Remember the Old Fanning Mill?
Very much a part of a museum collection these days seems to be the fanning mill. They were as much a part of the farm of the old days as the old oaken bucket. At least a few years ago, it could be found sitting forlornly in back of the barn, long since forgotten by the present generation. When I lived on a farm in the 1950s, we also had one stored in back of the granary, with seemingly 50 years of dust on it. I used to like to crank it, and always wondered what it was used for. I was told, "Oh, that's just an old thing we used to separate grain."
A fanning mill is a peculiar-looking device made of wood, with a metal crank and wooden hand grip, and with sliding drawers, rounded board edges, shaped carrying handles, and sometimes lathe-turned knobs atop the frame posts, appearing almost like a piece of furniture. Like other old-time machinery, fanning mills were attractively painted in gaudy colors which, by this time, have long since faded away. But when restored to their natural beauty, they are quite attractive.
Fanning mills removed straw, chaff, stones, dirt and dust, weed seeds, and light immature seeds from wheat, oats, rye, barley, and other grains. It was important to remove contaminants for better preservation during storage, to have mold and grit free flour, and for securing viable seed free of weed seeds that would compete with a growing cereal crop. Fanning mills were a great technical advance over winnowing, the hand-process of pouring grain from one container to another in a breeze to blow away the lighter matter.
In many ways, a fanning mill resembles a miniature threshing machine. Both machines have shaking sieves over which the threshed grain kernels mixed with bits of straw, chaff, stones and soil particles rattle. The smaller pieces fall through holes to a lower sieve where smaller particles are separated. Both machines have fans that move air across and upward through the sieves to float off the light straw, chaff and dust. Only the threshing machine has a mechanism for knocking the grain kernels free of their attachment to the grain stalk.
Before the introduction of threshing machines, grain was removed from the stalk heads by trampling or flailing. This operation was done usually on a wooden floor in a barn. Threshing barns were built for the purpose of storing grain sheaves from harvest time until the slack winter season when the fully mature grain could be separated from the dry straw. These barns were built around a central threshing floor where the bundles of ripened grain could be spread to a uniform thickness and treaded upon by hooves of horses or oxen or pounded by farm hands using wooden flails to loosen grain kernels from heads of the cereal plant stalks.
When most of the kernels had been loosened from the grain heads, the straw was lifted off with forks and stored for use as bedding for livestock. The remaining material on the threshing floor was scooped up to be winnowed when there was a breeze. Threshing barns usually had wide doors which could be opened at either end of the center section to allow a favorable wind to waft through the building. The chaff, bits of straw and the loose grain from the threshing floor were put in a winnowing basket or tray and tossed upward into a breeze where currents of air carried the straw pieces, lighter chaff and dust farther away, as the heavier kernels of grain fell more directly downward into a basket or onto a blanket.
Flailing and winnowing are strenuous tasks. It has been estimated that, using a flail, one person could separate only seven bushels of grain per day. Separating kernels of grain from chaff and stalks was a labor-intensive manual procedure, and careful attention was required to extract the maximum amount of good grain from the material left on the threshing floor after flailing and trampling. To ease the arduous work and relieve the monotony, threshing became a shared neighborly work project and a social activity that continued on when farmers went from farm to farm with their wagons to help each other gather shocks to feed into a threshing machine. Commonly called "a separator" and mounted on wheels, it was moved from farm to farm. All the cooperating farmers in a circuit made up a "threshing ring."
A fanning mill did a much more efficient job than winnowing, and it cleaned grain more thoroughly than a threshing machine. Mills were kept around farms for a long time to reclean oats and wheat in the spring for planting.
© 2002, Richard Palmer