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Pioneer Life in Jones Co.
This article by O. J. Felton, Cedar Rapids, Iowa was originally published in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics,
Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Editor, Vol. 29, No. 2, (April 1931). Copyright 1931,
State Historical Society of Iowa. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

The issue of the Iowa Journal of History and Politics in which this article appears is available in its original format. If you would like to purchase an issue (available in limited quantity), please remit $2 (per issue) to State Historical Society of Iowa, Publication Sales, 402 Iowa Avenue, Iowa City, Iowa 52240-1806. Be sure to indicate which issue you would like to purchase.

About the time of the Civil War, my father used a hand rake reaper called the Dunleith. It was mounted on four wheels—a master wheel, a small wheel to support the platform, and two wheels in front. The master cog was attached to the spokes of a large wooden wheel with a bevel cog around the outside, driving the sickle with same motion as now. The reel was driven by means of a leather rope running over a grooved wheel attached to the master cog and connecting with a smaller wheel on the center of the reel.

The driver was seated on a spring seat ahead of the master cog and as high as the shaft of the reel. The seat was carried on the two wheels that worked independent of the reaping machinery, as in the case of some modern dray wagons. The grain fell on a platform partly covered with black tin. The man who raked the grain off the platform sat at the center of the rear end of the platform on a stool, with a barrier in from of him to keep him from falling on the platform while raking the grain to one side. He had to be careful not to let the bundles get too large or get his fork caught in the reel or sickle, and the work required great physical strength and endurance.

The binders followed the reaper, binding each gavel into a bundle with a band made of a handful of grain stalks. Children then came along and placed the bundles in convenient piles, usual twelve each. How heavy they were for a small boy! Next came the shockers. Two cap sheaves were placed on top of the shock to keep out the rain. These cap sheaves were broken in the middle and spread one above the other crossways and, if no hard wind came, they kept the grain dry and bright. If they were blown off or the shock upset, it had to be reset after the harvesting was done.

Then came the stacking. Nearly everyone stacked, for separators were scarce and one had to wait his turn. These stacks were placed at some convenient spot, usually near a shed, waiting for threshing. After stacking, farmers waited for the grain to go through the sweat, as they called it, a drying process that all grain takes in this climate either in the stack or bin.

Between stacking and threshing some hay had to be cut. This was done with a scythe on wild land, mostly in the draws, where the grass was thickest. If a man cut a swath across the upper and lower end of a draw, it could be his and so respected, but a man never tried to “hog” things so there was plenty for all. After the grass was cut and dry it was raked together by hand and cocked up in small piles, then hauled and stacked. People did not cut much hay; the straw piles fed what stock was kept.

Haying done, the “boo” of the thresher was soon heard and what a time that was for the youngsters, and for the old as well. The threshing crew was looked upon with as much awe as the crew of an airplane is today. They were usually young men of a rough type. Threshing was done by horsepower. The separator was a “Sweepstakes,” about the same as now, but without any blower, feeder, measurerer, or other frills. The power was a master cog turning on a small cog. This mechanism could be hoisted from the ground by two rollers to move from place to place. When set it had to be staked down with eight stakes to hold it in place. Five sweeps were inserted in it like the spokes of a wagon. A team was hitched to the outer end of each sweep, making ten horses. The threshers put on their three teams, the farmer his, and one of the neighbors might furnish a team.

The two green teams usually tried to do it all at first but soon came down to a slow drill in the center. A man or boy with a whip in hand usually drove the outfit and was the clown of the gathering. Between whistling, urging, and swearing he kept the work going. If a sudden stop was needed, a man got to the head of each farm team and the feeder crowded the bundles to choke the separator. The horses of threshers usually stopped at the word of the driver.

The boss of the machine did the feeding. The bundles were tossed to him by a man, called the table man—sometimes there were two—whose duty it was to keep plenty of bundles on the table, heads to the cylinder. Other men handed bundles to the table man. A band cutter, usually a boy, was beside the feeder to cut the bands. This was a hard job and I still wonder why a boy was put at it. He used a common jack-knife and the straw in bands soon dulled it. The knife was liable to hit the fingers of the feeder (I have done it myself), if the boy became tired or hurried, and sometimes two boys alternated in the cutting. If straw was wanted a stacker and several boys took care of the straw. This was a hard and dirty job; one had to work like a machine. How I have wished something would break, to give us a rest.

The measurer was at the side of the separator with two wooden half-bushel measures. To keep track of the number of bushels he had before him a board with twenty holes at the top, ten below, and five at the bottom. When one measure was full he moved the twenty plug to the right one count. When it had been moved clear across, the ten plug was moved to right one count. This meant ten bushels. In the same way the hundred plug was moved to right when 100 bushels had been measured. The measurer had to be a man of mature years, very just, and not the owner, so that he would be fair to both parties. It was his business also the that the grain was clean and not wasted in poor separation.

The owner was usually at the bin seeing that there was no chance of waste. Most people, being poor, had no granaries and had to build rail pens. These were lined with slough hay and made a very good storehouses if cattle were kept away from them. Children too small to be of any help were perched on the tool wagon watching the show in high glee. The man who carried the grain to the bin had a hard job, carrying a bushel of wheat or one and a half bushels of oats at a time. Handling from three to six hundred bushels in a day in this way was no easy work.

Finally dinner was called and everyone “hollered” “Whoa” and started for the house and the wash basin, except the teamster, who had to feed the horses. Dinner was served at a long table seating from ten to fourteen, on which were well boiled peach blow potatoes, stewed chicken, gravy, homemade bread and butter, coffee, and dried apple or dried currant pie with Orleans sugar for sweetening. Everyone made a man at the table. After dinner the young fellows indulged in feats of strength, such as standing in a half-bushel measure and shouldering a two-bushel bag of wheat or holding out at arm’s length a sledge weighing from fifteen to twenty pounds to see who could hold it thus the longest. Finally the boss of the gang would shout, “Horses on!” and the same process began anew. When one threshing job was finished, the machine was moved to a neighbor’s. All the farmers changed work for money was scarce till some wheat was sold and there was little hired labor. The threshing charge was five cents for wheat and three for oats.

Threshing was often enlivened by fights. One occasion a farmer put a boy whom some neighbor had sent to do the stacking. The boy went about the work carelessly. Finally the owner went up to right things. Before long both came rolling down by the stacker in a rough and tumble, but they were separated and the work went on. At dinner, as was the custom, the farmer wanted to ask the blessing but felt he should make some amends for the trouble. “I think before I proceed I should apologize for what happened this forenoon,” he said, and continued that it would have been all right but when he got on the straw the boy insulted him. At this the boy jumped up and called him a liar and another fight was started, but it was stopped and the meal proceeded without a blessing.

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