That Noble Threshing Machine
by Bruce R. Tucker of the Alfred Historical Committee
Seldom, when we grab a bag of flour or loaf of bread off the supermarket shelf, do we reflect upon the fact that the contents were once living plants, waving on the prairie. The plants were likely harvested in mammoth swaths and then ground by the ton for sale by some multinational agribusiness. The scale of how it is produced (huge fields, huge combines, huge volumes) is not reflected in the small quantities of flour we deal with. We buy flour five pounds at a time to bake an occasional cake or thicken gravy. Our forbears used it by the barrel, baking bread, pies, cakes etc. They not only used it, they frequently produced it as well. Before the midwest was made fruitful and grains could be grown cheaper than in Maine, local farmers spent much valuable energy manuring, plowing, planting, harrowing, reaping, binding, curing, threshing, and winnowing grain crops before taking it to someone else to grind. Grain was nutritious, storable and indispensable. It must have been crucial to survival for farmers to spend that much time and effort into producing it. Some grain ended up on their table, some was feed to their stock. As farms and families grew, and farmers required greater amounts of grain, neighbors frequently pooled their labor to lighten the load and each farm was harvested in its turn. As the task became too much of a chore to do by hand and America entered the industrial age, machines were developed to ease the farmers burden. Grain drills replaced hand sowing, reapers replaced the hand scythe. A man from Alfred, Andrew Noble, apparently worked on developing a grain thresher suitable for small farm use. He realized the separation of the grain from the chaff was the most laborious and time consuming part of the process. He knew people would pay to avoid this tedious task and he could make a living custom threshing other peoples grains for a price. If he could help his neighbors efficiently procure their grain, he might even grow rich by selling his idea and machine to everyone else. An advertisement for his thresher appeared in the Colombian Star in the summer of 1824.
Andrew Noble was the son of Thomas Noble who lived across the Waterboro Road from Hazel Dell. Thomas died prior to the 1790 census for the head of the household at that time was Widow Abigail Noble. Though Thomas was termed a tailor, his meager estate was typical of most small Maine farmers. Much of his land was auctioned off to neighbors, Daniel Holmes and Thomas Brookings to settle the debts of his estate. (YCRD 74/28,29)The 1790 census household included one male over 16, 2 males under 16 and 3 females. The oldest male in the house may have been John Noble, also a tailor, who joined widow Noble in the transactions. The 1803 Parsons map indicates John Noble lived there, possibly a brother or an uncle to Andrew. Parsons states that Andrew and John Noble his son were from Somersworth and that may be the case as there were a number of families from Rollinsford settled in that Alfred neighborhood. I don’t think the relationship is correct however, and Thomas was there first. Parsons also states that Andrew drown a half mile below Shaker bridge at the foot of the pond. ?? Andrew appears in 1816, purchasing a 2 acre lot adjacent to his mothers dower on Waterboro Rd.. He made the purchase from John Blunt, a boatbuilder from Arundel. (YCRD 94/ 98) Andrew too was considered a boatbuilder or ship carpenter. By the early 1820’s, he had evidently shifted professions and had developed a grain threshing machine and would use it to harvest his neighbors grain.
General Samuel Leighton was a near neighbor of Nobles (Leighton was then living on Brackett Hill) and gives us a peek at growing grains and bartering with Noble for his services. In late April/ early May 1823, Leighton spent 6 days labor sowing 1 1/2 bushels of wheat and a like amount of rye, plus 4 bu. of oats and 1 bu. of barley. In early Aug. Noble appeared to reap and bundle Leighton's wheat and rye. Noble was to have 1 1/2 bu. of each for the reaping. On Sept. 22, Leighton borrowed Nobles machine and began to thresh his wheat. The next morning, “hard frost, Mr. Noble brought one hand with him Richd Nason, Danl. Gubtail helped me in the afternoon & we finished thrashing my wheat and winnowed it out & rye nine bu., 1 1/2 bu. sowing of each & Mr. Allen carried away the machine at night.” Mr. Allen lived further up Brackett Hill Rd. carrying the machine over the bridge on the Middle Branch, past Saywards mill, to his place. I assume the threshing scene was replayed on his farm the next day as Mr. Noble’s machine made the rounds of the neighborhood. Leighton settled with Noble on Feb. 16, 1824, noting in his diary, “paid Andw. Noble 14 s in full for thrashing &c in Hall & Conant store in cash.” Cash was scarce among farmers who lived mainly by barter and Leighton took careful note of the transaction. If Noble was holding out for cash, which may have been the reason it took Leighton so long to settle up.
The next year, 1824, Leighton sharpened his plow irons and increased his grain planting to 2 bu. wheat and rye, 6 bushels of oats, 4 qt. millet and some barley. Research reveals that Andrew Noble of Alfred was issued a US patent for a threshing machine on Jan. 12, 1824. The granting of the patent, however, did not make Noble a rich man and his life of barter continued with his Alfred neighbors. Noble was back at Leighton's (with a boy) in late July 1824 to reap and shock the wheat and rye. This year, however, Noble did not hold out for cash and took other items from Leighton during the year; a bu. of potatoes in June “to be charged” (Leighton had dug and stored 75 bu. the previous fall), a peck of green peas in Aug., 20 lbs. of pork, a quarter of lamb and 1 1/2 lbs. lambs wool when Leighton slaughtered in Oct.. The trade was not all one sided as Noble sold Leighton a scythe snath for 25 cents, and Leighton and his two boys helped Noble thrash his own wheat with his machine. Noble borrowed Leighton's horse to grind and press 15 barrels of cider and paid him 1/2 bu. of salt the next day. Noble and his machine were back at Leighton's in Oct. 1824 to thrash and winnow 10 bu. of rye and his barley. Noble then traded Leighton a bushel apples for 1/2 cord of dry oak and cut wood on shares with Leighton.
In 1825, Noble appears less frequently and his machine does not appear at all at harvest. In mid Aug. 1826 Leighton notes Noble has recently returned from Penobscot. His machine is heard of no more. On Oct. 2, 1826 Leighton states, “in the morning I settled accts. with Andrew Noble & he paid me the balance in cash being 5.47 Cts. & we balanced our books & he is to pay me in apples for Cucumbers for pickles for last year & this & for peas.”
This is an interesting look at the barter system where very little cash changed hands for goods and services. These were not casual transactions where “if I help you, you help me” pertained. Every exchange was carefully agreed upon with the value of the items or labor exactly determined before the deal made. Each party knew exactly the obligation of the other to make good the agreement and failure to do so was a serious breach of trust. If the person reneged too may times, everyone in town learned of it pretty quickly and the transgressor became a social and financial pariah, not as good as his word. This web of agreements and obligations also bound the community together and made clear the interdependence of all the residents in town. It also spread their meager resources sufficiently to cover everyone. Noble had his thresher but needed Leighton's horse to grind his cider and plow his garden. These accounts, recorded in “day books”, could run for years before being settled as Noble and Leighton did in the fall of 1826. “Closing the book” did not mean their relationship was over by any means, their bartering began again immediately and a new account was begun. Their business relationship did not mar their friendship either as they socialized, visited and shared tasks such as hog slaughtering and cider making. When Noble was sick abed , Leighton strapped on his snowshoes and took him 1/2 peck of clams. What are friends for.
The year after Noble’s machine disappears, Leighton dramatically decreases his grain plantings. He may have found, without the thresher, that the time spent hand flailing all that grain was not worth the effort. He apparently did not need all the grain for his own use as he had paid Noble in grain for his services. Had he needed it, Leighton likely would have bartered something else as payment.
Noble turned his efforts to woodwork, falling back on his carpentry skills. Leighton bought three scythe snaths for Noble, one for 28 cents and two for 20 cents each. Noble apparently did no iron work as Leighton carried them to Sam Tripp the blacksmith who “ironed them” for 25 cents each and 1 1/2 peck of peas. Leighton later bought a scythe for 2 gal. of molasses. Noble also did some wheelwright work. Leighton supplied the wood and Noble built him wagon wheels for rum, lamb, and more molasses. The wheels were carried to Tripp to have the iron rims put on, Leighton supplied Tripp the scrap iron. Noble painted the wagon (two coats) for 9 1/2 lbs. mackerel. Noble also traded Leighton a wheelbarrow to be paid in ox labor and a wagon worth $20, $10 up front and $10 in “other items. Noble also did general carpentry on the house and barn his neighbor John Griffin who was a-building in April, 1828 (crooked house??). When old Capt. Patch died up town, Noble made the coffin and laid him out in it.
In the fall of 1830, Noble was raising some serious money. He sold a nine acre woodlot for $100 to B.J. Herrick, Porter Lambert and Wm. G. Conant. (YCRD 137/253) The same day he mortgaged his homestead for $800. Several of Alfred’s leading citizens stood ready to lend him money, Jeremiah Goodwin, John Holmes, his woodlot grantees and David Hall. He is described as a mechanic in these deeds. Exactly what he put his money into is not known although he may have had another invention in mind. In Jan. 1830, Leighton was helping Noble “put irons on his smut machine” and on Jan. “Mr. Noble carried his smut machine to Limington to set it up for Esq. Perry”. A smut machine winnows and cleans grains, removing the dust, chaff and weeds from the grain prior to grinding. Through the 1830’s, Noble continued his wheelwright/ farm utensil business. When Leighton began a small casting shop, casting cultivator teeth on shares with Abraham Day, Noble would buy sets of the teeth and fabricate the rest of the cultivator. In May, 1838, Andrew Noble, mechanic, and his wife sold his 5 acre homestead that formerly belonged to Thomas Noble. He sold it to the Frost family who still occupied it in 1856. (YCRD 161/279) It included a two story house, a barn and buildings and is termed “where I now live and have lived for many years.” He reserved the right to remain in half the house for 4 months. Before he left, he balanced his books with Leighton by leaving him the wood for 5 cultivators. He headed down the road with a load of oak butts on Dec. 19, 1838. By 1840, Andrew was a resident of Parsonsfield. His fate thereafter is not known to this writer.