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Threshing to remove grain from
straw and chaff in bygone times

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What threshing was


Grain being delivered by a threshing machine

Grain being delivered into sacks at one end of a threshing machine. Photographed at a 21st century country show.

All cereal crops grow as stems with what are known as 'ears' at the top. These ears are themselves made up of a hard outer coating and an inner softer part which is what is used for making flour. The act of separating out the softer part is known as threshing and the machine for doing it in years gone by was called a threshing machine or just a thresher.

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The threshing machine

The threshing machine was driven as close as possible to where the corn had been stacked. In fact the original siting of the stack had to allow for all the placing of this equipment, usually near a field gate.

Below are two photos of threshing machines; the second one shows the older machine. The captions describe what is happening.

The thresher was driven by a belt from a traction engine. The belt needed a twist in it to stay on, but in museums, set up presumably by people who never saw a threshing machine in action, I have seen it without a twist. The belt was long and it whirled round at head height, so everyone was expected to keep clear. There was no health and safety.

As the corn was threshed, the threshed grain cascaded down a shoot into waiting sacks, suspended on the threshing machine. The straw was ejected from the back. Sometimes, it would be fed into a baler and stacked.

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The timing of threshing

Oats threshed with a threshing machine

Oats threshed with a threshing machine. As can be seen, a few husks still remain.

Threshing had to be done on dry corn which needed to be some time after the corn was cut. As threshing machines were so expensive, few farmers could afford to buy their own, and one was hired out locally from farm to farm. So the time of a farm's threshing depended on both the weather and the availability of the threshing machine.

Furthermore because the need for grain was not confined to harvest time, threshing could take place at any time of the year, particularly at less busy times. This meant that the sheaves had to be stored in 'haystacks' or barns until ready. Then they were threshed inside the barns, which was excessively dusty.

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What happened to the grain, chaff and straw

The threshing machine delivered the grain into sacks as shown in the top photo. The remaining dry stalks were now known as straw. They were delivered onto the ground where they were pitched onto a cart to be carried away for various uses or for storing. Later models bound them into bales.

The outside of the ears of corn, known as chaff, was a waste product, used as livestock fodder or ploughed into the soil or burnt.

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Larger pictures

Grain being delivered by a threshing machine

Grain being delivered into sacks at one end of a threshing machine. Photographed at a 21st century country show.

Straw being delivered by an old threshing machine

Straw being delivered onto the ground at the other end of an old threshing machine. Note the solid tyres. Detail of a photo supplied by Send and Ripley History Society. The original larger photo shows that the corn is being threshed directly from a stack.

Detailed schematic diagram of an old threshing machine

Sketch of a threshing machine from an encyclopaedia printed in the late 1800s.  It is probably an accurate representation of a thresher as used in the early 1900s. Interestingly the encyclopaedia labelled it as a thrasher not a thresher.

Traction engine powering a threshing machine

Traction engine powering a threshing machine. Photographed at a 21st century country show.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Page contributed by Neil Cryer