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Runner Up

The Giant Killers


John Finney

The day of the giant threshing machine and steamer movingslowly toward a new farm and new fields of grain is gone, but the memoriesof both machine and the men who operated them still linger in the UpperRed River Valley. Often times, while just sitting around the kitchen overa cup of coffee, today's mothers and fathers recall the "good old days"of the threshing machines. They speak of the machines, the men who ownedand operated them, and of the rich experiences shared by all during harvesttime.

There is a warm spot in the heart of almost everyone whoremembers the threshermen who owned the giant machinery and traveled fromfarm to farm threshing grain. Names such as Joe Stranger, Nelson Finney,Frank Twamley, the Lohr Brothers, George Cleem, Billy Clinton, George Matthews,Bob Sutherland, and the Diamond Brothers still ring in the minds of thesepeople. These men were the owners of some of the early big machines in theUpper Valley. The operation of these machines required great skill and money.

The first threshing machines in the Upper Valley were classifiedas the "big machines." These machines were scarce. Each personwho owned one of these rigs threshed for approximately 26 farmers. The earlymachines often required a crew of 26 men. In addition to these men, severalother jobs such as cook and water boy that were very important.

In the early days of mechanized threshing, around the turnof the century a "big machine" which included the grain separator,the steamer, and the water tank sold for approximately $3,000. Both theseparator and the steamer were giants capable of threshing many acres ina day.

The first separators were constructed of wood, but latermodels were construed of galvanized steel. The separators were giants inthe machinery world. A galvanized separator weighed about eight tons. However,they had a capacity for several hundred bushels per day with a giant fortyinch cylinder harvesting the grain. In the Upper Valley, several companieswere represented by their separators. Rumley, Minneapolis, Avery, Altman-Taylor,J.I. Case, and Huber were among the machines in the area.

The steam traction engines were a very important aspectof harvesting. These machines supplied the power to run the separator andalso to move the threshing machine from farm to farm. It is hard to imaginethe giant size and capacity of one of these steamers unless one of themis seen in operation. The steamer which weighed from ten to twelve tonssported an immense 25 horsepower. This horsepower cannot be rated with today'smodern machine because 25 steam horsepower is capable of immense work. Oneof these traction engines easily handled the capacity of the separator allday, provided it had fuel and water. Several brands of steamers were displayedin the Valley. Garr-Scott, Case, Huber, Minneapolis, Buffalo-Pitts, Advance,and Reeves were among the steamers used in the area.

The actual harvest started in the early part of August.It was at this time that all the farmers in the area cut their grain witha binder and had it in bundles ready for the threshing machine. Some farmerswho were not able to hire a machine for early fall work stacked these shocksso as to keep the moisture from reaching the grain.

As soon as the grain was cut, the threshing rigs set outon their journey. The first of the "big machines" started workabout the 20th of August. From this time until the last of September orthe first part of October the machines worked steady. Sometimes harvestwent as late as November. This did not happen often, and was usually onlyfor late flax crops.

No machine in those days could run without labor duringharvest which intrigued many individuals. The very first machines required25 or 26 men to operate, but this number was reduced within a few yearsby the addition of the self feeder to 19 or 20 men. Each farmer providedhis own grain hauler teams and sometimes part of the other labor force.Each of the big machines had eight teams hauling bundles from the fieldto the machines. Each one of these teams had one man riding the rack. Outin the field there were four men that pitched onto the the bundle racks.Upon arriving at the machine the bundle team driver and one of two spikepitchers or cylinder feeders pitched into the machine. There was bundlewagon on each side of the machine, both pitching in at the same time.

The steamer and the separator were run by four men. Therewas one man running the separator. The steamer required three men to runit. The tankman kept the boiler full of water; the fireman kept the firebox full of straw which was used for fuel; and the engineer kept the machinerunning. Often times the owner of the machine ran either the separator orthe steamer.

The labor was very interesting. The individuals who workedin the Valley during harvest were usually migrant workers. They came fromall parts of the Midwest and Canada. Many of the laborers were lumberjacksfrom the woods east of Warroad, Minnesota. Still others were Ukraines fromSaskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. Many of them came early for shockingand stayed on through harvest.

Harvest also created several other jobs concerned withthe men working on or around the machines. It takes a great amount of foodand water to keep a crew of men going from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. whichwas the length of an average day. Most of the big machine camps had a cookcar with two cooks kept busy the greatest majority of the time. Since therewas no means of refrigeration, meat was bought from the local butcher wagonwhich traveled from a slaughter house in town to all the harvest camps.To feed that amount of men took almost 15 pounds of meat per day. This meantthat each time the butcher wagon came around, which was once every two days,30 pounds of meat had to be purchased.

After the days work was done, the workers were bedded downin many different places. Some camps carried a sleep car with them, butthe greater majority of them let their men sleep in barns or where everthere was a comfortable place to rest.

During the days of the big machines, many interesting andexciting events occurred. Many of the owners of these large machines averagedover 100 acres a day. For several years, Nelson Finney held the Minnesotastate record for threshing 3,200 bushels of wheat in one day. Aside fromthe records threshing brought a cross section of American into the UpperRed River Valley. The labor that moved with the camps gave many people anenrichment that could not come about with many years of traveling throughoutthe world.

Every era must come to an end, but the era of the "bigmachines" will never be forgotten. In the late 1920's smaller threshingmachines were brought into use in the Valley. These machines held severaladvantages. They were economical enough for almost one in five farmers toafford them. Because of labor becoming harder to acquire, these machineswere also a blessing.

These "small machines" were not exactly small.They weighed only a few tons less and were very sturdily built. These newmachines had a cylinder size from 28 to 32 inches. The cost was also less,with a small machine only costing from 15 to 1800 dollars. About this timethere as a reform in the machinery world. With the introduction of the gastractor farming became more mechanized.

Many new names also started to appear on the actual separator.McCormick-Deering, Case, Nichols-Sheppard Red River Special, Wood Brothers,Huber, and Avery were among the popular brands used by farmers in the UpperRed River Valley. Machinery manufacturers were beginning to build theirmachinery for the small farmers as well as the large.

The gasoline engine brought many new names to the Red RiverValley as well. Case and Minneapolis were familiar names already establishedin business, but new engines such as Twin City, Rumley, Altman-Taylor, andInternational-Mogul began to appear.

With the advent of the smaller machines, the labor needwas cut drastically. Many farmers used only four to six bundle teams. Theneed for anyone to run the engine was reduced because of the introductionof the gasoline engine. The cook car was still in operation, but it neverfed the giant crews as in the days of the big machines.

The era of the giant threshing machines rolling slowlytoward another farm and another job is gone. The memories of both man andmachine will forever remain in the hearts of those who knew threshing asit was in "the good old days."

Many interested men are restoring the threshing rigs torunning condition. In the Red River Valley there are several threshing "bees"held each year where anyone who cares to enjoy a day of memories will notbe disappointed. It is through men like these that the era of the threshingmachines and the giant steamers will not completely fade away.


isappointed. It is through men like these that the era of the threshingmachines and the giant steamers will not completely fade away.