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Threshing Days Remembered

Author Photo
By Staff

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-

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