Different weeks here in Butterfield bring different sights. This week, it’s a couple of steam-powered threshing machines that have been moved out of a large shed and parked on the grass. This won’t do the grass much good in the long run, since the prodigious weight on the rear wheels of these things visibly compacts the soil! These two are not the largest I’ve seen, but they are certainly large enough.
They are referred to mainly as steam threshing machines, though the terms traction engines, road locomotives, and tractors are often bandied about. We think of them today as steam tractors, but that connotes plowing as the main function, which is not really accurate. They were actually designed mainly as a portable self-propelled power source for crop processing tasks such as threshing grain and baling hay. A long loop of flat leather belting connected a pulley on the thresher to a pulley on the device, while both were parked yards away from each other. Like aircraft, which are interesting to look at, the memorable moments come when they are operated. I’ve marveled at a lot of very fast cars and capable aircraft in action, but I must say that watching and listening to one of these robust titans doing their humble tasks in a field is an even more impressive spectacle. Even the ordeal of maneuvering one out of place to get to the field is something not easily forgotten.
Today’s machinery, whatever it may be, takes care of all the details, such that all that needs to be done is largely a pushbutton affair. You don’t monitor anything, since if the device has a problem, it’ll sound a beeper or chime. Everything is guarded or shielded as much as possible, which is mostly good. As a result of a shift in culture, we now have labels on products warning us not to commit absurdities with them. A few appear peculiar enough to be humorous, prompting one to wonder what kind of knuckle-dragger would use the product for such a purpose. Then I remember that the label is there to try to ward off additional litigation. When a product becomes inherently safer, it seems that many are committed to find new ways to injure themselves with it. And sue for cash. “Inherent risk” is an obsolete concept, it seems.
In contrast, an old threshing machine in action is an adventurous affair. A moment of inattention or carelessness anywhere on or about the machine could exact a heavy price. Personal responsibility was once assumed in mishaps, and the only nature of litigation I could find was limited to injuries resulting from equipment that failed to meet reasonable expectations of performance – such as a wood-spoke wheel on an early Buick motor car which broke turning a turn, throwing its driver headlong into a ditch. The most hazardous place on earth is considered to be the deck of a modern aircraft carrier. If being on or around one of these threshers doesn’t surpass that, then it’s gotta be a close second.
Although the jumbo versions of these can break ground with up to 20 plow blades, here is where my knowledge turns to mere speculation. I have seen these used to break ground and create furrows for planting. I think that ends their “tractor” work, since running such a machine through a plowed, growing field would be counter-productive, and there was no particular reason for doing so short of harvest. It could tow processing equipment like a thresher out into the field and then power it, but to a large degree, gathering was still done manually and tossed into the equipment’s intake.
One might think it not worth the money and effort, but simply separating grain from husks manually was a very time-consuming, laborious affair by itself. Mechanizing it would be worth a lot, but very few farmers had the means to acquire their own steam-powered thresher, so they usually pooled resources with their neighbors to buy one that they could take from farm to farm. Combining their labor to gather for it and haul crops to storage, they could take advantage of its efficiency and speed without penalty.
By the mid-1800s when road locomotives began to appear and be put to work, horse-drawn machinery such as reapers and reaper-binders had already come into play. Most often, they were side-mounted to a two-wheel carriage so that you could start at one edge of the field and not trample crops in the process. Threshing machines were stationary and powered by horses. As for plowing, steam threshers can do this too, and on a grander scale than horses. But considering the range of farms then in existence and the outlay any group of farmers was willing to make, some may have used the massive traction engines only for the difficult tasks that most punished horse and man alike, like breaking ground, and for threshing, which was time-consuming, boring, and tiring. Some may have reaped and bound with what they already had, a horse and small reaper-binder. Lots of potential options here, based on individual situations. The common core was that at least one of the group had to learn how to operate this road-going locomotive without driving it into a tree or blowing it up.
In a way, these steam-powered threshing machines were a putting together of two fledgling technologies: the railroad locomotive and labor-saving horse-powered farm equipment. Though we paint horse-and-plow farming with a romantic eco-brush today, their various mechanized replacements sold like hotcakes for two reasons: initial and ongoing expense, and reliability. Horses did not stand all day in stalls waiting for riding events – they were put to the kind of work which stressed them. Food was not free, nor was medical care. In 1891, poetess Kate Sanborn published her work Adopting an Abandoned Farm, in which she includes the long travails of finding a horse suitable for merely pulling a carriage. The frustrating ordeal she endured would be similar to finding a decent affordable used car today, only her account is more entertaining and tinged with humor…in hindsight. I recommend it as a great read, available free in several forms at the link provided above.
Traction engines were poorly suited to small fields, mud or boggy soil. They were not what you could call responsive to any of the controls, though an experienced hand could make the most of the situation. It takes two men onboard to operate one of these things. One look at the water and wood tanks, multiple engine control levers, steering control, fire door, and plumbing with its confusing array of valves makes it clear that committing to one of these is not a solo enterprise. Keeping everything lubricated was not a once-a-month thing either.
No doubt these two examples of the art are the tip of the iceberg that will come mid-August at the Threshing Bee here in Butterfield. Some people have a bucket list that includes visiting the Grand Canyon or seeing Mount Rushmore. You’ll have to trust me a bit when I claim that it’s not just a guy thing to say that attending a steam threshing or steam engine show that includes these metallic mammoths is an experience that should not be at the bottom of your list. Such shows contain their own wonderment.