On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Last Threshing Run

My brother, Ken Wald, recounts the following bygone event, which was originally published in the Slater (Iowa) Area Historical Association Newsletter of May 2006. 
            The summer of 1946 I had just gotten out of the U.S. Navy, having been in the last battle of the war at Okinawa a year earlier. The Navy lost more than 4,000 men there, and the Army and Marines lost around 7,613 men.  After being discharged, I became a member of the 52-20 Club ($20.00 a week for 52 weeks) while looking for permanent work.  In other words, I had plenty of time on my hands.
            While growing up, I had spent summers on the farm of my grandparents Cyrus R. and Bertha Tesdell Sydnes.  Those had always been a fun times, especially for a city boy from Des Moines. Sometime during that summer of '46 my uncle Ed Sydnes, who lived at my grandparents' farm, asked me if I would like to haul bundles for him during the threshing run, which would take place end of August. ''Run'' simply referred to the several farms in the area that were to have threshing done. Knowing that the threshing of oats had been a exciting time with all the activity going on, I jumped at the chance. I also knew that this would be my opportunity to be on the last threshing run; after that, it all would be done with combines.
            I was to drive a team of horses using a hayrack, a large box-like wagon, surrounded on four sides with boards that were separated several inches apart and extending up from the floor bottom about four feet (could be higher or lower). The horses I was to use belonged to another uncle, Fred Sydnes, who lived over by Alleman. They were two beautiful bays, brown in color and named Doc and Dan. They were very gentle and obedient and could even be ridden. Sometimes, if I had a load of oats on the wagon at quitting time, I would have to ride one of the horses and lead the other one back to our farm if there was no stall available at the farm where we were working. Doc was the leader but Dan would pull his weight too. Uncle Ed showed me how to harness them, and it was a job to throw that harness up over those big rumps. The next thing was to learn how to hitch them up to the wagon. There were some chains on the rear of the harness that attached to what is called the doubletree. The doubletree was attached to the tongue of the wagon and the front of the tongue was attached to the harness between the horses in the front of the wagon.
            The first day the doubletree broke before I even got started, so a new one had to be bought and installed the next day. The wagons would go out into the fields in twos to pick up the bundles of oats. I was teamed up with another fellow named Bill Houge, a nice looking and accomodating young man who was working for Mike Mickelson, also in that run. Mike was the engineer who kept the threshing machine in good working condition. That was quite a job since there were many moving parts on it that had to be greased and oiled and then repaired when something broke down. Mike was a wiry little man with a high voice and a Norwegian accent.  Like my uncle, Mike was also a bachelor and very likeable.
            My uncle drove the tractor that was used to pull the threshing machine from one farm to another and which actually ran the threshing machine by use of a long belt connected from the flywheel on the tractor to one on the threshing machine. Uncle Ed could pull that threshing machine anywhere—through narrow gates and difficult locations just outside the barn where the straw was to be blown in or out in the yard to be stacked.
            Prior to threshing the oats, it first had to be cut and stacked in the field. The oat stalks had the oats at the top of the stem or the straw. A binder machine was used to do the cutting (usually a McCormick Deering). It was pulled by a team of horses with a large platform and cutting saw blade on the side. The driver sat in the back of the machine to steer the horses and operate the various levers that ran the machine. The next job was for a man to pick up the bundles and stack them together with six to a stack, one on the top to protect the stack from rain.
            Extra help was usually brought in to the stacking of what was called shocking. It had to be finished in time for the threshing. When it was time for the threshing, we would start going out in the field with our rig about seven AM and work until lunch time and then out again until about six PM. Out in the field, we would first throw the bundles into the wagon box, using a three-pronged pitch fork. We would throw these in the box any which way until they reached the top of the box which was approximately four feet high. After that, we would start placing the bundles side by side alI around the box slightly tapered in toward the inside. This helped to keep the load from sliding off when it got higher in the wagon. The reins that went to the horses were tied to the top of the ladder in the front part of the wagon so they could be reached once the wagon was filled.
            The horses responded to "Getup'' or ''Whoa'' or maybe just a clicking sound from the driver's mouth to have them start. We would fill the wagon with bundles until we could not throw them any higher; then we would climb up the ladder and head back to the threshing machine to unload them. That was quite a ride back as the wagon would sway from side to side under the big load. One time, the back of my wagon caught a post going through a gate and I lost part of the load on to the ground. Bill quickly helped me throw it back on top so it turned out ok—thanks to Bill.
            Once the hayracks arrived back at the machine, they were driven up as close to the machine as possible right next to the big belt coming from the tractor. The horses did not like being so close to that turning belt and had to take a little coaxing by the driver. The bundles were pitched into the loader and the machine took over by shaking out the oats and then the straw blown out the blower pipe into the barn or stack.
            The women worked hard preparing meals for the threshing crew and they were wonderful meals and welcomed for the hungry thrashers. They consisted of a full course dinner and usually pie for dessert. We men all sat around the table with our sweaty clothes but clean hands and faces from washing up outside in the places provided. It was difficult sometimes for the women to know if they would also be serving the meal because the threshing might get done prior to mid-day and the team would move on to the next farm. Then that place would be responsible to get the meal. The women were usually assisted by friends or relatives in preparing the meals.
            Some of the farms on the run that I can recall were those of C.R. Sydnes (my grandfather), Ole Fjelland, Albert Alleman, Stanley Floden, Shorty Ersland, Louis Anfinson, Ernie Sydnes, OIe Storing, J.R. Sydnes, Mike Mickelson and Irving Ryan—most all the men were of Norwegian extraction.  I well remember Ernie Sydnes and Shorty Ersland who both drove the oats wagons. They were fun guys and when I was a kid would tease me about growing up to be a bachelor like my uncle Ed. They were right about that. For me, this bit of history that took place nearly seventy years ago was a great experience to be remembered with clarity and nostalgia since it was never to be repeated.