Harvest - In The Beginning
Author's note: Some pictures in this article will have a caption or title above it. Subsequent text may refer to any picture by the title in this color.
The Crew illustrates shows us where my life and your food begins. It is 1944 and four men face the camera standing or leaning against a pickup, one man kneels with his back to the camera. Further behind them is a team of horses harnessed to a wagon load of grain bundles.
They're having lunch. In those times and that country, lunch was both a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break. Because of the strenuous nature of the work, lunch was a small meal. The noon meal was called dinner and the evening meal was supper. Three of the men knew each other all of their lives and their connections continued until each passed away. The kneeling man is my father. Those standing have fathered children that I grew up with. Those children are grandparents today. Threshing crews were assembled with differing business arrangements. Sometimes money changed hands but often in-kind deals were made. In those days people were not connected through media as they are today. A farmer might go for days without seeing anyone other than those with whom he or she lived. Threshing crew formation was often an opportunity for socializing and catching up, both during and after the work. Often crew members would stay at the farm that was being harvested and there would be parties after work.
The name of the man in the hat is Charlie. I believe this picture was taken on Charlie's family farm. It was 1944, he was 19 and when harvest was done, he went to war. His sweetheart cried the entire day he left. But he came back and married her. He raised four children and raised crops on his own farm. While working alongside of him, his wife became a poet.
Our father went on to raise 11 children and a whole lot of Black Angus. Our mother worked alongside of him and became a journalist. Now his eldest son writes this article, his third son is the President of the National Farmers Union and his fifth son is also a farmer and has a harvesting business.
Nearby, but not visible in The Crew is a threshing machine.
This machine is separating the seeds of the grain from the stems and leaves. This operation is part of what fed America in the 40s and the process goes on today in a more modernized form.
Earlier in the season the sheaves of grain were cut and tied by a binder.
This implement might have been pulled by a tractor or by horses, with a farmhand driving the horses from the back of the machine.
Another farmhand followed closely behind the binder.
The sheaves were collected in small groups and positioned with the cut ends on the ground and the upper ends supporting each other. This structure looks like a teepee and is called a shock or stook.
This configuration enables the grain to be preserved until the threshing crew could get to it. The seeds are off the ground, and can stay relatively dry.
By the middle of the twentieth century steam tractors had been replaced by internal combustion tractors. The threshing machine was stationary and was driven by a belt turned by a pulley on the tractor.
Wagon loads of sheaves pulled by horses were brought to the thresher. Because the sheaves were light, two horses could easily pull the wagon and the grain bundles were picked up by pitchfork and put in the place.
The horses were voice activated. They could start, stop and turn right or left at command. The horses freed up a laborer who would have to in be the driver's seat if a tractor was used. The grain bundles were unloaded into the thresher where stocks, husks and leaves were converted to straw and the precious seeds were set apart for the trip to market.
The straw produced by the threshing was used for bedding. Later on, the straw would be baled, which gave it further utility. Frequently there were markets for straw – flax in particular.
By 1944 my father would have been pulling his binder with a 1941 Model V Case tractor. My father traded his first airplane – a pusher prop Curtiss-Wright Junior – for the tractor. Here is my father driving the same Model V in 2003. In this picture he is 90 years old, still lean and leather-tough, and the tractor is running like a swiss watch.
The harvest picture shows the end of an era. World War II took many of the workers needed for the labor-intensive work of harvesting with threshing machines. Those from Rural America and the farm life were greatly valued in the military. They were in the best shape and used to the elements. Some of the war technology contributed to the development of the combine. Combines were mobile. At first they were pulled by tractors and later self-propelled models were built. Combines eliminated the need for the binding, shocking and hauling of sheaves.
By the time that I was a youngster, threshing machines were no longer used, but corn was still shocked and loaded into a horse drawn wagon by pitchfork. Horses had the same advantages for this task as they did for the threshing crews. Draft horses were still earning their keep in 1960.
I'm not sure about the make of the combine in the picture. Perhaps it is likely from the 1930's or 1940's and probably a Gleaner. The tractor is either a Model D or the smaller Model AR John Deere. The tractor was probably built before World War II because it has no grill over the radiator.
After World War II my father used a Case pull-type Combine with a six-foot header, which is the part that does the cutting and pulls the grain into the implement. He pulled it with an M International Tractor. This is what we see in this picture.
My mother tells me that when she was a young wife, she would often sit on the draw bar between the tractor and the combine and use a stick to help feed the grain into the combine. This was before OSHA.
My father had his first self-propelled combine by 1960. As you can see, he was in the process of assembling a large labor force.
Dad and Combine With Kids
My parents had nine children at the time and they are all present here. I am seated furthest left. Our cousin Norman is next to me. He and I are the same age. The part of the combine I am sitting on is the header, which on this machine is twelve feet wide.
Two more children would follow. My mother put her foot down after that. She had been pregnant for most of 14 years.
I imagine some readers are not familiar with the state of North Dakota. This picture gives a good illustration of what the country is like. It is probably August. In the background is a big cottonwood tree. It had a viewing platform in its branches where hunters could wait to spot and shoot deer. North Dakota deers are mostly big, prime whitetails.
Dad With Combine
Today, most grain is cut and combined in one action. There is some speculation that modern harvesting techniques way be at the root of the increasing frequency of gluten intolerance. Some have conjectured that leaving the grain for a period of time in the shock promotes a mild fermentation that makes the grain more digestible. The hypothesis is yet to have a proof.
The towheaded blond baby sitting in our father's lap in Dad and Combine With Kids is also the boy in the pickup shown in Dad With Combine. He is now a farmer and a custom combiner. He and his family combine from Texas to North Dakota. Now his combines have headers that are 35 or 40 feet wide.