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.