Farming history comes to life at the Fair

Roy Berry (left) and Walter Stapleton with the 1954 McCormick thresher.

Although it’s from an era long past, a steam engine helped to bring a little bit of local history back to life at the Orono Fair last week.   The engine was used to power a thresher originally owned by the Stapleton Brothers, Charles and Everett, of Leskard Road in Orono. This spring, the thresher was purchased by the next generation of Stapletons, Walter and his son Mark, who brought the machine to the Fair to participate in the Antique Tractor display and the AgEd (Agriculture Education) program.

Threshing or thrashing is the process of separating the edible kernels of grain from inedible chaff and stalks following the harvesting of a crop. According to the Canadian Agricultural Museum (CAM), what was once a labour-intensive manual procedure was made easier and faster with the invention of the threshing machine in 1784.

The Stapletons’ thresher was built by McCormick in 1954, and according to Walter Stapleton, it was bought brand new from an International-McCormick dealer in Uxbridge. He figured that the thresher was probably no longer in use by 1975. And so, after years of service, and with the passing of both his father and uncle, Stapleton said, the thresher was sold in 1979.

But that old thresher never really went very far. It was purchased by Roy Berry and his son (the late) John, of Berrybank Farm, just around the corner from Leskard on Taunton Road.

“John had it in a shed,” Stapleton said, at the Fair on Friday. After John passed about a year ago, Stapleton thought it worth mentioning that he was interested in buying it back if Roy was ever planning on selling the thresher. As it happened, Roy was looking to get rid of the old beast, and so accepted Stapleton’s offer. Next, the pair set about getting the thresher back into working condition.

“I don’t think it had been moved since 1979,” said Stapleton. “I had to clean it up a bit. It was covered in dirt and raccoon droppings. It needed a lot of washing, and a lot of pressure-washing.”

As a member (and past president) of the Orono Heritage Tractor Club, Stapleton is used to taking old machinery and restoring it to working condition. Tractors have always been his “first love,” he said, noting he didn’t always appreciate the old thresher as much as he does now. “I helped with the harvest – all farm boys did,” he said. “But I was more interested in driving the tractor.”

The history of the thresher has taken on more meaning for him over the years, as a link to the past and a part of his family history. “To me, it is history; it connects me to my Dad. And one day I will pass it on to my son, Mark,” he said.

Although he had a basic knowledge of how to get the thresher working again, Stapleton said he received welcome advice from Berry. “I wasn’t involved in the threshing that much,” he stated. “Roy was a big help in me getting it going. I think he’s very pleased I got it going.”

Berry comes by his threshing knowledge honestly, having operated his own thresher in his younger days. At the age of 87, he said he can well remember the days when threshers were a vital part of farming. “They were used until about the 1960s,” he told the Orono Times, repeating the information he gave to the various groups of local school children. “They did exactly the same job as the modern-day combine. The main difference is that it took about a dozen men to thresh a farmer’s crop.”

Berry said he can also remember the physical labour involved in threshing. “It’s a dirty job, especially where the grain comes out,” he said. “Now it’s all done by one person; there’s nothing to it.”

He recalled how much of a group effort it was to thresh a crop in a day. “The ladies got together to feed you. You were hungry. I don’t think I ever saw hungrier men because it was a hard job. There seemed to be a friendly competition with the women to see who could put on the best meal.”

He also said he recalls how the threshing machines were powered by steam engines before the invention of motorized tractors. “Tractors came in about 1940, so the steam engine was the source of power before 1940. You needed between 300 and 600 gallons of water a day, and it was pumped by hand. The steam engine would run out of water around noon, and the farmer was responsible for filling it up, so he often went without his dinner to get the tank filled for the afternoon,” he said.

According to Berry, there were two major threshers in the area, John Stone and Robby Ard. “They threshed for years and years, doing custom threshing in the area,” he said. Berry’s friend Jack Mercer, 81, — who, like Berry, was born and raised in Orono – said he also remembers Stone and Ard doing custom threshing. “Everyone in the area went to one or the other,” said Mercer.

Walter Andruszko lets "Ol' Zack" blow off some steam.

On the fairgrounds on Friday, Stapleton, Berry and Mercer were joined by Walter Andruszko, owner of a 1917 George White traction steam engine he calls “Ol’ Zack.” The men had the steam engine hooked up to the thresher for over two hours, demonstrating to school children how things were powered in bygone days, as part of the Fair’s AgEd program.

Andruszko said he brought his steam engine to the Fair for the first time in 2008. He returned this year after talking with Stapleton at a ploughing match about how wood-fired steam engines such as his were once the main source of power for threshing machines.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a steam engine on a thresher,” Stapleton remarked. “I remember them talking about it, but I hadn’t seen it before today.” He said he remembers his father using a McCormick tractor to power the thresher.

Stapleton, Berry and Andruszko all said they were glad to share their knowledge of local farming practices and history with the children. Just under 600 children, from grades one through eight, participated in the AgEd program this year, including students from Orono Public School, Kirby Public School, The Pines, Newcastle Public School, and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School.

Both the threshing machine and the steam engine remained on display to the general public as part of the Antique Tractor display for the remainder of the Fair.

For more information on the history of threshing machines, visit CAM at: http://agriculture.technomuses.ca/english/collections_research/threshing.cfm

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