Historical Markers
Ralston Thresher Historical Marker
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Ralston Thresher

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
PA 844 at West Middletown

Dedication Date:
May 28, 1947

Behind the Marker

Two men and two boys threshing rye with flails
Hand Threshing with Flails, Bucks County, PA, circa 1900.
Once grain was harvested it had to be threshed to remove the kernels from their stalks, and then winnowed to remove the chaff and dirt. For centuries these operations had been performed by hand or by foot. To separate the edible kernels of grain from the dry stalk, farmers could flail it by hand or use animals to tread it.

Some preferred to thresh it by hand, using a tool called a flail -a long stick with a small club-like piece of wood attached by a leather thong at the end - to knock the kernels off the sheaves of grain and loosen the husks.

Others preferred to lay the dry sheaves on the ground or the floor of the barn and have horses or oxen run or walk over them. This method was more efficient, but it also added dirt, pebbles, and animal manure to the "clean" grain, which lessened its value at market.

Once the grain was threshed, the hulls or chaff had to be removed by winnowing, a process by which farmers would use a grain shovel or a winnower - a large, flat, wooden scoop-like device - to toss threshed barley, oats, rye, or wheat lightly into the air so that the wind could blow through it. Since the inedible husks were lighter than the kernels, they would blow away while the grain would fall close by. After winnowing, the farmer would then scoop up the clean grain and put in bags or baskets to be transported for sale at the local mill.
"First Mowing machine in Chester, Pa, 1822."

Farmers worked long and hard, for weeks or months at a time just to thresh their grain crops by hand and then devoted several more weeks of intensive labor to remove the chaff. What they needed was a machine to thresh and winnow their cereal crops, particularly wheat, which was generally the best-selling grain and bought the best price. In the late 1700s, Pennsylvanians began to search for more efficient ways to thresh grain than flailing or treading.

The first recorded attempts to develop a substitute for flailing and treading in Pennsylvania belongs to John Clayton in 1770, and Colonel Anderson in 1782, who invented a mill powered by horses. In 1806, David Prentis used a Scottish threshing machine on his Lancaster County farm that was supposed to thresh 35 bushels an hour, but it never lived up to its promises. In 1827, Moses Pennock of East Marlborough, Chester County - one of the greatest agricultural machine inventors of his age - patented a horse-powered vibrating threshing machine that could thresh 100 to 150 bushels a day. In 1832, William Kirkland of Lancaster County began to manufacture a portable horsedrawn thresher that received considerable local use. Introduced in the late 1830s, the efficient and inexpensive "Pitt thresher" encouraged wider adoption of mechanical threshing.

Image of threshing machine. A farmer sits on a carriage style seat. The machine has four big wheels on the sides, and an engine attached to the back with a stack extending from the base. Another farmer rides on the back. In the background sits a farmer in a carriage, drawn by a horse.
Steam powered threshing machine, Lancaster County, PA, circa 1890.
In 1842, wheat farmers in Washington County, Pennsylvania were introduced to a locally produced machine that promised to thresh and winnow grain at the same time. It had just been patented by Hopewell Township resident Andrew Ralston and was being manufactured by Robert McClure, which led to the device being known by two different names - the Ralston thresher or McClure's thresher.

Ralston's horse-powered thresher-cleaner proved very popular in southwestern Pennsylvania and it could process about 100 bushels of grain a day. Later steam-powered models worked even faster. Because the machines were expensive to purchase, small farmers often rented them from more well-to-do "tillers of the soil."

In the decades that followed, agricultural machinery slowly transformed the Pennsylvania farm. Over time - and more quickly in certain areas than in others - seed drills, reapers, threshers, and other labor-saving devices enabled farmers to grow and process more foods. While most Americans were delighted with the impact that horse - and later steam-engine-powered machinery had on agriculture, some were not so enthusiastic about the changes.

Many small farmers and working men believed that machines were "stealing" the bread from their mouths. During the winter months, itinerant farm laborers found work by traveling with their flails from farm to farm looking "for a barn to thrash." Some managed to keep finding work threshing barley and oats, which were grown on a much smaller scale than wheat and thus often threshed by hand with flails. In the coming decades, however, the use of reapers and mechanical threshers reduced labor and enabled farmers to put more acres under the plow. To survive in the mechanized and rapidly industrializing world of American agriculture, Pennsylvania farmers used a growing variety of horse, steam, and then gasoline-powered farm machinery.
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