Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Gloria Huffman Sinell: Threshing Time!

The Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression made crop farming a greater gamble than in normal years. Severe drought and grasshopper infestation caused many crops to fail, signaling the ruin of some Minnesota farms. Farmers looked toward the harvest with both cautious hope and some anxiety. When the crop was good, threshing time was a time of celebration.

In her memoir, "Threshing," Gloria Huffman Sinell remembers the excitement on her family's farm near Sibley Township, Minnesota when the threshing crew arrived for the harvest - and the tremendous effort needed on the part of the women in the family to feed them.

Memoir Excerpts

Harvesting the small grain on the farm was a notable event for several reasons. If the crop was good it meant an opportunity to pay off some debts, repair machinery or even buy new equipment. It was also an opportunity for neighbors to gather to work and socialize. Seldom was any of the money gained from it used by the women of the family to buy labor saving devices or new clothes. Those purchases, when they were made, might have to come from saving up the egg money. Some of the grain was stored to be used for feeding livestock, and the straw was kept for bedding for cows and horses.

When Mr. Spiering, who owned the threshing rig, came over on his tractor pulling his threshing machine, there was a sense of excitement in the air. Grandma Huffman and Ruby must have risen at dawn or before to start cooking and baking in that hot kitchen on the wood burning stove. How did they do it?? A noon meal with meat, potatoes, several garden vegetables, pickles, jams and pies had to be produced. And then in the evening, a supper with almost the same variety of food was set before a gang of about ten hungry men.

Then there were the lunches, which were served in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They consisted of cold meat or egg sandwiches, cookies or sometimes homemade doughnuts, nectar and coffee. When Gloria and Elizabeth were old enough, they took the lunches out to the crew. The sandwiches were probably packed in a big dish pan and covered with a snow white dish towel to keep them from the flies and dirt. The coffee was in a big enamel pot and the cold drink would be in a gallon thermos jug. All this food and paraphernalia would be packed into a little coaster wagon and then pulled to a shady spot near the threshing rig.

For the meals the table in the dining room was covered with a white linen cloth and set with the best china that the family owned. Before the men came in to eat, they washed up in some enamel basins that sat on a bench under a big box elder tree. It was nearly impossible for them to get very clean with this small amount of soap and water. Consequently, after the first day of threshing, the lovely white cloth would be covered with grime. Mr. Spiering's place at the table would show the black grease he had used on his machines. He was quite a character, and wore striped coveralls and a red bandanna around his neck to keep out the chaff, which was constantly whirling around the straw pile. Everyone knew he was in charge. He had two sons who farmed with him and they were very quiet and soft-spoken.

After two or three days of this frantic activity, the crew would move on to another farm. What a relief!!! Grandma Huffman and Ruby could relax and, with the men gone, do a minimal amount of cooking. They would serve things that Thomas didn't care for, such as sour bean soup. Sometimes for a real treat they would make waffles in the old cast iron waffle maker. When Thomas came home in the evening from threshing they would grill him to find out what kind of food had been served that day. He would sometimes brag on the other farm wives' cooking and that would put Ruby into a real funk.

After the grain harvest was over there was the plowing of the stubble fields to be done and later in the fall came corn picking time. The women folk never lacked for work as vegetables and fruits had to be put up besides the usual cooking, baking, laundry, cleaning, soap making, butchering, etc. They also did the vegetable gardening, poultry raising, and helped with milking and other chores. They were Super Women, indeed!!!



Sinell, Gloria Huffman Threshing. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.