Vincent Ranch, Hamilton, Montana, 1914
The Threshing Business
An excerpt from
by Marjorie Coomns - Vincent
THRESHING MACHINE AND TRACTOR
Flossie and Herb Vincent, 1938
Our Dad was a very hard working, enterprising man. In addition to farming, he did custom work of three kinds: threshing, plowing, and sugar beet hauling. Mother assisted him all she could in these enterprises.
Dad never operated a steam-energized threshing machine, but he had a small separator and a tractor with lugs with which to move the outfit and to power it. This smaller one was getting obsolete, and he wanted the newest thing. I believe the year he made the change was 1930. The separator’s ability to thresh field peas in addition to grains was the big selling point. That was done by changing the screens and reducing the speed of the main cylinder by one-half. This machine, under Dad and Mother’s operation, gained a fine reputation for doing good work.
The tractor, too, was much larger and more powerful than the old Fordson and our skillful Father equipped both pieces of machinery with large rubber tires which made it possible for him to use paved roads and move more rapidly from one job to the next.
Each season early in July this equipment would be pulled into the shade of Grandmother’s big yard and considerable time would be spent putting it in first class condition. Frank, Jr. and Herbie were sometimes called upon to crawl into the small places in the machinery to clean them.
When the grain ripened the farmers went into their fields with a binder—an antique piece of farm equipment now. It was pulled by a team of horses and had a sickle (blade) which could be raised and lowered similar to one found on a hay mower. A large reel turned around and gently knocked the stalks of grain so that they fell onto a conveyor belt when they were cut. The stalks were automatically tied into bundles with binder twine and dropped off the rear of the machine.
The farm hands walking behind the binder picked up several of these bundles and stood them heads up in “shocks” throughout the field. This was to prevent mildew if it rained while they awaited the thresher.
During this time Dad or Mother would drive through the countryside soliciting business from old customers and prospects whose fields they had spied. While chatting about the crops they would give their sales pitch and secure a promise that the job would be theirs.
Once the machinery was at work it became Mother’s responsibility to keep the farm folk happy. This was particularly true when there was a breakdown or other delay. She would reassure them that parts were being rushed and that the equipment would be up and running again in a few hours. Then when the rig was just about to arrive at a job site she would drive ahead the day before to give the farmer time to rally his crews and his wife time to bake the pies and kill the chickens to feed those hungry workers.
Dad’s outfit took six or eight teams (a two-horse team, wagon and driver). Most of this work was done on an exchange basis between farmers—taking turns helping each other. In addition, there were pitching crews in the fields. These wagon drivers would go into the field, gather the grain onto the wagon and haul it to the threshing machine which was set up at a location selected by the farmer. Usually this took into consideration where he wished to have his straw piled.
This is how the set-up of the equipment took place: the separator was pulled into the desired location and the tractor unhitched and moved out a distance of 100 feet where it was lined up so that the fly wheel on the tractor was in perfect alignment with the major fly wheel on the separator. Then when a 100-foot belt was attached with careful manipulation so that it was absolutely true—the threshing operation would begin.
Of course, the two-man crew that worked for Dad, and later Mother, became very proficient at this and could do it quickly and well. The tractor was thrown into the right gear and the belt activated the machinery—the conveyor belts, the knives, the rollers, the screens, the elevator and the blowers. It was truly an amazing contraption!
Before the signal to start could be given they had to be sure that someone was ready to handle the grain sacks. Often the farmer himself did this. Then at a signal from Dad or the hired man in charge, the teams of wagons would come up on each side of one end of the threshing which extended out about four feet. The men on the wagons would pitchfork the bundles of grain onto a conveyor belt that was about two feet wide. These were then drawn into moving knives that chopped the bundles and cut the twine. The grain was shook, rolled, screened and blown until clean, it was lifted by an elevator to a weighing device and then fell through a five foot long spout about twelve inches in diameter. This was located mid length of the machine.
The spout had a lever at the lower end so that the grain could be switched from one side to the other in order that the grain sack handler could keep up with it. There were hooks at the sides of the spout where 100-pound gunny sacks could be hung. While the grain was pouring into one bag, the handler attached one at the opposite side. When the first bag was filled, he would switch the lever to the side with the empty bag.
When it was really going with high yield grain let me tell you the sack handler was really moving. It didn’t take long for one of those burlap bags to fill. This is where the speed in sack sewing was so important, something one doesn’t see done now except at County Fair Sack Sewing contests. You may ask, ‘What’s the point in sack sewing? Why was it necessary to be fast at sewing sacks?’ Well, that’s the reason. The grain came pouring down and it was “gold”—the farmer’s livelihood and he didn’t want it spilled on the ground.
To sew the sack the sack handler would grab a handful of the material at one end of the opening into an “ear” around which he took the first stitch and a tight loop. Rapidly, with closed stitches, he would move across the opening to the opposite side where he would grasp another “ear” around which he would loop and fasten the twine. These “ears” were the handles with which the bags of grain were lifted.
At the opposite end of the separator from the conveyor belt there was a tube about 12 inches in diameter and about 12 feet long, with a flexible device at the end, which could deflect the straw, or the entire tube could be maneuvered and folded atop the machine for traveling. As the day progressed this pile of beautiful, slick straw became higher and higher. Children loved to play in and slide on it which brought down the wrath of their fathers who wanted to keep the straw clean and unbroken to use for bedding for their livestock.
At noon the machinery was shut down and the teams of horse unhitched from their wagons and led to the farmyard. Their harnesses were loosened so that they might rest, they were given copious drinks of water from flume, water tank or farmyard stream and they were fed grain from a nosebag.
The housewife usually had a bench set outside her back door upon which was placed several wash basins with soap, towels, and buckets of warm water so that the men could remove the morning’s sweat and grime before partaking of their noon meal. Once they came into the farmhouse they really “chowed down” the good food. After all that hard work they were very, very hungry. Usually, the food was hearty and delicious. The housewife prided herself on doing her part of the harvest well. Our crew rarely complained except to say that they got “an awful lot of chicken”.
There were a few exceptions—probably not more than one or two—where the farmer’s wife kept a dirty kitchen with no screens to keep out the multitude of flies. In those instances, the ideal solution was to get there too late in the afternoon for the noon meal and to be finished before noon the next day!
If the farmer had less than ten acres of grain he would bind, haul, and stack it in the farmyard. The thresher was then set up right beside the little stack and the farmer tossed in the bundles. There were no huge ranchlands of grain in the Bitterroot. Anything over 100 acres was considered a very large crop and there were not many of these. Forty to eighty acres was the usual grain field.
Threshing was very dirty, itchy work. The chaff and straw penetrated one’s clothing and got down ones neck. It certainly wouldn’t have been any place for persons with allergies. I can remember how red-rimmed the eyes of our crew were. I wonder what their lungs looked like. I can recall visiting Dad and the hired help at the machinery, and they would really be dirty.
They slept in a small, tent-covered trailer. I expect that that got pretty old—not the best bed in the world either. And no chance to shower or bathe! An effort was made to relieve them once or twice a week so that they might go home to clean up. The equipment was never left alone at night although there was little vandalism in those days. Even so it was expensive machinery, and the theft of a small gear or wheel could cause serious delays.
Because of so much highly combustible material next to the machinery one of the big fears of the threshing business was fire. There was a very firm rule: ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING. Our Dad learned to chew tobacco and always did so in the fall while threshing.
Another fear when operating the threshing machine was that the tall, narrow separator would be tipped over and wrecked costing heavy repair bills and delays in the business. The steep terrain over which it had to be hauled aggravated this worry. One fall, while Mother was operating the business, this actually happened.
Here is hired man Jack Miller’s account of what happened that day: “The first cock-eyed day we was goin’ out threshin’ we were goin’ up on the bench above Frank Duus’s place to Larry Polson’s to thresh peas. It was kind of a winding road I had traveled time and time again. The separator was strung out behind the machine, and we had a trailer on the back of it.”
“I thought, well, this would be a good time for him (the new man) to take over the tractor because he’s goin’ to have to and I was settin’ there on the fender playing with my little old Scotty dog—not payin’ much attention. Pretty soon I looked up and I see we was goin’ around this curve, and he was hugging right over to the side with the tractor. I hollered, ‘Pull that tractor over in the center’. I jumped down on the tongue of the separator and I just looked back in time to see the hind wheel going over the edge and I said, ‘Oh, my God!’”
“But we were lucky in one way—that was swampy ground along there and about all it did was crush the grain elevator up to the weigher. I had to rebuild that. I called out the wrecker and we got it back on the road and up to Larry’s place. I had to jerk the elevator off and buy new wood for it and we had some elevator tin made.”
About the incident, Mother said, “By the time I got up there they had it back on the road. After we’d worried about it all those years when it did go over it wasn’t all that much. There wasn’t much delay.”
There was one other person who operated a custom threshing machine in the south end of the county. Our parents were very competitive. They were kind, cheerful, friendly persons and evidently the farmers liked to deal with them. They were very businesslike and the whole transaction was handled as efficiently as possible to keep the farmers happy. They handled the largest share of the business.
The route took the rig from Grantsdale to a farming area south of Darby—about 20 to 25 miles from our home. The crew then looped back on one side of the river or the other and continued north of Hamilton to the Corvallis area taking in the wide benchlands east of Hamilton. I would estimate that from one end of the territory to the other was 35 miles.
An attempt was made to go first to that part of the valley where the grain was ripening fastest. This depended upon the amount of moisture climate and type of grain. Peas were usually harvested first where possible. As the season progressed the farmers became more and more anxious that their crops—their year’s labor and income—would be ruined by the weather. A heavy rain or windstorm would shell out the kernels. A sudden hailstorm was a natural disaster that threshed the harvest on the ground. Peas that were cut and left in the field in windrows before being shocked like hay could be rolled in a windstorm and shelled. Because of this the pressures were heavy on Dad and Mother to get the work done—each farmer believing that his crop was the most important.
The business went on from early August until mid-October and although it was hard, demanding, and dirty there was an excitement as well as a deep satisfaction to be found in it. The weather, for the most part, was a beautiful Indian summer—cool evenings and bright, beautiful blue-sky daytimes. Jan Blacklaw Coombs, who was raised on a huge wheat ranch near Walla Walla, Washington, long wished to be “home” at harvest. She had a deep longing to be there to experience the culmination of the year’s hard labors—the gathering in of the grain.
When a job was finished and the next farmer notified, Mother would go back and collect for the work. She was always a very persistent collector and over all the years that she did this she lost nothing. Because these were depression years, she felt immediate collection was best. Sometimes, if the grain had not been sold, she would have to accept barter in payment. This might be stove wood, grain, a hog, or a calf—anything that our family could use. She remembered only one instance when the housewife refused to come to the door repeatedly when Mother was collecting, and she had to file a lien against the crop in order to get our money.
What did our parents charge for this custom work? The charge was levied at so much per bushel with a tally provided by the weighing device at the top of the grain spout. Each grain was priced differently depending on the work necessary to set up to thresh it. As I recall it was between 8 and 10 cents a bushel for wheat and oats and a pea job cost the farmer 12 cents per bushel. A bushel of wheat (the heaviest) weighed 60 pounds. When a “stack” job was done the price was $12 for the job.
These crops were raised on irrigated land for the most part. If a wheat crop went 40 to 60 bushels to the acre it was considered to be a very fine crop.
Wages for the crew were very low and good help could be had for less than $5 per day with meals and a place to sleep provided. Mother remembered that for all this hard work and investment the custom threshing business netted the family about $1,000 a season. Our parents were pleased with that figure.
Threshing Account Book, 1938
The Plowing and Beet Hauling Business
Dad, in order to maximize his custom business, purchased a 2 ½ ton beet hauling truck in 1934. The large, rectangular-shaped wooden bed was designed to allow the two long sides to be hinge-lowered for easier loading. At that time there were many acres of sugar beets grown in the farmlands north of Hamilton and Mexican stoop labor was brought in to work the beet fields. The crops were contracted to the sugar factory in Missoula and, of course, the crop had to be hauled from the muddy fields to the railhead for transport. The trucker was paid by the ton abut I am sorry to say the amount of payment has long been forgotten.
Jack Miller had heard about the new truck and thought it would be exciting work to drive it. But Dad already had hired someone else to handle the job and he didn’t know if this young kid—this handsome young Kansan in his early 20’s could do the job. It was near the end of the threshing season, so he was hired as a tractor man instead. It wasn’t many days until Dad took him off that job and put him on the beet truck. The other fellow hadn’t proved out—he was only hauling about 15 tons of beets a day with the two shovelers Dad had hired. That simply wasn’t enough to pay for the truck and make a profit.
Jack accepted the challenge. He was going to prove himself if it killed him. Jack told me, “The other driver wasn’t shoveling. I got out and helped the shovelers. It wasn’t long until we jumped it up to 30 tons a day. This one day I brought the account slip from the scales and showed your Dad. He said, ‘What’s this, there must be some mistake. You’ve got 40 tons down here!’” Jack said, “That’s right, that’s what we hauled today. His fact lit up like a country church!”
I think that was probably their peak day. They probably had ideal conditions—a high producing crop, they didn’t get stuck, they were feeling particularly good, the haul to the railhead may have been shorter, and the weather compatible. I am certainly not attempting to make light of these three men’s efforts. Much of their success was the gamesmanship, the comradeship and the challenge that Jack was able to instill in the men with whom he worked. It was another hard, dirty job well done.
In the spring and fall, after the threshing season, the tractor was operated for custom plowing. It was outfitted with lights so it could run long hours each day to accomplish the greatest amount of work following or before the winters freeze up. Low to the ground because of the rubber tires, it sometimes became mired or high-centered causing some delays. Jack Miller and Howard McKittrick did the plowing in shifts. Plowing was paid for by the acre, but the charge cannot be remembered nor can the amount earned in a season.
After it froze up, Jack quotes our Dad as saying, “Jack, I can’t pay you anything this winter unless we can do some kind of work but you can stay here—your board isn’t going to cost you anything. I want you so stay with me.”
“And your Dad and I wound up awfully close. I thought an awful lot of him. He taught me a lot of things that helped me in later life. He was just one peach of a guy. Of course, you know, like I say, there was a lot of difference in our ages but then your Dad said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody that I could put out and trust with anything more than I can you.’ So that went quite a ways with me. He was a wonderful guy. He wouldn’t do nothin’ to hurt anybody knowingly. He had a heart as big as the outdoors. He loved machinery and so did I.”
More to the story…
After her husband, Frank Seymour Vincent’s death in 1936, Flossie managed the threshing business that they had run for 25 years in the Bitter Root Valley. With the help of her crew, Frank Junior, Jack Miller and Kenneth Rogers, Flossie successfully served the farmers in Hamilton, Montana.
In 2023, I discovered Flossie’s “Thresherman’s Account Book,” from the summer of 1938. I found an entry where she threshed 163 bushels of wheat for Jim Foley! She charged him $10.00 for threshing his crop, plus 3 ½ hours of gas at $1.75. Evidently, Mr. Foley could not afford the entire $11.75 bill, so she extended him credit. When farmers could not pay their entire threshing bill, Flossie was known for extending them credit so they could get their crops to market.
During that summer in 1938, Flossie and her crew threshed 25,719 bushels of wheat, oats, rye, and peas, and earned $1,369.02.