Mountain Color and Threshing Machines
One fall day a few years ago I was struggling to find a topic for my weekly column in the Idaho State Journal. I decided to take a short trip around southeast Idaho to see if my travels might hatch an idea. I was rewarded on two counts. A topic for my column emerged, and I also realized that New England is not unique in its fall brilliance. Much of the West, including Idaho, I believe produces fall beauty equal to that of those original northeastern colonies. My route took me along a mountainous backcountry road from Pocatello to Inkom. As I topped a ridge, my senses were treated to a rich panorama of color. It was one of those. once-in-a-lifetime goose bump scenes where I witnessed on her hillside canvas in the distance, the phosphorescent brilliance of reds and oranges, yellows and greens, as only Mother Nature’s paint brush can display them. I panned the scene further and discovered a couple of old threshing machines rusting away in their grave on the side of a hill. The sight of these old workhorses of yesteryear transported me back to the days of my youth, and provided me with fodder for that week’s column.
Dad owned a machine like those I saw parked on the hill, and the one pictured here. He did custom threshing for different farmers around the valley near Grace, Idaho, and once in while, he would venture north of Soda Springs as well. I used to go with him when I wasn’t in school. One particular memory of mine about this threshing operation was the long belt used to drive the machine. Dad had a McCormick-Deering W-30 tractor that he used for power. He would park this tractor about 75 feet away from the thresher and connect the two with a long flat belt.
I always wondered why the necessity of such a distance, and the long belt. Later, as I grew older, I figured it out. Those threshing machines required a great amount of power, which in turn meant a lot of friction was needed on the driving belt. The driven pulley on the thresher also needed to turn in the opposite direction of the driving pulley on the tractor, so a twist in the belt was necessary to accomplish this reversal. It was impossible to get a twist in a short belt and pull it tight enough to provide the necessary friction to run the machine without throwing the belt. The weight from the sag in the longer belt put enough pressure on both the driving and driven pulleys to prevent slippage.
The threshing crew was comprised mainly of neighbors for whom Dad did the custom threshing, but in every crew, there is a right hand man. A man named Henry filled this niche for Dad. I heard Dad say on more than one occasion that Henry was the best man with a threshing machine he had ever known. Dad put Henry in charge of keeping the machine running smoothly. He took care of lubricating it, kept the belts and chains tightened, and looked after the general repair. And I suspect he applied a little belt dressing to the long belt from time to time to help increase the friction..
Dad said Henry knew that machine like he knew the back of his own hand, even down to how it sounded. To a trained ear, every machine has its own sound, and if the slightest variance in the sound of Dad’s machine developed, Henry would say,“ Bill, I think you better shut ‘er down, somethin’ doesn’t sound quite right. We’d better have a look.” And he was usually right.
In those days of my youth, horses were still used in the fields to some extent. The grain shocks were loaded on flat wrack wagons or sometimes slips pulled by a team of horses. The teams pulled their loads up to the thresher where a crew of men, using pitchforks, would feed the shocks into the hungry machine. I especially remember one of Dad’s teams for reasons I’ll mention later. These two horses were a mismatch as far as color, but pulled very well together. One was a gray, the other a black. Steel, the gray, didn’t like anyone around his backside. He who violated this rule quite often felt the brunt of one of Steel’s hind hooves. Dad constantly cautioned me about not getting behind Steel, and I would always reply, “Okay, Daddy, I’ll remember,” which most of the time I did—with one exception.
Steel and his partner were standing next to the machine while their wagon was being unloaded, and I wandered near the team a little too close to that area forbidden by Steel. The next thing I remember was Dad gently shaking me and lightly patting me on the cheek saying, “Wake up Billy. Are you alright?” Steel had caught me on the neck and the side of my head, knocking me cold as an ice cube. I don’t know how long I was out.
As I look back on it now, maybe that kick in the head had a prolonged effect that’s responsible for my village idiot capers mentioned in other writings. Hmmm, do you suppose? In light of that, maybe it’s just as well I don’t mention how, through a bit of carelessness, I once poisoned myself with tainted fish. 🙂
If you’re into reading about things of yesteryear, I’d like to invite you to check out my book of tales, Buddy…His Trials and Treasures. You can obtain a free copy of the prologue and first three complete adventures by clicking the free download button at upper right of this page. It can be read as a novella where you follow Buddy as he grows up, or each story can be read as a stand-alone adventure. It’s also available for purchase at www.amazon.com. Happy reading.