Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date March 11, 2022
Gentle congregation: I stand before you today to talk about separating the wheat from the chaff. That’s right, brothers and sisters, threshing. Thresh is a transitive verb, meaning, it is characterized by having a direct object. The direct object is grain, specifically for us, wheat. I guess you could, if you insist, simply say that Aloys was threshing back in the 1930-40s, but that direct object is lingering nearby. Without the grain, you’re just playing air guitar, right? (How’s that for mixing metaphors?)
Of course, you need to cut down the plant first. A long time ago, the tool of choice was the scythe. You can still buy one, you know. https://www.scythesupply.com/
I’ve heard it said that no technology ever goes completely extinct; somewhere in the world somebody is using every tool that was ever invented. Luckily for Aloys, he didn’t have to use a scythe. Instead, he used a mule drawn implement known as a binder. The binder would cut the wheat, which would fall onto a belt that moved the plant to a device that tied them up with string into a moderate sized bundle and dropped them on the ground.
Aloys: Then we’d have to shock it…set it up on its end, the butt end…for a week or so until it got dry. You’d lean several…up to 10… against each other, and after you had your shock made, you would take one bundle, and crimp over all the heads, and put that on the top so the rain wouldn’t go down into the shock. Like putting a blanket over it.
Paul: I know that neighbors came over on threshing day to help, but did they also help with harvesting and shocking?
A: No, that was strictly the owner of the wheat who did that.
P: Did you have to remove the string from the shock before putting it in the thresher?
A: No sir, it all went in there.
Gentle gluten consumers, once upon a time, when his grain was dry, the medieval farmer used a tool known as a flail to remove the wheat from the stalk. Basically, it was a wooden rod with a smaller rod loosely attached with a leather thong. Swing the big rod, and the smaller rod comes brutally down on a pile of the harvested plant. Like the English rock band Traffic said, “John Barleycorn must die.” I’m listening to it now.
And watch this guy flail.
Again, luckily, Aloys didn’t have to flail. The Struckhoffs had a neighbor named Aholt, who owned a McCormick-Deering thresher which was powered by a long belt on a tractor fueled by diesel or gas.
A: There were about three other threshing machines in the area, but Mr. Aholt was the one who did it down here in the bottoms. He had a farm on the bottom road that the Kesslers farm now. He would show up about 6am. He would set up somewhere in the field where you wanted to make a straw pile. All the wheat had to be hauled to that spot. The machine didn’t roam around in the field; it stayed in one place. Mr. Aholt would make his rounds, going from one farm to the next. And the neighbors around there…they’d get together to come over to help haul the wheat to the machine.
Then somebody would haul the grain over to the Nona elevator…a truck or horse pulling a grain wagon. Most of it was pulled with horses and mules. I hauled quite a bit of grain up there, and I can tell you a story about that place…there used to be a little store there (now Michael Bauermeister’s studio) that held just about everything. And I was probably 12 or 13yo, and I was driving a load…and I thought I was old enough that I could smoke already. So, I run in that store…it was just about 2 miles from where we lived…I thought I could get my first pack of cigarettes…and mom and dad would never know. I bought my cigarettes and drove back to the threshing ground. You know…before I got home my mother was out there in the field and she asked me for my cigarettes. That lady at the store, Mrs. Meinershagen…she called and told mom her son was buying cigarettes.
P: You got in trouble.
A: Not a big whippin’ trouble, but she embarrassed me enough that I knew I wouldn’t be buying cigarettes for a long time.
P: What brand of cigarettes?
A: I don’t…seems like I’d remember that…
P: Oh well. Would you explain how the co-op moved your wheat up into storage?
A: Well, they ran it with big belts and cups. They elevated it all up with a big engine…well, I thought it was big. It ran all the belts inside there too.
P: Can you tell me more about the neighbors lending a hand? How many?
A: There was probably 4 or 5 in what they called the threshing run. And then we’d help each other…we all went around together to bring shocks to the thresher. Sometimes it took up to three days or so (per farm) depending on how big a farm you planted at that time. We had 153 acres, but it wasn’t all tillable. We had a lot of woods down in the bottoms then. But I still don’t know how we got all that done…compared to the tools they have now.
P: And your mom had to feed these guys, I guess. Did she need help from a neighbor?
A: She had a hired girl there. We had a hired lady who helped mom until my sisters got older. And by the time my sisters got old enough to help we were in the combine era of farming.
P: Did the hired lady live close by?
A: No, they lived up in Rhineland (MO). It seems like there were some families up there that got started down here. And they brought in different ladies working for them. But it seems like most of them around here, all come from around Rhineland or Starkenburg.
P: That’s crazy. That’s a long way.
A: Well, see…they rode the train down here.
A: No. They’d stay overnight all week. They might go home once a month.
P: So, she was like part of your family?
A: Yes, they were. I guess you could call them babysitters, but they were there all week.
P: Do you remember their names?
A: One was Geneva. One was Margaret. And…let’s see…there was Martha…that I remember. Martha’s last name was Michaels. Some were named Hartmann.
P: I had no idea that, uh… (I was dumbfounded) …that any of the farmers had helpers that were there all week.
A: They sure did. Maybe it was because…we were all Catholic…it seems like they had bigger families…they helped the mothers raise the kids and do the cooking for us through the day too…but it was their job…they were in the house with the kids all the time…just like our sister would be or our mother.
P: This is news to me. Would your neighbors, the Kuchems, have had a helper? And Mr. Aholt?
A: I can honestly say I don’t know if Kuchems had women there. We didn’t get to see them much. (Turns out Aloys lived east of Kuchems; I misquoted him in my last article.) We were about a mile and a half apart. But I’m sure they did. I’m sure because everybody did at that time. Some women didn’t have a job anywhere else, and they’d make a little money and get free board and rent. They came down on the train and got off at the Nona depot. (That depot building still stands on the west side of artist, Michael Bauermeister’s shop.) And Aholt, yes, he had hired girls and a hired man too. He had different guys who would help him out.
P: Did everyone eat outside on threshing day?
A: Well, yeah…but at dinnertime they’d come to the house. I’m not saying they didn’t sit outside in the shade. I don’t think they came inside. For the lunches the women had to put it in baskets and bring it out to where we were working. They’d put a sheet over the ground and put the food out there. Everybody helped themselves until they were done and went back to the job they were doing before.
P: Did your sisters ever help with shocking?
A: No, that was strictly a man’s job at that time. Some of the sisters did help on the farm…like feeding livestock…milk the cows.
Gentle readers, the grain elevator at Nona, was a co-op established in 1919. According to Anita Mallinckrodt, “In September, to celebrate the success of the Farmers Elevator Company of Nona, Arthur Meinershagen and other members of the group put on a dance that was well-attended. (It probably was the currently popular dance event held outdoors on a smooth wooden floor laid on the ground, that is, a ‘floor dance.’)” I asked Aloys if he had ever attended such an event there.
A: Not at Nona, I didn’t, but I’ve seen them. I’ve been at them. They were closer to Dutzow in the bottoms.
Gentle readers, on another occasion Aloys and I talked about corn. I didn’t have voice memo on, so I’ll sum up what I thought I heard. Corn was harvested in the fall. Some of it was left standing where it grew, and cows were allowed in that area. But a lot of corn was shocked and sometimes stood until the spring. But sooner or later the ear was removed from the stalk and husked. Then it was transported to corn cribs near their house. The corn remained on the cob. It fed the chickens and hogs.
Our next topic is one that still gives me gut pain if I dwell upon it: flooding. When I owned the Salem Schoolhouse, I experienced flash floods from the hollow behind me. Once I lost my whole vegetable garden to the rushing water. But worse still were the river floods. The fact that I raised the schoolhouse up 2+ feet meant nothing to the Big Muddy…what a mess…what destruction…what a stench.
P: I’d like to talk a little more about life in the bottoms, namely floods. Did you own a boat to keep around in case of flooding?
A: Yes, we did.
P: And you had to move all your animals?
A: We never had a lot, but we did have hogs, chickens, a few milk cows and about 6 horses and mules. We would drive them to a neighbor’s house. We’d try to get them out of there before the water came up high. The hogs were usually transported with a wagon, and the cattle we had, we drove out with the horses. The water was so deep sometimes…we’d move the mules out…that was the last thing out because the mules were so tall…but I drove the mules out of there sometimes where they had to swim through some of the sloughs.
P: Your daughter, Chris, said one year it flooded three times.
A: Yes, or more.
P: And she said you didn’t have any fresh water to clean it up with.
A: All we had were some hand driven wells, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwRTV702qKg and a cistern for our drinking water. The flood would go in the cistern, and we’d pump the water out of it somehow, and then we’d let the water run in off the roof of the house. That was our clean water. After every flood we had to pump the cistern out. There was always a lot of sand in there…and hard telling…snakes…no fish, but just about everything else.
P: Changing topics now: where did you do take your trash?
A: I guess just out in the bottoms. I know we never had a trash pickup. We probably just burned it out there wherever we could.
P: What sort of cookstove did you have? Wood burning?
A: We burned wood, yes. Just a minute, Paul, I want to turn the TV down………...yeah, most of our wood was a soft wood…that was cottonwood we used in the bottoms…that would light up easily, but it wouldn’t throw heat very long. We made tons of that…tons of that. (A cord of wood, 4’ tall, 4’wide, and 8’ long weighs roughly a ton.) We used two-man saws…crosscut saws with a handle on each end. We did a lot of that in the wintertime. That’s what we’d do when we didn’t have something else to do…go out and make wood. We’d cut sections and split it like rails, maybe a little bigger. We’d bring in a crossbuck saw…that was run with a motor…sometimes we’d saw wood for two days to make a pile of rough wood, and then we had to split it yet for the stove. It was just some work going on all the time.
P: When did you get electricity there?
A: In the bottoms? We never did get it. And we never had running water. My parents moved out of there in ’45…we moved to the hills…we had electricity there. We bought that farm, but we didn’t have running water.
P: What did you burn for light in the bottoms? Oil or something like that?
A: Well, yeah, we also had a refrigerator that run on oil. I never did understand how that worked…light a fire and freeze ice (chuckle). We probably had a 55-gallon barrel, and we put oil…kerosene, in there. You could start a fire with it alright, but it wouldn’t explode like gas.
P: I understand you enjoyed hunting. I guess you started young?
A: I just love hunting. I did a lot of rabbit hunting when I was young, and squirrel too. But squirrel hunting…I did most of that with my dad in the bottoms.
P: Of course, you had more trees back then in the bottoms, and more cover for rabbits too.
A: Oh yeah, a lot more brush back then. It was nothing to go out and shoot 20 or more rabbits on a weekend.
P: Nowadays you don’t see that many rabbits around. But I do see racoons…which you also hunted. Can you explain the popularity of coon hunting in the past? Did you do anything with them?
A: Well, actually…there was the hide…we would skin and stretch them…and sell them in the spring of the year…which was pretty good money at the time. It was worth doing, but we didn’t hunt coons for the money as much as we did for the sport…to hear the dogs…we had some fairly good coon dogs.
P: I would assume you did lots of fishing too.
A: No. Fishing was never my big thing, except when the river was out…we’d put nets out when the water was starting to come up…lots of net fishing. But fishing with a pole was never my thing.
P: There’s a slough out in the bottoms. I recall that John LaPointe introduced me to that. Did it exist back when you were young?
A: Oh yeah, that was a bigtime slough once. It was there to handle creek water before it got to the river…to keep the river from coming up so fast. It doesn’t serve the same purpose now…because they’ve got the upper end closed off, so water doesn’t run through the slough anymore. We hunted ducks and geese there.
P: Were there any deer in those days?
A: No, there was no deer whatsoever. We never saw deer.
P: I think I’m out of questions for now, Aloys.
A: Well Paul, if you get some more, I’m here at the same place all the time.
Gentle friends, it ain’t over yet, it’s just breaktime. That means there’s a part three to this story. But now is a good time to thank Chris Arnold for suggesting an interview with her dad. She also sent me photos, some of which, were in part
Today I’m including a picture of the Struckhoff house in flood time, and I cropped another photo down to just Aloys and Chris. From the Augusta Museum there’s an old photo of wheat shocks. From an undisclosed source, there is an interior shot of the grain elevator at Nona. And lastly, a picture of the front door at the old Nona depot.
TILIW would also like to say farewell to Jan Bruckdorfer who lived in Augusta many years with her husband, Michael.
Jan and Michael owned the Americana Galleries, just east of the Whitehouse Tavern. Jan held a PhD from the University of Kansas. She was an educator specializing in learning and language difficulties. I just got off the phone with Jan’s sister, Carol, who said, “What always comes to mind with me…is how much fun she had with children…she was inspired in the way she could interact with them and bring them forward. She always had that ability to communicate…to take her creativity to their level.”
There will be a memorial service for Jan, March 26 at Peace Lutheran Church in Washington. Visitation at 1pm and a service at 2pm. I have attached a recording of my version of Leonard Cohen’s Come Healing. Use your earphones, please.
Leonard Cohen’- Come Healing - Performed by Paul Ovaitt
Gentle readers, I jogged many miles in the Missouri River floodplain with Jan, and along with many other locals, we performed in cultural events hosted by Glen and Pat Frank at Frank’s General Store. I even dragged Arthur Berg to a few of these. I’m sorry for those of you who missed those productions.
Stay cool, stay curious, and read on.
Want to leave a comment? Watch the short clip below to see how!