Unless you happen to live in the middle of the boondocks or a ranch some place where you own half the county, you probably can look at your window and see neighbors. As farmground continues to be divided into acreages or housing developments, we live in closer proximity to each other than ever. Yet despite shorter distances to people, I think we have lost a bit of the sense of community.
Even though over a century ago, people were more spread out, I think they relied on their neighbors more by necessity. I enjoy visiting with my neighbors and may occasionally borrow an egg or the proverbial cup of sugar, but I have never asked them to help me wash all of my windows or to put up salsa/tomatoes from my garden. Large tasks where company and assistance would be appreciated. We are expected to do such things independently. Back then, they could not have completed certain monumental tasks by themselves, and maybe they were better off for having to rely on each other.
A century ago, farmers did not have all of the big machinery that exists today. So, when the crops were ready to come in from the fields, everyone would rotate between farms to get the job done. Whether threshing or shelling, farmers would form volunteer crews and travel from place to place, helping each other out.
Threshing crews would use giant threshers to separate the wheat kernels from the straw. For a long time, corn was picked by hand, but eventually a corn picking machine was invented. But then the corn would still need to be shelled. So, different men would travel around with “shellers”, removing the corn from the cob. I have been told that my Grandpa used to have a machine like that – he would venture out to different homesteads and be a part of that process.
This would involve weeks of long, hard days. After all, if your neighbors helped you with harvest, you would want to assist them as well. And just in case you think that women were not a part of harvest, they were the ones required to feed all of the workers throughout the long days of threshing and picking. Supposedly this was almost like a cooking contest – the amount, type and tastiness of the food was an indicator of just what type of a farm wife you were. Even the kids were required to help. They would prepare the meals, haul water and even pick up the chaff left behind. (And maybe sneak in a little fun with the neighbors also.)
Our inventions and “progress” have made us a bit isolated from both this amount of hard work and time together. (Although maybe not the long days.) We obviously cannot and would not want to go back to threshing machines. But maybe we need to find a way to work together more often.
Thankfully many farming communities do come around and help each other through times of crisis. Small farming communities will band together to help a farmer who is ill or injured and assist during harvest. (They even announce such intentions in the paper!) And there is also Farm Rescue: an official organization that accepts nominations of farms where families need to receive help to survive a crisis (health or weather related), and they will assist with harvesting or planting up to 1,000 acres. All of this is mostly done by volunteers.
So, possibly the concept of community is simply altered and not just forgotten. And maybe we need to all learn to take the first step in asking for assistance, whether our project is big or small. Just as the farmers of decades past realized, many hands definitely make lighter work.
P.S. I debated on discussing more of the technical aspects of harvest. But, I was afraid to embarrass my family members who are still farmers with my obvious lack of expertise. I did enjoy reading about the threshing process. And about the original corn huskers. Here are sources that I would recommend.
Nebraska, Where Dreams Grow – a book by Dorothy Weyer Creigh.
This title covers many interesting scenarios involving the first 50 years of Nebraska being a state.
History of Nebraska Farming: a site about Wessels Living History Farm. Outstanding information, including videos of farmers explaining what they remember about threshing and farming long ago.
Vintage Farm Tool Guessing Game: my kids are going to LOVE this!