Early 1900’s Threshing Ring – Randolph County, Indiana [Genealogy Photos] –
We’ve all heard the phrase “pitching in,” but how many realize the saying comes from the common early American practice of the neighborhood threshing ring? The threshing ring was every bit as much a social event as it was a functional necessity in that day. Our ancestors may very well have starved without this tradition of neighbor helping neighbor.
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Though the first steam threshing machine is believed to have been invented by Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle as early as 1786, threshing rings were common in the American Midwest from about 1830 to around 1940. You can read more about Andrew Meikle on the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame’s page. Meikle’s thresher is considered the predecessor to all modern combines.
I don’t have a way to determine the date of my photos, but I believe they were taken around the turn of the century, likely between 1900-1920. I don’t believe they occurred prior to 1900. I have a few pictures in my possession that were taken prior to 1900, but most of those are more like professional photographs. The pictures of everyday life that seem to be taken by a camera that might have been owned by my relatives start around 1905-1910 or later.
If any of my readers happen to be experts on threshing machines and can determine the date based on the type of machine, I would love to hear your input in the comments. None of the people in the photos are clear enough to recognize, so I have no other way to assign a date.
The threshing ring pictured likely took place near Bloomingport in Randolph County, Indiana. Many of you know from the Bloomingport Livery Stable and Carlos City to Carlos Mystery Solved post that my great-great-great grandfather John Henry Bales operated the livery in Bloomingsport, so many of my pictures of farm work are from that area. Some other possible locations would have been near Carlos, Snow Hill, or Lynn.
So what was a threshing ring?
Before there were tractors or combines or any of the other fancy farm machinery we have today, the community would rely on a practice called a threshing ring. Anywhere from 8-16 families in the area would hire the services of a professional thresherman and his magnificent steam engine thresher which mechanically separated the grain from the straw. The work would begin on one farm with all the farmers in “the ring” helping on that farm until the work was finished. Then the entire ring of workers would move to the next farm to complete the work there until all the fields in “the ring” had been threshed.
The threshing machine looked similar to a train engine because it had a similar steam engine. It also had a whistle like a locomotive which the thresherman would sound as he pulled into the area evoking excitement from the residents, especially the children. The whistle would also be used to alert workers of mealtimes throughout the day.
Judges chapter 6 of the Holy Bible speaks of Gideon hiding from the Midianites in a winepress to thresh the wheat (separate the seed from the chaff). Thankfully these ancestors pictured did not have to hide from the Midianites, and they didn’t even have to thresh the grain by hand by this point in history.
Another machine would first go through the fields to cut the grain. It would be bound into bundles and left to dry. The dried grain would be loaded on to wagons, also known as grain racks, using pitchforks. This brings us the commonly used phrase “pitching in.” The full wagons were then pulled alongside the threshing machine with one on either side, and the grain would be pitched into the machine where the wheat or oats would be mechanically separated, and the shucks would be left to use as bedding for livestock.
Pitchforks are not to be taken lightly. My great grandpa lost a finger because he was hiding in the hayloft as a child, and his brother came along with a pitchfork but didn’t know he was under the hay/straw. You have to wonder why my great grandpa was hiding while his brother was working. I suspect he was supposed to be working too, and hiding from the task didn’t work out well for him.
The threshing process is explained more thoroughly by Wessels Living History Farm in Farming in the 1920’s.
I’m amazed at how tall they were able to pitch these piles of straw on the racks.
The Role of Women in the Threshing
Although it’s the work of the men I have in pictures, the work of the women during the threshing was no easy task. The women were responsible for feeding the entire neighborhood of workers while the threshing ring was at their farm. Sometimes other female neighbors or relatives from town would come out to help the lady of the house with this work. Baking and other preparations may begin several days in advance, but other tasks could not be completed ahead of time due to lack of refrigeration.
The day’s work would begin before daylight and would often involve butchering chickens in the early morning hours. Today I know women who barely want to touch raw chicken from the grocery, but our ancestors did not have that luxury. Our foremothers didn’t get to turn up their noses at tasks they found undesirable. A woman had to feed her family, and that meant she was skillful at ringing the neck of a chicken.
The women would then pluck the feathers and process the chickens into whatever meals they would require that day. If you’ve ever butchered poultry, I’m sure you know this work is kind of smelly. It smells worse than butchering deer, hogs, or beef, but it was just life in rural America at that time. You didn’t have a freezer full of various meats and poultry neatly packaged in plastic wrap because you didn’t have a freezer at all.
The meals served to the threshing ring were a bit of a competition between the ladies. Everyone wanted to serve the most bountiful meal. Fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, corn, biscuits or rolls, bread, pies, and cakes were all common for the main meal. Sandwiches were often served at other times throughout the day.
I’ve read several written accounts of the threshing as told by people who were children during the time, and every one of them mentioned lemonade being served to the threshing ring. Lemonade was not a common household staple in the midwest then. Since lemons cannot be grown in these northern climate zones, lemons would have to be shipped by train to general stores. Buying lemons was a special treat and therefore memorable to the children.
Makeshift tables created from large boards would be set up in the yard for mealtimes. There were no paper plates and plasticware, so the workers would eat in shifts with the women constantly busy washing all the tableware for the next group of diners. At my house, it always feels like the dishes are a neverending task, so I can’t even imagine the extent of that during the threshing.
The Threshing as a Social Event
Although the threshing ring was a time of much work, it was also a time of great excitement. It was a time when neighbors came together to work side by side for a common goal. It was a way of solving problems together and cooperating with those around you. It is this balance between rugged individualism and hearty collaboration that built the American Midwest and is still defining us in many ways today.
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