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Threshermen remember farming during wartime

First World War and Second World War changed the way we farm

Colin Farquher has operated a steam engine at the Threshermen’s Reunion every year since 2008.  photo: meghan mast

Jim Down, 64, remembers hearing stories of the time his Uncle Art returned from the war to help with threshing on the farm. Down’s father, only five at the time, wore a small uniform, fashioned by his sisters, for the occasion.

“We have pictures from the old photo albums of Uncle Art standing beside our 20-40 (engine),” says Down.

That same machine now rests at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum here where it was featured during the celebration of military machines and wartime farming equipment at this year’s Threshermen’s 60th Annual Reunion and Stampede.

Not every family was lucky enough to have a loved one return home to help with harvest. Farming in the early 1900s required a lot of manpower. Unfortunately so did the war. As men left to fight overseas for the First World War and the Second World War, Prairie agriculture fundamentally changed.

Farmers were being encouraged to sell their horses to help with the war effort and many did. Canada sent around 82,000 horses and mules overseas during the First World War. Almost none returned home.

Alternative horsepower for the farm — tractors — were initially very expensive but as demand grew, prices dropped and manufacturers created more efficient models.

Farm equipment was sometimes used in the war as well. The Holt Caterpillar became the British army’s towing tractor in the First World War. The caterpillars, with their long, tracked wheels, could climb hills and cross terrain that most vehicles couldn’t. These machines eventually inspired what we know today as army tanks.

Gerald Dueck, a mathematics and science professor at Brandon University, runs a steam engine at the Threshermen’s Reunion. He says many steam engines were disassembled during the Second World War. The machines were too labour intensive and inefficient to use. They required two to three men to operate and labour shortages were a persistent problem. Almost 10 per cent of Canada’s population enlisted in the Second World War — about 1.1 million men and women.

Metal scavengers stripped abandoned machinery of anything that could be reused. The brittle cast iron components of steam engines were ground down and used as shrapnel for anti-aircraft fire and hand grenades.

“Some of the old farmers say, ‘Ya, I used to have a steam engine but Hitler got it,’” says Dueck.

But Hitler didn’t get all the engines. One stationary steam engine was saved when employees at a flour mill covered the machine with bags of wheat. The engine was used to power all the equipment at the mill. That same engine sits on museum land today, large enough that the shed that houses it was built around it so it didn’t have to be moved.

Colin Farquher, a power engineer, operates a steam engine built during the First World War at the end of 1915. He and his wife Danielle, decked out in overalls, plaid shirts and cowboy hats, have attended the reunion every year since they joined in 2008. And they cook food just as the farmers once did — inside the engine. However, the menu might be different. This day, pizza was on the menu.

Danielle spreads pesto on the crust and sprinkles goat cheese, chicken and red peppers before putting the pizza on a round stone and sliding it onto bricks in the oven.

“We’ve cooked a whole chicken in here and even a cake!” says Colin.

While they make a handy pizza oven, steam engines largely fell out of favour with farmers by the Second World War, according to Elliot Sims, the feature attraction chair for the Thresherman’s Stampede. They were not used for farming, but sometimes used to power sawmills in remote camps.

“We have a steam engine — it’s not running now,” he says, “but it was used to power a sawmill in a PoW camp in Riding Mountain during the Second World War.”

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