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  • Ontario, Canada

Threshing Machines in Autumn

To have bread on the table was the end result of a lot of back-breaking labour but “the staff of life” was only possible if the land was cleared, the weather held and the seeds took root. So many things could go wrong in all the steps – problems not thought of in the well stocked bread aisles of our modern supermarkets.

First, oxen were the usual choice to pull the farm implements.  In 1851 there were twice as many oxen as horses in Westmeath Township. Oxen were stronger than the average draft horse and they were more hardy, easier to maintain, and could pull plows, harrows and wagons. By the 1900’s the introduction of the threshing machine to separate the grain from the stocks and husks was heralded as a great advance.

From Wikipedia:  “Threshing is just one process in getting cereals to the grinding mill and customer. The wheat needs to be grown, cut, stooked (shocked, bundled), hauled, threshed, and then the grain hauled to storage and the chaff baled. For many years each of these steps was an individual process, requiring teams of workers and many machines.”

Once the number of acres under cultivation grew beyond what a farm family could handle themselves, farmers started to work together to take off the harvest each autumn.

The cutting and binding into sheaves was the first stage of the harvest. Then stooking to let the sheaves of grain air dry. If the weather held, you could get the sheaves loaded on wagons and into the barn, out of the elements. Mildew might set in and ruin the grain if rains hit. Next you would wait until your farm’s threshing day was at hand. These threshing gangs would soon get the job done, going from farm to farm sharing the work and the machinery. Hard work seemed easier if many hands pitched in together.

The women of the farmstead would undertake to feed all the crew of men with a big hardy noon meal, all cooked on a wood stove, even if the weather was sweltering hot. No wonder many farm homes had “summer kitchens”, an addition at the back of the house with a second cookstove; thus keeping the heat generated by the baking, out of the main house.  Breads and pies could be made the day ahead.

Wilfred Ethier of Rapid Road, Westmeath, using the binder to cut and bind or tie  the grain into sheaves. This mechanization was much appreciated but the next stage of stoking the sheaves to air dry, was all done by hand.

Wilfred Ethier of Rapid Road, Westmeath, using the binder to cut and bind or tie  the grain into sheaves. This mechanization was much appreciated but the next stage of stoking the sheaves to air dry, was all done by hand.

Bromley Line Threshing Crew at Milton Bromley’s, 1916.
Written on back of photo: “Jolly Buggers, Eh”.

Bromley Line Threshing Gang: Standing from left: Garnet Bromley, Harry Poupore, A. Huckabone, Bill Bromley, John Burke, Joe M. Dupuis, Fred Bromley, Raoul Bertrand, Alex Ethier, Wilfred Hughes. Sitting: Izett Anderson, John Lafranier, Bill Candom.

John McGonegal’s Threshing Mill

Next two pictures and captions from the Laurentian View W.I. Tweedsmuir Book.

Custom threshing was a welcome improvement. One Perretton resident John McGonegal was the owner of a threshing mill for many years and spent all the autumn months going from farm to farm threshing the grain which had been stored in the barns to await the farmer’s turn to have his grain threshed and put up in the granary.

Perretton Threshing Gang: Robert Crozier on the engine, George Burgess, Stephen Kenny, Joseph Kenny, Duncan Cameron, A.F. Cameron, John Cassidy, James Coskery, John Kenny Sr., Joseph Lafleur, Samuel McClelland, Hiram McClelland, James Crozier, William Cotnam, Alex Ross. The child is Charles Kilby, a home boy at A.F. Cameron’s residence

Here we have McGonegal’s mill at the farm of Duncan Cameron an early settler and a newer model threshing on the farm of R.T. McLaughlin in Greenwood.  The mill was pulled out of the barn in order to have the picture taken.  Now all grain is threshed in the field, not at the barn.

Threshing at R.T. McLaughlin Farm

Men with a longing for cash and adventure sometimes signed up for a harvest season out west on the prairies where a strong back and good work habits could set  up a fellow.   Many a lad from the township signed on and returned with fuller pockets and broader horizons.

1905 Prairie Threshing Mill

This above picture from Lloyd Howard of Westmeath, of threshing operations on the Canadian prairies is from 1905.  Mr. Howard’s  father Robert Howard is the gentleman on the left wearing a hat with his back to the camera standing in front of the drive belt.  When hand feeding this threshing mill, the operator had to cut the strings on the sheaves.  Also there is no blower for straw on the mill.  The steam engine was fired with straw, as there was no wood available on the prairies.

The Old Threshing Machine

From Westmeath  Women’s Institute Tweedsmuir Book, 1982

Farming was not always what it is today with modern machines combining a field while the driver sits listening to his favourite music.  Farming in the old days meant gangs of men working around a machine in the hot blazing sun getting the crop off the field.

Two farmers, Willard and Andrew Gervais were part of this era when 10 or 12 men were needed to run a  threshing machine.  Their machine, the Waterloo Champion Threshing Separator, threshed the grain after it was stocked and gathered.  The men would either operated it in the barn or in the fields in the summer months.

The machine was bought in 1924 by Cyril Gervais, Andrew’s dad and later sold to Albert Gervais, Willard’s dad in 1835. Both Andrew and Willard remember the many long hours they worked with their fathers in the fields. When they took over the family farms, they continued operation of the machine.  Their separator was the only one in the immediate LaPasse area and they rented it out to nearby farms between Joe Leblanc and Ned Lacroix. The machine was rented out at $2.50 an hour and the owner would have to furnish his own labour, like neighbours Paul Leblanc, Louis Lacroix and Alex Lachance.

Andrew and Willard Gervais, both of LaPasse, remember the days when the old threshing machine was part of farm life. It was later replaced by the combine. Photo taken with the old Waterloo Champion Threshing Operator in 1978 – now housed at Champlain Trail Museum, Pembroke.

Other farmers who had threshing machines in the area included the Anderson’s on Bromley Line and Jack Drysdale on the Eighth Line and the Buchannan’s on the River Road.  The old threshing machine was belt driven with power from a tractor. Sheaves went into a feeder after they were forked off the wagon. After that they went through a mill and into a cylinder where the grain was knocked off the straw, the straw then went over a straw deck and out a blower.  The grain then comes out the bagger to be bagged and piled.  Children were sometimes given the job of running the blower but a good responsible man was in charge of feeding the mill.

“Someone in that part of the mill had to be good and steady.  If they feed it too fast, they would plug and break the machine and set us back a few days,” said Willard.

If the machine ever did break down the Gervais always ordered from a catalogue for the broken parts and fixed the machine themselves.  It had a 24 inch cylinder and a 36 inch separating body purchased for $500 in 1924.  A similar cylinder today would cost thousands of dollars. On an average day the men worked from early morning until 6 pm. They went home at night. The Gervais both remember warmly the good meals that the farm wives prepared for the hungry men who had been threshing all day.  There were always homemade pies and bread and three good meals a day.

Crops threshed were oats, wheat, peas, barley, and some soybeans. These grains were sold to the lumber camps along the Quebec side several farmers had contracts to deliver these goods.  Both the Gervais remember taking these contracts for the Gillis and Booth lumber companies.  Andrew said he would wait for the Ottawa River to freeze over so that he could make his weekly trip up to the supply depot. On the average he would travel about 22 miles a day taking four days to get there and two to get home.

“We would start in January and finish about March 10.  I would load up the sleigh with a lunch box, several quilts, a buffalo blanket, feed for the horses and my load”, recalls Andrew.

If they were delivering hay, they would get $30 for their week’s work and $100. if they delivered oats.  “It would have been nice if they would have allowed us to take oats, but they made us mix the contract,” said Willard.  They had to space their trips starting out on different days of the week because of the number of sleighs on the route. About 100 teams would portage into the various stops along the way to the lumber camps.

“We never saw a bed during the winter months,” said Andrew. “We would stay at stops along the way that were little more than a roof over our heads. We would sleep on the quilts and the buffalo blanket and sleep in our clothes.” Some of the stops on the way to the Booth Lumber Co. included one at Denault, Manitou, Shyan, Poplars, Raymond Lake and Moose Creek.  To get to the Gillis Lumber Co., stops were made at Crooked Lake, Bertrand Lake and John Bell’s depot.

But those days ended in the early forties when the lumber companies hired trucks to drive in the supplies instead of the sleighs and horses. Then the farmers used the grain to feed their animals instead of selling it to the lumber companies. About two decades later, the threshing machine also came to an end and was replaced by the modern combine.  The old threshing machine was used for the last time in 1967.  The main problem near the end was to find someone competent to operate it.  There just wasn’t the manpower to have 10 or 12 people to come to a threshing. Andrew notes that wages are too high to permit the use of such a machine today.

“If people charged $5.00 an hour for their labour and you received only $1.75 a bushel for the grain, you might as well pack it in” he said.

And so in 1967, the threshing machine was put aside for a new combine, says Willard.  The combine required only one farmer to operate it. The machine cuts the grain when ripe, puts it in trough the cylinder and then separates the straw from the grain. The grain then enters the holding tank and when full empties into a truck. It is a labour saving device and both men agree that although the new method is faster, they miss the camaraderie of the men all working together in the field to get the job done.

Both men are now actively out of farming.  Willard sold his farm this year and Andrew’s son now has taken over the farm for a third generation. They agree that farming is much more complex than when they started over 40 years ago.

“In the thirties when I started to farm, you could build up your farm as you went along.  But now a young farmer needs $200,000. 00 to get started,” said Andrew.

Both men have warm memories of their days of active farming especially their days of working with the Waterloo Threshing Separator.  But they do not dwell on the past and both are enjoying their retirement.  The Waterloo Thresher is now on display at the Champlain Trail Museum in Pembroke.

This article has written for the Cobden Sun in June 1978.  Andrew was married to the former Valerie Vizena of Westmeath and since this article was written, Andrew has passed away. Willard was married to the former Edith McMullen of Westmeath and she passed away in December, 1978.

The Old Hay Press:  Hay was a cash crop for a farmer and  required in vast amounts in a society powered by horses.  Loose hay could be stored in the barns on a homestead for the farm’s own use, but if the farmer wanted to sell hay on to the wider market, hay needed to be “pressed”, or compacted, to make hay transporting easier.  Predating the hay balers, was the hay press.  Like at threshing bees, a pressing bee would bring all the neighbours out to work together.

This article from the Cobden Sun, August 24, 1977, is an excellent review of that world of the Old Hay Press.

Every spring the yearly cycle began all over again with the Westmeath farmers in their fields preparing the ground for a new season.

Undated clipping submitted by Sandra Jeffrey.