Tuesday writing conversation: my family’s encounters with other cultures

Catharine writes:
To continue with our family’s story and in response to Marguerite Van Die’s question about my family’s encounters with other cultures; a person who stands out in my mind from my childhood was my uncle Russell, with his profound connection to the Earth. Some of my happiest memories were of visits to the Whitby, Ontario farm where he and Aunt Doris and my five cousins lived. I can remember hours of haying, cows wanting to be milked and long summer days full of hard work, laughter and a good meal surrounded by family.
Here is my cousin Everett’s description of one event at the Whitby farm:

Threshing Time in the ‘Thirties.

Only those who lived on a farm in the first half of the twentieth century can have any understanding of threshing time, particularly in the eyes of a ten year old boy. It was by far the most exciting event of the year.

To set the stage, it was not economical for every farmer to own his own threshing machine, and some enterprising farmer would invest in a machine and rent it out to his neighbours. This led to threshing gangs in which all farmers would rotate their services, usually with a team of horses and wagon or a hired hand, and meet at whichever farm was scheduled for the threshing machine. Of course, the grain in the field had been cut and bound into sheaves by the ‘binder’, and then stooked into standing bunches for good draining and ease of loading by pitchfork onto the wagons.

For me the day began watching for Frank Puckrin coming along the highway in his huge Rumley Oil Pull tractor, pulling the massive threshing machine, and behind it a wagon with extra straw blowing pipes, fuel, etc. This was no ordinary tractor. It was huge, with the driver encased in a wooden shed, massive cleats on the wheels twice my height, and a great flywheel. It sounded and looked a lot like a steam engine coming up the lane, and on up the hill, where the threshing machine would be carefully positioned to blow the straw right up into the loft of the barn. Needless to say, every last detail of preparation was observed by me. Perhaps the most sensitive task was to properly line up the tractor some fifty feet from the threshing machine, so the belt providing power from the tractor would be perfectly in line. By night time everything would  be ready for the big day ahead.

Next morning all the horse teams would arrive, along with the extra hands, mainly for pitching sheaves onto the wagons. There was, however, need for two men in the loft of the barn to tramp and distribute the straw. It meant a full day of dust, probably enough to shorten the life of anyone foolish enough to take it on. Fortunately there was always one old geezer who volunteered, leaving Dad for the second one. At lunch time they would come out with totally blackened faces, and red eyes hard to find. Of course their faces had been covered with a makeshift cloth to help breathing, but how much help would that be?

With all jobs assigned, off they all went. Farmers with the wagons would build the load, with one or two pitchers assigned to each wagon. When the loaded wagons came along side the threshing machine it was the job of the farmer on the wagon to feed his load into the machine. While they went off, Frank Puchrin went about getting the big Rumley Oil Pull started. No automatic starter or even a crank. No, to start this brute one had to come up to the flywheel, brace your foot up on the tractor and give the flywheel a mighty heave. First try would result in a couple of big PMMMF’s. The machine would catch on the second or third try with a frightening, accelerating series of PMMMF’s that only moderated when the governor finally cut in. Once going, that great beast would run the thresher all day long smooth as a water slide. You could hear it settle down to a steady pmmmfn, pmm pmm pmmmfn all day long. Frank’s job was to go around both machines with an oil can, and be there for any emergencies, or if necessary, to adjust the straw blower pipes. By far the easiest job, and I made a mental note that this would be job I would seek come threshing time in the future.

The threshing machine itself was a wondrous thing to behold. In full motion its throat seemed like a giant tiger with its flashing teeth grabbing any sheaf that got near it and instantly devouring it. The principle of the threshing machine is to shake the sheaf so severely that all the kernels of the grain fall down while the straw is blown by a huge fan either onto a stack, or in our case directly into the barn loft. This was probably a Massey Harris make, or maybe a McCormick. Its wooden sides were a maroon colour. In action, all kinds of levers on the sides could be seen in furious motion, while the wheat or oats fed down a chute that split in two, so that one bag could be filling while the other was being tied up and piled in a stack. This was the second best job, I thought.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, that is to say the farm house, furious activity was apace in the kitchen, preparing for lunch, which would be laid out on a huge table on tressles set up on the lawn. This was no ordinary lunch. After all, mother’s entire reputation in the community was at stake, and she could not possibly be seen to do any less well than Mrs. Harris or Mrs. O’Connor whose noon hour dinners were held in high esteem throughout the community. There had to be pot roasts of beef, chicken, mashed potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, tomatoes, beans, peas, relishes, gravy, bread and butter, all in huge quantities. These were ravenous appetites to assuage, and they must not go unfulfilled. And then the pies. Can she bake a cherry pie? You bet she could, and apple and blueberry too, with milk, coffee or tea to wash it all down. Of course she had help. This was on top of taking care of five children.

Our threshing usually took two days, sometimes three, with some 60 acres or so to bring in. One prayed for dry weather, as rain can ruin grain for threshing until it is quite dry. I might mention my last threshing experience. It came when I was twenty years old, and working in Toronto. I volunteered to help Dad, probably on Saturday, and my job was to handle our wagon and build the load. There were two pitchers, and they saw a great opportunity to embarrass the city slicker boss’s son by feverishly tossing the sheaves at a pace I could not keep up. The basic rule in building a wagon load of sheaves is to keep the butts out. This way, any grain that shakes loose wil fall into the wagon and not onto the ground. I did my darndest, but I know that those loads of sheaves were far from properly built.

Those traditional threshing machine gangs and days are now a memory only, with combines now doing the job. Small 200 acre dairy farms such as ours are no longer economical. I was filled with emotion recently, as I investigated a subdivision being constructed on the very fields that grew that grain, and which I had cultivated in my early teen years. It seemed almost sinful, somehow, to see such productive land covered in concrete and asphalt. However, for me, nothing can erase the wonderful memory of threshing time for me.

The end

Catharine continues:

Uncle Russell was the son who most clearly shared our grandfather R. J Fleming’s passion for farming, Jersey cows and care of livestock, a passion grandfather had also shared with his first born son Everett who died at age 20.
My own deepest connection with the earth goes back to my first ten years of life, growing up on Donlands farm, on the very edge of Toronto, on Don Mills road ( then a two-lane country road). From the time I was four, I spent hours riding on a wheel rim of the old red Massey Harris tractor driven by Angus McNab. Angus had worked as a shepherd in Scotland, came out to Canada, met R J Fleming our grandfather and became foreman of his farm. I spent happy hours in total silence while Angus ploughed perfect furrow after straight furrow of the farm’s upper fields. I can still remember the sound of the plough’s gearshift releasing at the end of a furrow, the chug of the engine as it lumbered around to plough in the opposite direction. Angus had no teeth left but there was a serene radiance in his face and smile as he worked silently hour after hour.
As an only child, I also wandered for hours across the fields, sometimes curling up in the shelter of a fieldstone, watching the clouds go by overhead as the kildeer called over the corn-fields. One day, I found a tiny nest of mother and baby rabbits hidden away at the foot of a corn stook – a moment of pure joy. In spring the farm-hands tapped the maple trees to gather the syrup that we would throughout the year, in the woods, sloping down to the Don River that defined the eastern edge our farm. Maple syrup was the order of the day whenever we had porridge, and pancakes.

Needless to say, years later, at Beauty’s restaurant on the plateau in Montreal there was no question whether I would have maple syrup while Neil insisted on using the house table syrup, thus saving a dollar.
Back at Donlands, in the spring I would hold, aged about five, the hand of my beloved granny Fleming, back from India, as she inspected her flowerbeds. And there was the first tulip bud poking its’ head up through the warm earth. One early spring day I went skipping alone down to the lower garden. There in the shelter of a single rock was a patch of earth warmed by the sun with the melting snow banked around it. A single blue flower, a cedilla, blossomed in the brown earth. I had the strongest feeling this jaunty little flower was trying to tell me something that I couldn’t quite decipher.
Some time ago, it occurred to me that it was saying, ‘Bloom for the Day’.

Eighty years later I am still listening.

Please feel free to add your own stories, poems or other thoughts to continue on with the ‘writing conversation’.


  1. 1
    Heidi Gulatee Says:

    Catharine, this reminds me of the farm I grew up in Switzerland. We had only cows, 6 of them. It was a tiny farm that had to feed 6 people. I remember the freedom of playing in the forests. We played with the neighbors children, mostly hide and seek or ball games. That was only on Sundays. During the week we had to work, looking after the cows, milking them and making sure they did not run off.My father fattened calfs and sold them. That is how we survived. I marvel that we always had to eat. The farm is now rented by a neighbor that uses a big trakter to do the work.

  2. 2
    bluemoosebicycle Says:

    Catharine says:
    Heidi, I am so glad you wrote about that experience of growing up on farm. It interests me immensely that many young people right here in Quebec are going back onto small farms without expensive machinery. I wonder where else that is happening on this continent.

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