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Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

Harvesting History: My Visit to Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines

Despite having an extensive background in history and agriculture, the art of collecting is new to me. Before joining the collection and research team in March as curatorial research assistant, I had never really considered the mechanics of collection development and management or rationalization. As a historian, I had never been in the position to decide what should or should not make up a collection. That is, until I had the opportunity to research and write my first acquisition proposal for a Dion thresher, which the CSTMC Acquisition Committee approved this past July. It was a rewarding end to an extensive process that involved countless hours of research and discussion, as well as a road trip to Saint-Anne-des-Plaines, Québec.

 

Examining the Dion threshing machine. CAFM Photo.

Examining the Dion threshing machine. CAFM Photo.

 

This all began when Guy Charbonneau, mayor of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, approached the museum on behalf of the machine`s owner, Mr. Urgel Palin. Mr. Palin was looking for a new home for his 1920s Dion thresher following the sale of his tractor parts business. Mr. Palin had purchased the thresher from the family of the original owner, who used it on his farm in La Plaine, Quebec. The machine had been stored for over 35 years and remained in original condition – a rarity for such an old piece of equipment.

 

Threshing machines were the ancestors of today`s combine harvesters. They were developed in Europe in the late 18th century to separate and clean grain from straw and chaff. Threshers mechanized the separation of grain, which had previously been done by hand with flails and winnowing trays. Over the course of the 19th century, threshers became more elaborate and mobile as manufacturers added wheels to stationary machines. Canadian manufacturers, such as Waterloo and Macdonald and MacPherson, started producing threshing machines during the second half of the 19th century.

 

As I looked deeper into this potential acquisition, I discovered that little information was available regarding Dion’s history. This was surprising considering the company is still active today. Fortunately, with the help of Luc Choinière, of Dion-Ag Inc., I was able to piece together a basic history of the company which dates to the early 20th century. Brothers Amédée and Bruno Dion, both deeply interested in farm mechanization, enjoyed experimenting with various machines on their farm near Sainte-Thérèse de Blainville. By 1918, the brothers had designed and built their own thresher, specially adapted to their needs. The Dions were inspired by Western Canadian technology in their machine’s cylinder design, an innovative feature in eastern Canadian threshers. The brothers secured various patents and by 1920, la Société Dion & Frères Limitée was manufacturing threshers in a small factory operating on their farm. Dion threshers were known for quality and performance. Key features and improvements included feeders and band cutters designed to prevent cylinder clogging, and beaters and straw racks that facilitated grain separation and cleaning.

 

La Sociétée Dion & Frères Limitée manufacturer’s imprint. CAFM Photo.

La Société Dion & Frères Limitée manufacturer’s imprint. CAFM Photo.

 

Working with curator Will Knight, we were unsure whether to recommend this machine for acquisition. We were dealing with a machine that was technologically innovative, in amazing condition, and with detailed provenance. However, it was a pretty large object that would take up lots of space in the warehouse – space that was already at a premium. What’s more, the museum already has a significant threshing machine collection.

 

In the end, it was Mr. Charbonneau and Mr. Palin who convinced us. Since the thresher was manufactured in nearby Boisbriand, both men saw this machine as an important part of their region’s heritage and were adamant that it should be preserved in the museum`s collection. Through my conversations with them, I came to realize that, to them, this thresher was more than a simple machine. It was a symbol of their region`s agriculture and industrial history, as well as the people’s resourcefulness, dedication and hard work. This thresher was also a testament to the ingenuity of two enterprising brothers who hoped to lessen the burden of farm work through mechanization. The business they started from scratch almost 100 years has survived to this day as Dion-Ag Inc. a Canadian-owned, independent farm equipment manufacturer. This is a remarkable accomplishment in this age of multinational giants.

 

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

 

This first experience at collection development has been truly memorable. I met great people who are passionate about their agricultural heritage, including a group of volunteers restoring a historic barn in downtown Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. I had the opportunity to help preserve an impressive machine for future generations. But most importantly, the process humanized the collection. Not only do its artefacts document the evolution of agriculture and food science and technology in Canada, they also tell the story of the people who designed, manufactured and used these machines and of the communities they formed.

 

Web links:

Flails:

http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1966.0606.001

 

Winnowing tray:

http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1969.1133.001

 

Macdonald and MacPherson threshing machine:

http://cafmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-macdonald-and-macpherson-standard-thresher.php

 

Waterloo threshing machine:

http://cafmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-waterloo-champion-thresher.php

 

Canadian Patent:

http://brevets-patents.ic.gc.ca/opic-cipo/cpd/eng/patent/217574/summary.html

 

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Mr. Urgel Palin for his contribution to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum’s collection. One can only admire your passion for agricultural machinery and your determination to its preservation.

 

Thank you to Mr. Guy Charbonneau, mayor of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, who played a key role in this artefact acquisition. Your devotion towards the preservation of your community’s agriculture heritage is truly appreciated.

 

Thank you to Mr. Luc Choinière, of Dion-Ag Inc., for his help in retracing the manufacturer’s history. His contributions were vital to the success of this acquisition.

 

References:

 

Robert N. Pripps, Threshers, History of the Separator, Threshing Machine, Reaper and Harvester, Osceola, Motorbooks International, 1992. 128 p.

 

 

 

 

Thresher

The Art of Threshing

I joined the museum staff as the curator responsible for agriculture and food almost a year ago last June. My background is fisheries and museum history, so I had some adjustment and learning to do. Coming to know the agriculture collection—which contains more than 4,000 objects—was one challenge. To familiarize myself with the collection—to connect to it—I would wander through our storage warehouse, taking time to examine objects and take notes about ones that interested me.

One object that immediately drew my eye was this object, a thresher. Threshers separate grain: they use belt-driven cylinders and shaking tables to extract grain and separate it from chaff and straw. Developed in the late 18th century, threshers mechanized grain separation—an operation previously performed by labourers—enabling farmers to process more grain. Threshers increased farm productivity, but farm workers, particularly in England, resented and resisted them. By the late 19th century, threshers had wheels and were bigger. Over the course of the 20th century, threshers were replaced by combine harvesters, which merged reaping and threshing operations in one machine.

Image 1: This image is taken from the left-hand rear of the Macdonald MacPherson thresher. The tropical island scene is visible at the right. Striping, scrollwork, and lettering are also visible. Photo: William Knight

Photo 1: This image is taken from the left-hand rear of the Macdonald MacPherson thresher. The tropical island scene is visible at the right. Striping, scrollwork, and lettering are also visible. Photo: William Knight

As I later discovered, this machine (artifact #1978.0939) had an interesting history. Macdonald MacPerson was founded in Stratford, Ontario, in 1869 and this thresher belonged to a Stratford-area farmer. In 1927, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, bought the thresher from the farmer’s son. In 1978, the National Science and Technology Museum, as it was then known, traded an American-built corn planter with the Ford Museum for this thresher, and repatriated it.

I knew none of this history as I admired the thresher in the warehouse: what caught my eye was the striking hand-painted striping, scrollwork, lettering, and scenes that adorned the thresher’s surface. These photos show some of this work: the thresher’s manufacturer, Macdonald MacPherson & Co. is painted on a darker background on the outside cover of a conveyor. You can also see two scenes: they are painted on small doors or portals on opposite sides of the machine. Both are maritime scenes: one of a boat, perhaps a schooner, coasting along; the other, of a tropical island with waving palm trees. Was the painter dreaming of a maritime home or past when these scenes were executed? Or perhaps they were thinking of Canadian wheat in transit across the oceans to distant destinations…

Thresher 2

Photo 2: This image is from the thresher’s right-hand side. The schooner scene is visible at the left. In the foreground is an example of the beautiful painted scroll-work applied to this thresher by an unknown artisan. Photo: William Knight

This freehand work is typical of agricultural implements manufactured in the 19th century, as Tamara Tarasoff noted in a paper she wrote for the museum in 1989. Hand-painted decorative elements on implements were meant to enhance their appeal, much as modern cars are styled to attract potential buyers. The difference is that in the 19th century artisans painted, or sometimes stencilled, these elements by hand directly onto machines. By the 1920s, the era of hand-painted decorated implements and machines was over. Design, of course, continued to play a role in making machines useable and attractive—but this beautiful and anonymous work became a thing of the past.