It may be hard to imagine San Diego County awash in fields of grain, but from the 1860s to the early 1900s, wheat and barley were big crops.
“The first wheat of the season reached W. W. Stewart’s warehouse Thursday morning from Scott’s ranch in the Rincon district,” began an article in the July 17, 1890 San Diego Union, about the arrival of a mule-train bearing six tons of wheat.
That same article noted that “Threshing is now in progress all over the county, a very large number of men being afforded employment.”
Threshing—separating the grain from its cob or husk, then cleaning it and gathering or stacking it, was already a mechanized process by that time, done by machines powered by steam tractors.
Even with the help of a machine, it was a very labor-intensive process. Threshing crews averaged 18-20 men, and one job could take over a week.
Here’s a photo of a threshing crew in the San Pasqual Valley circa 1888:
Courtesy Rancho Bernardo Historical Society archives
The threshing rigs were large and too expensive for many smaller farmers. So the owners of such equipment, in addition to using it on their own farms, rented out their services to other farmers as well.
An article in the Poway Progress of August 10, 1895, datelined Encinitas, reported that “the Abel Bros. thresher is reported to be just wading through the numerous hay stacks on the surrounding ranches.”
“Nick Anderson began threshing at home last Monday,” announced the same paper’s “Alpine Affairs” column in July 1896, “finished that job and Tuesday morning pulled out for El Cajon where he has a job for Uri Hill. John Collins and Wilfred Nichols are assisting him.”
Some farmers joined threshing crews moving around the county after their crops were in to earn some extra money. It was hard work, and it could be risky work with sharp edges and sometimes unpredictable steam boilers.
In a not untypical item about one Poway farmer, the Poway Progress reported that “W. S. Flint, who left last week to take a position on a threshing machine, is obliged to lay off for a few days on account of an injury to his hand.”
He was lucky. Reports of more serious injuries from fires or explosions, as well as destruction of crops and equipment, often show up in the press of the day.
“The threshing outfit of Gus Eliason narrowly escaped total destruction by fire on Thursday at Bernardo,” read an article in the August 5, 1906 San Diego Union. “While the crew were at dinner a spark from the engine ignited the grain stack.”
Before the flames were brought under control, ninety sacks of barley were lost, as well as some of Eliason’s equipment. The engine operator, a Mr. Sheets, dragged the machine out of danger “just as the flames were about to lick it up.”
Separating the wheat from the chaff could sure get complicated.
Sources for this post included historic San Diego and Poway newspapers, the archives of the San Marcos and Rancho Bernardo Historical Societies, and websites for the Library of Congress and History 101.
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History Happenings-Upcoming Events in the Local History Community
A replica of the original creamery building at the Sikes Adobe Historic Farmstead in Escondido will be dedicated on Wednesday, June 4 at 4 p.m. Free to the public. Events include ribbon-cutting, refreshments, tours and a sample of freshly churned butter. For further details email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 760-432-8318.
SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization) historic home tour of San Diego’s North Park neighborhood Sunday, June 8, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For ticket info visit www.SOHOsandiego.org or call 619-297-9327,