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Holten: Theshers on the hilltops

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Kevin Holten2 / 2

What is this North Dakota fetish with parking old, antiquated threshing machines on every hilltop across the land as if they were some religious icon or graven image to be misworshipped?

Who is it we are paying our respects to? The farmers of a bygone era, Andrew Meikl, the Scotsman who first invented threshing machines in 1786, or are we putting them up there because they look a little like intimidating dinosaurs scoping out the valleys below?

One can only wonder what might be put up there next. Studebakers, hippie vans, Deloreans or maybe some golf carts? Or how about shopping carts, Zambonis or Ferris wheels? The list goes on.

One cow on a hilltop in New Salem, a giant bison guarding Jamestown and an oversized turtle smiling at passersby in Bottineau is just about enough of this silliness, don't you think? At least those things are slightly digestible and mostly amusing. But threshing machines on every other hilltop is a bit excessive, like four pimples on a chin, more cars than gas pumps, and your girlfriend's grandma accompanying you on a date.

I know, I know, it's sacrilegious to denounce the positioning of threshing machines on hilltops, an old-time silhouette in the midst of every sunset. After all, they represent the early days of the Great Plains, when everyone gathered to help everyone else harvest their crops.

My ancestors were right there in the midst of it all, shocking wheat in bundles and then feeding them into the monster. Plus, grandma worked as a young girl in the cook car that fed all of the workers so I know the drill. Still, I don't want to have to worship the dinosaur and have it step into every sunset that I try to enjoy. Because, in spite of what it used to be, it's nothing more than junk now. Even in the past, it wasn't a best friend to everyone.

The threshing machine was invented by Scottish mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle to separate grain from stalks, husks and chaff, which for thousands of years had been separated by hand with flails, an immeasurably laborious and time consuming task.

In terms of mechanics, the threshing machine featured several steps in the threshing process, where first a bundle of wheat was thrown into an opening, usually found on the upper side, and it passed through rotating drums where grain was separated from the stem and chaff. This was followed by ventilation and filtration, which led the grain into sacks or trucks while on the other side of the threshing machine straw and chaff came out separated.

Sure it was a great new technology but like all new technology, it can sometimes ruin lives and the threshing machine was no exception. In the 1830s, things were very tough in the United Kingdom because farm laborers had been forced, after years of war and high taxes, to accept low wages and many of them lost their jobs thanks to the invention of this dinosaur, simply because thousands of men were no longer needed to help harvest crops.

With fewer jobs, low wages and no prospects of a bright future, farm laborers rioted, smashed machines and threatened farmers who had threshing machines. That's when officials moved in and hanged nine of the rioters and shipped 450 of them off to Australia. Thus, rather than being a friend of the farmer, the threshing machine started off by ruining many lives.

So if you're a real traditionalist, rather than seeing those antique steel harvesters on the hilltops as a friendly reminder of our "good old days," one might also remember that plenty of people in earlier times saw it as an enemy and monster. It reminds me a little of something that author Stephen King said in his book, "The Shining": "Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters."

Then again, I suppose you could look at it another way, as did New York writer Christian Nestell Bovee who said, "As threshing separates the wheat from the chaff, so does affliction purify virtue."

Holten is the manager of The Drill, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at