One of the practices early Mennonite settlers brought to central Kansas from the Ukraine was the use of threshing stones to harvest wheat.
According to Glen Ediger of North Newton, who is conducting an independent research project on the stones, local stonemasons or the farmers themselves fashioned the threshing stones from limestone rock quarried in Marion County. The stones were distributed to the farming communities where the Mennonites had settled.
The cylindrical stones were 30 inches long and 24 inches wide with seven ridges. The threshing stones were pulled by horses or mules over the harvested wheat stalks to knock the ripe wheat kernels loose from the head onto the threshing floor.
Norma Jost Voth in her book, Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia, explains the process.
The standing grain was cut with a hand scythe that had a cradle attached. After several strokes of the blade, the cradle would fill with wheat. The wheat then was dumped in a pile on the ground for workers to gather and bind into bundles (sheaves). The bundles were grouped together into shocks.
When the grain was dry, the bundles were hauled in hayracks to the farmstead and piled in stacks to await threshing.
When the day arrived, the farmer prepared a level piece of ground approximately 50 feet in diameter next to the stack. The bundles were thrown down and arranged in a circle with the heads pointing the same way.
The farmer then used a team of horses or mules to pull the heavy threshing stone over the stalks to separate the kernels from the heads.
The team was removed while the threshers turned the stems over with the heads pointed in the opposite direction, and the process was repeated.
Workers then gathered up the straw in their arms, shook it to loosen any stray kernels, and piled it nearby in a stack.
The workers, often family members, shoveled the kernels together and threw them into the air to remove all chaff and remaining straw. They shoveled the wheat into grain sacks, tied them shut, and carried them up a ladder into the house loft for storage.
This process was repeated until the harvest was complete.
The first Mennonite group to settle in Marion County came in the fall of 1874. They settled southeast of present-day Hillsboro. They plowed the sod and sowed (by hand) the Turkey Red wheat seed brought from southern Russia.
The next summer, they had a bountiful crop of wheat to harvest, and they used the same process as in Russia.
However, within a year or two, the Mennonites began using mechanical threshing machines, and the threshing stones were abandoned. They landed in washouts or became lawn ornaments. Some had never been used.
“It is not known how many were ever made,” Ediger said, “but historical estimates range from 100 to 200.”
Some of these stones are on display in public places. The Mennonite Heritage Museum in Goessel and the Mennonite Settlement Museum in Hillsboro each have one on display. At Peabody, threshing stones are incorporated into a monument on Main Street.
Most threshing stones are in private hands. According to Ediger, they are concentrated in four counties — Marion, Reno, McPherson, and Harvey — where they were originally used.
(Threshing stones are not to be confused with millstones that were used to grind grain into flour before steel rollers were manufactured for that purpose.)
Ediger is trying to document as many threshing stones as can be found. He has located almost 70 so far. Pictures of some of them are shown on his website: http://www.threshingstone.com. The names of stone owners are not revealed.
If anyone has a threshing stone that Ediger does not know about or has a story to share, Ediger may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.