by Doug Titmus
(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette in April 2002)
Here are some recollections of 60 years ago, when harvesting and threshing of corn was very different from the present time.
When the corn was ready, it would be a man with a scythe who would cut around the ends of the field to get the binder started off. The binder would then cut the corn and bind it into sheaves and drop them in a row. Men and workers would then collect the sheaves, about eight at a time, and stand them in stooks. The stooks would be left for a period to dry, and then horse-drawn carts would carry the sheaves to the farmyard. Boys often helped in the transport from stook to stook in the field, and then from the field to the farm, then they could ride in the cart on the return journey. It was a skilled job for a man to lay the stack and build it, then finish off with thatching to protect it from the weather. Shrewd eyes would watch, and if the stack was not up to standard, the stacker would hear about it in the pub at night.
The next operation would be threshing the corn. This was done by a drum, driven by a steam engine. The engine would enter the farm with the drum, chaff-cutter, elevator and a baler. The drum would be set beside the stack, followed by the other implements in order. The chaff that resulted would be used for horse and cattle feed, baled straw would provide bedding and other uses, the elevator would stack loose straw for other purposes later. These stacks were also thatched.
To begin the threshing, the thatch would be removed, and two men would pitch the sheaves to the drum. The man on the drum would cut the tie and feed the sheaves to the drum, which separated the corn, straw and cuttings, each in a different place, with the cuttings at the centre. This was a dusty, dirty job, often given to boys, and the cuttings were usually given away, to get rid of them.
The corn would come out at the back of the drum in two box-like compartments, with hooks to fix the sacks to. As one sack filled, this was turned off and the second one turned on Then the sacks were put on a ratchet lift to enable a man to get it on his back and make the difficult climb up a ladder to a loft. I have known a sack of beans weigh 18 stone; the corn was less heavy, but it was still a struggle to get it up. When the job was completed, the engine and equipment would move on to the next farm.
In time, the horses and the steam engine gave way to the tractor for the work of carting and threshing. Working with a tractor made the job easier and quicker and employed less labour. Tractors and combines became bigger and bigger, and today do the whole job of harvesting and threshing in one operation, with only one man on the combine and one on the tractor to take the corn to the farm. It is then put into dryers and stored in very large silos or store sheds, so that even very large farms can operate with only 2 to 3 men, and the skills of the past are no longer needed.
With the reduction in labour, the festivity after gathering in the harvest has disappeared. In earlier days, harvest suppers would be held on the larger farms. Workers and their families, men, women and children, would gather in the barn, and the farmer supplied good food and beer for merrymaking. Churches held their harvest services, to which local crops and produce were donated. Pubs also held festivals, with samples of produce sold to the highest bidder, and proceeds given to a charity. Thus the farming year ended, but the seasons of growth and gathering would soon begin again.