SOME TIME ABOUT the middle of June we children in Mills county used to begin listening for the two long and two short blasts on the steam whistle that told us that D. O. Simpson's outfit was moving over to Monroe Fletcher's farm to begin the threshing season. Men would be in the fields from sunup to sundown, women would be in hot kitchens before the men went to work and after they had quit, and children would be doing chores and running errands all day long. But nobody complained. It was a time of keen excitement. There was a satisfaction in having the grain safely in the barn, in knowing that whether the yield was heavy or light, it was now safe from the hazards of drought and hail and grasshoppers. There was a satisfaction in watching high-powered machinery doing its work efficiently. There was satisfaction, too, in taking part in a well-organized group activity, in being a member of a well-disciplined team.
Mills county is situated almost exactly in the center of Texas. It is a country of low, broken hills, partly open and partly covered with thick brush. It has never been exclusively a farming country nor exclusively ranching country. The two have always been of about equal importance. Perhaps a few more of Mills county's population of eight thousand live by tilling the soil than by grazing the grass. Few, indeed, are the ranches in the county that do not have some land in cultivation, and practically nonexistent are the farms that do not have at least a flock of goats. And since farming and ranching run neck and neck, grain has always been an important crop.
One of the most colorful folk institutions growing out of this economy was the threshing crew. In point of time the era of the threshing crew is comparatively modern, but it has definitely passed from the oat and wheat fields of Mills county, and we look back on its passing with fond memories and regrets.
In the early years of the present century, threshers were run by horsepower. In those days threshing was a much slower process and did not involve as many laborers as it did later. The steam engine changed threshing almost as much as it did ocean and land travel, but the change was not as spectacular.
Steam-powered threshers came into general use in Mills county about 1912. D. O. Simpson, whose threshing crew I knew best, bought a new J. I. Case threshing rig, consisting of a steam tractor and a separator, in 1912. He tried out his new machine and pioneer crew on Sam Sullivan's oat patch in Goldthwaite and then went out to Jim Cockrum's place west of town and began the season's run. He threshed every summer from 1912 until 1938 without missing a season. During those twenty-five years Mr. Simpson never lost a day's work on account of sickness or for any other reason. He was always on the job with his crew during its long years of activity.
When his rig was set up, the separator and engine stood about seventy feet apart and power was transmitted by an endless belt. When a crop was finished, the belt was removed, and the engine was attached to the front end of the separator and pulled it to another place. A few owners of large farms had the thresher moved to various parts of their land and, as a result, had several straw stacks when threshing was over. But the great majority of Mills county farmers had their threshing done at one sitting, and had only one straw stack when the threshing was over.
The thresher engine looked like a small railway locomotive. The long boiler formed the front end, and immediately behind that was a small cab where the engine man stood. To me as a child, the most fascinating things in the cab were the steering wheel and the cord that pulled the whistle. The door opening into the fire box under the boiler was between the deck and the floor of the cab, and keeping wood on the fire was the chief task of the fireman. In our county the tractor never burned coal. One of my clearest childhood memories is that of watching Ellride Conway throw wood by the armfuls through the fire box door. An armful did not last long. His work seemed hot and endless, but he must have liked it, for he kept this job season after season for seven or eight years.
At the back of the separator was a wide platform covered with revolving canvas. As the grain wagons drove from the field, one pulled up on each side of this platform. Then the men, using pitchforks, took turns in throwing bundles of grain on the canvas which carried it to the separator.
A pipe through which the threshed grain ran emptied on one side of the separator, and here the sack holders stood. There were always two of them, and they took sack about, catching the grain. While one was catching, the other moved his filled sack a few feet away, got an empty one, and stood ready to catch again. Usually an oat sack, which held approximately four and a half bushels, filled in a minute's time. Both barley and wheat threshed slower than oats and were bagged in smaller sacks. But all of it threshed so fast that the sack holders never had much time to rest or talk except when a breakdown occurred or the machinery was stopped for oiling.
Near the front of the separator and from the side opposite the grain outlet, a large pipe extended, called the stacker, through which the waste straw passed. The stacker moved automatically from side to side and spread the straw evenly. It contained several flexible joints and could be raised and lowered as needed, and, when not in use, was curved back across the separator at its first joint.
One hand, “the separator man,” always stood on top of the separator to see that the threshing was going along all right. During moving, he quite often rode on the separator to watch out for trees and telephone lines that might scrape the stacker off.
In almost all cases Mr. Simpson acted as manager of his crew. Through his long years of threshing, he also served as engineman as well as manager. The engineman, fireman, separator man, and two sack holders formed the permanent crew that worked around the thresher proper. Other permanent employees of the crew were the men who ran the grain wagons, the pitchers, and the man who ran the waterwagon. The owner of the crop sewed the grain sacks or arranged for someone else to do it.
Each thresher required about eight wagons to haul the bundled grain from the fields. The owner of the machine furnished the wagons and teams, usually hiring a man who furnished a wagon team. Each wagon was equipped with a frame which angled out on each side about three feet. The sides were built up quite high and extended out much farther than the wagon bed itself.
A crew usually had only half as many pitchers as grain wagons, and these men furnished only their pitchforks. Since two wagons were usually at the separator at all times and since two were usually going to the separator, two returning to the field and two loading the bundles, it was not necessary to have as many pitchers as wagons.
At least two wagons were needed to haul the grain sacks from the thresher to the barn. The crop owner took care of this. Instead of hiring men, he usually secured the services of a couple of neighbors and repaid them in labor when the thresher moved to their farms.
There were two types of threshing crews, the dependent and the independent. The two crews differed only in the provisions made for eating. The dependent crew had to be fed by the crop owner. If the crew was large enough to require two or three days of threshing, his wife cooked for the entire crew all the time it was there. Many farmers had the crew for only one or two meals, and a small crop might even be threshed between meals; hence missed the gaiety as well as the extra work that accompanied cooking for the threshers. D. O. Simpson began running independently in 1916. He was the first in our county to add a cook shack to his equipment.
The threshing season in Mills county usually began around the fifteenth of June and lasted on the average four weeks although bad weather might prolong it to six weeks. The Simpson crew ran until the first of August several times, and during the exceedingly wet summer of 1919 they never did get their run finished. They threshed until frost and then quit.
The men must have enjoyed their work, for the crews tended to remain intact for years. Mr. Simpson himself served as engineman. Silas Bleeker was fireman for the first seven years and his son, Valdimar Bleeker, succeeded him. But the fireman that I remember best was Ellride Conway, who fired continuously for the last seven or eight seasons. Different men held the post of separator man on the Simpson crew, but it was usually filled by R. B. Simpson, D. O.'s brother, who served about fifteen years.
Assisted by a cook and a “flunky,” Mrs. Simpson saw to it that the Simpson crew was the best fed in the region. Her cook shack was a well-equipped kitchen on wheels. Sections of the side walls could be let down on hinges to serve both as tables and also for ventilation. The furnishings consisted of a wood stove in the front end, a cook table and a few chairs, which stayed inside only during moving. All other space was used for storage. A small shelf was on one side of the door in the back for the water bucket and the dipper hung on a nail beside it. Just before meal time, the cook's assistant placed wash pans, towels, soap, and combs here. The men usually went to the waterwagon or to a nearby creek for washing, returning always to a mirror hanging beside the shelf to comb their hair.
In the early days when the cook shack was moved by horses, one of the grain haulers pulled it with his team while another hauler trailed his empty wagon. About 1921, Mr. Simpson began pulling the shack with a Fordson tractor.
The coming of the thresher was a big event, but the arrival of the cook shack was an even bigger one. Since the Simpson children were usually with the thresher, we children always spent several days visiting it when it was in our neighborhood. Mrs. Simpson had no trouble getting the dishwashing and other jobs done by enticing us with her goodies. One day after dinner at Grandpa Hale's, Mrs. Simpson assigned me the job of churning. Just then the Fordson tractor pulled up to move the shack over to our place for supper. We quickly gathered up everything and raised the sides; then Mrs. Simpson told me to ride inside the shack with her and hold the lid on the churn. I could churn, she said, when we got home. Since the road was rough and the cook shack was mounted on steel-rimmed wagon wheels, I did not need to churn when we got there.
Another fascinating and very important feature of the threshing equipment was the waterwagon. It was a long, cylinder-shaped tank mounted on wagon wheels and drawn by horses. A thick rubber hose was used to draw water from the tank into the boiler. Since the steam engine required a great deal of water, it was imperative for all farmers to have a supply on hand. That was just as important as having a lot of wood hauled up and cut thresher-length. My father never considered that he had enough water ready for threshing unless our cement storage tank was completely full. If the thresher reached our neighborhood during a still spell when the windmills were not turning, there was always the nearby Epley Spring, of early-day treasure hunting and Chisholm Trail fame, with its inexhaustible supply. Regardless of how much water was taken from the spring, its glassy surface never dropped more than an inch.
To me nothing was more interesting than the engine whistle by which signals were sounded. The Simpson crew almost always opened the season at Monroe Fletcher's farm a few miles south of us; and when the thresher was in position, the belt connected, the steam up, and everything ready to go, a shrill blast announced to all the listening countryside that threshing had started again. One long blast was used both as a noon summons to the cook shack and as a signal to stop for the night. The quitting whistle always blew at sundown. A little short whistle was used when the thresher stopped work for any other reason, and the same whistle was blown when it started again. Two equal whistles mean “more grain,” and three equal whistles mean “more water.” Two long followed by two short blasts was the road signal. At frequent intervals, as the thresher was traveling along going from one grain crop to another, the road whistle rang out, thus announcing to the waiting farmer that the thresher was on its way. We used to keep up with the exact whereabouts of the thresher all over the neighboring country by listening to this signal. A long, mournful, drawn-out whistle was always blown at the end of the season, when the last crop of the run was finished. The season ended with the Simpson crop adjoining us, so we always had orchestra seats for the close-of-season whistle.
In retrospect many random incidents connected with threshing stand out. I remember the Sunday night in 1931 when Joe Anderson, Lester Kerby (now dead) and Hubert Denton stopped for the singing at the Bethel church on their way back to the Head thresher. They came in dressed in overalls and jumpers, took a front seat, and sang as loud as anyone. A few songs before closing time they went outside and, above the high, ringing chorus of the next song, we could hear the jingle of harness, the creaking of wagons, and cries of “getup” as they left. When singing was over, several girls took some boys to the Bud Harper thresher, which was camped on the Lampasas River about five miles beyond Star. We passed Joe, Lester, and Hubert over near the Live Oak schoolhouse. The wagons were strung out one behind the other, and all three boys were still singing.
Then there was the time down at Bob Blackburn's that Glenn dodged a rattlesnake and tore the seat out of his pants on the separator. He sent word up to Ike Black's, the nearest telephone, and Mrs. Black called home and told us that Glenn was badly in need of more clothes. My sister Fay and I, not knowing just what he needed, gathered up one of everything he wore and took them to the thresher. There we found Glenn backing around to his duties but finding it hard to keep facing everybody at once.
Another incident that stands out belongs to the 1920’s. During a still spell when many people were low on water, the thresher reached John Brown's place adjoining ours. A number of us got on the waterwagon and went with Henry Simpson to the Epley Spring for water. As we were coming up from the spring with a full tank of water, the horses balked. Try as he might, Henry could not make them pull, and soon we began to hear the water whistle, three equal blasts and after a short interval, three more. I cannot recall now how the wagon got home, but I do know that all of us children got off and walked back to Brown's. Perhaps the lightened load and decreased noise persuaded the horses to move of their own accord.
Also there was the tragic time back in the middle 1920’s when my father, unknown to us children, had the thresher set up in the pasture down by the Simpson place in order to place the straw stack where the cows would have easy access to it. We watched the grain wagons come in the fields, load up, and leave; only then did we realize that the thresher was not coming to the house at all.
The coming of combines to Mills county was quite sudden. In 1937, there were none, and by 1939, the old-time threshers were all gone. The Simpson thresher made its last run in 1938. Before threshing season of that year, D. O. Simpson sold his machinery to Roy Simpson. Many repairs had been made and new parts added, but it was the same rig he had bought in 1912. Roy ran it during the 1938 season and then sold it to the Fairman Hardware Company in Goldthwaite and bought a combine. All over the county other thresher men were trading their equipment in on combines or quitting the business altogether.
I shall never forget the queer feeling I experienced in the summer of 1939 when Roy Simpson's combine first drove into my father's oat fields. Combines banished not only threshers, but also the reapers which cut the grain. It is true that they do the job of cutting and threshing the grain more thoroughly and quickly and involve much less labor than did reaping and threshing, but raising grain in Mills county is not the same any more. The old-time threshing crew is gone, but its memory still lives, vibrant and gay, in the hearts of the people.