Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Social Networks and 1950's Farming

The industry of Sutton is farming, always has been and will be for a long time to come.

It all started when the fellow we consider our founder, Luther French choose a piece of bottom land straddling School Creek for a homestead and to grow a little wheat.

Luther French grew that first wheat using methods, tools and equipment that would have been recognized by earlier farmers going back many generations, decades or even hundreds of years. A serf from the twelfth century could have walked up and pitched in without needing a bit of training.

During 142 years of farming around Sutton essentially all of the technological advances in crop farming has been reflected on these farms.  Improvements in metallurgy, mechanization and methods altered the way the ground was worked, which crops were grown and how. Progress has been rapid and steady.

Those of us who grew up on farms in the 1950’s witnessed many significant changes and saw the tail end of several wide spread and common practices. I’m thinking of threshing, corn shelling and hay stacking.

Those three jobs had been around a while and by the ‘50’s had advanced from horse power to engine power but were still labor intensive. A farmer could not do these things by himself. He needed a crew. To borrow a contemporary phrase, “It took a village.”

Let’s start with threshing.

Before combines, wheat (or oats) was cut and collected into bundles by the “binder” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_teubgTrdI&feature=fvwrel ). The next pass was shocking, collecting several, seven as I recall, bundles, standing them on end leaning together in a tepee-like “shock.”
Soon the grain was ready for threshing. There are still a few threshing machines sitting along our roadsides. Check out ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DZfESGwXqw ) to see how they worked.

Threshing, shelling and stacking required a crew. How did the farmer find a crew? By negotiation. Each farmer built his crew by agreeing to help a neighbor or relative when he threshed, shelled or stacked. These one-on-one agreements produced to group to get the job done.

Hornbacher’s threshing machine in operation in 1912 during the horse and mule days.
Generally, a farmer’s crew was a unique set of his neighbors. When he reciprocated and helped a neighbor on his crew, it was with a different set of men from that fellow’s neighbors. So a broad network, a network of workers but a real social network developed that extended out a long ways.

The threshing crew had well-defined divisions of responsibilities. There were guys who collected the bundles and brought them to the threshing machine from the field in wagons. There men pitched bundles onto the canvas conveyor, heads first, of course. There was a name for that conveyor – feeder or something. Don’t remember.

The thresher separated the wheat from the straw. Somebody had trucks and trailers to collect the wheat and move it off to town or scoop into a bin. Straw was blown off onto a pile, preferably downwind and out of the way.

Each of these operations had some jobs that were assigned to boys. The straw pile was one of those responsibilities. One of my jobs was to direct the straw blower. Another was to “top off” the wheat in the trailer as it got full.

Threshing had been a big thing for decades and feeding threshers was one of the real tests of a farm wife. Unless she had a houseful of daughters, a parallel work crew developed from among the wives in the neighborhood. Threshing crews could be large; appetites always were. “There’s enough here for threshers!” described any table with lots of food.

Harvesting corn was different then from now. The corn picker was a great improvement over picking by hand but handling the crop remained the same. Corn was stored in the corn crib that was a part of every farmstead. The crib was filled in the fall and the corn dried over winter and through summer. Some of us remember what “sealed corn” was but that’s a different discussion.

The corn sheller in the ‘50’s was generally a truck mounted machine, perhaps a John Deere machine and was someone’s seasonal business – Hornbacher and Trautman in Sutton, Schrock in Edgar, my grandfather, Fred Johnson in an earlier time.

When a farmer was ready to shell, he’d schedule the corn sheller and contact his crew – neighbors, relatives, etc. These corn shelling days, like threshing and stacking hay, took priority. It would seem like a challenge to coordinate all those schedules, but a farmer would drop everything to go work at his neighbors because he would soon need the same consideration from each of them.

Rhiny Hornbacher’s horse drawn corn sheller rig and crew in 1915.
The corn shelling crew had guys raking and scooping corn out of the crib into the “drag” on the machine and others to handle the grain, the cob pile and the pile of shucks. One of my jobs was catching the cobs in trailers and scooping them into the cob house trying to keep ahead of the shellers. Check out (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClceVnYvClg ) and other neat videos of corn shellers.

Hay stacking was the third crew-based task from the ‘50’s. Before general access to balers alfalfa, and prairie hay (are there any prairie hay fields still around, anywhere?) was stored in stacks of loose hay, sometimes huge stacks. Hay stacking changed summer windrows of hay to neat stacks of winter feed.

This crew had a couple of fellows with wide hay forks mounted on the front of tractors (earlier horse drawn.). These forks were 10 or 12 feet across. This was probably the fastest any farmer drove his tractor in a field. The hay forks brought the hay up close to the stack where a hay stacker lifted hay onto the stack. There were “overshot stackers” though I don’t remember them. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ7PvQ1Fd60 )

My father had a Jayhawk Stacker, a large two-wheel contraption that hooked on the front of his Allis-Chalmers. It had a hay fork that lifted hay to the top of the stack via a cable wrapped around the axle of the machine. The fork lifted as the machine moved forward. The trick was to judge how far back from the stack to engage the lift to hit the right height as you got to the stack.

A small group of guys stood on the stack and packed the hay to make it water-tight, or mostly so, an art form I never caught onto. My job was to rake up the loose hay out in the field that had fallen off the hay forks.

These three jobs were long-running shows in our part of the country over decades into the ‘50’s when progress made them obsolete, all within just a few years. Progress empowered the single farmer to do more and more by himself negating the need to develop close relationships with his neighbors on such a scale. Progress and efficiency are always good things. Aren’t they?

This article first appeared in the August, 2012 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For further information about this magazine please visit http://www.suttonlifemagazine.com/ or call 402-984-4203.

No comments: