collections were so slow in coming in. If you really want
to get a better view of this read B. B. Clark in the American
Thresherman. I think I’ll take the credit and collection
business up later.

In the first place the thresher usually worked too cheap. As I
remember threshing rates in central Illinois in about 1915, we got
2 cents for oats and 4 cents for wheat, corn shelling one and a
half cents per bushel, and silo filling $12 per day. The farmer
furnished the coal. Very few communities got by without a price
cutter. The fellow was usually a man who bought a used outfit on
credit and in order to get business he had to cut prices. Many of
them couldn’t make it, but they made life miserable for the
others. This was more common in places farther west.

Another hardship the thresher had was the collection of
threshing bills. That was a job that sometimes lasted until the
next threshing season. Some poor tenants just couldn’t pay
until they sold some grain, etc., maybe six months later. Some
states got a law through that enabled an operator to get a lien on
the grain for services rendered. Something else the average person
did not think of was insurance on fire and liability, which an
operator was supposed to have and often did not have. If they did,
it was very high and hard to get. Fires and dust explosions were
not common, but always a possibility. About the 1920’s the
thresherman began to organize into state organizations. To start
with, it was organized to make a uniform threshing rate to stop
price cutting. Later, it was expanded to include insurance and in
some cases to aid in legal battles. Most of the states
organizations had annual meetings that were quite some affairs. B.
B. Clark of the American Thresherman was one of the prime movers
and took an active part. Anyone who ever saw B. B. Clark in action
wouldn’t soon forget it.

Then another thing that caused bother was, that some custom
would through influence, friends, or other methods get to thresh
two rings. Naturally, he would have to thresh one ring first,
leaving the second ring at a disadvantage in case of a wet season.
Whenever they got their threshing done there was always something
to contend with. Maybe they would have to shut down a day so all
could go to the county fair, a must in those days!

Some were always skeptical about the accuracy of the weigher on
the separators, because their number of bushels depended upon that.
Old worn out, poorly operated separators left grain in the stack,
as over-feeding did too. I once saw a 28′ separator fed so
heavy the lid on top of the separator would move up and down,
pushed by the excessive straw on the racks. Oats was run into the
straw that day, because every one was trying to get done so they
could go to the fair the next day.

Another headache was poor bridges. One bad break through might
mean the profits for a year. Who was responsible; the machine
operator or the road commissioners? More than one law suit was held
over such matters. Some states had good laws and some had none. It
was always a subject of conversation at the state meetings.

After all, it was a good life. After some of the wonderful
meals, we forgot about the poor pay, the dirty work, and all the
gripes. It was a way of life and we knew no other. It was a part of
the March of Progress and most of us were unconsciously doing our
part in it.

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