A look at
Minonk's past

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THRESHING DINNERS

By Gertrude "Trudy" Denson

Gertrude "Trudy" Denson was the wife of John O. Denson. Together, they owned and the published the Flora Daily New-Record for many years where Trudy wrote a regular column called "Down The Garden Path With the Publisher's Wife". Prior to that she and her husband lived in Minonk where John was the editor of the Minonk News-Dispatch. Trudy passed away on November 16, 2001. This column was one of her favorites and is reprinted with permission of her daughter Penny who is co-owner of the Hometown Journal in Flora.
Oh, the golden days of summer ... when the time comes to harvest the small grains and I am happy that my life stretches far enough into the past that the remembrance of "thrashing" dinners is with me.
One of the plusses of being a country doctor's daughter was the certainty that at least once every summer he would be invited to one of the dinners, "....and bring your daughter out early so she can play with the rest of the kids". On a bright warming morning, my father and I would drive out into the country, past fields of rustling corn and golden shocks of wheat standing in the golden stubble, awaiting the time of threshing. We would arrive at a farm already bustling with preparation for the busy day and there I would be deposited, with a promise to the hostess from my father that he would be back in time for dinner.

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Whatever age I was that year, there were always plenty of children of similar age, ready to show me the special secrets and treasures of the place: the new sweet-smelling calf that would suckle your fingers, the playfully skittish foal, the litter of kittens in the hayloft. The farm collie had also responded to the persistent cycle of the seasons with a litter of warm puppies, nuzzling an ear, instantly loving and belonging, and arousing the yearning to take one home.

A matronly broody hen, usually a Buff Orpington, large and bosomy, wandered about the farmyard, followed by a closebunched cloud of cheeping golden chicks. And each time she stopped, clucking and pecking at some morsel found on the ground, they clustered around her, vitally interested in what to eat and how.

The boys and girls of my group had duties according to their ages. They watched over the younger ones, and they were ready for a call from the house, or the field, a sign that they were needed for more responsible chores. The older boys, anxious to get out to the fields with the other men, saddled a few horses or ponies and urged speed from the younger boys who were filling earthen jugs from the pump in the shady side yard.

Neatly capped with a cork or shaved corn cob or potato, the sweet, cool water was suspended by a thong from either side of the saddle horn. Pumping water was "man's work" and woe be to any girl, even a dumb girl from town, who tried to take over. Even water for the house was pumped and delivered by the boys.

The house was woman's domain: windows wide open to catch every breeze, shades pulled on the sunny side. The downstairs bedroom was for this year's crop of new babies, safely bolstered on the big bed, and watched over by the oldest granny, who waved away the few flies which had got in, and stirred the air with a palm leaf fan that had the name of the local undertaker printed on one side and a view of the Holy Land on the other. The colicky baby was rocked and patted with bony hands not entirely retired to uselessness, no matter how soon they would be clasped in eternal rest.

The toddlers were corralled in the living room, safely tended by girls not old enough for kitchen work, but too old for out-of-doors. They were learning child care first hand, even if their own homes were not blessed with babies. At this age they were knowledgeable in all the household arts at home but they must await their turn for the next rung on the ladder. Anyway, it was a fine time for confidences, including whispered giggles about certain boys and hushed arguments about just what they had heard their mothers discussing last week.


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And the kitchen! That wonderful hot, chaotic center of the world, dedicated to the preparation of FOOD. This was a gathering of kith and kin ... each woman knew this kitchen as well as she did her own, and the appearance of chaos was appearance only, suggested by the noise and crowded activity. It was, however, no disturbed ant-hill. It was as exquisitely choreographed as a classical ballet. This huge kitchen had been stirring before dawn... the potato salad, the fruit and gelatin salads, all the cold foods had been prepared and set in the spring-house to cool, to be brought eventually to a timely collation with the other foods on the trestle table under the trees. In the spring-house there was fresh sweet milk and Jersey cream so thick you didn't have to whip it. Melons lay under the water, chilling to perfection.

By the time the other women arrived, each with her own specialty, a few pies had been baked, and set out to cool .... tawny gold crusts sparkling with eggwhite and sugar frosting. The open-face pies were topped with honest-to-God meringue, golden perfection, weeping amber tears of melted sugar.

The meat was in the oven: ham pierced and studded with cloves, and basted with brown sugar and fruit Juices; a beef rib roast, bubbling in its own juice.

Out in the yard, a huge pot of lard was heating for the wire baskets full of chicken, and the ice cream freezer was already being cranked by eager little boys.

The ladies busied themselves with the mountains of potatoes to be peeled, the string beans, the peas, the endless bounty from the garden.

As they worked, three generations of women happily chatted and laughed, telling familiar stories remembering, remembering gently teasing the young girls who blushed at being singled out. "When I was your age..." to the about-to-be-married, to the young mothers ... Oh how kind they were to each other ... to hear each oft-told story as if it were the first time ... to tell only the enjoyable things they knew about each other, when they knew so much more. Yes, they were safe in that company.


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Out in the field, in the hot dry sunlight, the teams of men were working mightily to keep the wondrous threshing machine, the monarch of the day, constantly supplied with sheaves of wheat. As usual, rivalry had sprung up among the teams, and as they worked across the field, loading the sheaves high upon the low hay wagons, they shouted goodnatured slurs upon the ability of the other teams, and urged the drivers of their wagons to greater speed in getting to the machine and back. This nearly always led to at least one wild upset, a corner too quickly cut, with runaway horses but seldom with injuries to anything but pride.

The water boy's chore was hard work ... he had to be ever watchful for the wagons, charging back and forth across the field, and everyone was always thirsty. But sooner or later, one of them usually took pity on me, and let me ride along behind the saddle, or, if a pony cart was in use, I might be permitted to drive the pony for one trip out and back. The girls thought this was strictly an aberration suffered by town tomboys to want to go out in that hot sticky man's world.

The threshing machine was off-limits to children, but we got as close as we could to it. It was a glorious sight, steaming and clattering, with belts flapping and men clambering over it, constantly adjusting and oiling and pounding it here and there. It chuffed and wheezed, and had a marvelous steam whistle that was seldom heard.

The sheaves were forked onto the traveling ramp, and as they disappeared into its maw a golden stream of grain poured from a side spout, and from the large long pipe in front, it spewed a torrent of golden straw, and the air was filled with chaff, glittering in the sunlight.

As the shocks melted from the field, the straw stack grew huge, and suddenly it was over. The machine belched and shuddered to a stop, and the men wiped the grease from their hands and joined those streaming in from the field.


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The male banter continued as they headed for the tall bench furnished with a row of wash basins and soap. The talk was muted, since they were now within earshot of the women, and now and then the younger men were cautioned to .."Watch your language."

By the time they had dried their hands on the roller towel, and slicked their hair with the comb suspended by a string from the mirror, the table was loaded with food.

Before they sat down, the host offered sincere and humble thanks to the Lord for the bounty He had bestowed upon them, for the day, and for the friends assembled, and asked His blessing upon them all. And then the feast began. No time for talk then ... only the sound of silver upon china, and the tinkle of ice stirred against glass. If a bowl was emptied, that bowl was refilled .. more hot rolls, and more hot rolls with home-churned butter or smothered with cream gravy, and more hot rolls appeared. Girls with pitchers of iced tea or lemonade, water or coffee, circled the table, refilling the glasses. Slowly talk returned to the table, and by dessert time, notice was taken of the young man and his bride-to-be, both of whom blushed hotly, and grinned miserably.

The new babies were brought out for all to see, and it was happily remarked that they had fortunately all got their mother's good looks.

The men soon left the table to sit or lie under the trees, talking or napping, and digesting their food, while the threshing machine lumbered and creaked down the lane, emitting a few ear-splitting whistles to the delight of the children and consternation of the snoozing horses. By the time it was set up at the next farm for the afternoon's work, the men would arrive, fresh for another golden harvest.

And now it was time for the women and children to eat .... almost. The table must be cleared and set ... the food brought out again, and finally, those aromas and sights which had teased and tickled the nose and eye and appetite all day were to be tested and tasted and realized. The tortured stomach had not died ... and there was enough of everything to go around. The feast was fact.


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Afterward, when everyone had helped with the final cleanup, it was time to nap in the shade, stomach down, nose nuzzled in the crook of the elbow, breathing the golden toasted smell of skin warmed all day by the sun. Visions of puppies and kittens, ponies and food, all mixed together with that wondrous threshing machine whirling round and round, never to be forgotten ... the hot sunny glorious golden harvest days of summer.