The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Threshing Ring

By Norma G. Cole © 1987

Issue: July, 1987

The Threshing RingThreshing Time in the Blue Ridge. - Photographed at Willis, Virginia in the early 1900's. Photo courtesy of Frank Hylton. This was the front page photograph of the July, 1987 issue.Molly stretched her aching back. That day, starting such a long time ago and with such laughter had lingered on in silence. The three of them concentrated on the process... walk, reach down, lift, put together. Walk, reach down, lift, put together.

At last the sun was going down. It had hung there, in vibrating heat for those endless hours of walk, reach down, lift, put together. "Almost dark," Robert breathed. Molly looked at his tired face, streaked with dust and sunburned beneath his straw hat. He had kept up with them all day and the set of his chin let her know he intended to finish with them – or else.

Frank's voice was barely audible, "We can do a few more." Robert and Molly nodded. They walked to the next bundle of grain, gleaming golden in the deepening twilight. They made ten more shocks before darkness overtook them. With weary foot steps, they turned toward home.

Using his father's practiced expression, Frank swept the sky with his eyes. "One more fine day and we'll have the grain shocked. Pa and I go with the threshing ring tomorrow. We'll be here Monday."

Molly sighed. Frank would not be helping them. Instead, a neighbor boy, Henry Anderson would be with them tomorrow. One more day in the field for her, then she'd be stuck in the kitchen with her mother and Mrs. Anderson.

Molly's thirteenth summer was one of endless demands on her time. She was nearly grown now, and expected to do her full share. The more involved Pa and big–brother Frank were in the maturing harvest, the more she and Robert had to do to fill in with the rest of the farm work.

All day Molly would have somebody calling her to the next task before she got the previous one underway.

It had been a relief when Pa had got the grain cut and bound and assigned all three children to shocking the grain. Now, at the end of their second day, the fields were almost done. Three bundles of grain, lifted with full heads up, resting against each other looking like row on row of golden Indian teepees marching across the field. It was a glorious sight to see. The threshing ring would begin tomorrow. Pa and Frank would go to a neighboring farm to join all the other farmers in their ring. The farmers would move from farm to farm, pooling their labor, horses, wagons and time until every farm had its grain threshed and the straw pile ready for the coming winter.

The farm wives moved too, along with their daughters. Mrs. Anderson would come the day the ring moved to Pa's farm; for this year, Anderson's were first and Pa second. When the ring moved on, Molly and her mother would go to the next farm while Mrs. Anderson went home. Molly had to smile when she thought; it takes a lot of men, horses and time to harvest the crop but two good farm wives and their daughters could feed them morning lunch, dinner at noon and afternoon lunch about three o'clock....

Threshing was an exciting, exhausting time. The steam driven threshing machine required hands to feed its needs. A threshing man ran the machine; he started in the southern states and worked himself north with the ripening harvest. He 'ran the steam,' keeping the fire burning, keeping the water tank filled, greasing wheels and gears, watching the belts and pistons and calling jokes to whoever was near enough to hear him over the rumpus of his monster.

One of the neighbor's younger boys fetched the wood mounds of splits of wood, quickly eaten by the fire beneath the boiler. Another youngster brought last–year's corn cobs, which burned so quickly and so hot. Big barrels of water were taken to the machine in a wagon, but a youngster had filled that barrel either from the stock tank, or from the well–pump. The farmer who owned the field being threshed drove the grain wagon after it was full. He brought the second one while others unloaded the first at the grain–bin. Usually, the unloaders were boys a little older than Robert but not as old as Frank, who was expected to do a full man–day's work. The helping farmers worked in pairs, pitching the shocks of grain onto their hay–rick, (wagon with high, slated sides) riding up to the machine and pitching the bundles onto the belt that fed the machine's gnashing teeth and shacking grates. The machine puffed straw and chaff out one long neck and the golden grain poured from another long neck. Molly thought the thing looked like a mythical dragon, breathing golden fire and roaring in its exertions.

While all this wonderfully exciting work was happening in the field, the women were in the kitchen wrestling with their own grueling tasks. The men were endlessly hungry and thirsty. A farmer's wife had a reputation to uphold, for her neighbors heard about her 'feeds' from the eaters as they moved farm to farm.

In the kitchen, the daughters fetched piles of wood and corn cobs, the continual buckets of water and carried out the cakes, cookies, lemonade, coffee, tea, and milk to the men in the fields. In between, they washed the mounds of dishes, helped produce those cookies, cakes, lemonade, coffee, tea and milk.

Dinner meant mounds of fried chicken, piles of mashed potatoes, platters of ham, stacks of bread, bowls of tomatoes, peas, green beans, cabbage slaw and more pies, cakes and cookies. Every chicken had to be caught, butchered, dressed and cleaned. The vegetables had to be picked, washed and cooked and the pies and cakes produced.

Dinner was served outside on long planks set up on sawhorses in the shade of a tree. The daughters took out the plates and silverware, served the food and cleared up the places after. A meal that had taken the women several hours to prepare disappeared in twenty minutes with hardly a scrap left for them. After dinner, the men flopped down in the shade for twenty minutes of sleep, but the women had only time for a quick bite to eat before getting at the clean–up and the production of the afternoon lunch.

When the threshing ring moved on, the women began the canning and preservation of the garden crops, but that is another story and can be told some other time...