Family Histories index
Written by His Honor the Justice Robert Harold McClelland
The homesteader depended on horses for power. Steam, and less frequently, large oil burning tractors were used for threshing, and occasionally for pulling monster gangplows to break up the virgin prairie.
The golden days of autumn bring back many memories to me, but none more nostalgic than harvesting. It was a magnificent sight to see a steam-threshing outfit in operation. Every fall we drove out to the country to watch the crops being threshed. As long as I can remember, dad owned farmlands, and the crop being threshed was often our own.
I can still see the big steam engine faced opposite the mouth or feeder of the grain separator. A long heavy wide belt ran from the flywheel of the steam engine to the main pulley of the separator. The steam engine and separator were about 50 feet apart, and the belt that joined them was crossed between. When everything was in position, the engineer would slowly engage the clutch, and the flywheel would revolve. The long belt would put the separator in motion, slowly at first, but soon the separator would be violently alive. Steam engines gave the impression of quiet strength. Smoke would belch from the engine's smoke stack when first power was being transferred to the fly wheel, but then all that could be heard was a rhythmic hissing sound as spent steam escaped from the cylinder on either side of the feeder.
The bundles of grain, more commonly called sheaves, made a growling noise when they were torn apart on entering the feeder. The shaking sieves and trays over which the straw and chaff passed made a muffled shuffling sound. At last the straw, now stripped of the kernels of grain, reached a rapidly revolving blower at the back of the separator. Then there was a roaring sound as the straw was sent flying through the blower tube high into the air onto the straw stack. The threshed grain was augured from the bottom of the separator into a weigher, at the top of the machine. The weight of a bushel of grain would trip the weigher, and down a chute would come the grain into a waiting wagon.
As children we loved to play in the straw stacks. They seemed so big and soft. The chaff and straw got into our clothes, even down our necks, but the fun of tumbling in the straw more than compensated for this discomfort.
These steam outfits needed large crews to operate them. Four men were needed on the steam engine alone. There was the licensed steam engineer, a fireman and water boy. When grain was being threshed, straw was used to fire the boiler, and the "straw monkey" hauled straw from the straw stack to the engine. There was a separator man in charge of the separator, and another man to move the threshed grain from the separator into a grain bin. The man whose crop was being threshed usually did this. Minimums of eight bundle wagons were required to haul the sheaves of grain from the field to the separator. Sometimes two men manned each bundle wagon, but most frequently there was a single man in charge with extra men out in the field to help load the bundle wagons and extra men at the separator to help throw the sheaves into the machine.
In the early days the owner of the threshing outfit would board the threshing crew, who were fed in a cook car and bedded in a bunk car. The cook car and bunk cars were wooden buildings placed on running gear. With cook and bull cook, a full threshing crew would number well over twenty.
When the threshing outfit moved from one job to another, it had the appearance of a train moving across the prairie. The steam engine was in front, pulling the separator, to which was attached in series the cook car and the bunk car. Then followed the water wagon, the straw wagon, and at least eight bundle wagons. A steam engine lumbered along at three miles an hour, and it took a long time to go a short distance. The men loved moves as they got a rest. Those who had no horses to look after, rode on the bundle wagons or in the bunk car.
Harvesting was a busy time for the farmer and his family. Before threshing the grain had to be cut by a binder, an implement which both cut the grain and tied it into bundles or sheaves. The sheaves were placed in stooks, a stook being 7 to 10 sheaves stacked together with heads upright. Stooking was a backbreaking job, most commonly done by the farmwomen and older children if available.
Until the mid 1920's local labor was supplemented by imported labor. The railway companies would run "harvester specials." Men from eastern Canada would be given special bargain rates to come west and help with the harvest. Wages were good. Five to six dollars a day in those days was more than any unskilled laborer made at any job, but the hired laborers could be laid off on rainy days. In wet weather, during the harvest season, the poolrooms would be full to overflowing, and the town was alive, sometimes too much so.
The era of the large steam outfit was short. Lighter kerosene and gas-powered tractors were used to operate smaller grain separators. Crews could be reduced to ten men with six teams pulling bundle wagons. Many homesteaders now had sons old enough to help with the harvest. The number of threshing outfits increased, and the length of the threshing season decreased. The farmer whose crop was being threshed boarded the smaller threshing crews.
Farmwomen spent days preparing for the threshers, who in addition to breakfast, dinner and supper had lunches in the morning and afternoon. The men worked from 600 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with an hour off for dinner, and were always hungry. If meals were not plentiful and wholesome, there was a good deal of grumbling. The men's sleeping quarters were most often in the lofts of barns, or in granaries, or a bunk car, if one were lucky.
In 1927 crops were good, and there was a shortage of farm help. My good friend, Tony Friesen, and I (Harold McClelland) got a job to cover off for one man, each of us getting half wages, and operate a bundle wagon. We worked for Mr.Ratzlaff who farmed a mile north of Herbert. Mr. Ratzlaff was a kindly man. He taught Tony and me how to harness our horses and how to load a bundle wagon. There was a knack to this. The general idea is to load the sheaves into the rack with the heads of the sheaves pointing inside and the sheaves parallel to each other. When the bundles are loaded this way, more can be placed on the rack and they are easier to unload into the separator.
It sounds easy, but it takes some time to acquire the knack. During that first day we kept losing parts of our load as we drove our team up to the machine. When we went to throw the sheaves into the machine, as often as not we were standing on the sheaves that the others tried to unload. This could result in falls and in laughter from other crewmembers. Somehow we made it through the first day.
Luckily it was a Saturday, and we had Sunday to rest. Each of us had only one blister on each hand, but the blister covered the whole hand. We slept at home at nights, and when we started again on Monday things became easier. Mr. Ratzlaff did not do custom threshing. It took a balance of the week to finish his threshing.
Then Tony and I decided we could do a man's work, and hired out as such for the balance of the season. We worked for a farmer north of Herbert. We slept in his house. The meals were good, and in all we made about $150.00 that Fall. That was enough to buy a suit, overcoat and provide spending money. I threshed the following year south of Herbert. Tony and I were together again. We slept in barn lofts most nights and sometimes the food was poor.
At one place the food was excellent and we got a quarter pie each for desert. At one meal the son of the house got in to eat a little late, and found that someone had taken his pie. I was taken aback when he looked around and said, "Some son-of-a-bitch has stolen my pie. Father, was it you?"
In later years I drove a truck, hauling grain from the threshing machines to the elevator. The pay was the same, the hours sometimes longer, but the work was lighter, and I was always at home for the night.
In its turn the combine displaced the small threshing machine. A combine is simply a grain separator, which is pulled about the grain fields picking up the grain, which has been placed in swaths by a swather. Tractors pulled the first combines, but of later years they have been self-propelled. Equipped with a self-propelled combine, a farmer with his wife hauling the threshed grain from the machine with a truck can do the work of a whole threshing crew.
Other farming operations were similarly taken over by the tractor and power machinery. To feed horses it was necessary to set aside certain acreage to grow feed. Tractors require fuel, but the land once needed to grow feed can grow marketable crops. The tractor does not eat when it is idle, and is no chore to look after during the winter months. With tractor and power equipment, a farmer can look after many more acres than he could with horse drawn equipment. In the homesteading days it was generally thought that 320 acres, or a half section, was all that one man and his family could handle. Tractors and power machinery are costly, and in order to put them to efficient use, the size of the family farm had to increase.
Today an economic farm unit varies from two sections, or 1280 acres, too much more. Land and machinery have both soared in prices. It is possible that only corporations will be able to continue farming. When a farmer dies without heirs who wish to continue farming, who will be able to buy his land and equipment?
The increase in the size of the family farm has greatly reduced the rural population. From 1921 to 1971 the population of rural municipalities has dropped by one half to two thirds.
Towns and villages naturally suffered as a result of the reduced rural population, but good roads and improved automobiles did even more to take business away from the merchants. In the early days roads consisted of prairie trails, trails made by wagons pulled by horses on their way to town. When automobiles made their appearance, roads were graded and maintained.
All weather roads came late to Saskatchewan.
The roads were still badly rutted, but with the lighter load we reached Moose Jaw in the early afternoon. We had traveled 90 miles in 5 hours, but the roads had become drier as we got closer to Moose Jaw, and after lunch we looked forward to making good time. But it was not to be. Halfway to Regina we ran into a heavy downpour, the first effect of which was to make the road so slippery that the wheels simply spun. We pushed our own car, and the cars ahead. When the sun came out, the heavy gumbo rolled around the tires and wedged in between the wheels and the fenders. We could only move short distances before we had to get out and scrape the mud away from the wheels and the fenders.
We finally reached Regina about 8:00 p.m. tired and covered with mud. The hotel clerk looked at us askance when we registered, and might have refused us lodging had not the owner of the hotel passed by and recognized dad.
We got away to an early start the next morning, but ran into more rain and muddy roads. We reached Manitoba at suppertime. Much of the Trans Canada Highway in Manitoba was graveled, and the roads seemed drier than they had in Saskatchewan. We elected to drive all night rather than take the chance of running into more rain. We reached Winnipeg at 9:00 a.m. in the morning after all night on the road. We had traveled about 550 miles and it had taken us over 36 hours.
Dad and I took turns driving. Although I was only 15 at the time, I had been driving on my own, unaccompanied by an adult, since I was 13. Driver's licenses and tests were not required then, nor were there any statutory prohibitions.
Gradually the main highways were graveled. Except in wet weather, graveled highways, were much superior to dirt roads. Short sharp bumps often covered the traveled surface of graveled highways. These bumps were like rough waves. We referred to this condition as "washboard" because the surface resembled the regular undulating surface of the washboards then commonly used by women for washing clothes. "Washboards" shook the car and its occupants without mercy. Sometimes you could overcome some of its effects by traveling at a fairly good clip, for then the wheels only touched the high spots. Usually the washboard was not regular enough to smooth the ride by fast driving, but fast driving meant that the length of time taken to cover the bad stretches was shortened.
Graveled roads were dusty, and in dry weather were dangerous. It was impossible to pass a car traveling ahead, as you could not see approaching traffic. You never knew what might loom up in the cloud of dust in which you were traveling. Highways were narrow, and there were no lines to mark the center of the road. Broken windshields and headlight were common.
Pavement began in the 1950's. Ironically, good roads and good cars spelled the end of many small communities. Farm mechanization reduced rural population with the result that there were fewer people requiring goods and services. The tendency was for the small hamlets and villages to disappear altogether, while larger towns such as Herbert were lucky if they could maintain their population.
This trend still goes on. The people of Herbert and district do most of their shopping in Swift Current. The local merchant cannot compete with the selection of clothing, hardware, and even meat and groceries offered by the larger centers, nor can the local merchant sell as cheaply. Herbert's population in 1931 was 1009 people. It may have been a little higher a year or two before, but in 1941 it had slipped to 875. From then on it has gradually risen until today it is well over a thousand.
Herbert is not the same business center it was a half-century ago. There are still a couple of doctors resident at Herbert. This is because of the hospital. There are no lawyers or dentists, only one grocery store, butcher shop and hardware store. There are car and implement dealers, but they must compete against the dealers in Swift Current. Herbert is the center of a Composite High School. It has a very fine invalid home and senior citizen's home. The proportion of retired people living in Herbert is high, and a number of its residents earn their living in Swift Current. The area covered by Herbert today is much larger than it was in 1931. That is because then it was quite common to have families of eight or more children. I knew of a couple of families where there were 16 children. To house the same number of people now requires many more dwellings.
Written by His Honor the Justice Robert Harold McClelland
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