Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs

Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs: Harvesting and Threshing on the North American Plains

By Thomas D. Isern
University Press of Kansas, 1990
ISBN 0-7006-0468-5

Cloth, $30

Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs won the Best Subsequent Book (meaning not the author's first book) award from Phi Alpha Theta, the international honor society of historians, in 1991.

It might be considered a pre-quel to Custom Combining on the Great Plains, as it was written later, covers the same geographic area, but goes back to an earlier era of wheat harvesting and threshing on the plains--the days of binders, headers, harvest hands, stationary threshers, and steam.

Publisher's blurb: "In Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs Isern affectionately describes the folklife of harvesting and threshing wheat from Texas to Alberta, drawing extensively on grass-roots sources--the writings and recollections of threshermen, farmers, and harvest hands--to illuminate a complex, vigorous regional culture."

The author (Chapter 1) explains the origins of the book: "Out from the albums, the trunks, the shoeboxes, and the closet shelves spill the fine old albumen prints, card-mounted in the style of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the images are obscure; others release stored recollections. Here stands a favorite team hitched to a binder. Here pose faintly familiar ancestors and neighbors and forgotten hired men with a long-ago-scrapped steam engine and a steel separator that now rusts back in the hedgerow. Here loom perfect grain stacks that grand-dad constructed with care and forbade the children to climb upon. Historians debate whether there was a golden age of American agriculture, a time before wartime boom and post-war recession disrupted the developing agricultural economy, when farmers prospered and waxed content. The golden hue of the old photographs, however, is not entirely the product of the photographer's toning, for there is evident in them a golden age of rural culture and agricultural endeavor on the Great Plains of North America. . . . Return, though, to the images. Surely their omnipresence, their vainglory, their evocation, demand consideration that they captured men and women engaged in a proud enterprise, and that this enterprise, the harvesting and threshing of small grains, was the focus of a great web of rural culture and institutions."

South Dakota History: "Examining the evolution of the technology, the nature of the work force, and the folkways associated with these tasks, Isern captures the essence of the agricultural practices of the region's grain growers before the advent of the combine. . . . Those intrested in the development of harvesting and threshing equipment will find this volume invaluable. . . . This book is a landmark in American agricultural history."

Pacific Historical Review: "Thomas Isern has detailed the importance of technology to one segment of society, the Great Plains small grain farmer during the heyday of steam power. He makes clear, in a delightful fashion, the complex interaction among technology, environment, and human labor, and he concludes that Plains farmers were not troubled or adverse to innovation or change, but were leaders in technological experimentation. . . . Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs will appeal to anyone interested in agriculture on the Great Plains. . . . The book is filled with wonderful photographs of men working in the fields and threshing yards of the Plains."