Unlike the first two which were unceremoniously drowned, it appears that the third (and last) prototype of the Hathaway Turbine Threshing Machine is all that remains of the world’s first rotary thresher.
Created in the early 1920s by an eccentric farmer near Deloraine, the machine is currently on proud display in the Killarney Flywheel Club museum. Gold and grey lichen inhabit what remains of the original leather straps, and the curved metal cladding – with some pieces several metres long – remain straight and true, despite the fact they were heated and pounded out in the anvil of a farm blacksmithing shop nearly 100 years ago.
“The man was a genius,” said Stuard Hall, Flywheel Club member, who helped trailer the thresher back home to southwest Manitoba. “He had the ability to think of a rotary system, and simplify the threshing of grain. Just 45 minutes away from here someone did this, on a farm. It’s the only one of its kind in the world that we know of, and it’s a forerunner of the axial flow/rotary thresher that is used today.”
Bruce Hathaway, who was born in 1876 in Ontario, came out with his family in 1886 to join up with their father who had moved to Hathaway Siding, near Old Deloraine, a year earlier. They built a blacksmithing shop on the farm nine miles northeast of Deloraine, and together with his brother Warren, they began hammering out farm machinery, which later included the rotary thresher.
Hathaway designed his first rotary thresher sometime in the early 1920s, and took care to secure patent rights for it. The Flywheel Club now holds copies of these original diagrams and papers. But the diagrams are not ones which give away just exactly how Hathaway, then aged 44, made his state-of-the-art threshers.
“I think he was way ahead of his time, at protecting his rights and his own ideas. If you look at the patent diagrams, it’s impossible to manufacture the machine from the drawings,” said Hall. “They explain how it works, and the advantages of it over existing threshing machines of the time, but you couldn’t reproduce a thresher from them.”
The fate of the first thresher is connected to an offer from a major implement dealer of the time, whose reputed half-million-dollar deal was refused by the eccentric and volatile Hathaway.
“He was offered $500,000 for the rights to make that thresher, but that wasn’t the figure that he had in mind, and he refused it,” said Hall. “We think he asked for a million, and when that was turned down, he dumped the thresher in one of the little lakes in the Turtle Mountains; we don’t know which one.”
Sometime between 1922 and 1930 the second thresher Hathaway produced was transported carefully to Winnipeg, who had hopes of securing a deal with the city’s mayor to establish a production line.
“He approached the mayor of Winnipeg to see if the city couldn’t back him financially, and give him a premises to manufacture the machines,” said Hall. “From what we can gather, he refused him. That’s when the second machine got dumped, somewhere close to Winnipeg, in the Assiniboine River. I think he was on the way home, and he just had enough of it.”
The third thresher, and the one the Flywheel Club now has in their big, bright, new museum shed, was likely built in the 1930s. It appears to have somehow passed into the hands of a Saskatchewan farmer, who lost everything in the Depression, and travelled out east to Lac du Bonnet in order to start a new farming career.
“The blower was already missing when he got the thresher, and I think he picked up the machine en route,” said Hall. “He forked the oats in at the front, and forked the straw out from the back. He used it just for oats to feed his horses.”
Years later, when Manitoba Hydro was preparing to flood the valley for the Seven Sisters power plant, a farmer named Oleksuk was told to haul out anything he wanted before the waters began to rise.
“For some reason he brought this old threshing machine out of there, and back to his farm in Lac du Bonnet,” said Hall.
When he was about to retire in the 1990s, he contacted his nephew Jim Oleksuk from Starbuck, who is an antique tractor buff, to collect what he wanted from the farm. “So he picks up an LA Case tractor, and this Hathaway thresher.”
Jim Oleksuk started phoning people named Hathaway in Winnipeg to try to find out more about the machine, but wasn’t having much luck.
“Hathaway had painted ‘Made in Winnipeg’ on the thresher, and we don’t know why. Maybe because he was taking it to the mayor for backing. But someone in the government who had access to the patent papers found them for him, and had copies made. Jim traced it back eventually to Deloraine.”
HOME AT LAST
This last thresher, having escaped its watery grave, was at last brought to the attention of the Killarney Flywheel Club through Hathaway’s great-nephew, Neil Hathaway.
He saw it first a couple of years ago and brought the club a picture. The club decided to adopt it, loaded it on a trailer and brought it back to southwestern Manitoba.
“About 50 per cent is gone inside: the blower, the rotary part of the threshing mechanism, and the bottom apron. But it still looks pretty much like it did when he built it,” Hall said.
Discovering that the thresher still existed was a big surprise to Neil.
“It was the talk of our family all our lives, and my parents saw it working,” said Neil. “We’d heard of the thresher, and when I saw it in the spring of 2009, my mouth dropped. I was under the belief it was long gone. Even my father, who worked with it, thought it was history. It’s a miracle it survived.”
Neil said that his great-uncle was a very serious, religious man, very dedicated, and a deep thinker. But he led a somewhat tortured personal life in spite of his genius.
“He had an eccentric world that he lived in,” said Neil. “He did walk to the beat of a different drum. He was also a great singer, and copyrighted his music. I am ecstatic that the thresher is at the Flywheel Club, and it’s safely inside, which is what we wanted. I never thought I would see it again.”
Auniquepieceof farminghistory wentondisplay duringKillarney’s PrairiePioneerDays lastmonththanks totheintrepidness ofthetown’slocal FlywheelClub,anda seriesoflucky historicalsaves.
“Heaskedforamillion, andwhenthatwas turneddown,he
dumpedthethresherin oneofthelittlelakesin theTurtleMountains.”
– STUARD HALL