My sister Nancy, brother Murray, and I, the youngest, would go to Grandpa’s farm each summer while my mother was teaching art at Tripp Lake Camp in Maine. We loved it and looked forward to it each spring. In the car after being picked up at the train or bus station, depending on that year’s mode of transportation, we would watch for the first sight of the Lombardy poplars that framed the yard around the red brick house with its dormers and gables.
It had become what we considered “our” house — Grandpa and Grandma Olmsted’s house — so substantial and solid, visible from the road. Unusual looking for a farmhouse, it had been redesigned by my mother in the Arts and Crafts style of the turn of the century, when Grandpa added on to the old original kitchen to provide room for his growing family and more established farm.
Our three cousins would greet us as we tumbled out of the car. We, city kids, would shed our shoes and socks and gingerly walk up and down the dark gravel driveway on the side of the house to test our bare feet for toughness, American Indian style. This part of Michigan had been Blackfoot territory and we were anxious to be as Indian as we could. The Blackfoot Indians (or more correctly the Blackfoot People) were “Siksikawa” in the Algonquian tribe language. We, modern children, were intrigued by the Indian stories that we would hear, and as wannabe Indians, would try to walk with our feet very straight as we imagined an Indian would walk.
This introduction to the barefoot tradition was often very painful, but we were determined to walk without feeling until our feet turned tough and leathery by the end of summer. It seemed that summer was to stretch out forever, or so it felt as we inspected everything: the barn, the woodshed with its large dinner bell up high on the roof ridge — the bell that Grandma rang so that Grandpa back in the field would know it was lunchtime. Behind it was the outhouse, private and solitary with its Sears catalog — a unique space for us city people.
We would run through the house, upstairs and in the old part of the house where the kitchen was with its woodstove. The cream-separating room was off to the side, leading to the “over the cellar” room, over the root cellar where the canned foods were stored and the potatoes and root vegetables were kept through the winter. Grandpa would buy bushels of peaches for canning in August and they would be kept there; we would sneak in for the ripe peaches. There seemed so many that even those we took didn’t seem to make a dent in the full bushel.
It was as the summer grew drier, the grain in the fields grew golden, and the green all around became darker and fuller — dustier it seemed — that we could feel fall coming.
Murray and Nancy were working in the fields as the grain was cut, dropped off by the mower or “binder,” and tied in bundles to be stacked grain side up in clumps along the rows ready for the wagons to come later for pickup and thrashing.
Grandpa would study the farmers’ fields along Garfield and Freeland Roads to see how they were doing — how his fields stacked up in comparison to the other farmers’ regarding the summer growth patterns. He would drive to Freeland studying the area and driving dangerously, first toward the ditch on one side then toward the other, veering off toward the road’s center just in time.
Cousin Geneva and I, riding in the back seat, would look at each other in alarm and hold hands until the car centered again. Grandpa, heading for the local granary with bags of wheat for grinding and eventual home use, could count on our company despite the perceived danger in exchange for an ice cream cone from the Bayles drugstore.
This grain had been separated from the stalks earlier at the annual thrashing time — one of the most exciting times during our summer sojourns at the farm, which brings us to “the dinosaur that became a dinosaur.” Thrashing was great excitement. The thrashing machine was a huge machine that resembled a large Brontosaurus. It was perhaps 20 feet in height and 30 feet long. Metal gray, it had a large what I would call snout, or nose, which was in reality an 18-inch pipe that would deliver the straw to a designated straw stack.
The straw was ultimately used to bed the cows and horses. Down the side of the body of the machine were pipes where the granary bags were attached. These bags would hold the separated grain — wheat or oats. There was a diverter lever that would make sure the grain would fill only one bag at a time.
Geneva and I would be allowed to hook the bags onto the pipe and see that the diverter was in the proper position. We would shake down the bags to see that the grain was filling the entire bag, then when it was almost to the top, shift the lever to the other bag, which had been attached while the first one was being filled with grain.
Thrashing was a big deal for all of the surrounding farmers. Working together, they would send a team of horses or a hired man, or come themselves, perhaps with their sons, and work for the day, which would then be repaid by Grandpa in kind. The job might take a day or perhaps two, depending on fields and weather. If it looked like rain, the job was speeded up, with work going well into the afternoon.
After this long day with the noisy thrashing machine — run by horses originally and then by tractor as the years and technology evolved — things would be shut down, cleaned up, and the men would gather under the large elm tree on the driveway washing up in the old metal washtub, drying off on the towels hanging on the tree limbs.
Their faces were dark and dusty under their straw hats, hair sweaty and dirty as they washed, soaping and splashing. They would emerge shiny and clean-faced, deeply tan and ruddy looking, joking and joshing each other, beautifully cleaned up and ready to eat.
The dining room table was stretched out with leaves added, and extra tables if needed, and covered with a white tablecloth. There were dishes galore: roast chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and on the sideboard several pies — apple, rhubarb, and so forth.
We children would stand on the side or be shushed outside and watch in fear that all would be gone before we would have a chance to join in. But there was always enough, and more than enough. How satisfying and what a sense of completion to see the work done, the things cleaned up, and then the food. Of course the dishes and clean-up in the kitchen continued for several hours and the women chatted and shared recipes and experiences.
In only five years the Brontosaurus thrashing machine was gone, and with it the farmers and their teams of horses, the sharing of work, the delightful meal following the day of work. It was all made simpler with the invention of the combine. The newly introduced machine cut, bundled, thrashed, and separated the grain, all in one action and by one man. The Brontosaurus was relegated to the museum and never used again. The farmer was greatly relieved, I am sure, to have this job so simplified but we children were not so happy to see the demise of this beloved old dinosaur. Indeed the dinosaur had become a dinosaur.
Priscilla Ciccariello, a former reference librarian, has published several papers in her field as well as articles about recycling. She lives in Sag Harbor.