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The Atmosphere of Excitement

When, a full generation ago, I published my book about harvesting and threshing in the days of steam, Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs, I devoted some pages to the work of women in feeding threshing crews. Now I review that work and realize how blinkered my view of the subject was.

My treatment then was logistical: how to put large portions of nutritious food before large crews of hungry men. My concern was with systems, the ways and means by which grain moved from field to bin. Incidentally I noted that the cook cars were staffed mainly by women, and I offered some description of their working conditions, but I devoted little attention to how this remarkable work experience fit into their lives, what it meant for the lives of women in their time and place.

Since then, although I am a slow learner, I have been re-educated by the assertive young women who have come into both agricultural production and the historical profession. Perhaps the whole story needs to be recast.

So I study now the narrative of Florence L. Clark, in American Thresherman, the magazine of custom threshermen, June 1916. She notes that it is no longer common for farmers’ wives to hold responsibility for feeding threshing crews. Threshing has become the province of professional threshermen who assemble all necessary labor and machinery, and, Ms. Clark writes, “By far the larger number of threshing outfits in the northwest carry a ‘cook car’ with them.”

If you ever attended a living history threshing bee, you may have seen a restored cook car on exhibit or even in operation. “The cars are kitchenette and dining apartment in one,” writes Ms. Clark, “and are taken about from farm to farm with the outfit. The kitchen is fitted up with many conveniences. At meal times it becomes a dining room.

“Two long tables are hinged against the walls. These are let down and the hands are seated for meals at them.”

The cook in charge was paid $4.50 a day; a helper received $2.50. Both persons generally were women, but it was not too uncommon for a husband-and-wife team to sign on as cooks. Who was cook and who was helper in such case, I will not venture to say.

Ms. Clark’s account is fairly upbeat. “The hours of the cook car force are long,” she admits, “but the high wages and the atmosphere of excitement that always pervades threshing operations make the work very popular and the threshermen have no trouble finding competent cooks.”

Another of my cook-car sources, Anna Mae Stanley of Saskatchewan, recounts the full daily routine of her life. “Breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, hash brown potatoes, and a gallon of coffee,” she says. “For dinner at 11 a.m. we cooked a fifteen-pound roast, two types of vegetables, and what seemed to me to be a half bushel of potatoes.

“All the men liked pie for dessert, so we baked three pies every day. At 3 p.m. we took the lunch out to the field. This was another gallon of coffee, sandwiches, and cookies.

“For supper we had cold meats, potatoes, salads, and cake for dessert.”

So, was Ms. Clark too glib about conditions? Was this work routine described by Ms. Stanley deadening? Listen to what she says.

“The highlight of our day was when we took lunch out to the threshing crew. We waited until the men had finished eating so we could bring the plates home. I enjoyed the ride home on those beautiful autumn days, when there wasn’t a breath of wind and a haze hung over the landscape. It felt good to be alive.”

I still have questions, don’t you? I’ll see what I can do about that.

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