Shocking oats built lifelong work ethic

posted July 17, 2017 9:31 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Larry Scheckel, Tomah (Monroe County)

  • con_oatsshocks_071917.jpg
    Shocks of oats were lined up neatly in a field at the Scheckel farm near Seneca in Crawford County.

Editor’s note: The first half of this story appeared in this space in last week’s edition.

The Scheckels’ McCormick-Deering 8-foot grain binder, as it was used in the field, was too wide to pass through farm gates and narrow lanes. The field-ready machine was about 15 feet wide. That was certainly too wide to travel on the gravel road running through the Scheckel farm.

The binder was mounted on two removable transport wheels permitting it to be pulled lengthwise out to the field. The two steel trolley wheels were used only to get the binder to the field.

Out to the field we would go, Dad driving the horses hitched to the tongue that extended out from under the outer edge of the cutting platform. The three Scheckel boys tagged along begging to drive the horses. Our sisters Catherine, Rita, and later Diane, would bring a quart canning jar filled with cold water and ice cubes.

Dolly, Prince and Sam, our three faithful work horses, were unhitched from the tongue. The platform had to be raised up so the tongue could be unlatched.

The big bull wheel, about 4 feet in diameter and 1 foot wide, was cranked down. The large bull wheel supported the main part of the binder, the heavy metal working parts. It was the bull wheel that powered the entire machine, the cutting bar, the big reel in front, the rollers that moved the canvas, the knotter and the mechanism that kicked out the bundles. All moving parts got their marching orders from that bull wheel.

The bull wheel was cranked down sufficiently to raise the two smaller transport wheels off the ground so they could be disconnected. The two wheels were rolled off to the side and parked along the fence row or under a shade tree. The next time they would be used was to transport the grain binder to another field. The front transport wheel is positioned up and off the ground.

What a grand, majestic sight it was! The big reel rotating and windmilling, tipping the oats stems slightly just as the grain hits the cutting bar, ensuring the grain will fall back on the canvas moving the grain stalks to the binder machinery. The two counter-rotating slanting elevator canvases carried the grain up and over the apex, then down the other side, gathering and building a bundle.

Ah, the knotter, it moves so fast, I could never figure out how it actually worked. Then, just when enough oats stalks were gathered to make a bundle, a cutter sliced the twine, and two curved foot-long prongs rotated around and kicked out the bundle.

The bundles fell on a side carrier that was made of five or six tines. Dad would let three or four bundles gather on the carrier, then with a foot pedal, he’d release the bundles onto the ground. This way he could keep the shocks in fairly straight rows.

The grain binder was not only a pretty sight for a farmer’s eye, but the sound from a grain binder was unique. Sounds from the sickle bar, slicing back and forth, reel hitting grain, rollers, gears turned by the big bull wheel. A cacophony of pleasant sounds that could and should be set to music.

The binder was a complex machine for its time. There was a variety of things to go wrong. Blades came loose from the sickle bar. Heavy grass in the ravines could clog the machine. Two spools of twine were stored in a cylinder on the back, right below the seat. The end of the twine from the top bundle was knotted to the beginning of the lower second bundle. That knot had to feed smoothly through the machine. If it did not, more delays. A long chain, driven by the bull wheel, ran over four driven pulleys and a couple of idler gears. That chain could break. The knotter could cause problems. The canvas could rip.

It seems a whole afternoon of cutting grain did not go by without one breakdown or another. And always, the machine needed “greasing up.” Near every entrance to the field there was a rest spot, a place to park the two transport wheels, the grease gun, the jars of water, a place to sit in the shade of a tree if possible.

The McCormick-Deering 8-foot binder had the platform off to the left. That meant the first pass around a new field was made clockwise. The grain all around the edge of the field was cut first. Some grain got knocked over by the horses or tractor and the big bull wheel. After that first clockwise swath, the binder was turned around and the remainder of the field was cut going counter-clockwise.

We three Scheckel boys helped get the binder ready to make that first pass.

Then we sat in the shade of the big oak tree or the huge willow tree. Every field seemed to have a “rest tree.” The binder, horses and Dad had to make three or four passes around the field before there were sufficient bundles to start shocks. Then it became a race just to keep up.

Learning to make a good shock that would stand up to the wind was not easy. Dad or Mom showed us how. We wore a straw hat with string beneath the chin. That straw hat was the only protection against the scorching summer sun. We donned long-sleeve shirts so the grain bristles did not cut into the arms. Blue jeans and whitish canvas gloves from Johnson’s One-Stop Shopping Center, and farmer shoes completed our grain-shocking outfits.

The Scheckels made a nine-bundle shock. A bundle was grabbed under each arm. One knee was thrust forward a tad, and a bundle placed on each side of the knee with the tops of each bundle touching. Usually the two bundles, with bristle ends on the ground about 18 inches apart, could support themselves free-standing. If not, you picked the bundles up and tried again.

This technique was repeated two more times, two bundles on each side of the original two and slightly turned in on the ends. Now, a competent “shocker” had a good start. Six bundles free standing, three on one side, three on the other.

Two more bundles were added, one on each side, and placed at the center of the three on each side. Finally, a cap, to shed the rain, was made. The ninth and last bundle was held with the stalk ends against the tummy, and the tops bent and fanned out. Same with the bristle end, fanned out. Then this cap was placed on top of the eight bundles, with further bending of the stalks fanned out and down.

At the end of the day, sometimes after chores were done, we would all go out in the field and catch up on the shocking — Dad, Mom, Phillip, Lawrence and Bob. The sun was lower, the air cooler, and dew might start to develop.

There were those brief moments, at the end of the day, slight breeze blowing, sun low on the horizon, cumulus clouds above, crows cawing, moon somewhere in the sky, you could look around and see those stocks standing tall against a clear blue sky, and you knew you had accomplished something. A real thing of beauty!

That sense of looking at your handiwork never left me. Later in my teaching career, I would have many wonderful experiences. Teaching is working with people, young people in particular. There is certainly a sense of accomplishment. But students are always “works in progress,” because people are never finished.

The oats field was finished. You can stand back and look at your handiwork and say “I did this, I made this.” A grain field has a smell to it, and it’s a smell you never forget. That fragrance can change, and is largely dependent on the weather. Hot, dry days yield one kind of aroma. A little rain or humidity, the scent is a tad different.

Oats in the early years were prone to high winds. The Scheckels “shocked and threshed” oats and wheat, and those crops could be cut a week or so before the oats that were combined.

We had our share of grain bent over, sometimes nearly flattened, by summer storms, but not to the extent of our neighbors who combined grain and perhaps had to wait out one extra storm. Dad controlled a lever on the binder that could lower and raise the cutting bar. The cutting bar could be maneuvered to the point of digging into the ground to pick up storm blown-down oats stalks.

Daylight was close to 15 hours. And believe me, we seemed not to waste a single daylight hour.

The sun came up about 5 a.m., move the cows into the barn, get the milking done, four cows by hand, no milking machine. Carry feed and water to the chicken coop. Hogs had to be fed. Small calves that were not out in the pasture needed feeding. After 45 minutes or an hour of chores, we were in the house for breakfast.

We all ate at the same time, usually a big pot of oatmeal, plenty of milk, homemade bread, butter, jam. Dad led grace, and we dug in. If you were a little kid, you helped with the dishes. Older kids had assigned jobs

We were done with breakfast by 7:30 a.m. Then fixing machinery, fences, pull weeds from the garden or fields, mow lawn, gather eggs, odd chores until the sun burned off the dew. Get the horses in, harnessed, out to the field for grain cutting and shocking. The binder was ready to go around 10 o’clock. Then shocking grain all day until perhaps 4 p.m.

Chores again, chickens, hogs, calves. Eat supper at 5, say rosary at 5:30, go out and milk cows at 6. Put the cows out to pasture, done at about 7 p.m. Maybe two hours till bedtime, and the whole process started again the next morning. 

These were long, hot summer days in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin on the Scheckel farm out on Oak Grove Ridge during my boyhood years in the 1940s and 1950s. It seemed that we were following the Biblical admonition from Genesis 3:19, “Ye shall earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow.” And threshing was coming up.

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