The Census - 9
April 30, 1940
I told Martha I would be happy to go back on my own, but truth be told, I was shaking in my boots the next week. I wondered if Susie would remember me, and welcome me or kick me straight out.
But I had no need to worry. I got there about 10. 15 not wanting to pass Madelyn's path, and Susie came
straight to the door. Her eyes were sparkling and I could smell the coffee. She really was pleased that I had come back.
While she got the drinks, I perused the other pictures in her living room. Many I supposed were her children, but some of the older people might be those she was talking about.
“Who's this?” I asked of a picture of a young couple.
“That's Tom's sister Mary, and her husband JA. I told you about JA and John Suchla's troubles last week. I think part of it was jealousy. Mary kept having babies, one after the other, and John and Mary never had kids at all. I think they fought because Mary was tired and wanted a rest from having more kids, and John told JA to keep it in his pants, so to speak.”
I was embarrassed to hear her say it like that, but she seemed to delight in shocking me. I expect there would be more stories that would embarrass me before we were done.
“But poor Mary died before she had her 11th child – heart attack. Her doctor told her the next baby would kill her, but would JA listen? He would not. And it did. But he didn't take long before he found himself a new lady to bed. His kids didn't like her, and she didn't like us. She said that now that she was Mrs. JA Woychik, there would be no more contact with the Suchla ruffians. But we saw them at church most weeks, so we knew
a bit about how things were going.”
“So last time you were telling me about how John and Mary were running your farm, and Tom was a
blacksmith. When did the financial problems mean that he had to go out threshing?”
“Threshing was always a big deal in farming, and when we were kids even, we would get involved in
it and think it was a lot of fun. We'd bring cold drinks out to the workers, and when we were a bit older, we'd help make the stukes. You'd get about 7 stukes to make up a haystack. The stukes needed about two weeks to harden off before they were put to the threshing machine.”
“Was this wheat you were harvesting?”
“Yes, but some barley and oats too. The barley was so itchy with its beard.” She laughed. “I remember my cousin taking a sack of barley beards and the ends would poke through the sacking and stick us like little spears.”
“Then what happened?”
"The next step was pitching bundles and somebody had to run the hayrack, which took the hay to the machine. There were usually two of them, one on each side of the feeder housing of the machine. They'd go out and pick up shocks and load the wagons as high as our pitchfork could reach. You'd fill the wagon sort of like making a basket, putting them along the side first to make the walls of the basket, and then fill in the middle last. Then they'd go up to the machine with one hayrack on each side of the feeder house, the one side was the belt, so you were right up against that fast moving belt while you pitched off one bundle at a time into
“Then when we were married women, we would be in charge of the meals for feeding all the workers. In the morning, we'd ring the neck of a chicken or two, and get them plucked and ready for the workers. They started early, maybe 6 o'clock, and had a break at 9, with salami sandwiches and lemonade, with the main meal with all the trimmings about 12, and another meal break of sandwiches and cold tea about 4 or so.”
“What did you serve for the big meal besides chicken?” I asked.
“Mashed potatoes, bread and biscuits with homemade butter and jam, green beans, lettuce, peas, onions, tomatoes, ham or roast beef, pies and cakes of all kinds and pies like caramel and chocolate ones.”
“Sounds like hard work.”
“It was, but it was fun, because all the women wanted to outdo each other, and have the men say their meals were the best.”
“Go back to telling me about the threshing.”
“The routine for threshing was the same for years, since the big steam run machines were introduced. There'd be five or six men in a team, and they'd go from farm to farm,Counting the farmers and his friends, as well as the travelling team, you would have 8 people hauling bundles, 4 people hauling grain, 1 person hauling water for the steam engine, 1 running the steam rig, and 1 running the separator.”
“So how long did it take with all those people working?”
“On a quarter section (160 acres or a quarter of a square mile) it would usually take a day and a half, or two at the most.”
“And they hired men to run the threshing machines, and your husband did that. I'm presuming he was no longer a blacksmith and just did the threshing.”
“In the late summer, and sometimes they threshed up till Christmas, he made more money doing that that he could as a blacksmith. But in the winter he would go back to doing that. He still had his place in town. It was the farm where the fire was. But I don't want to talk about that now.”
“So tell me a bit more about how all this worked.”
“The threshing crews were expensive, and 9 or 10 farms would join up, so that they could share horses and each other as backups for the crew. And it paid them to do a second shock run, on each farm, after the initial one got most of the seeds off. Of course some people stacked instead of threshing from stukes, and then they could choose their time of doing the threshing. I remember one year they had a 42-inch rig with wings going out from the side. Then they had 2 spikers pitching, 1 on each side of the rig. Then you had 12 teams in the field and 4 spike pitchers out in the field to help load. You can imagine how much you could handle. The guy with the biggest rig felt real bad when he didn't thresh 4000 bushels of oats in a day.”
“So when the grain was threshed, what happened next?”
“When the grain came out of the machine into the grain wagons, it came out a half bushel at a time. If you were changing wagons and it hit the side and you didn't get your wagon there in time, a half-bushel of grain dropped on the ground. It just poured out of there just like a stream. You can just imagine how much those big machines could do. You would go into a 40-acre field by the second time you drove out it was all gone except cleaning up in the corners.”
“So if they had to come back the next day to finish off, did all the guys sleep in boxcars?”
“Sometimes, they would bed down in the hayloft in the barn of the farm they were working on. They'd drink heavily into the night too, and there would be drinking and poker and fighting and all sorts going on. Sometimes they went out and stole the farm's watermelons. About 1 o'clock they would finally settle down. And then the whistle would go to let everyone know when to get up at 5 in the morning.
"And often the days were so hot, I can remember one where it was 104 degrees in the shade. They were doing barley, and that is the worst thing to thresh because of the beards. The men would get so hot and tired that they couldn't eat or sleep. They learned from experience that they would do better not to overeat at their 12 noon feed, or else they would live to regret it. Lots of them got sick. I remember one guy who got so bad that he committed suicide.”
“Gosh that sounds awful.”
“It was a hard life, no kidding. They worked with the machines until about 8 p.m. And it was never turned off from when they started it at 6 that morning. So that is how they got paid – by the hour from as long as the engine was running – so 14 hours at least, and sometimes they carried on for 17 or more, working by lantern light.”
“What about before the machine started and after it finished, if there was cleaning up to do.”
“That didn't count in their salaries. It was usually at least 20 minutes after they arrived before the belt started.”
“This is a steam engine, so I suppose it took awhile to make the steam.”
“They had a fireman whose job it was to get the steam going, and he was often up 3 hours earlier or so to get it properly steaming by the time the crew arrived. They were paid $10 a day, more than anybody else in the crew. They fired it with coal. They'd make a really hot fire, and then spread the coal around, and if you did it properly, you'd hardly ever get smoke. So if you saw a crew with lots of belching black smoke, you'd know they had a bad engineer.”
I suddenly gave a start. My watch said it was nearly 12 o'clock, so I flew out the door, and told Susie I'd see her next Friday. I did just manage to get out the door and across the road before Madelyn arrived back. I wonder what Susie told her about the second empty cup.
And still we haven't even touched on the murder itself, but I am so fascinated by everything she has to say that I don't want to rush her at all.