Before the invention of mechanical harvesting machinery in the later 19th century, harvesting grain in the region was often communal. Reports have more than a hundred harvesters in a single gang wielding sickles through the wheat and rye fields. Turning out for the harvest were all available hands: family, neighboring farmers, tradesmen from town and village, apprentices, women---everyone. Here in New Hanover we have a report in 1800 of a blacksmith’s helper being excused for a week for the ernde—harvest. Communal harvest was probably the result of custom and necessity.
Back in Germany, the farm houses tended to be tightly grouped into a small village or town and the common fields surrounded the village. Work there was more communal, so they would have had a history of harvesting together. Here in Pennsylvania with relatively large farms and ample land, the farmsteads tended to be isolated in the center of the holdings. But the custom of the communal harvest may have endured. However, more to the necessity, cereal grains, wheat and rye, have a narrow time “window” when they can be harvested. The grain must be dry and hard on the stalk or it will get moldy after it is threshed. However, when grain is dead ripe, the stalk becomes brittle and a windy rainstorm will cause it to lodge or fall down flat. Lodged grain is very difficult to cut and sheave. So when it was standing dry and ripe it had to be cut and shocked into sheaves without delay. Too, by all accounts the harvesting parties, fueled by plenty of good food and ample whiskey, had a frolick—a good time.
In the Pennsylvania Dutchman newspaper of May, 1950, Alfred Shoemaker recounts the published reminiscences of John Schweyer of Maxatawny Township, Berks County who was describing harvest customs around 1815: “Grain cradles were unknown then. All the grain was cut with sickles, the edges of which were sometimes notched like a saw, but were generally more sharp and plain like a knife.”
Farmer Schweyer tells us that “women could easily cut with a sickle a whole season. In the average field there were as many women sicklers as men. With a grain cradle [however] he says hardly one woman out of a hundred could have worked several hours in succession.”
“In the harvest season at that time, workmen (women included) enjoyed six meals a day. Pre-breakfast around 3 to 4 o’clock in the morning, consisting of wheat bread, butter, radishes and whiskey. In those days wheat bread was used only during harvest time and at Christmas.
“…The harvesters worked until 7 o’clock when the sound of the tin horn summoned them to breakfast. [Dinner bells came along much later]. After this meal was over the mirth inspiring whiskey bowl was handed around, as were cigars and tobacco. Then all again hastened to the field.
“At 10 o’clock in the forenoon, large baskets of lunch, called the tsaya-oor-schtick [10 o’clock piece] were brought to the field. A tablecloth was spread under a shade tree and here the harvesters gathered to enjoy the good things. This done all again went to work until 12, when the dinner horn summoned everyone to the farmhouse for the midday meal. After dinner an hour was devoted to rest or recreation.
“At 4 o’clock in the afternoon the feer-oor-schtick [4 o’clock piece] was eaten. The work was kept up in the fields until dark, when all returned to the farmhouse and took supper.”
“I shall never forget the songs we used to sing as we marched from the house to the fields in the early morning. The rural haunts pealed with merry laughter all day long,” reminisced Mr. Schweyer.
We are informed that companies of harvesters were very seldom composed of less than fifty persons and in very many cases there were over 100. The farmers of such elevated townships as Ruscombmanor and Rockland, where grain ripened considerably later than in the valleys, helped those of Oley, Richmond, Maxatawny, and Maidencreek. Mr. Schweyer tells us that those who helped harvesting in Maxatawny came from as far away as five or ten miles. All those who came from a distance slept on the farms every night until harvesting was over. They would not even return home on Sundays. Sometimes over fifty men, women and boys and girls slept on a farm. Many slept on the porches and the floors of houses.
This is what Mr. Schweyer had to say about the evenings: “After the close of the evening meal, the rooms of the houses were in many cases cleared of all furniture; those members of the company who happened to play the fiddle struck up lively music, and then the rest rattled off the hoedowns as though they had rested all day. Those festivities were kept up for several hours, when the female portion retired. The men seldom went to sleep before one o’clock in the morning. Games were played, stories told, songs sung, but the wrestling without a doubt furnished the most amusement.”
Shoemaker goes on to say, “Would that I had been present then to collect the songs that were sung and the stories that were told. Too, I would have shown an interest in the food, believe me.”
This same story is repeated time after time in the old accounts. This one comes from York County: “The harvest scene was one of great enjoyment. Neighboring farmers assisted each other. Ten, fifteen and sometimes as many as a hundred reapers worked in one field as a gay, lively company. One ‘through’ was reaped and the sheaves were bound on the return, and the keg of ardent spirits tapped at the end of each ‘round.’ Before the introduction of the grain cradle, tradesmen and towns people all temporarily dropped their vocations and went to help harvest….They passed along like a moving battle line. A good reaper could cut forty-two dozen sheaves in a day.”
No where is there any mention of what harvesters were paid. The farmers of course traded labor, but what of the towns people? My guess is their main pay was the food, whiskey, and the good time. Pay, may have been in barter: some wheat, some potatoes, some apples, perhaps some smoked sausages later in the fall. Or perhaps some were given a few coins at the end of the day.
The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Township Historical Society. Call Robert Wood 610-326-4165 with comments and story ideas.