HISTORY OF THE COOK CAR
By Verl Cutler
Years ago I became interested in the role that the cook car played in the history of threshing. My wife Mary and I decided to buy a cook car and refurbish it as a project. We located one that was in fairly good repair and hauled it home. We cleaned it up and made some minor repairs and after building a long plank table with bench seats on both sides, we were ready to host a cook car party.
We tried to make it as authentic as possible while still making it comfortable for our guests. We covered the table with an oilcloth checkered tablecloth and placed two vases filled with unthreshed wheat bouquets on the table. We were now ready for our first party. We rang the dinner bell and held the first of many parties in our renovated cook car.
After we were done hosting cook car parties, we felt that others should be able to enjoy that as well. Our first thought was that it needed a permanent home in Andover. We are very happy to see it put to good use during the Annual Show.
The history of the cook car dates back to the 1800’s. They were restaurants on wheels where meals were prepared for threshing crews. The men sat at a long table with benches at each side. The car measured approximately 8 foot wide by 30 feet long and was usually pulled up into the farmer’s yard next to an artesian well or surface well pump for easy access to a water source.
They would feed a crew of 20 to 25 men for each meal. The cooks, usually women, were up before dawn getting ready to feed the workers at 5 a.m. Although the job was hard, forty cents an hour was considered good pay. Their first job was to see that there were clean towels, soap, and water outside for the men to wash before each meal. Bedtime for the cooks, if they were lucky, was 11 p.m., and often it was midnight. Most of the time, the cooks slept on a cot behind a curtain at the end of the cook car.
At mealtime, the men trooped in from the field, dusty and dirty, with sweat dripping off their faces and soaking through their faded blue shirts. There were tin basins, soap, and worn-out towels ready with scorching hot water available to cut the chill of the well water. The threshers used a “dipper” to get fresh well water out of buckets. Threshing was incredibly dirty work so washing required sloshing it on their faces, over their necks, and behind their ears.
Tables were set and the men were served three meals a day plus lunches. Baking was done on a coal and wood stove. They baked all their bread, cookies, and pies. Breakfast was toast or pancakes, eggs and bacon or hot cereal. Someone would do the breakfast dishes while the head cook did the baking or started the forenoon lunch. Afternoon lunch was sent to the field with the grain haulers. After the noon dishes were washed, the cooks washed the dishtowels on a washboard and then mopped the floor. Since there was no refrigeration, the owner of the rig went to town almost every day for meat.
Lunches were hearty meals that consisted of meat and potatoes, platters of fried chicken, freshly baked bread with home-churned butter, ham, and pork. Dessert was apple, raisin, pumpkin, peach, cherry and mince pie all hot from the oven. The evening meal would probably have soup, hash brown potatoes or American fried potatoes, stew or other meat, vegetables and pudding or sauce made from fresh or dried fruit, coffee and cake or cookies.
As soon as the supper dishes were washed it was time to set the table and turn the plates upside down over the silverware. The bread dough was made for the next day’s baking. After a few hours sleep, they woke up and did it all over again.
Exerpt from story by Verl Cutler.
Before the Feed Bin served food at the Shows, meals were prepared and served in the Cook Car.