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
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
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."