Threshing from the stack

Each photograph from pioneer days is a window into a world gone by

Threshing at the Black family farm, near Brandon, sometime around the First World War.

Sometimes it’s amazing the amount of details you can spot in old photographs.

In the fall of 2014, Bruce Black of the Brandon area let the Manitoba Agricultural Museum copy negatives of historic photographs taken on his family’s farm in the Brandon area.

The museum was able to digitize the images taken from the negatives. The image here shows threshing from stacks on one of the Black family’s farms, sometime around the First World War and contains a wealth of details.

The separator has been pulled up between two stacks and is being fed from both. As well, there is a third stack on the right-hand side of the image, with someone pitching sheaves off this stack onto the middle stack where they are then pitched into the separator. A sheaf is just visible in mid-air at the left-hand side of the roof.

There is a building visible somewhat behind and to the right of the separator. This building has had an addition added, given the unequal height of the rooflines. The lower building appears to have been constructed out of logs, with the logs chinked, which would account for the horizontal streaks of alternate dark and light colours which are not equal in width. The building with the higher roof appears to be balloon frame construction sided with boards.

The presence of buildings so close to sheaf or straw stacks is odd, as fire was an ever-present danger, particularly with a steam engine operating. While the building could be a granary, it is unlikely to be one, due to its size and the separator being some distance away from the building, indicating the threshed grain is being dropped into a grain wagon. If the farmer was using a wagon to haul grain from the separator to the granary, then the granary might as well be located a safe distance away from the thresher and steam engine.

The buildings are more likely barns of some sort, which could use a supply of straw in the barnyard. It was a common practice in the pioneer era to turn cattle and hogs into a straw stack in order to feed the animals. There are accounts of hogs living through the winter in straw stacks.

Notice the heavy coat the young fireman is wearing, suggesting they are threshing late in the fall. However, no snow is yet visible on the ground. The engine is being fuelled by straw. In the very left-hand side of the image is the corner of a straw rack which was used to carry straw to the engine. Also visible on the left-hand side of the image is a water wagon, which appears to have a square wooden tank.

Above the left rear wheel of the engine is a steam injector with a hose running to the water tank. When the boiler required more water, the steam injector was activated. The steam injector features a venturi which turns a low-pressure, high-volume flow of steam into a high-pressure, low-volume stream of water while pulling water into the venturi. As the stream of water coming out of an injector is at a higher pressure than the pressure in the boiler, the water is able to force its way into the boiler past a check valve. While many steam engines were fitted with high-pressure pumps to feed water into a boiler, injectors were more common. However, injectors needed clean water and worked better when using cold water.

The portable steam engine is thought to be an American Abell. The American Abell company had its roots in the John Abell company, which was one of Canada’s earliest farm machinery manufacturers. John Abell was born in England in 1822 and, some 20 years later, immigrated to Canada. By 1845 he was in Woodbridge, Ontario, which was 20 miles north of Toronto, working for a wagon factory. By 1847, Abell had set up a metal working shop.

Abell had some mechanical aptitude and he soon built a lathe for his shop, followed by his own steam engine to power the shop. He went on to build plows and later threshers. He began building portable steam engines in the 1870s, followed by a cross-compound steam engine in 1881. A traction engine followed in 1886.

In 1897, inspired by the heroism of a piper in the Gordon Highlanders during a military action on the Northern India frontier, John Abell named his new threshing machine line “Cock O’ the North,” for the tune the piper was playing. The trademark of the company became a rooster on a stump and the Abell steam engines had a rooster cast into the smokebox door.

In 1902, with John Abell then in his 80s and having no family, the Abell Company was sold to a company co-owned by the Advance Thresher Company and Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company. The John Abell company was renamed American Abell however, the John Abell designs continued in production and the rooster trademark was retained. American Abell was rolled into the Rumely Company in 1912, when Rumely purchased the Advance Thresher Company and bought the share in American Abell that was owned by the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company. Production was ended in the American Abell plant and the company passed into history. Today Abell is one of the least-known Canadian farm equipment manufacturers.

On Sunday, July 31, 2016 the Can­adian Foodgrains Bank and the Manitoba Agricultural Museum will host Harvesting Hope: a World Record to Help the Hungry. To help end global hunger, over 500 volunteers from 100 communities across Canada will operate 125 early 20th century threshing machines to harvest a 100-acre crop of wheat. When in operation, the equipment will require over four football fields of space. For more information on attending or how to participate please visit or follow us on Twitter @harvesthope2016.

The Manitoba Agricultural Museum is open year round and operates a website which can provide visitors with information on the museum including location and hours of operation.

About the author


Alex Campbell is a dedicated volunteer and Member of the Interpretation Committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum.



Stories from our other publications