MANN TALK: Wheat Harvest in the Thirties

by Perry Mann
Perry Mann
Perry Mann

This time of year on the farm in the Thirties was time to harvest wheat. It seemed esthetically a shame to harvest a field of gold that undulated from the winds’ caresses not unlike the waves of seas. But the grain was ripe and had to be harvested or it would go to ruin.

In my early teens my grandfather had taught me the skill of handling and using a scythe. There is an art to cutting with one. I used to take a swath and my grandfather would lead the way with a swath. It was learning that could be transferred to the use of a cradle, the instrument in those days that was used to cut wheat.

The cradle was a scythe with an enlarged blade. It had four or five fingers of wood attached to it and they were parallel to the blade. When the cradler cut a swath the scythe blade cut the grain at ground level and the fingers gathered the cut wheat as the cradler completed his swing. Then, the cradler parked the cradle on the thigh of his left leg, reached for the gathered wheat and dropped the bundle to the ground. Behind came one who gathered the bundles until they were the size to tie with strands of wheat and left to become part of wheat stack or shock later.

There was a rhythm to the use of the cradle: The swing to cut the swath, the parking the cradle on the thigh, the gathering the cut wheat and the dropping of it behind for the bundler. It was swing, park, gather and drop and return to beginning of the next stroke of the cradle. Hour after hour until the field was stubble and shocks.

Even though I was still in my middle teens my grandfather gave me the job of cradler. I felt important. Though the going wage for field work was ten cents an hour, cradlers were paid fifteen cents an hour. I was not paid in cash I cradled for my bed and keep, but I knew the difference in pay and swelled somewhat. But the work was hard, arduous and exhausting. I cradled ten hours with breaks and water from a jug. At night I couldn’t quit cradling. I cradled in my sleep and often awoke tired from it.

At the end of the day the bundles had to be gathered and shocked and capped to shed rain. One year rain came and came again and again until the wheat in the caps sprouted. That wheat was lost but the wheat covered survived and went into the thrashing machine that separated wheat from straw and chaff.

Taking view of that part of the wheat field that was now stubble and shocks of wheat was to a cradler a pretty sight, a satisfying scene. Here was bread and feed for humans and animals. It was that without which life on the farm would have been poor indeed.

My grandfather hired an adult neighbor to tie behind me. He had no experience with a cradling but he asked my grandfather if he could try the cradle. He felt somewhat degraded tying bundles behind a kid. He took the cradle and went at the work with enthusiasm but he made a mistake. When on a swing he gathered the wheat from the fingers, he grabbed the blade and cut himself. That ended the neighbor’s employment in the wheat harvest. I went back as cradler.

After the shocks had seasoned some in the summer sun, it was time to haul the shocks to the barn. The horses were rounded up harnessed, hitched to sled or wagon and reined to the wheat field. The shocks were stacked on the vehicle and hauled to the barn to be stored until the thrashing machine came.

The coming of the thrashing machine was always an exciting time. The machine would come early with its crew to a farm and thrash, then to the next farm and at noon it would come to a farm that had prepared for its coming and for the feeding the crew an all the other men and women involved in the festival.

But first there was the thrashing. The bundles were hauled from barn to one end of the thrashing machine, which had been steadied and hooked by belt to a tractor. When all was ready, the tractor would start and the machine would groan and shake. Bundles entered one end and chaff exited the other end. In the middle on the side, the golden grain spouted into half bushel buckets. I was one of them there to sack the grain from the buckets.

The women had congregated at the appointed place for dinner, not lunch, but dinner and a dinner with many courses, many entrees, abundances of vegetables and endless desserts. The men came and prepared for the feast by going to the spring house and drinking dipper after dipper of cool, quenching spring water. I often would throw a dipper or two on my head to help relieve the itch of chaff and dust and so did my buddies. Then we went to the washstand on the porch of the neighbor’s house to wash up. Basins of rain water from rain barrel and soap and towels were there to clean off the sweat and dirt of thrashing.

Then, shifts of workers took seats around the dining room table and were served by the women. One can imagine the joy and festivity of such an occasion. How happy were the men to be doing the work so essential to life and doing it with other men and women who were their neighbors and helpers and there to assure sustenance and enjoy fellowship. And how happy were the men to eat with yearning appetites and happy were the women to provide for them and note the success of their cooking skills.

The thrashing and dining done, the crew hitched the tractor to the machine and with a part of the wheat as their pay departed. The women cleaned up after the feast and the men followed the machine and crew to the next farm. Then the sun set and there was to come another day and another harvest. So was the calendar of events and the way of life for the Mountaineers in the Thirties.

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Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV. He was born in Charleston, WV in 1921. For David M. Kinchen's review of "Mann & Nature," a collection of Perry Mann essays, click:

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