From the book about Eastern and Northeastern South Dakota
The Last Years of an Era
Submitted by Elroy Dragsten of Buffalo, Minnesota
It seems that when we were young we had more work to do and greater responsibilities than most of the children have today. It may have been a difficult time for our parents during the Depression and drought of the ‘30s, but for me it was a great time and Wallace, South Dakota was a great place to grow up. We did not have OSHA, child labor laws, 40-hour weeks, child welfare, no driver’s license, and we survived just fine.
My father, Peder Dragsten, owned a garage and machine shop. Every fall he would close up the garage to thresh. Dad also had a truck with a tank for hauling water to people’s cisterns and steam threshing machines.
My mother, Inga Fiksdal Dragsten, was a stay-at-home mother. She had six children; Brother Arnold died in an accident. She was in poor health due to a gall bladder problem that was not diagnosed until she was older. I was the youngest, and when I was born, my mother was very sick and the job of caring for me became the responsibility of my eight-year-old sister, Irene. Brother Monroe was six and sister Ardes was 15 months. This was an awesome amount of responsibility for an eight year old. My ten-year-old brother, Palmer, started driving the water truck when he was nine and was busy working. He was the one who checked how much gasoline was in the tank by lighting a match. He survived but the truck didn’t.
One of the earliest recollections that I have involves threshing. My dad was threshing at the Ted Moe farm south of Wallace. It was 1929. I was four years old. I spent the night in the caboose with Dad. The caboose was a bunkhouse on wheels where the engineer and separator man slept. This was a steam threshing machine, and they had to be close by to keep the fire going. I think the reason I remember this is because I was scared.
Every fall from the age of four on, I was involved with threshing. I would always get a chance to spend a couple of days riding with one of the bundle haulers. Usually I would get to drive the horses or I would get on top of a truckload of grain and ride to the elevator in Wallace.
In 1933, I got my first opportunity to be an actual member of the threshing crew. They needed a truck driver to haul grain. The only one available was my 16-year-old sister, Irene. She protested but it was an emergency, and Dad said she had to. I was eight years old and was her willing and very happy assistant. I didn’t understand why anyone would not want to be part of the threshing crew. To be allowed to sit at the same table and eat with the bundle haulers was a dream come true. It was hard work shoveling the grain out of the truck box, but I was proud I could help. The grain truck was a converted 1915 Marmon Limousine. The transmission was not synchronized. The only mishap we had was when we were near the top of a hill, and Irene tried to shift gears and missed. As we started rolling backward, I climbed out on the running board and told her which way to turn the wheel. Irene was shaken but unhurt, and we continued on our way. Incidentally, the brakes were worthless.
South Dakota did not require a driver’s license, but I had driver’s training. When I was nine years old my 15-year-old brother, Monroe, who I always admired but who was a renegade, came by the house and asked me to go along hauling water. The first thing he did was give me a cigarette. There we were, two kids going down the road smoking cigarettes. I was doing more choking and coughing than smoking. After delivering a tank of water and heading back to the well, Monroe stopped the truck and told me to drive so he could hunt pheasants. The truck was a 1927 Chevrolet with a 3-speed transmission and 2-speed differential. He showed me the shift pattern and then took his shotgun and sat on the front fender. I got the truck going, and Monroe started yelling, “Shift gears, shift gears.” I looked down at the gearshift and ran in the ditch. I got back on the road and got it in second gear. He started yelling again, “Shift gears, shift gears.” I looked down at the gearshift and again ended up in the ditch. I got back on the road and got the truck in high gear. I will have to say, you learn fast when you have someone with a shotgun hollering at you!
When I was 12 years old, I worked on the farm for my uncle, Andrew Dragsten. I helped with the chores: milking cows, feeding the chickens, and more. My main job was driving his homemade tractor. I did the summer plowing, pulling my uncle on a two-row cultivator and the binder. My uncle and aunt were nice people, but Andrew did have a quick temper and could swear in two languages. He would get mad at me, and he would use all the swear words he knew. When I was pulling the binder I would get even with him. With a little maneuvering I would make sure that the steel bull wheel would hit a lot of rocks. We were traveling about twice as fast as horse would walk. Andrew would bounce in the air and get a good jolt when he came back down on that steel seat. Due to the speed we were traveling the binder made a lot of racket, but I could hear Andrew going through his usual list of swear words. One evening, I overheard him telling his wife, Olga, that his back hurt and that it seemed like we hit every rock in the field, if he only knew. My salary was 25 cents a day. That fall when I was through working, I as happy to be paid $5.50, which was the most money I had ever had.
That fall my dad gave me the good news that I was to drive the water truck. I was to haul water for the Minton Fahen steam threshing machine. It was the last steam threshing machine in the area. The previous year, when I was 11 years old, I felt hurt that my dad had given the job to Russell Fahen. After all, my brother, Palmer, was hauling water to two team rigs when he was nine. But at last I was on my own, working with a threshing crew. The fun of being around all those young men who were always happy, joking, telling stories, pulling tricks on one another, and eating those wonderful meals was the best.
The next fall, when I was 13, I was given the job of being the engineer for my Uncle Andrew Dragsten’s threshing run. Andrew had a Reeves 30/60 tractor with a 40-inch case separator. When I look at a picture of that tractor with the nine-foot drive wheels it seems it would be fun to drive it, but it was not fun. We worked six days a week, and it was a job with responsibilities. We would get up about 4:00 a.m., do some chores, and then drive to the farm where we were to thresh. The tractor took about 45 gallons of gas, filled five gallons at a time. Once I made sure everything was ready to go, we would go in and eat breakfast. After breakfast, we usually had to reset the machine and have it running by 7:00 a.m. We threshed from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with an hour off at noon. At night we removed all the belts and made any repairs. If we were through threshing at that farm, we would move to the next one. It was a slow move; the tractor traveled at 2 ½ miles an hour. Then we had supper and drove home and did the chores. It was not hard labor. I sat around all day except for some occasional greasing or if we had to reset the machine because of a wind change. But I had to be there, ready at all times to shut it down in case something went wrong. If any threshing machine had a breakdown it would be the talk of the county. It was embarrassing to have a breakdown, and I did not want it to be my fault.
The following spring I became a fulltime employee in my dad’s garage. My dad had calendars made that said, “Peder Dragsten and Son Garage.” My father proudly showed me the calendar and was disappointed when I showed no interest in it. That fall when I was 14, I became the engineer for my dad’s threshing run. The engine was a Twin City 40/80. The engine sat in line with the frame with bevel gears connected to the crankshaft and a shaft at right angles to the drive pulley.
My dad was never very good at giving instructions. He seemed to think I should know what to do. But he did give me instructions on running the engine. One of the things he told me was to put two handfuls of grease in the bevel gear box every day. I got mixed up and only put in one handful. After a while those gears started to make a grinding noise. He figured out what was wrong, and I corrected my mistake. But it was too late. We made it through the season, but the gears were shot. To eliminate the need for the bevel gears my dad made a frame and fastened the engine crosswise on it. The engine, radiator, and gas tank were all fastened to the frame and could be slid onto a truck. For the truck he used the rear of a well drilling rig and fastened that to the Marmon truck. The well drilling rig had hard rubber tires so a pneumatic tire was added to give it more flotation. It ended up with two transmissions, one from the well driller and the one with the Marmon. The steel wheels on the separator were cut off and rubber tires were added which made moving a lot faster.
After World War II, farmers were buying more tractors and combines started to show up in our area. My dad hated combines and refused to work on them. He could not believe a farmer would spend all that money on a machine that would be used for just a few weeks. Also a combine going up and down those hills around Wallace could not do as good a job as a threshing machine. But it was getting harder to get enough farmers together to make a good threshing run. To offset the lack of manpower, Dad made several machines, but they each had issues that made them difficult to implement. Dad fought to keep the way of life he had known since coming to America from Norway as a 16 year old in 1907. He fought it with his ingenuity, money, and labor. But the farmer no longer had to cooperate with his neighbor to complete the harvest. The great harvest get together was over. The combines were here to stay and the threshing machine was destined for the junk yard. It was the end of an era.