My father and I go to Lancaster County a few times a year. We go because it is still fairly agricultural and we visit tractor dealers, repair shops and suppliers of farm sundries. Our favorite hardware stores sell plow points and hydraulic lines, parts for the welder and sprayer; look up and you see they have every fan belt ever made—or its replacement. My father and I wander the aisles wishing we had such a store back home. Our purchasing trips are anchored in needs, but neither of us denies how much we like it in Lancaster, where all these important parts and pieces of equipment are given their rightful place. Here there are no $3,000 grills, but if you need a ring for your hog, aisle 17.
The other reason we go, and in fact maybe the first reason, is that my father has antique tractors. Part of having these tractors is getting them going and keeping them running, and my father, who must like a challenge, has built more than one new-old engine to keep in his collection. Most of us are content to turn a key and go roaring away, but there are those who, due to philosophical bent or mechanical intrigue, prefer to build a fire and wait for steam, the Amish especially. They still rely on these machines to do their really heavy lifting and so they have the resources to make and mend them. My father has gotten to know a few of these experts well, and we almost always have a reason to visit Ben King’s place. They have a foundry and make steam engine parts, but like many Amish households they also have a farm.
We usually go to Pennsylvania early in spring, but it was June when I realized I needed a pallet of tomato stakes, and when we round the turn and see the Kings’ farm in front of us we can see that something big is going on. The barnyard is full, not just of equipment but of people. I cannot believe our good luck. It’s a hot, dry day, and they are threshing wheat.
Everything is governed by the steam engine and the men’s ability to keep up with her. She powers the thresher and its augers, a baler and finally a conveyor that reaches into the hayloft. With all these flywheels and belts, you would not expect there to be much work for men left to do, but tall men, strong men, not necessarily young men, stand on the platform and deftly fork down a mountain of shocks from the wagon into the thresher’s gathering arms. Ahead, younger boys, ones too small to wrestle a hay bale, are playing and standing under the spilling auger, waiting to fill their shirts with grain. The joyful, invigorated mood of the farmyard is tangible.
Someone brings my father a chair. He is sitting about three feet away from the boiler but shaded by the engine’s canopy. Ben, who is operating the steam engine, can call out and talk to him. A modern engine makes its environs vibrate, the steam engine causes the ground near it to rock back and forth, its power is graceful and exposed. It hisses and chuffs but is not truly loud. Surrounded by this iconic activity, I find myself romanticizing a time when this was the cutting edge of agriculture and wishing man’s technology had stopped right here.
When it is time for us to leave, we walk past the wagons that are parked, waiting to be threshed. This is the first time my father mentions the wheat I have ripening back home.
He breaks a head of wheat off and rubs it between his palms. The papery husk blows away. He hands me a few individual kernels, instructing me to bite down on them, which we both do in unison. He nods approvingly (am I taking notes?), and explains that the best way to know if my crop is ready is to test it with my teeth. Bite down on it, just before it yields and shatters, you might think it is a stone.
Marilee Foster farms and writes in Sagaponack.