Grandpa Lester Lohr loved machines; Dad (Lloyd Lohr) loved horses. As a result, I have memories of horses, bundles, stooks, and threshing machines as well as later memories of swathers and combines.
Until the end of the 1950s, at least part of my family’s harvest was still done traditionally. My parents had about 40 Percheron horses, most of whom earned their keep. Each summer we showed some of those Percherons at exhibitions and fairs throughout Alberta, including the Calgary Stampede. My Dad’s motto was “we work our show horses and show our work horses.” Grandpa thought Dad was old-fashioned in his desire to use horses. Dad used to counter by saying that horses always started and kept going, unlike machines.
When I was four and five, I used to “help” Granny Beula Lohr when she took dinner to the field. (Dinner is the mid-day meal in the countryside.) I remember: slabs of roast beef; riced potatoes; thick slices of her homemade white bread spread generously with butter; peas from her garden in a fresh Jersey-cream sauce; cobs of corn dripping with butter; generous pieces of chocolate cake; several sealer jars of lemonade—the lemons sliced in half and squeezed on a green depression-glass juicer—with sugar added; and, steaming coffee in a thermos.
To keep the food hot, Granny wrapped the pots and dishes in towels and along with the durable plates, white mugs, and the tin salt and pepper shakers, everything was quickly placed in wooden apple boxes in the back of the blue, one ton truck. She sat on a cushion and put another one behind her so that she could see over the steering wheel and reach the pedals. Then we’d bounce across the field in the truck to pull up a short distance from the harvest crew.
Down came the tailgate, and Granny spread a “field” tablecloth on it and laid out the food. The cloth I remember had red and white checks.
The men ate in shifts, usually standing, sometimes squatting on the ground. They took turns eating so that the threshing machine kept operating. I remember deafening noise, choking grain dust in the air, itchy chaff that snuck under my clothes, Granny’s scampering to set everything up, Grandpa’s gnarled hands wrapped around a coffee mug, Dad’s deeply tanned Adam’s apple bobbing as he drank straight from a sealer jar of lemonade, all in a surrounding of golden fields and huge prairie skies.
Grandpa was always in charge of the threshing machine. At an earlier stage in the harvesting process, a binder had been used to bundle the grain. The bundles—usually seven with a center bundle anchoring and the others leaning up against it—had been stooked earlier.
As well as Grandpa, Dad, and the hired man, two or three other men were recruited to help with the harvest. Dad drove the least experienced team, usually a young horse on the right paired with a seasoned veteran of the harvest on the left. (The experienced horse was on the left because that was the side closer to the thundering threshing machine.) It didn’t take long for the horses to remember or learn their job. Dad tied the lines to the front of the rack, used verbal commands and, sometimes, the end of his three-tined pitchfork on the lines to guide the team around the corners as he walked along and pitched the bundles onto the bundle wagon or rack as it was more commonly called.
Once the rack was full of bundles and there was an opening at the machine, the rack would be drawn up as close as possible to the threshing machine. Since threshing machines were loud, vibrating, dusty things with huge turning belts, the ‘new’ horse had to be guided in calmly and patiently by Dad and the experienced horse.
Once the rack was in position at the machine, pitchforks were used to throw the bundles into the huge maw of the threshing machine. I remember the flowing rhythmic arm movements of a good bundle pitcher.
After the men had finished eating, Granny re-packed the apple boxes, put up the tailgate, and the two of us climbed into the truck. We once again bounced across the field as she tried to avoid ruts, gopher and badger holes, and whatever else was out there.
Back in the kitchen, Granny washed and dried the dishes—by hand, of course. Then she baked a batch of cookies, made sandwiches, juiced more lemons for lemonade, and boiled coffee for afternoon lunch, again taken to the field.
She also prepared and took full suppers to the field if the weather and the daylight held. Often though the men came in for a late supper at dusk but only after they watered, unharnessed, fed, and brushed the horses. Granny also insisted that the men sweep themselves off with a broom she kept at the back door for that purpose before they entered the house for supper.
After one more session of washing dishes after supper, Granny cleaned up the kitchen. The next morning she was up before daybreak and made another full early morning breakfast.
Although harvest is often thought of as work in the fields, I will always think of harvest as including long hours in the kitchen. Harvest has changed a great deal since the 1950s; what remains the same are the long hours in the kitchens and in the fields.
If these harvest memories have piqued your interest, the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site near Longview, Alberta, will be harvesting the traditional way on the weekend of September 16 and 17. For more information, call 403-395-3044 for information about exact harvest times or check this website: