We continue our story of threshing oats in the mid-1940s on the Scheckel farm near Seneca in the middle of Crawford County, Wisconsin. It is the era of the threshing ring, when farmers banded together to thresh grain, moving from farm to farm over a 2-week season.
Those threshing crews was an opportunity that some neighbors had to visit you and your family at your place. Other times would be the Oak Grove School basket social in the fall, the Christmas program, and the picnic at the end of the year. There would be an occasional wake or funeral. And farmers learned from each other, gathered information on new crop varieties coming out, cost of new machinery, how to solve a problem with the binder or hay loader. That comradeship and the social aspects were important to farmers in the first half of the twentieth century. It bound them together.
The host farmer was expected to make dinner for the threshing crew. And let me tell you, those farm men could eat! It was impossible task for one woman, so it was expected that several farm women showed up to help.
All the meal preparation was done on wood burning stoves. A few farm families had kerosene ovens. There were no electric stoves or microwave ovens at that time. We’re talking wood burning stoves, indoors, with no air conditioning, and few fans.
Like the men in the field, the women worked as a team. Pies and cakes were prepared ahead of time by the host housewife. Neighbor wives brought food. Women arrived early, just like the men. A few came by car. Some got there with their husbands, who drove the wagon pulled by horses or tractor. It was a chance for housewives to swap stories, exchange gossip, commiserate, and socialize. Farm kitchens were a bee hive of activity.
Those threshing dinners were feasts! There might be as many as 20 or 30 men to feed. Usually the food was laid out on tables in the front yard, close to the house. The threshing machine was shut down. The thresher men unhitched the teams from the wagons, drove them to the water tank, or secured buckets of water. The bridle was removed and replaced by a halter. A six foot rope was attached to the halter and the other end tethered to a fence post, wagon, or tree. Farmers tried to provide shade for their team. Horses were fed a pail of grain and a few bunches of hay. Men tended to the horses before joining the lunch line.
There was a table set up with a washbasin, soap, towel for the farmers to “clean up” before the meal would commence. As little kids, it was our job to set up the washbasin, carry buckets of clean water, stacks of towels, and bars of soap.
The sweat-drenched farmers came by, rolled up their sleeves, bent over the wash basin, and with both hands scooped up water and splashed across the face. The lower face being sunburned and upper face whitened as the sun seldom reached the top half of a farmer’s head.
A bar of soap, washcloth in hand, and a slathering of water and soap on each arm, and a reach for the big towel. Some of the grime is removed, just enough to be presentable for noon dinner.
As I look back at it now, I think no self-respecting housewife is going to be outdone by a neighboring housewife. It was unthinkable that your meal should be less than the feast provided the previous day from the farmhouse down the road.
And what a feast it was! Chicken was the staple meat, perhaps roast beef, maybe ham. There would be heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, along with gravy, stuffing, carrots, peas, homemade bread, and dinner rolls. Cole slaw, pickles, and beets were spread out. Milk, coffee, lemonade and water for drinks. For dessert, pie was top dog. Several choices on pies; apple, chocolate, peach, mincemeat. These pies were already cut when out on the table. Big pieces, too, not those dinky slices you see in restaurants today. There would be some cakes, pastries, and cookies. Ice cream was a rarity.
These feasts were beyond description. And always, housewives would be imploring, “come get more seconds”. Food was served buffet style. Farmers would grab a china or ceramic plate, utensils, go down the line, and scoop up whatever food and whatever quantity of food they desired.
Farmers would eat sitting on the grass, some chairs provided, propped up against a tree. Some farmers set out planks supported by two large pieces of firewood. Eat and talk, swap story, tell tall tales, and good ribbing jokes. What great fellowship! Some would go back for more food. No one went hungry.
Excerpt from book Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers