For thousands of years, grain was separated from stalks and husks by hand, using flails. This work was both laborious and time consuming, which lead to the invention of the first steam-powered threshing machine in the late 16th century.
In the days before the development of the combine harvester, ‘threshing trains’ were a common sight, both working the farms and travelling the lanes during the autumn and winter months.
Threshing trains usually comprised a steam engine, threshing drum, elevator and living van used by the engine driver and his mate. The threshing process is just one part of the process in getting cereals to the mill and, eventually, the customer.
Growing wheat crops
We grow Marris Widgeon wheat here at the Museum. It is a long straw variety and only a small quantity is still grown for seed. Other varieties such as N59 are still available, but for thatching it must be a long straw variety.
Modern farming uses much smaller stemmed varieties of wheat that yield more grain, as most farms today do not need the quantity of straw that a long straw variety produces. It is sown preferably in October and November, but no later than end of December.
Harvesting is done from the middle of July and into August. At the Museum we have harvested using a binder pulled by the horses or if necessary by using a tractor to pull the binder along. It has been cut as early as the Rare Breeds Show (19 July).
It needs a dry spell of weather prior to cutting – preferably for at least a couple of weeks. The binder cuts the crop and feeds it between two canvasses, where it is gathered and then tied with one string (Sisal binder twine). The sheaf is then automatically ejected from the binder and onto the ground.
The sheaves laying on the ground are picked up and put into stooks – preferably in groups of 6s or 8s, forming an upside down ‘V’ shape (3 or 4 sheaves either side). This allows the air to get to both sides of the sheaves and enhances the drying process.
The stooks need to stand in the field, hopefully in good drying weather, for at least two church bells (10 days). Stooking protects the grain from moisture until it can be picked up and put into storage.
The stooked sheaves are dismantled and loaded onto a cart or trailer, then taken to the rick steddle or staddle, where the corn rick is to be built.
The base of the Steddle is raised off of the ground on mushroom-shaped stands. Some granaries were also constructed on steddle stones, to prevent vermin entering the building and reaching the grain or flour. Take a look at the stones beneath the Littlehampton Granary and by the Watermill.
The sheaves are put onto an elevator (like an escalator) which transports the sheaves up its length and drops them into the middle of the corn rick. The rick is built up in horizontal layers – ours is round in shape but some people build square or oblong ricks.
Threshing loosens the edible grain from the inedible chaff that surrounds it. Traditional threshing was carried out by beating the grain with a flail on a threshing floor or making donkeys or oxen walk in circles on the grain on a hard surface.
Industrial threshing methods began circa 1786, with the invention of the threshing machine attributed to a Scotsman named Andrew Meikle.
The sheaves are taken out of the corn rick using a pitch fork at threshing time and are passed, by people, from the rick to the top of the threshing drum.
The feeder then cuts the string around the sheaf, which is then fed onto two flat canvass belts – these hold the stems of straw between them as they pass into the machine.
Inside the drum there are two rotating drums with metal fingers, which knock the grain from the ears and remove the flag leaves from the stems by means of a combing action.
The straw continues its journey between the belts until it emerges from the back of the drum. The combed stems flow down into a trusser, which then gathers the stems into a bundle and again ties the bundle (with two strings this time), before ejecting it automatically from the trusser and onto the floor. It is now called a bundle of Combed Wheat Reed.
The bundles are then picked up, loaded onto a cart or trailer and taken to the barn. Here they are unloaded and stacked, awaiting use for thatching a building.
There are approximately 220 bundles of Combed Wheat Reed in a tonne and it is worth in the region of £1,000 per tonne.
In its simplest form, winnowing involves throwing the grain mixture into the air, so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall to the ground.
The threshing drum does all of this internally and automatically. As grain passes through the drum, it passes over sieves and a fan blows air through it to remove debris from the grain.
Good clean grain comes out of the elevator at the back of the machine and is dropped into a trailer (or could be put into hessian sacks).
The chaff is discharged from the drum by means of another blower, through a pipe and onto the floor. Chaff is a good bulking agent for horse feed as there is very little goodness in the chaff.
Chaff may be collected and stored to be used through the winter months, reducing the need to only feed quality food to the horses and reducing the amount required.
There is still an amount of straw, stripped from the sheaf as it is threshed, which comes out of the front of the drum and falls onto the floor.
This is put into a baler and the bales produced are picked up, stacked and put away in the dry. This is used for animal bedding through the winter, when they are housed indoors in sheds or yards.
As you have read, the whole process is very labour intensive – from the cutting through to storing the crop.
Visitors to the Museum can enjoy watching a steam-powered threshing demonstration in action at our annual Autumn Countryside Show each October.