Winter Thrashing by Roger Ashton (Brock)

--- Before the days of combine harvesters cereals were harvested with binders. The corn sheaves were dried for a few weeks in the fields set in stooks then brought into the farmyard area for storage usually under a Dutch barn, which provide cover and ventilation. This meant that grain was not available immediately the crop was harvested as it is today, so grain marketing was more seasonal. Traditionally the thrashing box and straw baler were used from autumn and through the winter to extract the grain from the sheaves and bale the straw.

Usually a contracting team were employed to go around local farms, only very large arable farms had their own equipment. The Pinches family from Shawbury were one of the last contracting teams in our area and I remember Robert’s dad arriving here in the dead of winter. It always seemed so impressive watching the arrival of a Nuffield Universal tractor towing this great train of thrashing box and straw baler behind. Our farm was geared up for winter thrashing as we had a covered gangway between the six bay Dutch barns either side so if the weather was stormy and wet or even snowing we could get on with the job in relative comfort.

On arrival the thrashing box had to be positioned carefully and levelled up with jacks and wooden blocks and the wheels chocked to stop lateral movement. Then the tractor with its belt pulley was lined up with the box’s large main drive pulley. A huge, long canvas belt 8” wide was attached and tensioned. The baler was then placed to receive the thrashed straw and another large canvas belt put in place to drive the baling mechanism. A pile of empty hessian sacks was placed ready to fasten to the grain outlets and tin piping placed from the box to somewhere outside to blow the chaff away.

Wonderful sounds erupted as the tractor started the drive mechanism and ran up the machinery to the required revs. Two men with pitchforks passed sheaves to the man feeding the thrashing box. He would cut the strings with a hooked knife that helped draw sheaves towards him and there was a loud thrum as the loose corn went through the drums. Straw fed off the walkers into the baler collection chute and a very larger packer arm shoved the straw into the bale chamber. I can hear the noise of the straw ram doing its work now!

Wire ties were used to make the bales, two were threaded through the bale chamber by a steel prong and fastened together by hand passing one end through a loop on the other end and twisted together to fasten. As the bale came out of the chamber it expanded thus tightening the wires. They were big heavy bales and a strong man was needed to carry them on his back to the nearby stack after upending them on the tray at the end of the chamber. This man also had the job of moving the puggings from under the riddles at the back of the thrashing box. Meanwhile at the other end sacks would be filling with grain. Two chutes were used, one at a time, so that a full bag could be removed and a fresh one attached. A third chute collected small grains and weed seed.

Work breaks, I remember, were looked forward to because it meant a rest for weary limbs and a chance to socialise. Mid morning a large enamelled canister full of steaming hot tea and a tray of my mother’s homemade lemon flavoured rock cakes were brought to us. We sat around on straw bales mouths salivating, who cared about the dusty eyes and itchy skin!! By the way, they were called rock cakes because they looked like rocks not because they were like rocks to eat! Another break, mid afternoon, brought tea and tangy cheese sandwiches. The recent years of combine harvesters with their high tech equipment and air conditioned cabs means comfortable working conditions – but give me the team togetherness of the thrashing era rather than a radio and a mobile telephone!!

This article first appeared in ‘The Wemian’ (Winter 2007). Our thanks to Roger Ashton and 'The Wemian' for allowing us to reproduce it.

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