Quest in Roots:
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HARVESTING THROUGH THE YEARS
Harvest time! What memories come to mind! I can remember back to a time when grain was cut, stooked and then stacked. There were not too many threshing machines in the early days, and often one would not be available until after freezeup, so the sheaves were stacked to keep the grain in good condition. As machines became more plentiful, stacking operations were eliminated and harvest completed earlier in the fall.
I can remember the old steam outfits and crews - engineer, separator man, fireman, waterman, grainmen, pitchers and stook team men, 20-25 to a crew. It was an exciting time when the threshing machine arrived. Stook teams, caboose and water wagon rolled into fields and yard. Sheaves were loaded on racks. Then the machine puffed into the field and lined up ready to begin work. The engine whistled when steam was up in the morning, the signal for men to get to the field and signalled the end of a long day. The water man and grain men were each signalled when they were needed, by a given number of "toots". As children we were very disappointed when gas machines took over and there was no whistle.
The first gas threshing engine I remember was mounted on a wagon and was pulled by horses.
Then came the mobile machines, larger and larger and more efficient. In the late 30''s and 40''s the combines made their appearance and the sight of stooked fields became a rarity. Now people are straight combining, not even swathing the grain.
When there were large gangs of men with the machines, it was a major task for housewives to prepare and serve meals. Bread was not bought at the store but made in the farm kitchen. A good supply had to be on hand as well as pies, cakes, etc.
Pans and pans of biscuits were made. Lunches as well as meals had to be prepared. There were no fridges or deep freezers. Meat was often a problem.
I remember meat being placed in a container and lowered into our deep, cold well on a rope, to keep it from spoiling.
If the weather held, the big machines made short work of the threshing. If it rained the task of feeding the men was prolonged. One harvest at home, it rained just after the machine came, and the men ate a quarter of beef before they were able to thresh a sheaf. Farm wives also had to be responsible for "chores". There were chickens to feed and milking to do, water and wood to carry.
The men slept in the "Caboose", a small building on wheels. Bunks lined the walls. I can not imagine the accommodation being very comfortable or airy.
The grain was mostly hauled to the elevator or to a loading platform where it was unloaded by shovel and strong arm. This saved elevator cost.
For many years there were harvest excursions.
Men were able to travel from Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes for a small fare. When they reached Winnipeg or other points in the west, farmers met the trains and were able to hire harvest help. A number of these men were from farms but some had never worked on a farm. In 1928 we had a young man from a city in England on the gang.
There was an excursion from the British Isles that fall. He hardly knew a horse from a cow, and, of course, the harness was a complete puzzle. I often wonder how he endured the hot heavy labor in the fields. Those who were "green" were always the butt of all the "jokes" thought up by the other men.
One man had never hitched a team and was told to always raise the tongue into position first. At night when he went to unhitch, he let the tongue down before undoing the traces. He said he had been told to always start with the tongue. Another man who worked on our gang at home could never tell one grain from another. In a wheat field where the pot holes had been sown to oats, he invariably loaded oats and wheat in the same load. Tempers were a little frayed when the sheaves had to be sorted at the machine.
Many associations were formed with the excursion men, lasting over many years. The Mitchell family at Ingelow had a harvester in early years who came from the Ontario-Quebec border.
His people had a maple sugar bush and for many years the Mitchells ordered a shipment of maple syrup from them. The price was $2 per gallon. It came in wooden boxes 5 or 6 gallon cans to a box.
The syrup was stored in the granary and the boys usually had one can open so they could help themselves to a drink of maple syrup when they visited the granary. When grandpa was no longer able to look after the shipment, Wallace Moffatt took over and ordered shipments each year for a period of time for those who wanted it. The cost of the syrup and the freight charges made getting it impracticable. But was it good! When the smaller machines came into use, two neighbors often threshed together with a crew of six or seven, the two farmers and three or four hired men. At home we threshed with our nearest neighbor for over 20 years. It was a time of sociability and fun as well as hard work. There was an excitement that is somehow missing when a farmer and his wife or other family member are able to do all the harvesting. As one who remembers many harvest years, I look back with nostalgia.
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