Threshing Machine

Threshing RingThe cereal grain known as oats was once a common small farm crop in Iowa. In the sun, a field of mature oats looks like a golden sea. A beautiful part of our landscape. July is normally the month for the harvesting the oats. In Iowa, the grain was generally used for feed for livestock and the straw used as a source of bedding for the animals. This article is about the heritage and culture surrounding the harvesting of that golden sea of grain.

If you know what a “Threshing Ring” is, then this article will make sense. If you don’t, it is a good time to learn. In the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s local farmers planted a great deal of oats as feed for various livestock. It was a product that had a requirement for a special processing technique or machine called a separator. The larger grain separators were called “threshing machines” designed to remove the oat kernels off the plant and without the pesky husks. The machines were very large and expensive. They were powered in the early years by large steam engines utilizing a large drive belt from the tractor to the machine.

Did You Know? One of the more popular threshing machines was made in Des Moines by Wood Brothers Machine Company located on the NE part of Des Moines. The facility is long gone but the heritage of the company lives on in threshing and living history events around the country.

It was essential to have one of these machines to harvest the large number of acres of oats. One farmer could not afford to own or run the machine. It took a large number of farmers to run the machine and bring in the harvest. Every farmer had their job – one ran the steam engine, one ran the blower that made the straw stack, one coordinated the threshing machine and others did the work of bringing in the oat shocks and other delivered the harvested oats to the granary. The full process repeated on several days at each farm was called the “Threshing Ring”. It is a story of cooperation and coordination.

The threshing machine was moved from one farm to the next as the crops were harvested. A move would often take a full day to get completed and set up. There were often six to ten or more farms involved. The cost of the machine was shared. This process was both dawn to dusk work and a social event with large group meals and at times even some evening entertainment. Common to all evening meals was a wash tub filled with ice, beverages and maybe even a beer or two.

Now – what does this threshing ring have to do with Keep Iowa Beautiful? Those groups of farmers, children and wives symbolized the concept of working together as a “community” to get things done. They were empowered by the early American “get it done” attitude along with a pooling of time, effort and money. They did not ask government or others to do this for them, it was their job! It was community spirit that, often tied to the local country school, brought this rural set of people together for a common cause.

This process reflects what many communities need today. Communities need one person to motivate and organize (like the threshing machine owner / manager) citizens to make improvements in their community. They need a “can do” attitude and a common cause to work together. Like the community garden of today there are numerous projects requiring the threshing ring concept.

No, I don’t think we will bring back the threshing ring, but I know that many communities use that concept and hopefully many more of Iowa’s communities will use the principles in various efforts to enhance their neighborhoods and communities. There are a number of threshing festivals later in July and early August where the threshing process is re-enacted.

In some ways, we may already have today’s equivalent of the threshing ring in “community or school gardens” where large numbers of people work together to produce garden products. Bringing back the spirit of community is an objective of value to all of us.