Threshing Time on the Scheckel Farm

It is 1948 and the threshing crew is at the Scheckel farm, a couple miles northwest of Seneca, in the middle of Crawford County. Older brother Phillip is 7 years old, I am 6, and Bob is 5.

On toward 10 o’clock, the dew has been burned off by the blazing sun. Loads of bundles started arriving from the fields.  There were 6 or 7 wagons coming in, some pulled by a team of horsed, others towed behind a tractor. These were small tractors, typical for the time of the late 1940’s and 1950’s; Farmall H, Ford 8N, Allis Chalmers C., John Deere “Johnny Poppers.”Threshing crew

            A half dozen “rigs”, or wagons, could keep the hungry threshing machine busy. Shutting it down was wasted time, and time was everything. That machine kept going, only to be stopped between loads for a quick greasing of all the zerts and at lunch time, which was usually around 12:30 PM.

Frank Fradette opens the throttle of the big Minneapolis Moline, smoke belching out the 3 foot exhaust pipe atop the machine, wafting off into the clear blue Wisconsin sky. The thresher comes to life, the big claw teeth at the end of the grain bundle tray chute starting to move, as if it were gulping for bundles. The tray chain moves, all the belts and pulleys turning. This beast of a machine is arising from the dead and coming alive.

Joe Bernier, bib overalls, straw hat, red bandana, roll-your-own cigarette, has already driven his team of Percherons and wagon into position, just inches from the feed trough. The thresher is up to speed, and Fradette signals for the first bundles to start down the feeder.

Bundles are thrown in grain heads first, stalk end last, and lengthwise. There are feeder knives attached beneath the claws that cut the binder twine. Uncut twine is bad news, grain is not separated from the stalk, and it can clog the thresher. Twine can get wrapped around shaft bearing and needs to be cut out by hand with a jack knife.

Frank Fradette was paid by the bushel for threshing grain. A few cents a bushel was the rate. Threshed oats went up an elevator on the side of the big machine and the grains dumped in a receiver cup. This receiver was counterbalanced by a weight and when full, the bucket opened and dumped the grain into an auger that took it to a waiting wagon or pick-up. At the same time, the dumping buckle operated a geared counter that kept track of the number of bushels threshed. Two dumping trips of the bucket was one bushel of oats. The counter had 3 “windows” and operated like the counters used to keep track of the amount of electricity used.

The Scheckel boys are told to “stay out of the way”, but we do carry jars of ice-cubed water to the threshing crews. A steady stream of straw arcs across the azure sky, building a straw stack.


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Threshing Time

            It was the most exciting day of the whole year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day.  Frank Fradette came up the road from the Bernier farm. pulling the threshing machine with a big orange Minneapolis Moline tractor, and turned into the Scheckel farm yard.

           Threshing machineIt was the middle of the 1940s, and as little kids, 4, 5 and 6 years old, Phillip, Bob, and I were to “stay out of the way.” It was the days of the threshing circuit on Oak Grove Ridge in the middle of Crawford County near Seneca and 12 to 15 farmers moved from farm to farm threshing oats.

The sole purpose of a thresher was to separate the golden kernels of oats from their stalks. The stalks where sent out a big pipe by a powerful blower and the stalks built a straw stack. The oats kernels were hauled to a granary for storage.

That threshing machine was a behemoth of a beast. Threshing machines of that era were about 30 feet long, 8 to 10 feet tall, and about 5 feet wide. No other machine on the farm was that big and when you’re a kid, everything is big!

The thresher went pass the big tree near the house, pass the chicken coop, through the gate that lead to the “sand dunes” field, the thresher placed about 400 feet southeast of the house.

Much activity, we watched from afar. Frank Fradette maneuvered the thresher to the spot designated by my Dad. The direction of the wind determined the orientation of the thresher. Crews did not want the wind blowing the straw, chaff, and debris back onto the thresher. Unhooked the tongue from the tractor. The wheels were dug in, and blocked. The thresher had to be leveled and staked down.  One man went around the machine carrying the grease gun, filling all the zerks. Several other fellows got all the belts out of the cavernous rear compartment where the straw is blown out the pipe.

Frank Fradette drove the big Minneapolis Moline around to face the thresher and the hammer mill belt went on. Seems like it took about a half hour  to get that big contraption ready.

Teams of horses, pulling wagons, arrived, grizzled sun-burned men with old straw hats, bib overalls, and cigarette clinched between chapped lips. Larsen had a Norwegian accent, hard to understand. The bachelor “Ingham boys” Jack, Bob, and Tom brought 2 teams of horses and wagons. Their grandfather, James Ingham, was born in Lancashire, England, came to the United States and settled in the Seneca area in the 1850s. A long row of Ingham graves are in the back left side of St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Dad directed them to the field to start loading the oats bundles.

Other men, horses, tractors, and wagons arrived at the Scheckel farm;  Bernier, Kozelka, Sutton, Sales, Mahan, Rosenbaum, Payne, Aspenson, MacAvery. An early start meant a farmer’s grain could all be threshed in one day.

Phillip, Bob, and I took jars of cold water to the farm men. Jack Ingham walked up. “Boys, it’s goin’ be a hot one today.”

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The Summer Gardens

Summer was a busy time on the Scheckel 238-acre farm, in the heart of Crawford County, two miles northwest of Seneca 1940s and 1950s. Putting up loose hay (no bales) seemed to go on all summer, days of cutting and shocking oats and wheat, pulling weeds, fixing fences, threshing grain, cultivating corn, mowing lawn, as well as the daily chores of feeding the hogs and chickens, and milking cows morning and night.

Seared deep in my memory is the task of keeping to up with the garden. Or I should say, 3 big gardens. After Dad plowed and smoothed the ground with the walking plow pulled by Dolly, the gentle big, jet-black horse, the garden was Mom’s domain. She had 9 kids to feed.

Some of those gardens had rows of sweet corn coming up. But we didn’t always wait for the garden sweet corn to get ripe and ready. Phillip, Bob, and I went out into the cornfield and got some field corn for the dinner table.

There was a short “window of opportunity”, perhaps 2 weeks, when the DeKalb ears were tender enough to pass as sweet corn. The kernels didn’t taste quite as good as the real sweet corn, a bit on the chalky side. But it was OK until the authentic sweet corn was ready. Slap enough butter and salt on an ear, and it came up to about 80 percent of the legitimate stuff, I would judge.

The peas were ready. Pick ‘em off the vines and into a “paint can converted into a pea bucket”. Then sit under the maple tree, the one with the rope swing, and shuck the peas. Phillip, Bob, and I, later joined by younger sisters Catharine, Rita, and Diane, were condemned, or I should say, assigned this task until we reached “working in the field” age.

I do believe there were times when more peas went “down the tubes” than ended up in the shucked peas’ bowl. Of course, this was followed by one of the sisters yelling “Ma, Lawrence is eating all the peas”, which was a big lie, because it was only about half of them!

Then there were the strawberries. Tons of them it seemed. Pick the berries from the garden, sit under the trees and remove the tops or hulls. I was more reasonable on the strawberries, I believe. Only ate about one in four or five.

We kept an eye on the carrots. As soon as they displayed any size, they uprooted from the ground and taken to the windmill so the fresh cold water coming up from the deep well could wash off the dirt.

Rhubarb came up every year behind the garage. It did not require any attention, which my kind of garden plant. The celery-like stalks were crisp and had a strong, tart taste. The neighboring Kozelka kids claimed they put sugar on their rhubarb. Not the Scheckel boys, as we preferred to dip the stalk in salt.

We learned by experience not to overindulge in the partaking of the rhubarb. Rhubarb has some strong natural laxative properties. It will keep you on the run, if you get my drift.




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Cutting Oats on the Scheckel Farm

We’ve been looking back to the 1940s and 1950s days of cutting and shocking oats and wheat on the Scheckel 238-acre farm, in the heart of Crawford County, two miles northwest of Seneca.

We’re ready to take the binder to the field. I loved the smell of binder twine.  Binder twine came from sisal, a plant from Mexico.  We’ve seen those big round rolls of used binder twine, some standing taller than a man.  Somebody is always trying to get into the McGinniss World Records with the “World’s Largest Roll of Binder Twine.”

I was particularly intrigued to learn of an annual Binder Twine Festival held in Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada. Kleinburg is a bit north of Toronto.  It started when farmers in the late 1800’s, would come to town to buy binder twine for binding sheaves of wheat. One enterprising merchant offered food and drink on Binder Twine Night, and that was the beginning of the Festival.

Kleinburg, population 5,000, has a Binder Twine parade, Binder Twine Queen contest and a quilt raffle. The Queen contest requires contestants to demonstrate their abilities in cow milking, hog calling, and log sawing.  Right off, I knew this was the kind of festival I could support!  An additional event is always planned and kept secret so the ladies cannot practice ahead of time. Held right after Labor Day, the Binder Twine Festival draws about 25,000 people a year.

The binder, as it was used in the field, was too wide to pass through farm gates and narrow lanes.  There was the binder machine plus an eight foot cutting platform deck.  So the field-ready machine was about 15 feet wide.  That was certainly too wide to travel on the gravel road running through the Scheckel farm on Oak Grove Ridge.

The binder was mSK 10 Getting a drinkounted on two removable transport wheels permitting it to be pulled lengthwise out to the field.  The two steel trolley wheels were used only to get the binder to the field.  I didn’t realize this as a kid.

Out to the field we would go, Dad driving the horses hitched to the tongue that extended out from under the outer edge of the cutting platform.  The Scheckel boys, Phillip, Bob, and I tagging along.  Sometimes we begged to drive the horses. Our sisters Catherine, Rita and later Diane, would bring a quart canning jar filled with cold water and ice cubes. Near the farm buildings we would take a drink from the windmill that brought cold water from several hundred feet down.

The trio of faithful work horses, Dolly, Prince, and Sam, were unhitched from the tongue. The platform had to be raised up so that the tongue could be unlatched.  The big bull wheel, about four feet in diameter and one foot wide, was cranked down.  The large bull wheel supported the main part of the binder, which contained the heavy metal working parts.  It was the bull wheel that powered the entire machine, the cutting bar, the big reel in front, the rollers that moved the canvas, the knotter and the mechanism that kicked out the bundles.  All moving parts got their marching orders from the bull wheel.

The bull wheel was cranked up sufficiently to raise the two smaller transport wheels off the ground so that they could be disconnected.  The two wheels were rolled off to the side and parked along the fence row or under a shade tree.  The next time they would be used was to transport the grain binder to another field.  The front transport wheel was positioned up and off the ground.

Next, a tongue was latched into position on the front of the binder.  A short tongue if the Massey Harris ’44 was used, or a long tongue if Dolly, Prince, and Sam were the chosen three.  Then the McCormick Deering eight-foot grain binder was ready to go to work.

Cutting oats could now begin.

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Getting the Grain Binder Ready

We’re getting the McCormick Deering grain binder ready to go on the Scheckel 238-acre farm, in the heart of Crawford County, two miles northwest of Seneca. The golden fields of oats

are ready for cuttingSK 6 Grain Binder in the field.The next step needed to get the binder field-ready was to install the three canvases. Each canvas was stretched over two wooden rollers. Narrow hardwood strips were riveted about every ten inches on one side of the canvas. The canvas was hemmed on all four sides to keep it from tearing or ripping. The strong canvas was three feet wide, but varied from 10 feet to 20 feet in length. Each canvas had three or four canvas straps on one end and metal buckles on the other end.

The reel canvas was the long one and conveyed the cut grain stalks sideways to the end of the platform. The two elevated canvasses moved in opposite directions. They were at a slant and raised above the big bull wheel. The grain stalks from the horizontal reel platform were grappled by the two slanted elevator canvasses and carried up to the tying deck. The grain sheaves dropped off the canvas and were collected into a bundle for tying.

Those canvasses were a pain to install and they had to be put on correctly. The metal strap buckles must lead in the direction the canvas turned. Then the thick straps were threaded through the metal buckles and pulled tight. Not too tight and not too loose.

That canvas was heavy material and expensive. Farmers took good care of their grain binder canvas. At the end of the day, the canvas was taken off, especially if there was a threat of rain. Which meant, of course, that the canvas had to be restrung and tightened the next morning before cutting grain.

Mice and rats liked to chew on that canvas. Most farmers would roll up the canvas, bundle the canvas up with binder twine, and store them in gunny sacks. The gunny sacks were suspended from the rafters in mid-air with baling wire or binder twine. Mice could not get at the canvas.

One year my Dad did not get that done very well. Grain cutting time came around and down came the canvas bundles. The canvas was rolled out and inspected. Then came the swearing. The mice had a very good winter, gnawing away at the canvas and straps. We boys heard every ‘God Damn”, and “Son-Of-A-Bitch”. Dad would swear, but his boys were not allowed to. Dad was not a happy farmer for a few hours.

The thin hardware laths would wear and break. Canvas was attached to the wood slats by copper rivets.  Under the stress and strain, the rivets would pop. Old rivets had to be removed and replaced by new ones.

The last step to getting the grain ready for action was to install bales of binder twine. Dad bought rolls of binder twine from Johnson’s in Seneca or in Prairie du Chien or Viroqua.  The round bin on the grain binder held two spools. Each spool of twine came in a black paper wrapper.

We’re ready to take the binder to the field.


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The Grain Binder

It’s the middle of July, and my mind goes back to life on the Scheckel 238-acre farm, in the heart of Crawford County, two miles northwest of Seneca.

No sooner was first crop hay “put up” and it was time to “shock grain”. We could see it coming, a sea of green oats slowly turning to a duller, lighter green, then toward a yellow hue. The oats were ripening. It was a beautiful sight to see, the undulating fields turning golden yellow.

Dad would walk out intoGrain Binder the oat fields. He would reach down and pull a few grains from the stalks. Then he would shuck the grains in his hand and open up the husks, inspect the fullness of the pods, and shake a handful of oats for heft. Dad would announce at the supper table, “Tomorrow, we get the grain binder out.”

The McCormick-Deering 8-foot grain binder was stored in the east wing of the granary. The east wing held the tractor, grain binder, and oats fanning machine. The west wing stored the corn binder, drags, disk. Both provided good hiding places for hide-and-go-seek.

The next morning, Dad and his three sons, Phillip, Bob, and I would slowly pull the grain binder out of the shed and start getting it ready.

We could tell that Dad was excited about getting started. Most of the neighbors were combining oats by the time I was about 10 years old. The Scheckels did not have a combine. We had a grain binder and threshing machine. That meant “greasing her up”, unwrapping the canvas that moved the grain through the machine, and sharpening the sickle bar.

The 8-foot sickle bar was pulled out of the cutter bar and clamped in a vise. The triangular knife sections were sharpened with a file. Loose blades were repaired by shearing off the two soft rivets holding it to the bar. New rivets were installed. New blades replaced old and worn blades.

There were zerts to be greased, oil cups filled, and oil squirted in holes made for that purpose. Dad had a manual for the McC-D grain binder, but I suspect he did not pay much attention to it.


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Long Days of Summer

The long, hot, lazy days of summer, middle of July, bring back fond memories of life on the Scheckel 238-acre farm, two miles northwest of Seneca in the heart of Crawford County.

Haying season started in early June and just seemed to last all summer. In between the first and second crop, we cut and shocked oats. After the second crop, threshing was done. Following threshing, we often put up a third crop of hay.

This is a 1948 IHC McCormick Deering Side Delivery Rake and Tedder.Purchased 4/29/2007 for the amount of $100.00.

This is a 1948 IHC McCormick Deering Side Delivery Rake and Tedder.Purchased 4/29/2007 for the amount of $100.00.

The Scheckel family “put up hay loose”, as the expression goes. No baler on the Scheckel farm. We would cut the hay down, let it cure for a few days, and bring in the side-rake to windrow the hay.  Then the hay loader and wagon were moved in, both pulled by horses. It was hard, dirty, back breaking work, in often hot and or humid weather. Today, only the Amish put up hay this old-fashioned way.

Dad had a No. 9 McCormick-Deering Enclosed Steel Gear Mower. The No. 9 was advertised to “take less power to pull and last a lifetime”. The sickle on the No. 9 ran faster than the older type mowers. These No. 9 mowers were made from 1939 to 1951. They had a 5 foot sickle bar.

Closed gears were a big improvement in the McD No. 9 mower design, or so says the company. The gears ran continually in oil so as to endure less wear and damage to gears and bearings. The mower had a sickle bar that bore serrated triangular knives that moved back and forth horizontally. Guard teeth in front of the blades helped hold stalks upright and protected the sickle bar teeth.

If you drive past old farmsteads in the Midwest, you may see a lot of these steel-wheeled horse drawn mowers. Many sit in a patch of weeds, but you may also see them in Amish farms.

Timing was everything during the haying season. Ideally, the hay, made of clover, alfalfa, timothy, and grass, was cut close to full maturity.

The best conditions for drying and curing hay are clear, cloudless, sunny, dry days, with a breeze. Curing would take two or three days. Humid weather or rain was not good for getting the fullest nutrient levels.  In those conditions the stalks become woody and leaves are lost.

Then the side rake would come through and put the hay into windrows, followed by the hay loader and wagon.

The curing hay has a wonderful smell. If you could bottle it, you could make a mint, call it “Essence of Alfalfa”.

The Scheckel kept the hay fields relatively weed free. We had to pull yellow rocket and white weed. That yellow rocket might be the same as yellow mustard. We used both names.



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