Threshing Time on the Farm

when rural neighbors banded together to work and eat

Connie Russell

Although the combine had been invented, in the ’40s and early ’50s, threshing – or thrashing, as it was often called – was the method most small farmers still used to separate oats from the seed husks known as chaff. The arrival of the threshing machine at each farm brought great excitement, and I couldn’t wait for it to come to our farm in the Town of Hallie. When it was our turn, I’d watch it lumbering down the road and shriek, “Mom, It’s coming.” The neighbors soon followed to help with the process.

Powered by a steam engine, the machine separated the straw and chaff, or husks, from the oats. The straw was blown into one end of the hay mow to be used as bedding for the cows. Pieces of chaff that came loose and blew through the sky looked like pieces of gold in the sun, and the men would soon be covered with the debris. The oats were harvested and became a part of the grist that my father fed the cows and horses each day in the winter when cows couldn’t graze. Dad would take an old coffee can and gave each animal half a can of the grist along with silage which was the entire cornstalk chopped and fermented in the silo. This supplemented hay.

My mother saw these meals as a contest among neighborhood women and prided herself on making the best meal in the neighborhood even though our family had little money. As the men left, they offered their thanks for the good meal, and my mother accepted the compliments from them with a smile and a small nod. 

My mother, Ethel, was never as excited about threshing as me as she had to prepare a large meal at noon for the two days the machine was on our farm, and those men could eat. One of my mother’s sisters, either Aunt Frances or Aunt Margaret, always came to help cook. Both in size 20 to 24 dresses, they bantered and called to each other as they flew back and forth from the kerosene stove in the summer kitchen, where we moved to eat in late spring, to the winter kitchen, which was idle in summer because of the wood stove. Those days were always sunny and hot, and they used the bottom of their aprons to wipe the perspiration from their faces as they worked. They set tables in the winter kitchen using long boards and sawhorses that my mother covered with tablecloths and, by the time the men came in to eat, Mom and my aunt had put on clean aprons to serve the food. I set the table and watched to see what dishes needed refilling. The menu never varied; my mother had butchered chickens the day before, then browned and baked them on the days the threshers came. She boiled and mashed potatoes, made gravy from the chicken drippings, boiled corn on the cob, and cut tomatoes into thick slices. Coffee and water were provided along with thick slices of homemade bread, butter, and jelly. Apple pie finished the meal. The men talked very little other than to ask someone to pass a dish. They ate heartily, cleaning their plates of everything but a few small chicken bones, but they always had room for the pie. 

My mother saw these meals as a contest among neighborhood women and prided herself on making the best meal in the neighborhood even though our family had little money. As the men left, they offered their thanks for the good meal, and my mother accepted the compliments from them with a smile and a small nod. When Dad, in turn, worked at another neighboring farm during threshing, Mom couldn’t wait to ask him what he had eaten for noon dinner. “Oh, I guess just some bologna and beans,” he would say, and Mom would audibly sniff.

When the machine moved to the next farm, it left huge indentations in the earth. I could sit in the holes nearly up to my shoulders. But ground wasps also loved the holes left by the threshing machine’s wheels, and I couldn’t compete with them. Stung and with bees chasing me, I raced for the house, leaving the giant holes for the bees and sorry that I had to wait another year for threshing time.

As I pass by farms now and see a combine run by a solitary farmer, a part of me mourns the loss of so many of Wisconsin’s small farms, the old threshing machines, and the camaraderie of neighbor helping neighbor.


Connie Russell lives with her husband, Tim, on Lake Wissota where she reads, writes, and works with the Friends of the Library.

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