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Preserving Treasures Of The Past - 5
Bill Clarke And The Threshing Mills - Part 2
Dorothy - 26/2/99

If you haven't already, you may like to read Part 1 of this story.

Although conditions were hard the system was well established and functioned for years. Bill was always looking ahead, however, and experimenting with design.

Conditions for the men on the mills
Pay rates

While they worked for Bill the men got their keep and Don recalls the time when the labourers got 1/9 an hour, while the engine driver got 3/- The mill feeder would be paid more than the other men in the mill. A penny was taken off from 1/9 for tax. The farmer paid Bill Clarke 3 (three pounds) an hour while the threshing mill was working on the property.

The mills worked six days a week and most of the men biked home to their families for Saturday and Sunday nights, returning to a very early start on Monday morning.

If the weather was unsuitable and no work was done the men got no pay. One season there were such strong nor-west winds for three weeks that the men could work for only about two hours before the wind came up. In 1924, however, the mills worked for fifteen weeks and never had a wet day.

There was no pay for the times when the mill was being shifted from one farm to another. Most of the jobs were within twenty miles of Seadown. The 3 speed Burrells could travel at up to 20 m.p.h. On one occasion two engines went to Sherwood Downs, a distance of forty miles.

Work began each day at 6 a.m. and continued till 8 p.m. There was a half hour break for breafast, another half hour for lunch, and fifteen minutes for morning and afternoon tea.

At lunch time the engine driver and the mill feeder had their lunch first and then while the others ate their lunch the driver oiled up the machine.

The outfit of work clothes cost 1.00 - dungarees 5/-, shirt 2/6, boots 5/-, straw hat 2/6, plus socks and a handkerchief to tie around the neck.

Bill Clarke an inventor
The 'stinks'

The traction engine pulling a mill, the galley, and  the  'stink'
The traction engine pulling a mill, the galley, and the 'stink'
Bill liked to design his own equipment. He had his own design for the bunkhouses which were towed to each job - the 'stinks' as they are termed in the traction engine language. As washing between Monday morning and Saturday evening was confined to a rapid wash in cold water from the tank it was no doubt an appropriate title. The men slept in bunks with straw for mattresses.

Although Bill's 'stinks' were well built the unions thought that they didn't give the men enough space and ventilation, but Bill fought the unions and won.

The cut-down mill

Men at work on the cut-down mill, Bill Clarke in the centre
Men at work on the cut-down mill, Bill Clarke in the centre
Bill was concerned about how hard the men had to work tossing the wheat up from the dray to the top of the mill and designed a cut-down mill to make this part of the work easier. He took the design to England for Clayton and Shuttleworth to manufacture one. Unfortunately the firm filed a petition in bankruptcy on the very day that Bill landed in England. Bill didn't give up. He eventually had one manufactured to his plan in his own yard.

His son-in-law, Tom Kyle, who later took over the mills, put in elevators to lift the wheat from the dray to the mill.

Record keeping
In Bill's time there was little in the way of red tape to tie him up with record keeping. Farmers paid him when and where they met him - often at the saleyards. Records were kept in a pocketbook - and in Bill's remarkable memory.

He would quote what he believed was a fair price for a job and never waver from it. He didn't join his competitors in price cutting. He believed that quality work deserved a fair price.

No driving licences needed
At that time no driving licences were needed and Bill's seven sons and his daughter did a lot of the driving.

One story is that his son, Don, was at a sale at Pleasant Point and told his father that if he bought the Model T that was up for auction he (Don) would drive it home. Bill bought the car. The auction was stopped so that everyone could watch and see if the eight year-old boy was as good as his promise. He cranked the car and drove proudly through the gate and away home.

1931 - the Depression and drought
The height of the wheat growing and the use of threshing mills in Canterbury was in the nineteen twenties. In 1931 the great depression was at its height and there was also a drought so severe that water had to be carted to the house as the usual sources had dried up.

This was a bad year for farmers and mill operators alike. The crops were poor and jobs were scarce. Only two mills operated instead of ten and they worked a short season. Bill Clarke kept some men on and paid them to straighten the water courses on the farm. They had their pay and their keep and were given a quarter of a sheep to take home to feed their families.

Safety
Bill Clarke's mills had a high standard of maintenance and a good safety record. No fires were recorded in his mills, though they occurred in other people's mills. A chaff cutter capsized on a hilly road and another slid down a bank, but there were no fatalities in all the years of operation.

On one occasion Bill's young sons were driving an engine when the safety valve stuck. There was steam in all directions. Don remembers one of his brothers running away. Fortunately at that moment their father arrived, tapped the safety valve with a spanner and freed it and all was well.

Traction engine removing trees.  (Note the shoes on the wheels.)
Traction engine removing trees. (Note the shoes on the wheels.)
Driving on the hills was the most difficult so Bill put his best drivers on the hills. Driving down hill was the most dangerous, so shoes (grips) were fitted to the wheels and a wire rope attached to a winch on the engine was sometimes used to control movement on a steep gradient.

The end of working mills
In 1905 Bill started business with the engines, and in 1926, seeing the end of the era in sight, he started selling them. Tom Kyle, his son-in-law, who took over the business threshed till 1950.

Early over-cropped land like the area around Rosewill was hand harvested at first. However, the crops diminished because the land had been over cropped and insufficient fertiliser had been used in compensation.

Now one man can do what eighteen did because the header has taken over the work of the engine and mill. Most farmers growing crops now have their own self-propelled headers.

Some of the mills were cut up for scrap, and some were restored. Now traction engine rallies are held. The first was held at Southbrook, the day after Bill Clarke died in 1958. A minute's silence was observed in his memory.

Continued interest in the engines
Since that first rally interest in traction engines and vintage tractors has escalated to the point where there are numerous traction engine and vintage clubs in both the North and South Islands. Rallies are held in many places, especially Canterbury and Southland.

1999 Rally in South Canterbury
This year at Easter, April 2-5, a large rally of up to twenty engines and possibly up to 300 or 400 tractors will be held at the Winchester Show Grounds, some 24 km (15 miles) north of Timaru in South Canterbury. Threshing, chaff cutting and vintage ploughing will be among the features. A farmer is lending an adjacent paddock for ploughing. A grand parade will be held around 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Check the Backchat for details of further rallies
Clubs, please use the backchat for your advertising and reach our readers round the world.

The future
With the advent of the traction engine clubs the future of the engines is assured. They were built to work for twenty years, but the English engines would work for up to fifty years. Provided they are kept under dry conditions they may last up to a century.

Photos for this article were supplied by Bill Clarke's son Don and his grandson John Kyle.




 
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