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‘Raise the Song of Harvest Home’

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September 17, 1997. A terrifying sight is bringing up the rear of Lindsay’s annual Fair Parade. An 80-year-old steam engine (more properly called a traction engine), complete with a water wagon and antique threshing machine in tow, inches its way up Kent Street.

Terrifying, you say? Yes, indeed. To a six or seven-year-old child, the column of grey smoke rising from the chimney of this fire-breathing monster built by George White & Sons Co. of London, Ontario, means only one thing: its whistle will soon be shrieking like a banshee as it passes by on route to the [old] Lindsay fairgrounds.

You close your eyes for a few minutes – if only to shield them from the smoke! – and imagine that you have travelled back eight or nine decades….It’s a warm August day, sometime in the early 1920s, somewhere in Victoria County. Harvest time.

You are standing at the side of a dirt road, looking out across a farmer’s field. In the distance, you can see a traction engine, a water wagon, and a threshing outfit. A dozen or so men are gathered around this assemblage, straining to hear each other over the cacophony surrounding them. Curious, you hop over the cedar rail fence bordering the property and make your way across the field.

As you approach the threshers, you are overwhelmed by the pungent (or aromatic!) smell of wood smoke, which envelopes all and sundry. A young man is methodically adding wood to the engine’s firebox. His face and forearms are blackened with grease. Standing alongside him is a thickset man with a sunburned nose and a heavy Scottish accent, manipulating an elaborate assortment of valves and levers as he works up a head of steam.

Some distance away, a gang of men are crowded about the threshing machine, which shakes and rattles as sheaves of grain are separated from stalks of wheat. At the other end of the machine, chaff blows out into a growing pile nearby. This machine, about a decade older than the engine powering it, was built in nearby Lindsay by the famous Sylvester Bros. Manufacturing Co. You know from having had conversations with your grandparents that Sylvester Bros. was once an economic powerhouse in Lindsay, churning out threshing machines, hay rakes, and railway jiggers aplenty in its palatial plant kitty corner to Lindsay’s Carnegie library.  Linked by a long belt twisted halfway along its length, the steam engine and the threshing machine harmoniously work together, like different sections of an orchestra, making marvelous mechanical music as they hasten the harvest.

Late that afternoon, the shriek of the steam whistle brings the day’s work to a halt. The fellows on the machinery climb down from their posts and move off across the field towards a nearby farmhouse. You follow at a distance.

You reach an open window at the back kitchen, where the smell of roast beef, mashed potatoes, baked bread, apple pie, and lemonade provides a welcome respite from the smell of chaff and wood smoke. The farmer’s wife, daughters, and members of the local Women’s Institute have been hard at work in preparing this, the second of two large meals for the threshing team. You notice that some of the threshers – along with the young chap who was apprenticing on the traction engine – have washed up, while the older gentlemen sit down at the table still smelling of wood smoke and straw.  You think this a bit odd, but then recall that an old-timer you know once told you that “one could tell the single men, by the fact that they usually washed before meals, while the older married ones just wiped off the worst dust.”

Through the open window, you can hear a great deal of conversation and laughter. These hardy rural folk, separated from you by more than a few generations, are enjoying a well-deserved rest from their labours. Supper over, everyone adjourns to the farmhouse parlour where they gather around an ostentatious-looking pump organ to sing their old favourites:

Come, ye thankful people, come

Raise the song of harvest home

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin

The sound of singing farm folk drifts off. The distinct smells fade away….You open your eyes to the 1997 Lindsay Fair Parade, which is just wrapping up. You see the old George White & Sons Co. engine silhouetted in the setting sun as it approaches the end of the parade route. It will be on display at the fairgrounds for the remainder of the week, its signature cacophony capturing the imaginations of all who draw near.

Today, a giant combine harvester toils in the same field once worked by George White’s engines and Sylvester Bros. threshing equipment. One farmer can oversee the work once carried out by a throng of people. The old cedar rail fence over which you hopped to watch the threshers at work is still there, albeit hidden among the trees and tall grass rustling in the breeze of a late summer’s day. Yet for a rural community like this, the words of the old line which once echoed through that ancient farmhouse parlour still ring true: “Raise the song of harvest home.”

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Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University (B.A. Hons. '13) and a lifelong resident of Lindsay Ontario. He presently works as an assistant manager at the museum here in town, and is secretary of the Kawartha Lakes Heritage Network.

1 Comment

  1. What a terrific column, Ian–full of so many images! I, too, remember loving and being terrified by that steam engine in the Lindsay fair parade. In your research, you may have encountered the fact that the word “thresher” is universally pronounced “thrasher” around here, to the point where it took me years to realize that the “threshing crews” I’d read about were actually the people operating what I knew as “thrashing machines.” One final note: To quote my father, every field is a farmer’s field, so the adjective is superfluous!

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