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Old-time threshing event

After what seemed like weeks of cloudy weather, Saturday, October 31 began clear and sunny, while volunteers gathered at Hidden Springs Ranch, the Lake Audy home of Frank and Linda Wilkinson.

Frank and Linda, married for over 33 years, decided to tackle their harvest the way it was done a half a century ago, with the help of horses, family and friends.

Attendees were treated to the spectacle of an old-fashioned threshing bee, a little bit of living history. For some of us, it was like an agricultural museum coming to life.

The oat crop was seeded with a candy-apple red 1953 W6 International tractor. When the oats were ripe, the crop was processed with a John Deere binder that was new… in 1935! The binder is so called, because it cuts, then gathers and “binds” the oats into sheaves with sisal twine.

Then, with human muscle power only, the sheaves are collected into small mounds in a practice known as “stooking.” One retired farmer explained that there are many ways to stook, but that he learned to lean two sheaves against two others in an east-west direction, following the course of the sun to help with drying. Then two more sheaves were set at each end of the stook and one more on top, to protect the stack from weather, for a total of seven sheaves per stook. As I tried my hand at this, I was surprised at how heavy the individual sheaves were, with the grain still attached.

At Frank and Linda’s threshing event, men and women forked the sheaves onto two horse-drawn hayracks. As the sheaves were lifted, mice, mistakenly thinking they had found a cosy place to spend the winter, scurried frantically away. In this gathering process, the sheaves are stacked with cut ends facing outwards on each side of the rack. This manner of stacking the bundles helps with the stability of the load.

Meanwhile, the 1953 tractor coughed and chugged to life, eventually purring away like it was in tip-top condition. (I won’t call the tractor “old” or “antique,” as it is younger than me!) I have often seen old threshing machines, looking a lot like mechanical dinosaurs, displayed on rural roadsides. You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that the 1926 Advanced Rumley threshing machine had no motors. Instead, it was powered by a big, twisted drive belt spinning off the side of the tractor, which in turn activated the internal workings of the threshing machine.

The teams of young, Belgian/quarter-horse crosses pulled the hayracks alongside the threshing machine. The tractor and thresher were very noisy, so Frank stood in front of his nervous but gentle team, settling them with nibbles of oats. Two men atop the loaded hayrack used pitchforks to toss the sheaves of oats into the mouth of the thresher. While all sorts of belts spun on the outside of the thresher, hook-shaped knives grabbed the sheaves, cutting both the oats and the string, while hauling the oats into the machine. I hoped the men had good balance, as this looked like a dangerous job.

Inside the thresher, the oats are mechanically separated from the chaff and straw, both of which were ejected from a chute at the back of the machine, eventually forming a huge pile. The separated grain flowed out of another chute from the side of the machine and into the back of an old wagon.

This looked to be a pretty slow process by today’s standards, but there was a certain rhythm to the work of the men and horses, and the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the volunteers was evident. A light breeze floated dust and chaff into the air and several youngsters jumped gleefully into the big pile of straw. When asked if they were having fun, they said yes, but it was “very itchy fun!”

Some self-proclaimed “old-timers” reminisced about days gone by. One bystander said she enjoyed reliving her childhood memories and thinking about her heritage. Another commented that these old threshing machines may seem a little primitive, but were a huge improvement over flailing grain by hand, as his ancestors had done in order to survive. A younger man shook his head and expressed profound appreciation for the advances in technology we enjoy today.

Frank and Linda call themselves “horse people.” Frank has lived with horses all his life and is a horse-farming enthusiast. Linda once participated in shows and rodeos, earning trophies for barrel racing and pole bending. The two plan that Hidden Springs Ranch will be host to this “special step back in time” on an annual basis. They hope to grow the event, with even more people attending, and perhaps one day ending with a traditional harvest supper.

– Candy Irwin writes from Lake Audy, west of Onanole, Manitoba

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