Threshing: how grain and straw used to be separated at harvest
What threshing was
All cereal crops grow as stems with what are known as 'ears' at the top. These ears are themselves made up of a hard outer coating and an inner softer part which is what is used for making flour. The act of separating out the softer part is known as threshing and the machine for doing it in years gone by was called a threshing machine or just a thresher.
Below is an early sketch of a threshing machine which may show its external parts more clearly than the photos further down the page.
To start the threshing, the threshing machine was driven as close as possible to where the corn had been stacked. In fact the original siting of the stack had to allow for all the placing of this equipment, usually near a field gate.
How the thresher was powered
The thresher was powered by a belt from a traction engine. The belt needed a twist in it to stay on, but in museums, set up presumably by people who never saw a threshing machine in action, it is often displayed without the twist. The belt was long and it whirled round at head height, so everyone was expected to keep clear. There was no health and safety.
The process of threshing
The following photo shows the corn being pitched into the top of the thresher from a cart. Note the vertical slatted end of the cart which held the corn in place. This could be folded flat when required.
Once inside the thresher, the corn was threshed, i.e. subjected to violent action, usually by some sort of revolving mechanism which loosened the grain from the straw.
Then the loose grain cascaded down a shoot into waiting sacks, suspended at one end of the threshing machine.
The remaining straw was ejected from the other end of the machine onto the ground where it was pitched onto a cart to be carried away for various uses or for storing. Later models bound the straw into bales.
Fun for children at threshing time
Threshing was a source of great fun with the traction engine's smoking chimney, puffing pistons, and majestic drive wheels which ran a huge belt to the threshing machine which was even bigger than the traction engine.
Threshing had to be done on dry corn. This needed to be some time after the corn was cut. As threshing machines were so expensive, few farmers could afford to buy their own. So a single threshing machine was hired out locally from farm to farm which meant that the time of a farm's threshing depended on both the weather and the availability of the machine.
Fortunately because the need for grain was not confined to harvest time, threshing could take place at any time of the year, particularly at less busy times. This meant that the sheaves had to be stored in 'haystacks' or barns until threshed. Then they were threshed inside the barns, which was excessively dusty.
Dust and vermin and how workers coped
Threshing was a dirty, dusty business, particularly when it took place inside a barn. So men wore clothes accordingly. Hats, in particular, were considered essential. Wide brimmed hats seemed preferable to the standard cloth hats of the time.
The vermin in the stack prior to threshing
I was one of a number of young lads armed with clubs surrounding the stack as its contents were removed for threshing. It was our job to eradicate any vermin as they left their diminishing larder/home. There were also elderly men with Jack Russell terriers.
The frequency of escaping mice and rats increased as the stack grew lower.
The Jack Russells were very efficient little killers. They just grabbed a mouse or rat, shook it violently, dropped it and moved on to the next one. The dropped animal never moved again.
When the threshing took place from a stack in a field, there was another essential item of clothing as explained in the following box.
The workers' trousers at threshing
The men that I saw dismantling the stack tied a cord around their trouser legs just below the knee. I was uncertain why until I saw the less than graceful dance that one of the farmhands performed. He had not had time to tie up his trousers and a mouse had run up one trouser leg and took sometime before it ran down the other. The man's gyrations, hopping, skipping and jumping were most entertaining. We lads all wore short trousers and were perhaps a little more agile, so were not really vulnerable.