It was a hot, miserable job done at the steamiest time of the year.  It required multiple men, multiple teams of horses, a steam engine and a loud, noisy thresher.  It was a multi-step process that involved removing the seed heads of ripened oats from the stems of the plants.  It was called threshing.

In the early years, before mechanization, threshing was accomplished by cutting down the stalks of grain, gathering it into bundles, allowing it to dry for a bit in the field and then either dragging a roller over it or hitting it with a mallet of some type to separate the grain from the stem.  The point was to have the oats available for the horses and poultry.  The stems–or straw–was used for bedding in the barn.

Once a more easy, mechanized way of accomplishing the job became available, the farmers of Schaumburg Township took to it as quickly as they could afford it.  Because it required both a steam engine to provide the power, and a threshing machine to separate the grain from the straw, this was no small feat. These were both expensive pieces of equipment and required a fair amount of outlay for farmers who were used to getting their work done with horse power.

As a result, a group of farmers who lived near each other, banded together and formed a threshing circle or team to pay for the equipment and do the work.  In most instances the equipment was probably paid for by one farmer who had more funds and was moving beyond subsistence farming.  The others in the circle may or may not have reimbursed him for the cost of the job.

Threshing was done at the farms over the course of a week to a week and a half when the grain was ripe in July or August.  Despite the fact that the hot, muggy conditions were unpleasant, it was still a time that was looked forward to simply because the neighborly camaraderie was something to be enjoyed and appreciated.

During threshing time each farmer began the day at their own farm doing the milking.  Depending on the herd, this took a fair amount of time.  After things were in order on their own farms, they made their way to the farm where the threshing would take place.  Usually, by the time they got there around 7:30, the steam engine’s boiler would have been stoked with wood or coal and would be fired up and ready to go.  Both pieces of equipment were placed close to the barn so that the grain and the straw were in close proximity to the animals who used it.  When they were set to begin, the farmer would blow the whistle of the steam engine as a friendly “All set!” to the surrounding countryside and the other threshing teams that would be working that day.  There was no ambient sound in those days so the toot of the whistle carried well.

The process was begun when one man threw bundles of grain into the threshing machine.  It was powered by the steam engine via a long belt that connected the two pieces of equipment.  As the thresher began the separation process, the grain was routed into bags that were placed in a wagon.  When the wagon was full, it was pulled by a team of horses into the barn.  The heavy bags were then lifted out, carried to the granary and emptied.  This allowed the farmers to reuse the bags and also gave the grain a chance to dry more fully.

Meanwhile, another man would get ready to “shape” the straw pile as the straw was separated from the grain and blown out of the thresher.  There was an art to swinging the blower about as the straw had to be arranged properly to keep rain and snow rolling off of the pile instead of infiltrating it.  If this happened, the straw would dampen, causing mold to form.  Moldy straw wasn’t good for the farmer or the animals so it was crucial that this once-a-year crop was managed perfectly.

Yet another man or two would take a wagon and team of horses out to the fields to pick up a load of grain bundles that had been drying for a few days.  There was yet another method to stacking these bundles.  They would be placed grain side forward in the wagon with the straw end hanging off.  The intent was to not lose any grain if at all possible.  Any grain that fell off was swept up and added to the granary.

While the men were busy working outside, the lady of the house was busy inside preparing the food that was necessary to keep the men going throughout the day.  She usually had assistance from her daughters, a sister, a neighbor or a friend.  Around 9:30 the men would take a break and have a brief “lunch.”  Someone from the house would bring out sandwiches  that were made with summer sausage, lunch meat or some other type of meat.  Donuts, coffee cake, coffee and water would also be part of the meal.  The coffee was brought out in a Karo syrup pail and then served in coffee cups since this was a time before paper cups.

“Dinner” was served at noon and was a chance to briefly clean up and come inside for a full, sit-down meal, although the Stratford Farms threshing crew, pictured above, ate outside under the trees.  The men would wash up at the pump, in buckets or in basins of water before they entered the house to have a seat at the stretched out dining table.  There they were often served a special beef roast, boiled potatoes, gravy, vegetables, homemade bread, canned pickles and, of course, plenty of pies.

Some of the ladies were known for a special item or two.  Oral historian Ramona (Lichthardt) Meyer said their family made their own root beer for the group.  She also mentioned that the table was laid with ironed, white damask tablecloths.  Brother and sister, Donald and Marian Thiemann, mentioned that their mother made her own homemade lemonade, complete with ice, which was a treat. In the words of Elmer Moeller, another oral historian, “The best part of threshing was the eating.  It was out of this world.”

Around 3:30 another “lunch” was served which was a repeat of the morning lunch.  Finally, at 6:00 when they had wrapped up for the day, sometimes a supper consisting of leftovers, fried potatoes, meatloaf, hotdogs, etc. was put out–along with some cold beer that had been cooling all day in the cold water tank used by the cows.  This was probably consumed fairly quickly as the men needed to get back to their farms for another round of milking.   Needless to say, it would have been an exhausting day.

Once the work was done at one farm, the operation was moved to another.  Because the steam engine was so heavy, it had to be driven on the shoulder or across the fields.  If they had to cross the paved roads, they put planks down so the treads of the steam engine wouldn’t dig into the pavement.  It moved very slowly so it took time to drive from farm to farm.  The thresher wasn’t as cumbersome as it could be pulled with a tractor or a team of horses.  Once situated, the process started all over again.

Threshing eventually became obsolete with the advent of the combine which did all of the work for the farmers.  There was no need to bind the bundles of grain or send it through a thresher.  The combine did all of that and even held the grain as it separated from the straw.  It was definitely a more cost effective process but it eliminated the good times, the good eating and the good work.  As Don Thiemann said, “You worked your butt off but you had good fellowship too.”

Jane Rozek
Local History Librarian
Schaumburg Township District Library

My thanks to LaVonne (Thies) Presley for her comprehensive write up on her family’s threshing methods that she wrote about in her book Schaumburg Of My Ancestors.  She covered every detail of the process and answered any questions I had along the way.  I would also like to thank the oral historians and their family memories of threshing.  Many of them have passed away but listening to their interviews on our library’s Local History Digital Archive is always a chance to walk back in time with them.  You, too, can check out their videos here.

The top photo was taken on the Fred Pfingsten farm on Plum Grove Road and was contributed by the Pfingsten family.

The second photo was donated by the Pastor John Sternberg family and is of an unknown Schaumburg Township farm.

The third and fourth photos were donated by the family of Florence Katherine (Bell) Randall and are of Stratford Farm that was on South Roselle Road.  

We thank them all for their generosity.


  1. Fred Luft Says:

    Thank you Jane for providing this information on what it took to harvest the grain. When I hear people say “I wish for the old days, when life was simpler” these people need to read what it took to provide for a family. Living on a farm was hard work.

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