A Threshing Stone Research Project
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History othe Threshing Stone

 

The tilling of the ground, the planting of the seeds, the methods of reaping, and the process of separating the grain from the straw has evolved throughout the years. In this History of the Threshing Stone I will focus on the process of threshing the grain and how the threshing stone came to be used among Mennonites in Kansas.

The story starts with the development of cereal grains as a source of food.  The roots of farming began in the areas of present day Turkey and the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. It is at this place that we have discovered evidence of people taking wild grasses and using the seeds for food and planting for the next years’ food. These seeds are now known as cereals and make up a large percentage of the world food supply.

Farming changed very little from early times until about 1700. In the 1700’s an agriculture revolution took place which led to a large increase in the production of crops. In the 1850’s, the industrial revolution spilled over to the farm with new mechanized methods which increased production rates. Early on, the large changes were in the use of new farm implements. Most of these early implements were still powered by horse and oxen. These new implements combined with crop rotation, manure and better soil preparation lead to a steady increase of crop yield in Europe.

In the 1800’s many Mennonites pursuing religious freedoms from various European locations, at the invitation of Catherine the Great, relocated in the Russian Ukraine region and developed the fertile steppes into rich and productive farm ground, wheat soon became one of the main crops grown in this area.

Evidence of the use of threshing stones in various forms date from the Roman era, but eventually it became the method of threshing grain by Mennonite farmers in the Ukraine. The threshing stone became the preferred method used to knock the grain from the head because it was less labor intensive than the use of the traditional flail.

The entire process of harvesting, threshing, separating and storing the grain, whether it was rye, barley, or wheat was still very labor intensive. The grain needs to be harvested at the proper time to insure that the seed is full and developed in the head. Early reaping was all done by hand, the straw with the grain still in the heads, was cut a few inches above the ground with sharp metal knives, such as a small hand sickle or the larger scythe. The stalks were then gathered into clusters of shocks, or they were stacked to allow the grain and straw to completely dry.

The stalks were later transported, often with a wagon pulled by draft animals, to a central location usually near a barn on the farmstead. A circle of hard flat ground was prepared for the threshing floor. This was often about a fifty foot diameter circle, where the bare ground was prepared with water and compacting rollers, and even reinforced with straw and chaff to create an almost adobe-like hard surface that was ideal for threshing and collecting the grain.

Writings talk of several methods as to how the threshing stone was used, but typically the stalks were piled onto the threshing floor in a circle to a depth of about 16 inches deep. The stone was attached to a wooden or steel frame, several different styles were used, and the frame supported a solid steel axle that went through a hole in the center of the stone. A team of horses would pull the threshing stone around in a circle, starting at the outer edge and working their way towards the center.

The straw was turned several times as additional rounds were made. Eventually the straw was gathered to the outer edges and saved for winter bedding and fuel. The remaining chaff and grain was winnowed to separate the grain from the chaff. Winnowing involved lofting the chaff and grain into the air and letting the wind blow the lighter particles to the side and allowing the heavier grain to drop to the floor. Later a hand powered winnowing machine would be used for this process. The grain would then be swept up and stored, later milled and used to make bread or sold at market, with some seed being saved and used for seed-wheat for the following years crop.

The stone is constructed of native limestone, both in the Ukraine and later in Kansas. The 600-800 pound stone, (as it exists in Kansas) was about 23-24 inches in diameter and about 29-30 inches long, with 7 teeth (that look similar to gear teeth) cut into the cylindrical surface. Shortly after the Mennonites arrived in Kansas, the stones were crafted, either by Mennonite individuals or some writings say that the threshing stones were made in Florence by a stone mason as directed by Dietrich Gaeddert and Peter Balzer.  There are many theories as to why seven, but the best guess is that through experimentation this configuration just worked the best for knocking the grain out of the head without causing damage to the grain. There is evidence of other sizes and shapes in other parts of the world, but this 7 tooth configuration seems unvaried in Kansas. (Some Mennonite writings talk of a conical shaped stone, but my research has not confirmed this from the stones measured in Kansas, although drawings of threshing stones from other cultures do show a significant conical shape).

The stones in the Ukraine were in most cases cut by Mennonites, in the 1850’s selling for as high as 18 Rubels, this industry kept as many as 14 stone cutters employed. The threshing stones were used in the Molotchna Mennonite colonies from about 1840 to about 1905. The stones became the less frequently used method as the mechanization of threshing became more common.

The Molotchna Mennonites had turned the land north of the Sea of Azov from a scarcely used region into a sea of waving wheat that helped supply the demands of the Russian and European markets. But the Mennonite population was growing and the farmable land was virtually all developed, combined with the fact that Mennonites having come to Russia for religious freedoms and economic opportunities were having their pacifist beliefs challenged and farming opportunities were becoming limited.

In the latter half of the century the American west was being opened up to economic development. The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Rail Road had obtained land and right-of-ways through the plains of Kansas. There was a need for people and commerce in order to make the railroad an economically viable venture. The Kansas plains are about the same climate and soil conditions as in Southern Russia and were ideal for agricultural development. The AT&SF saw the opportunity to invite the talented farmers, who had turned the Russian plains into productive farm-ground, and who were looking for new economic opportunities and religious freedom, offering  thousands of acres, on good terms, for them to relocate on the virgin plains in McPherson, Harvey, Marion and Reno counties.

After much consideration and several scouting missions, hundreds of families, traveling by ship to New York, then by rail to Topeka, Kansas, and ultimately in the fall of 1874 arrived in central Kansas. They left most possessions behind, but brought with them in large trunks and gunny sacks, the essential possessions that they needed to start a new life. They also brought with them the skill and work ethic that had served them well in the past and had hopes to establish new homes and excel in the breaking of the prairie soil. Times where hard, but most did succeed.

In those trunks were some, carefully selected Hard Red Turkey winter wheat kernels that would be planted in the newly broken soil to be harvested in the following summer. The first years not many bushels were harvested and it took several years to establish a market for the new hard winter wheat which was harder to mill, but within years it was the wheat of choice and Kansas was considered “The Bread Basket of the World”.

But the threshing stone had only a short life in Kansas, and it is unknown how many were ever made, writings say as few as 28 and as high as 200, we really don’t know for sure. But at about that same time the threshing machine was being developed and marketed to those same productive farmers, always looking for a better way to improve production and productivity. So many stones appear to have never been used and some were never even finished, evidenced by the fact that the axle hole was never drilled on many of the Kansas stones. The threshing stone soon became an outdated artifact, relegated to being lawn ornaments or just dumped into a ravine to minimize erosion.

Some considered the threshing stone a failure, a waste of time and money, or an example of outdated thinking, however most see the threshing stone as an example of endurance, determination, and a willingness to accept transition, moving on to better options as they come along. It is not only a lawn ornament, but a strong symbol that was adopted by Bethel College as their mascot for its endurance and symbolism. The Biblical metaphors of separating the wheat from the chaff do not go unnoticed when considering the threshing stone, as we each explore how to separate the good from the bad.

(Yes, this is the brief history for the full story and much more see the book "Leave No Threshing Stone Unturned.")