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What did binding wheat look like 100 years ago?

100-year-old wheat binder in action

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Outside Valmeyer last week you could almost imagine you were back 100 years, watching a binder pulled by a team of mules cut wheat and tie it in bundles so workers could gather it and build shocks.

Of course you had to ignore all the modern pickups and tractors and the picture taking drone buzzing overhead. But still, you could get an idea of how much work it was and how long it took.

The folks who are putting together the Tractor and Farm Equipment Show and Threshing Demonstrations on July 3 in Borsch Park in Valmeyer as part of the Monroe County Bicentennial were gathering the unthreshed wheat they would need for the threshing demonstrations.

The place was the Sondag Farm, once owned by Shadrach Bond, first governor of Illinois, down in the bottoms off B Road just west of the old portion of Valmeyer. A similar demonstration was held in 1966 during the 150th anniversary celebration of the county on the same farm, said Jim Pflasteerer, one of the event organizers.

A giant combine had roared through most of the field, quickly separating the wheat heads from the rest of the stalk but it left three acres standing for the binder demonstration. People gathered around as the 100-year-old binder, pulled by a team of two mules, swept through the wheat stalks. A small reel, like a combine, cut the stalks, which fell onto a conveyor belt, which took them up to a mechanism, which tied them into bundles. The bundles dropped onto a rake-like contraption, which an operator triggered to dump a bunch of the bundles at one time.

The machine was high-tech in its day and replaced a man having to cut the wheat by hand. It normally was pulled by a team of four mules, but this time two pairs traded off the work. Bob and Blaze started and then were switched off for Bess and Top.

Some modern technology held up the demonstration for a while. On its first pass, the binder jammed because the wheat today has a lot more plants per square foot than in older days. When the binder took a smaller width of a row, then things went smoothly.

Anyone who was around and watching pitched in to pick up the bundles and stack them into shocks. Apparently you can stack almost any number of bundles into a shock. The organizers were shooting for 11 but some of the old timers said shocks might have more or fewer bundles.

The shocks were then loaded onto a wagon for storage.

In the old days, the wheat would have been harvested much earlier when it was just past the green stage so the stalks were more flexible and the heads were stiffer. That made a neater shock, said Arlin Obst, 92, a former adviser with the Illinois Extension Service, who grew up when farmers used binders.

“This is so dry it’s difficult to shock,” Obst said. The shocks would stay stacked in the field for a couple of weeks to dry out before being threshed, a procedure which involved a large machine, some kind of power, whether steam engine or horses or mules, and a crew of more than 20 people.

For more information on the bicentennial visit