Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“Thrashin’ Day”

By: Christina Ely, Registrar for Plowline: Images of Rural New York

Recently The Farmers’ Museum purchased three photographs for the Plowline: Images of Rural New York collection which really piqued my interest. The photographs show threshing equipment and the process - something I knew nothing about until these photographs entered my office. As it turns out it is quite a fascinating and somewhat complicated subject. Threshing machines made of wood were used as far back as the Civil War. The greatest advances to the machines took place in the latter part of the 19th century when J.I. Case, the Masseys and McCormick & Deering starting producing and selling the giant machines like those we see in these photographs. Most threshers and threshing companies were located in the “western” part of the country (not necessarily what we think of the West now, however), as that is where the large grain farms were located. However, I was surprised to learn that the thresher in one of the photographs was manufactured by the Pioneer Company, out of Shortsville, New York, located in Ontario County.
Hart Parr Tractor and Pioneer Thresher, by unidentified photographer, 1931, F0017.2011(01). Plowline: Images of Rural New York. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

 Threshing was a large and costly job in which an entire year’s crop was put through the machine in one day. Since the machines took a large capital investment, they were acquired in three different ways. Generally one or two local farmers who owned a machine would assist all the local farmers with the duty of threshing grain and those local farmers would pay the owner(s) a fee for use. Sometimes the neighborhood or town farmers went in together and purchased the thresher, all owning a portion of the equipment (and upkeep). This meant that literally the entire community would help thresh everyone’s crop. Neighborhood threshing was the norm. In the west, custom threshing crews were assembled to run the engine and thresher and the farmer provided the rest of the crew from the neighborhood. The custom threshing crews traveled from farm to farm with the machine, from south to north helping each farmer process his annual crop. The threshing crews were quite large as well, requiring up to twenty to twenty-five men to harvest and transport the crop from the field and to storage, run the machines, pitch the grain into the thresher, bag the grain and heave the straw in a pile or on a wagon, as well as other jobs dependent of the time period. The process of threshing can be seen in the two Plowline photos below.

W.E. Vile’s Thresher and Oliver Tractor, by unidentified photographer, 1930-1940, F0017.2011(02). Plowline: Images of Rural New York. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

Threshing, by unidentified photographer, 1942, F0017.2011(03).  Plowline: Images of Rural New York. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York.
Another aspect of “Thrashin’ Day” was the community dinner that was served by the farmer’s wife and daughters for whom the work was being done.  This small group of women would cook up a meal for the large group of men and boys completing the job. It was an effort that the women and girls took great pride in (and served as an act of competition among the women as well). The meal preparation started at or before the break of dawn, if not the day before. The meal consisted of sweet summertime drinks, many kinds of roasted meats, vegetables from the farm, fresh baked breads, and an assortment of freshly baked fruit pies, cakes and cookies. As you might assume, the farmer whose wife was an excellent cook and baker had no problem recruiting help the next time he needed it.

Threshing machines vastly increased productivity and the prosperity of the farmer within a few short years by allowing him to expand his crop and harvest.  When using hand tools such as a sickle less than an acre could be harvested per day, the scythe increased this four-fold. (Threshing was then left for the winter months,) With the threshing machine a farmer could process his entire crop in one day with a suitable sized team, and the entire job was complete. 
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