It was a long time ago. I was at the age when I liked to help but was probably more in the way than helpful. I was there. I remember it in vivid detail. The fear I felt still gripes me when I think about it today, just as it did back that night in the oats field.
I was very fortunate to have grown up on a farm that was a little behind the modernization of American agriculture. Horse powered farms began to give way to mechanized tractor farms in the 1920’s. Progressive farmers sold their teams and bought gasoline powered row crop tractors starting in the 1930’s. By the time WWII roared in, factories were producing tractors and implements at an extraordinary rate. Many farm boys left to join the service, leaving farms shorthanded. The tractor made it possible for one person to do the work of several on a previously horse powered farm. Like any industry, producing more with less is considered good business. Many, if not most, returning veterans never returned to the farm after the war.
Dad’s family was no exception. Four of his brothers went to war. Three returned. Dad stayed to work the farm. After the war he bought the farm from my grandfather and married my mother. They raised eight children. I don’t think they ever had a lot of money. They never talked about it in front of us kids. I suppose they didn’t want us to worry. They paid for most everything in cash except I remember Mom showing me a paper where they had the payment for a additional piece of land deducted from the milk check. People didn’t charge things back then like we do now.
Dad was a hard working farmer. To earn extra money he occasionally worked for a neighbor named Ed. Ed was considered a progressive farmer. He bought new equipment, subscribed to the latest farming techniques, and did custom work for other farmers. Dad would trade labor. When it came time to fill silo, Dad would help Ed and, in exchange, Ed would bring his field chopper and blower to fill our silo. As time passed and money allowed, Dad and Mom bought more equipment, usually used, like a baler, field chopper, etc. I remember one time Dad bought a manure spreader “for Mom” for her birthday. I am sure they worked it out ahead of time as they never bought anything they had not saved for.
In the days when Dad was growing up it was common for neighbors to work together and share equipment and exchange labor. The Nelsons, Rudolph’s, Fuchs, Fruths and Kienows worked together at threshing time. Dad used to tell stories about making the rounds with the threshing machine. I think the thing he remembered most was the meals. Farm women’s reputations depended on how good their lunch or supper was.
I remember a story he liked to tell about the time he and several others were pitching bundles onto their wagons when another neighbor, who owned a small plane, decided to buzz the field. The normally dead broke farm teams who probably had never seen a plane before, bolted, running wildly in all directions. Dad said it took a long time to find all the horses, get them sorted out and repair the harnesses. Later the pilot came by to tell them how funny it looked from the air, horses running all over with guys chasing them.
By the time I came along it was down to the Nelson’s and Rudolph’s. Mom was a Rudolph. Her brothers were my uncles. Her mother, my grandmother, was a fantastic cook. Mom was too. Grandpa Rudolph was in charge of the threshing machine. It had to be set up just right, level, pointing with the wind so the straw could be blown neatly into a pile. He would continually tinker, grease and make adjustments throughout the day.
I remember one time my Uncle Raymond encountered a skunk hiding under a shock of oats. Raymond was pretty quick with a three tined bundle fork and managed to dispatch the stinker before it got him. Faced with one of two options, leaving the skunk lay or playing a good one on Grandpa, he chose the later. Carefully concealing the striped critter under some oats bundles, he waited his turn at the thresher. When the team ahead of him finished unloading and drove off, he brought his team in next to the belt and commenced pitching bundles in the elevator. He waited until Grandpa had climbed up on the separator to adjust the blower before flinging the skunk into the mouth of the machine. The machine rumbled and roared as the odorous carcass hit the whirling blades that cut the twine. It was instantaneously sucked into the conclaves and down into the belly of the Case separator. By the time it hit the blower fan, it was pretty well “separated”, skunk meat in one direction, stink in all directions. For what was said later, I gather it didn’t take Grandpa too long to exit his perch!
Straw is an important byproduct of a threshing operation. Building a straw pile that would shed water was an art. The Rudolph’s built theirs adjacent to the barnyard where the horses fed off of it in the winter and the pigs burrowed under it in the summer. At our place, the pile was put in the field and baled with a square baler immediately after it was threshed. All the straw had to be hand fed into the baler so you didn’t want to let it settle, or worse yet, let it get rained on. It was not uncommon to finish threshing in the afternoon and bale straw until dark.
On the aforementioned night of terror, I remember heading out to bale straw after supper. Dad had an International baler powered by a Farmall H. I don’t know if I was on the hayrack trying to help pile bales or sitting on the baler watching the knotters. The Internationals were notorious for miss tying. It the knotter missed a knot it was the kid’s, who was sitting on the twine box, job to alert Dad.
As dusk settled in and the sky became darker I remember watching and listening to the H as it worked. Dew was beginning to moisten the ground and the straw pile. The dampness made the straw “tough”. The little red baler groaned as the plunger, with it’s thick cutting knife, slammed into the straw. The tractor’s governor responded, increasing the gas, causing the engine to reeve up. This resulted in a shower of sparks shooting out the top of the exhaust pipe. I suppose they were there all the time but it was just easier to see them in the twilight. Dad and the crew pitching the straw worked like a well oiled machine, grabbing , pulling and shoving forkfuls of straw into the baler’s pickup.
Suddenly someone shouted “FIRE”! At first I didn’t realize what was happening. The pitchers threw their forks and ran. Dad reached for the power take off lever, slammed the baler out of gear and jumped on the tractor all in one motion. He threw it in gear and hit the gas. The tractor, baler and half loaded hayrack lurched forward and out of harm’s way.
The dry straw was no match for the hot sparks. The top of the straw pile had burst into flames. Black smoke billowed skyward. The heat from the massive flames forced us to move back again and again. It roared as it lit up the night sky. In a matter of minutes, the whole pile was gone!
It was dark when we headed home. Mom made us something to eat. Nobody said much. I didn’t sleep very well. The next morning there was only a smoldering black spot on the field where the straw pile once stood.
To this day, when I catch a whiff of a certain kind of smoke, I am reminded of that night long ago.