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The Heritage Trails are presented courtesy of CKUA Radio Network and Cheryl Croucher

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Threshing, Part One

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In the early years of settlement, homesteaders depended on the labour of many hands to keep their farms running.

According to historian Pat Myers, farmers often hired out custom work that required the use of large, expensive equipment.

This was common in areas such as well-digging, ploughing, and threshing, where the farm family really only needed to do these things either once, if you were having a well done, or breaking your land for the first time, or once a year, such as with threshing. So it wasn’t economically viable for you to have the large, heavy equipment on hand that you would only use once a year.

Bringing in the harvest and getting the grain to market was really the highlight of the farm year. And getting that done meant bringing in the custom threshers.

It started with portable steam engines. We have a report that a portable steam engine was brought to Victoria Settlement in 1880, and when the harvest was finished there, it was hauled by oxen to Edmonton.
Now these portable steam engines and threshers were large and heavy, so there weren’t a whole lot in the province. When the railway came in ’83 and then Edmonton in ’91, of course it became easier to bring some of these pieces of equipment here, and as settlement sped up, it became more important that they be available.

The earliest threshers that separated grain were powered by treadmills. Horses were harnessed to walk on a wooden treadmill, and this horsepower was transmitted by a belt to the threshing machine.

Separators could also be powered by horse sweeps. On these machines, teams of horses were hitched to long poles to a central gearing unit. The horses walked round and round in a circle, and the long poles turned the gears that turned a shaft, which was hooked up to the threshing machine. Sweeps produced more power than treadmills, so they could run larger separators.

In 1912, it cost well over $2000 to purchase a steam traction engine. So the custom thresherman was in great demand by a farm community that couldn’t afford to purchase such expensive equipment.

And custom threshing dominated the Alberta harvest until well into the 1930s.

On the Heritage Trail,

I’m Cheryl Croucher.

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.