The Ghost in the Thresher

Part 1/March 1st: Inspired by the new month and the slightly warmer temperatures (20s), I decided to climb Dryden Hill through the falling snow and see if I could reach the old tower behind the house once owned by Pete McKenna and then to locate the abandoned steam DSCN6048 thresher (ca. 1930s) that Pete said might still be found there. Since writing about Dan Redmond and his “custom threshing” days in my post called A Village Celebration, I’ve been interested in having a look at the old machinery.

It was an arduous 40-minute ascent along the old seasonal roadway to the summit of Dryden Hill, with no real track to ease my walk except for the paths made by the overpopulated deer. I saw only an occasional chickadee, a passing crow or raven, and a couple of ruffed grouse startled from the pine trees. Other than the stronger light produced by the late season, there was no sign of an approaching spring whatsoever.

DSCN6086The wind and snow were more intense along the summit, and I was able to advance but a short distance from the house toward the old tower site. The crusted snow was up to my knees with every step I took. Without snowshoes, I abandoned the effort and began my descent.

Did the old tower and abandoned thresher still remain near the woods beyond the pond, or not? Only a return walk, in warmer weather, might provide me with an answer. The ghost of a season had lured me up the hill, then vanished with a gust of wind.

Part 2/March 14: I had no fly-fishing this weekend but I tied a handful of “back in black”DSCN6093 stoneflies and Woolly Buggers in anticipation of the settling of streams and also, in a sense, to feed or nourish the first few sprouts of imminent spring. After that I made another slow climb of Dryden Hill.

Although the wet snow of the woodlands was still deep enough in places to engulf me to my kneecaps, there were patches of the summit fields where the snow DSCN6090had thoroughly melted and was now rushing downhill in a welter of chaotic rills. And small bands of migrating robins could be seen on those patches of brown frozen earth, hungry for the first slimy tubes of life to emerge there in the new year.

Reinforced by the taste of scarlet rosehips pulled from thorny bushes to savor in the desolate afternoon, I approached an old piece of farm machinery that I mistook initially for the steam-powered thresher once used by the likes of Greenwood farmer, Dan Redmond.

The mysterious old machine, reverting slowly to the folds of nature, wasn’t the grain DSCN6103separator that former property owner, Pete McKenna, had told me about. The thresher, a much larger machine, was over at the former site of a small communications tower.

Glancing toward the woods I saw the dark profile of a great reptilian machine. I was surprised that in all my years of hill wandering I had never really taken note of it.

Dan Redmond’s father and uncle had used a grain separator, a threshing machine, powered by a horse-drawn steam engine and a water tank. Three teams of horses were required to haul an entire threshing rig from farm to farm, the job of “custom threshing.”

DSCN6114Dan Redmond was 12 years-old, circa 1920, when he first started feeding grain into a thresher. He followed his father’s footsteps till about 1945 when the threshing era was replaced by mechanization symbolized by the more efficient combine.

Standing near the rusted but remarkably well-preserved threshing machine, I tried to imagine Redmond’s renowned style of hand-feeding the bundles of wheat (as recorded by his wife, Harriet, for the Greenwood Historical Society, 1990), but the best I could do was imagine a grain of wheat being separated from the chaff inside–

DSCN6120…being pulled and tossed by steel claws and rapidly moving arms, encountering a bar with teeth, hearing the rollers whir, feeling the quake and rapid descent into a slotted surface perforated with holes, getting shoved by a blast of air removing the chaff, and being lifted into a bucket, one more kernel added to the load…

Ah, the purity of grain! A new season threshed out by the wheel of time, a cosmos built out of chaos, the seeds of new life…

Like a handful of artificial flies.DSCN5972DSCN6119DSCN6117DSCN6132DSCN6128DSCN6134DSCN6125


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Ghost in the Thresher

  1. Brent says:

    Cool finds! It looks like there are pictures of three different pieces of machinery, although I might be mistaken. The picture immediately following that of the wooden machinery somehow looks smaller and more orange than the pictures of the thresher that follow. Is that just a different angle?

    • Yeah there’re several different pieces of machinery represented, and the orangish one is the first big piece (located by pond) and it’s a mystery to me as to what it is. Hopefully Pete or somebody can identify its function. The other views are of the thresher itself, pretty well intact, and thankfully without the damage from bullets that other abandoned items often have.

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    It’s amazing what you can find in the woods, huh? These artifacts serve as reminder that it wasn’t that long ago that the hills and valleys had a decidedly different character, and the process of reverting to their former nature is happening right in front of us. I’m thinking of an old abandoned bus that someone used as a camp that we used to play in as kids. It was probably a gateway to a tetanus shot, if the parents had known about it. Your photos continue to take on an arty flavor BTW- I’m calling the second to last pic “Rivulets of Rust.” Coming soon to a gallery near you.

    • The curator of the gallery is attaching your perfect name, Rivulets of Rust, to the piece right now. Thanks for suggesting it, Bob. Yeah the artifacts we find are great reminders of how the land has changed over time and of how we think about the land and its uses. I know of an old abandoned bus, too, not far from here, that’s really in the woods, but it’s not one that I ever had fun with or risked getting lockjaw from. The finds can be a good source of meditation, for sure.

  3. Ken G says:

    One of the cool things about all the wandering I do along remote stretches of the Fox River is finding things like this. A lot of the islands give up treasures too, testament to days when people also lived there.

    I agree with Bob, I think my favorite shot is the abstract look of what looks like dripping rust. Like the name he gave it too.

    • Thanks Ken. Yeah I know you’ve found some interesting artifacts on the islands, and when I looked closely at the thresher, in particular at “Rivulets of Rust,” I figured yeah, that’s the kind of sight that Ken would dig. Bob’s moniker really nails it.

  4. Pete says:

    Glad you were able to find it Walt.
    The 1st picture with the iron wheels is an old horse drawn sickle bar mowing machine.
    The orange machine is an old combine which replaced the old grey thresher.
    The threher looks about the same as it did in 1972 when I and my family of six first move to the hill to homestead

    Lots of fond memories.
    Thanks, Pete

    • I owe it to you, Pete, thanks for the inspiration and also for clarifying what the pieces are. I wanted to ask you about the orange piece in particular. I had a vague notion of it being a combine (successor to the old grey thresher), but it was just a guess. The thresher itself is really cool. I wouldn’t have guessed it to be in such good shape, considering its age and what generally happens to most abandoned pieces of machinery. It’s a great monument to a rural life that was.

  5. Patti McKenna says:

    Great post! We called it The Dr Seuss Machine when we were kids living on the farm in the 70’s. Used to play on it while Dad was cutting wood or working a field. Good memories!

    • Patti,
      “The Dr. Seuss Machine”! Another perfect name for this industrial relic. It seems perfectly fitting, though I’m glad I don’t have to write an essay explaining why. It’s a feeling that only Dr. Seuss fans (and I’m one) could explain, sort of. I wish I had known you guys during that era. The farm always seemed to me like a perfect place to live and enjoy the countryside, with a view.. Anyway, I’m glad you liked this piece and have fond memories of playing on old “Seuss.”

  6. Glad your walk was rewarded! Looks like a great find. If only that machine could tell all the stories it has!

    • Mary Anne,
      That’s an interesting point, actually. Given the solitude and general remoteness of the locale, and given the fact that the machine remains in pretty good shape, it’s taking on a bit of life on its own, and maybe it’s a life of “stored memories”– to be told somewhere. Something to consider. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  7. Dale says:

    I remember riding on one very similar to that when I was a little kid while threshing wheat! I hate seeing history like that just rusting away it’s a part of our Heritage.

  8. That goes back quite a ways, doesn’t it, Dale… I know what you mean about “just rusting away” because there’s heritage value, for sure, so I’m hoping the machine is looked after in a positive way. It almost stands as a piece of natural art, a monument to the place where it actually was at work. I know for a fact that Dan Redmond and friends became collectors, of sorts, of steam-powered threshers and now have them displayed for historical groups and for the county fair. Machines like this, in even better shape, can be viewed by the public in places such as Angelica/Allegany County and other county seats.

  9. Les Kish says:

    Seems unusual to find such a machine east of the Mississippi. Grain to me is a prairie thing. I suppose there was a time when folks back east had to grow their own. Still, it’s always neat to find some old gizmo and ponder its past.

    • Les, I think you might be one of the first of my readers to pick up on this point; it’s something that was kind of nagging at me– the point that a grain thresher was used in the rugged hill country of the East… This is not Midwestern farm country, and yet, grain, such as wheat, was grown in quantitites requiring large machinery like this. Folks had to grow some for their own. They didn’t have the big agricultural outlets that we have today. And so to find a rare specimen such as this seems rather monumental for a period of time long gone. Thanks for your perceptions.

  10. Mike says:

    Wonderful history in pictures and words. Your curiosity shows your youth and your thoughtfulness shows your age, lol. What a machine/piece of history/work of art!

  11. Thanks Mike, glad you’re feeling the machine/history/art connection. I’m hoping that youthful curiosity doesn’t kill the cat and that thoughtfulness doesn’t show too much of age, but I sure appreciate the compliment!

    • Mike says:

      Seems to me you’ve hit the sweet spot, Walt! The cat’s safe and the age don’t seem to be on either side of anything too specific 🙂

      Snowing down here again! Happy first of spring! Weather be damned!

      • Thanks Mike, and happy 1st to you! My sentiment, exactly. Rose early for an attempt to find some steelhead, but the weather looks uncertain. What that means is, I’ll give it a shot anyway! Here’s to a happy and fruitful season for all of us….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.