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Threshing by steam power

Steam threshers replaced the horse-powered threshers.  They required an engineer and numerous other people generally 15-30.  Horse drawn wagons hauled the shocks of wheat to the thresher and the grain away.  Threshing was a neighborhood operations because of the large number of people required.  The women would be working on 'feeding the threshers.'


The straw was piled in a 'haystack' utilizing a tripod of timbers with a pulley, hay fork, and ropes.  The straw from threshing was forked by hand onto a wagon and taken the a stacking area. Note the chickens foraging for loose grain. Threshing just took a lot of people and was a commitment by the farming neighborhood to help each other.  Farming communities were close groups generally marrying for a couple of generations within the neighborhood.

on the Jim Davis farm just north of the Village.

The Davis farm is just above the Lima P.O. listing on the map.

The McGee farm in at this bottom edge at the 1868 insert.

Steam threshing was faster than the method just before it which involved a separator turned by horses on a treadmill.   Steam threshers however had drawbacks.  Steam engines were very heavy and could only be used on relatively dry fields. Their weight also posed a transportation problem. In addition to the risk of becoming stuck on a soft road, many steam engines were too heavy for local bridges, often necessitating long and time consuming detours or fording stream beds.  Steam engines were also limited by water supply.


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All pictures below this point are not actual graphics from the Lima area but from my personal digital camera collection taken from the Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Old Threshers, or Hamilton and Jacksonville, Illinois Old Threshers.

Farm Power, Steam Power

This engine is very similar to the one owned by Bill McGee from the Lima area shown in the opening pictures.

Steam engines designed for use in agriculture often could use straw and wood for fuel burned wood.  Coal was not always readily available and expensive.   Generally, agricultural steam engines were equipped with driving wheels so that they could move under their own power or pull a plough, and they would also be equipped with a large flywheel. The flywheel turned independently of the drive wheels, and by means of wide, thick leather belts or heavy canvas belts, a stationary tractor could be used to drive a threshing machine or other equipment.


In the early decades of settlement, 1840-1860+ oxen were the primary power sources for farming in Fayette County.  Draft horses would become the principal source of power for agricultural operations after about 1860+ to the early decades of the 1900's.  However, steam engines for agriculture would start to mechanize the threshing processes for wheat and oats in the later part of the 1800's.  Most of the ground in Fayette County had already been 'broken' by oxen and draft horses were doing the 'ploughing' in the time just before steam became more common.  Most of the farms were 40-160 acres so owning steam power was generally not an option unless one was 'hiring' out to area farmers. 

The biggest drawback of steam  was the need to build and let down steam. This process, which could take an hour or more, consumed vast quantities of fuel and limited the number of hours in a day that a crew could operate.  Between about 1910-1920, the perfection of the internal combustion engine and the availability of inexpensive, reliable gasoline engines and tractors which could run from dawn to dusk without long firing-up delays would bring the use of steam to a rapid close on farms. 


Threshing Wheat and Oats

Steam engines  were fragile, complicated machines requiring an experienced 'engineer.'  Threshing machines likewise required an experience 'separator' to operate them.  They had to constantly monitor the machines, oiling and grease the bearing surfaces, lacing and setting belts. Adjusting the engine and sieves to accommodate changes in the crop being fed.

A fireman kept the engine fed with straw and wood to keep the steam pressure in the engine boiler constant.  Tankermen hauled water to the engine to keep the water level high enough for steady pressure. Bundlemen and teamsters with wagons collected the stacked grain and brought it to the threshing site. It might take 4-6 teams of bundlemen at work in the fields to keep the steam thresher 'fed' once the operation started.  Below the wheat bundles are being forked into the thresher, with another wagon waiting.  Once the steam engine was fired up and at operational pressure the operation had to be maintained.  A second grain wagon is waiting; the team at the left of the picture. The crew would work from dawn to dusk and beyond.  The traveling crew would often stay at the local farm.

An example of a threshing crew consisted of 6 to 8 men at the engine and thresher.  A crew of 6 to 8 men with bundle wagons, 3 to 4 bundle pitchers, 2 men with grain wagons, 2 men with the thresher and a water boy.   Many times the crew numbered 20-40 people.  Note above the wheat/oats coming out of the thresher into the grain wagon.


















Steam would greatly assist the threshing process, and would be utilized to plow the larger fields, especially out on the prairies.  Wheat as a cash crop would be pushed out by corn but oat threshing would continue until a little after WWII.  All of the small farms uses crop rotation and were very diverse.  In the early decades of the 1900's steam tractors and then gas tractors would become more common, however horses would still be utilized a great deal of the time up to WWII.
















The most critical decision in harvesting but the timing of the harvest. If the harvest starts late, the grain becomes too dry and rate of grain shattering is high. The longer a ripe crop is left in the field  the higher will be the loss from natural calamities including hailstorm, fire, birds, or rodents. The moisture content of the grain will be high, making drying difficult if the harvest starts too early.

The moisture content of wheat grain is a crucial factor from harvest until milling. Moisture content of 25 percentage is not uncommon in newly harvested grain in humid areas but it must be dried immediately to protect it against mould. At 14 percentage moisture grain can be safely stored for 2 to 3 months. For longer periods of storage from 4-12 months, the moisture content must be reduced to 13 percentage or below.

Drying was done by sunny days.  Sun drying is risky because it depends on weather conditions leading to dirty grain, spillage loss and bird attack.  The farmers generally stored their grain in simple wooden granaries on the farm, or container for family consumption.  Wheat and oats were easily lost to molds, birds, rodents, and insects.

Corn would become king by the first decades of the 1900's. Water, steam and gas driven grist mills for local flour productions  would disappear however gas and electric engine powered 'feed' mill would survive to produce feed for livestock.  Wheat production was literally non-existent after WWI, but oat production continued until small farms disappeared, thus threshing oats with gas powered self-contained threshes occurred. 


















Starting in the late 1950's pioneer style small complete diversified farming started to disappear at an accelerating rate.  The lifestyle is now  extinct. 


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All of my direct surnames were very early pioneers into Fayette Co, generally in the mid 1850's.  Growing up in Fayette and trekking the hills, prairies, streams throughout the county when the small villages and farms were so active and functional before the 1960's, the now lost history and memories of the pioneer generations and lifestyles from 1840-1960 continue to hold my interests.
Barry Zbornik
625 N. Section
Hannibal, MO  63401

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