Threshing Day in Anderson Valley
by Bill Seekins, May 18, 2016
As far back as the mid 1800s, wheat has been raised in Anderson Valley. In 1864, John Gschwend converted his water powered sawmill on Mill Creek to mill flour. In 1881, a flour mill with an 16 foot diameter water wheel was built on Indian Creek, near Philo. However, most of the wheat raised in the valley was fed to livestock and was not milled into flour. Due to the poor condition of the roads, transportation in and out of the valley was so difficult that most of the food consumed by people and livestock was raised in the valley.
Back in the late 1800s, wheat was often harvested with a horse drawn grain binder which cut the wheat and tied it up in bundles to dry. These bundles were stacked in the field until threshing day. A grain binder was a complicated machine which took four horses to operate. The owners of small farms would often share the use of a grain binder.
In his book, Down To Earth, Maurice Tindall discusses the history of wheat threshing in Anderson Valley. During the 1880's and 1890's, James Sanders ran a threshing operation that involved six teams of horses walking around in a circle to drive a flat belt powered threshing machine. Later, after the turn of the century, the threshing machine was powered by a steam engine. On threshing day, the farmers in the area would haul their bundles of wheat to the threshing site and help run the threshing operation. The threshing machine was fed by hand and the feeder would cut the band on the bundle and slide the straw down in to the cylinder. According to Tindall, this was a hard and dusty job and feeders had to be changed every so often. The straw and chaff was blown out of a chute and the grain came out of a pipe and was put into sacks by the crew. Charlie Sanders, James' son, often did a lot of the feeding. Tindall states that “threshing was a hard, usually hot job and was a great place to separate the men from the boys.” While the men were out threshing, the women were in the kitchen, cooking a big meal for the crew. Tindall points out that “the cooks took great pride in putting out good food and lots of it.”
(Writer’s Editorial Note: I have given tours at the Anderson Valley Museum that include a 100 year old kitchen exhibit. The cook stoves of the day used firewood for fuel. The mannequins show the cooks dressed in long-sleeved floor length dresses, full length aprons and corsets. If it was hot outside, it was hotter in the kitchen. With the benefit of 100 years of hindsight, I believe that the cooks had as difficult a job as many of the threshing crew did.)
Threshing day involved hard work, but it was a social occasion too. Neighbors helped each other out; everyone benefited and it helped inspire a sense of community. At the end of the day, farmers could refill their granaries and replenish their supply of bedding straw for their livestock.
Once again, there is a threshing machine in Anderson Valley. It is a 1946 Oliver Red River Special which was last used in the 1960's. Doug Mosel, of the Mendocino County Grain Project, plans to restore it with help from his friends, Stuart Schroeder of Stone Horse Farm and Leonard Diggs of Shone Farm. The threshing machine was originally purchased and used by the Biaggi family of Manchester, who would like to see it remain in the county. Once it is in running condition, Doug hopes to harvest a field of wheat in the valley with a horse drawn grain binder and have a public threshing display. The plan is to display the machine, in its current condition, at the County Fair in Boonville this year. Doug and friends are looking for a barn in the valley to store the Oliver to keep it out of the weather.
By 1946, there had been several improvements in the design of threshing machines. The Oliver has mechanical knives which automatically cut the twine on the bundles of grain. This machine was probably most often powered by a tractor's flat belt drive pulley, not a steam engine or horses. It is some twenty feet long and ten and a half feet high. It has a grain chute which automatically dumps grain for filling sacks, half a bushel at a time. Its movable straw chute blows out straw and chaff, and is designed to make straw piles or fill trucks or wagons. By 1946, there were fewer horses and more tractors and trucks used on threshing day. But, threshing day still required a crew of workers and was often a neighborhood social event.