Essay from Norman J. Olson

threshing day

by:  Norman J. Olson

as many who read this will know, I lived on a small, failing dairy farm in west central Wisconsin from 1948, when I was born, until 1959, when my family moved to the slums of St. Paul’s East Side…  in the 1950s, farming was becoming increasingly mechanized…  the farms were getting larger and the more successful farmers were buying larger and larger machines…  as the farms became businesses, and more like industrial concerns, the smaller farmers could not compete and were simply driven out of business…  I remember the last of the horses from the very early 1950s but after the War, horses were very quickly leaving the rural landscape, at least work horses… 

my dad owned an old John Deere tractor…  this was a small tractor, a Model B…  the Model A was much larger and my dad’s cousin Erick who lived just down the road had two Model A’s…  Carlin Lund who lived between our farm and Erick’s farm had a Farmall, which was a much more modern looking and seeming machine…  the Farmall was big and red with the engine enclosed in part by a streamlined gas tank at the top…  and had a regular engine instead of the old two cylinder John Deere so, it hummed like a car instead of having the distinctive John Deere “putt putt” sound…  it also had a battery and electric starter and a foot clutch like a car…  the John Deeres that I was familiar with had a lever to the right of the steering wheel that was the clutch and connected to an open pulley just in front of the axels for the massive drive wheels…  inside the pulley was the clutch mechanism…  on the other side of the engine, just opposite of the pulley, was a flywheel, a big heavy cast iron wheel that spun as the two cylinder engine putt putted along…  to start the engine, one would manually give the flywheel a spin…  you did this by just opening the throttle a bit and grabbing the wheel and spinning it…  for a grown man, this was not hard but as 8 and 9 year old children, my brother and I had to rear back and spin with all our might to turn over the engine and get the thing to start…

on Erick’s Model As, there were pit-cocks, little valves, that you had to open before attempting to spin the flywheel…  the pit-cocks would relieve the back pressure in the cylinder so that one could turn the flywheel…  otherwise, the compression of the engine was so strong that the flywheel was virtually impossible to turn, even for a grown man…

anyway, my brother and I loved to drive the tractor…  it had three gears, none of which was very fast and to drive it, you would select your gear, then engage the clutch and control the speed with a hand operated throttle which was where the turn signal lever is on a modern car…  you could not change gears without stopping…  Erick’s Model A’s had what my dad called a “road gear” which was an extra fast gear for driving on the road…  my brother and I loved to drive Erick’s big tractors but, I was scared of the road gear…  it seemed too fast… 

we were always told to stay clear of the big back tires of the tractor…  the driving wheels as they were very dangerous and that was probably good advice…  but, we climbed all over the tractor and drove it whenever we got the chance…  and by the time I left the farm at age 11, I was an excellent tractor driver…  could back up a four wheel hay wagon…  quite a tricky maneuver…  and choose the correct speed and correct gears for the job whether it was pulling the manure spreader or cultivating corn…  in those days, herbicides were only just beginning to be introduced and so the tractor was used to cultivate the corn…  there was a mechanism called a “cultivator” that attached to the tractor and had shovels or teeth that dug into the ground…  this was set up so that the teeth went between the rows of corn and driving across the field the teeth would dig up the soil, digging up any weeds that were growing between the rows… when the tractor reached the end of a pass across a field, the driver would reach to the side and push down a mechanical lever that would raise the teeth up out of the ground, so you could turn the tractor and start a pass back in the opposite direction on the next set of rows…  for a grown man, throwing this lever was not too difficult, but for us 8 and 9 year olds, it was impossible from the driver’s seat…  so one of us would drive the tractor and the other would throw the lever… standing perched on the hitch and the axel of the tractor…  we loved cultivating corn and took turns driving the tractor and operating the lever…  

the crops we raised were oats, barley and corn (maize)…  in the very middle of summer, the oats and barley would be ripe and it would be time to harvest…  my dad was kind of contrary and did not like the mechanized farming that was coming in where the harvest was done by a combine…  instead of the old way using a threshing machine…  in our area, the combine was new and only the biggest, richest farmers had them, but by 1959, everyone used a combine and the threshing machines were all parked in back fields, where they can still be seen today, rusting away… 

threshing time was great fun and the most exciting time of the year for me…  Old Man Torgeson up the road had an old wooden threshing machine…  the threshing machine was stationary and was run by a belt from the pulley of a big tractor…   to our young eyes, the threshing machine was huge and made an enormous racket…  we were told to stay far away from the belt that ran from the tractor to the threshing machine and from the labyrinth of belts on the side of the huge machine as those belts were very very dangerous…  in fact, Old Man Torgeson was missing a few fingers on one hand from and accident involving the belts of the threshing machine…  the old guy’s job was to run the threshing machine and I can see him with his striped overalls and a big oil can in his crippled hand…  walking around the huge roaring machine adjusting here and oiling there…

the threshing machine worked on bundles of grain that were tossed onto a conveyor chain that ran into the machine…  the hay wagons would be piled with grain bundles and farmers with pitchforks would throw the bundles from the wagon to the conveyor chute…  inside the machine, vibrating screens separated the grain from the straw…  the grain fell through the screens and the straw was sucked into a huge fan that blew it out of a pipe…  the grain was carried by a conveyor to another pipe with an auger that would  put it into a storage bin…  the storage bin would be emptied into a grain wagon that would haul the grain to the farm granary where an elevator would carry the grain up through an upper window where the gain would fall onto a metal trough that would direct it into the proper grain storage bin…

several farmers would work together on a threshing crew going from farm to farm until all the grain was threshed…  in our case, I remember the crew being my dad, his cousin Erick, Carl Lund and the Torgesons…  you could tell when it was time to thresh the grain because the grain was dry and golden brown… about a week before threshing day, the individual farmer would go over his own field with a machine called a grain binder…  the grain binder was an old horse drawn machine with the wooden tongue cut short and with a metal hitch so it could be hitched to the back of the tractor…  this machine was operated by a huge steal driving wheel so as the machine was pulled forward, the gears and chains connected to the driving wheel would operate the moving parts…  the grain was cut by a toothed sickle that moved back and forth…  the grain then fell onto a canvas conveyor belt and was carried into the machine where it was bundled into sheaves and each sheave was automatically tied with a piece of twine and the sheave, which we called a “bundle,” was dropped on the ground…  when the whole field was done, the farmer had to go over the field by hand, picking up the bundles and stacking them in tents of seven bundles per tent to get the grain up off the ground so air could get at it so it could dry…  the little tents of grain bundles were called “shocks” and that job was called “shocking grain…” 

then on the day before threshing day, Old Man Torgeson would bring his threshing machine to the farm and set it up with a belt from the pulley of the big tractor to run the machine…  one of his sons had a Ford tractor, which was low to the ground and had fenders, and looked to us, much more like a car than the other tractors…  this son used the Ford tractor to haul the grain wagon; hauling the grain from the threshing machine to the granary…  another farmer would handle the straw that blew out of a large pipe at the back end of the threshing machine…  he would use a big fork and move the pipe around to arrange the straw into a pile…  in those days, every farm had a straw pile behind the barn…  the straw was used for bedding for the cows and always there would be various lumps in the area from where old straw piles had been…  old straw piles were a great place to plant musk melons…  and huge bull thistles loved to grow in old straw piles…

the other farmers would take their hay wagons and drive around the field from grain shock to grain shock… a farmer on the ground with a three tined pitchfork would spear the grain bundles and toss them up to the guy on the hay wagon who would stack them into a load…  a third farmer, often a kid, would drive the tractor…  piling the load so the bundles would not fall off the wagon as the pile got higher was pretty tricky and both of the wagon jobs were heavy and hard work requiring the strength of a grown man… or a big strong kid…  my brother would sometimes throw the bundles up on the wagon to my dad while I drove the tractor but more often two of the men would handle those jobs and we would just drive the tractor…  our favorite thing to do was to ride in the grain wagon…  which was always full of crickets and beetles…  also, threshing time was always the time that the little black raspberries we called “black caps” were ripe and they grew all over in the fence rows… we would steal away whenever we could to pick a handful of black caps to eat…  a little burst of sweet juicy flavor in the heat and dust of threshing…

on threshing day, the farm wife or in Erick’s case, his mother, would get all of her female friends and relatives together and they would cook and make mountains of food…  pies and cakes, potatoes and fried chicken or roast beef…  cookies, sandwiches for lunch, Kool-Aid and soda for the kids, coffee and beer for the men…  grandma was there and in the heat of summer, with the wood stove going full blast, I always remember the women as looking warm and red in the face…  but the food was amazing…  early in the morning, all the farmers would do their own chores and then have breakfast and head for the farm where the threshing machine had been set up the day before…  they would start loading and threshing and around ten a.m. would take a break for lunch…  the women and kids would bring lunch to the men in the fields and around the threshing machine…  lunch was sandwiches made not with ordinary homemade bread but with fancy Wonderbread from the store…  homemade cookies and Kool-Aid or coffee to drink…  for the men, doing that hard hot heavy dusty work, it was really nice to sit down with a sandwich, a cookie and a cup of coffee…  talk a bit…  I remember laughing and joking…  as the farmers were a jolly enough bunch…  a few risqué comments in Norwegian…  and after maybe half an hour, it was back to work…  then what we called “dinner” was served at noon…  that would be a big meal of meat and potatoes with vegetable casseroles and pie and cake for desert…  and plenty of coffee about half diluted with heavy cream…

after dinner, the men would sit around for a while talking and smoking and drinking beer…  then it was back to work until about three p.m. when their would be another lunch, more sandwiches, cookies and coffee and then back to work until about 6 when everybody would leave to go home and do their evening chores…  after which they would have a meal that we called “Supper…”  funny but with all that food those men were not fat…  in fact, they were all trim and pretty fit from the hours of hard exercise…  and faces and arms were brown from the sun…  my brother and I liked to spend the summer without a shirt so, after the first week or so of sunburn, by threshing time, our pale Norwegian skin was very brown and we could be out in the sun all day without being burned…

I was always sad to see threshing end…  it usually lasted only two or three days, a day and a half of actual threshing and then another half day each for setting up and taking down the machine…  I remember the Torgesons heading down the barnyard driveway…  one son driving the tractor with the hay wagon, followed by the son with the Ford tractor and the grain wagon, followed by the old man driving the big tractor pulling the old threshing machine… 

all of this was done away with by the introduction in the 1950s to that area of Wisconsin, of the combine…  the combine then was much like the machine in use today only not as big as the modern version…  but, it was a machine that drove across the field that was operated by one man and did the whole operation at once, cutting and threshing the grain and leaving a trail of straw on the field…  well, there is always something lost with progress…  so what the farmers gained in efficiency was paid for dearly in the loss of the one really social and fun time I remember from the farm…  threshing time…  so few of us anymore really know the pleasure of hard work…  of using our strength and piling a wagon high with bundles that will hold together for the drive to the threshing machine…  of the taste of a blackberry or a creamy cup of coffee when it feels good just to sit for a minute and rest aching arms and backs…  of a hard day spent over a hot cookstove turning raw materials into an amazing amount of wonderful food…  I had the good fortune to see just the tail end of farming before it became a truly mechanical and industrial enterprise carried out by a giant robot operated by a hired hand listening to the radio in an air-conditioned cabin…  twenty feet up from the field of stubble…

the last horse and the tractor

the old John Deere tractor

was bought just after the war…  I can

barely remember the last of the horses,

huge and stomping around,

led by harness reins…

these were not race horses or

riding horses, delicate as the frost, but

workhorses with hooves the size of

dinner plates…  and shaggy coats…

I can see my dad

with the horse hoof held between

his legs, nails in his mouth,

nailing horseshoes

to the hooves of

a big slow black workhorse…

the last horse was named Black Beauty and I remember his death

the horse was ill and was standing,

leaning against the chicken coop…

I could hear the cracking

and groaning of the wood…

it was blue black night and

the enormous old horse


screaming in a harrowing whinny,

almost like a person…  the

adults were afraid he was

going to knock the

chicken coop over…  I remember

my dad at the old wooden

phone that hung on the kitchen wall, cranking

up the phone, holding

the ear piece…


cousin Erik

to come with his rifle

and I remember the

crack of the shot…  then

the last of the horses

was gone…  gone like childhood

or like yesterday morning, gone

like the sound

of an old John Deere tractor


over the hills of my memory, gone

like a rifle shot

in the blue black night…

5 thoughts on “Essay from Norman J. Olson

  1. Well done Norman! In my book The Wonderful Farm and Other Gone Poems, I talk about the work horses and the new John Deere.

    • Richard H yes I have that book. Many shared stories… “the good old days are good and gone / that’s why they’re good, because they’re gone…”

  2. I enjoyed reading your farm story and can relate. I spend many years on farms as a former farmworker with my family. We worked in Texas, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa,.Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota, so we lived in many different places and often old farmhouses. I can almost smell the dirt,. the old barns. One of my fond memories from working the sugar beets fields and other crops in different states.,were eating Tacos”pasiados” for as you called it, “dinner”. My mom would get up at 500 am to make breakfast and lunch for the fieldworkers. My dad and my sisters. and occasionally my mom. The fact that the tacos for lunch were driven to the field is why we said the were tacos “pasiados” and they tasted even better. To this day, I don’t like pork and beans because my dad would typically have some cans of pork and beans stashed behind the pickup seat. Now, these were stashed in case you got hungry at 4 to 5 in the afternoon and all the tacos pasiados were gone…If you were hungry enough you opened the can and ate, I guess I ate plenty of those cans that now when I run into them at picnic or such, I pass in pork and beans. When I eat cherries, strawberries, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, green beans, oranges, bell peppers, they remind of certain places where we worked harvesting those crops. I was on the farm work for my first 18 years or so. My last fieldwork was around 1973or 1974. I was in college in Moorhead State and my parents were up for the sugarbeets. I did not even give it a thought, I was just to go to live on the farm with my parent and work in the sugarbeet for the summer. Looking back at that summer, little did I realize that would be the last of the taco pasiados and the pork and beans. LOL

  3. Richard H yes I have that book. Many shared stories… “the good old days are good and gone / that’s why they’re good, because they’re gone…”

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