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Harvest Tales

South Central Kansas

McPherson County

Harvest stories submitted by Kansans for the online exhibit, Wheat People.
Submit your own at KansasMuseum@kshs.org.

Stephen Stover

Binding and Threshing Wheat in the Early 1920s

"Harvest time" of course meant "wheat harvest time," and in those days it was "binder time." My father had two binders: a seven-foot Deering and an eight-foot McCormick. Typically, our hired man drive the Fordson tractor (steel-wheeled, of course) to pull the McCormick while a neighbor rode on the binder to operate the controls. Meanwhile, my father would hitch his four-horse team to the Deering and work in another field. . . .

With the binders operating in the field, my mission as water boy became almost as important, I thought, as that of tractor driver. Sometimes, I hauled a wooden keg, wrapped in wet burlap. More often it was a two-gallon crockery jug, corked with an old corn cob and also swathed in a wet burlap (gunny) sack. Carrying water to the field was hard work, even with the help of my weary express wagon.

Threshing then was a separate process, occurring from a few days to a few weeks after harvest. My father owned a Twin City threshing machine, or "separator," as he called it. However, since his Fordson was small and lacked a belt pulley, he partnered with a neighbor who had a more powerful Wallis, gray with red wheels. To me its most important quality was its exciting exhaust sound; at idling speed it was guttural, resonant and pregnant with possibilities.

In the stubble field after wind direction and speed had been carefully noted, the standard procedure was to dig a small depression in the dusty soil in front of each wheel of the separator and then to pull the machine forward to drop three or four inches into a secure position. Then the great flat drive belt, perhaps eight inches wide and maybe 40 feet long, was unrolled. One end was looped over a certain pulley on the separator. The belt was then unrolled away from the machine along a line parallel to the separator's long axis and given a single twist before being stretched over the drive pulley of the tractor. The tractor was then backed slowly and precisely to tighten and align the belt, pulling hard against the separator which remained stationary, secure in its dug-in position. When the great belt had been stretched so that its sagging center cleared the ground by about two feet, the tractor wheels were blocked to prevent it from rolling forward. Now it was time for a test run, a moment of truth. If alignment was not exactly right, the belt would jump off, and in a cloud of dust I would see it writhe momentarily like a huge serpent. If the alignment was true but the tension too low, then the belt would slip and also pop off the pulleys -- an exciting event in either case.

If the belt stayed in place for a short, low-speed trial run, I knew that my great moment approached. Now the tractor operator would nudge the throttle open, causing the lazy chuckle of the idling engine to crescendo into a spine-tingling staccato as the tractor began to labor under the load of the separator. Gradually, the full-throttle, unmuffled roar became delightfully deafening as the separator reached operating speed and stayed there, the tractor's governor, a hard master, in full control.

Stephen Stover also submitted Custom Threshing.

"Harvest Tales" is part of the online exhibit, Wheat People:  Celebrating Kansas Harvest.