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    The threshers and the farm wife

    When the threshing crew arrived it was a time of busy work and worry for an Alberta farm wife, but 1925 yielded a good crop. The economic depression of 1920-1921 was now just an unpleasant memory, but bleak hunger of the Great Depression years that devastated prairie farm life would follow soon enough. Nina Moore Jamieson—1885-1932, author, poet, newspaper writer and farm wife— describes how it was when the threshers arrived, in this syndicated article from the Regina Leader, January 13, 1926.

    W.J. Blair threshing crew on the farm of Dr. Lawsonburg, Alberta, 1915. Glenbow Arcives 208240.

    W.J. Blair threshing crew on the farm of Dr. Lawsonburg, Alberta, 1915. Glenbow Arcives 208240.

    We expected the threshers here on Tuesday morning, but the frequent little rains held up their other jobs and detained them so that it was after supper when we heard the steady drone of the tractor weaving its way down the sideroad. “Give them their supper,” John said lightly to me, as if it were no more bother than giving them a toothpick, “and by that time we’ll be done milking and we can set the machine.”

    Tuesday was washday, and the baby had his washday manners with him. He roared tremendously when he heard this pronouncement, but I looped him over my hip and brought out fresh plates and more bread for the newcomers. I had no lack of eatables. Because we had expected them in the morning, John had made a rush trip to the city the previous afternoon and had brought home the beef—twenty pounds or more; and cheese and tomatoes—for our garden is very backward; and bread, because in common with most farm women I no longer bake my own; and butter, because milk shippers are not buttermakers.

    Half of the beef was in the roasting tin, getting its first degree with the supper fire. In the morning I would finish it off after the pies were baked. The other half was in pickle in my big crock. It would be even better than the fresh, for the salt and sugar give it a pleasant flavor.

    By the time I had steeped some more tea and had everything ready, the machine was right up the lane at the house. Just a bit of a tractor first and then the great clumsy looking separator lumbering along at its heels. No sign of the weary team and the water tank that accompany steam-driven outfits. It used to be quite a problem to provide water for the threshing, the nearest creek perhaps a mile or more away. Tractors are not so anxious for water.

    After the tractor came a man with horse and buggy. This little mild provision for transportation meant that my threshing men would go home to sleep—and any farm women who reads these words will say, “She’s lucky!” For as a rule one keeps them overnight, and the nature of their work makes them very dusty and grimy so that even one night in a bed results in darkened sheets and pillow slips. And one has them at breakfast, which would have brought me out of my slumbers a little earlier than I fancy these times when I am losing a certain amount of sleep with the baby anyway.

    So the horse and buggy signified something. And there was another point to consider. The steam-driven outfits demanded firewood, and John used to put in a day drawing up pine roots for the threshers. Not so the tractor—I shall have those juicy pine roots for the kitchen stove, and be very glad of them when I want to boil the kettle in a hurry.

    Next morning when I wakened it was to hear the steady pitter-pat of rain against the shutters. My heart was like lead—rain on our grain meant that it would be unthreshable. And think of twenty pounds of beef, several cakes and pies already made, bread in the bread tin, two baskets of tomatoes, bushels of potatoes dug and wilting, neighbor giving me the day’s help—all to waste if it rained, all to do over again.

    The rain apparently considered this, for it stopped abruptly. I rolled the baby in his blanket and left him sleeping, with a fervent hope that he would sleep well. The men were at the milking. I made the porridge with one eye on the weather. It was a busy morning.

    Presently the men began to straggle along, an occasional team and wagon with them. We had thirteen men altogether to dinner and supper that day, and to dinner the next, with five others of us in the house, counting the children and the neighbor who helped me. Such a peeling of apples for sauce—such a cutting of cheese, icing of cakes, mashing of potatoes, slicing of tomatoes and cucumbers, pouring of tea, cutting of bread—and such an endless washing of dishes.

    After a while there came a long distance call for John, and I rushed down to the barn to find him. I had always supposed that threshing was a crowded time for men, but lo, there was no evidence to sustain my supposition. And I rounded the barn and appeared at the corner of the drive floor, I saw two wagon loads of grain waiting their turn. The drivers chatted easily together, leaning against their outfits. The tractor hummed pleasantly, and the long belt slithered its snaky way to and from the separator.

    Inside the barn a haze of fine chaff obscured the vision but out of the dimness the figures of men with forks presently asserted themselves. Sheaves were passing leisurely down to the machine. Two lads were having a good time with my old wash-boilers which are always saved to carry “bushels” in at these celebrations. They plunged into the shadows of the granary with the empty boiler, which they set below the spout from which the threshed grain issued.

    The men had one of the milk pails for drinking water in the barn, and another in the field, and as they passed back and forth to the pump replenishing their supply the old sow followed them with hopeful grunts, having an undying faith in the promise held out by a clanking pail.

    Threshing is paid for by the bushel, 3 cents for oats, 4 for wheat. No one minds a big bill—it means a good yield. When I went out to the barn again after the work was done, and saw the granary brimming with excellent grain (even if slightly dirty) and saw the grain spread on the drive floor of the barn to a depth of six or eight inches, I felt glad and grateful. The stack in the stable yard below will offer endless diversion to the cows. The hens will do great picking and scratching in it for stray grains. The old sow will make a Cook’s Tour around the base of it, emphasizing the important places. The dogs will bury choice morsels of groundhog in it, to say nothing about the bones and scraps of our twenty pounds of beef.

    All the time the machine was here, men were coming to see the threshers and secure their services, or calling up to make appointments with them by telephone. And the threshers were so accommodating! To be sure they would go to Tim Sullivan’s next—but there was a bit of a stack at Willy Connolly’s that they might as well pull in and do for him on the way down, and if the Widow Gilhooly wanted—that few loads threshed that she had in the field next the road, sure any man would wait on her getting it done!

    And if there came a rain in the meantime, or a break in the machinery, Tim Sullivan might be a long way behind in his reckoning. Mrs. Tim might be a bit wild, since all her baking would be done beforehand, and took all chances of spoiling, she and Tim being alone on the place to eat it. But they faithfully promised to go to Tim next, wind and weather permitting. Nobody is more obliging than the threshers.


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    TAGS: Farms, Farm life, Agriculture, Alberta, Threshing, Food, Cooking, Nina Moore Jamieson

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