Minnesota Chief Threshing Machine

The night Aldergrove outwitted “Uncle Sam”

By Rudy Langmann

In the west the sky was fast turning from a vivid purple into a dark grey mass as the eleven men in a single file emerged from the dim forest.  Quiet but determined they walked out into the clearing which stretched as far as you could see in an easterly and westerly direction.  They didn’t speak and you couldn’t hear their footsteps on the wet meadow.  Like a ghost train they glided along.

As the party proceeded the bullfrogs in the nearby swamp and the crickets in the meadow ceased their melodious music but only for a short moment before resuming like nothing had happened.  Two deer grazing in the meadow caught the scent of the men and in an unhurried trot disappeared into the dense bush where the small creek came out of the dark shadows.

The men stopped and gathered around the leader, a tall, gaunt-faced man.

“Where is it, John?”  one of the young men asked, and the one called John instead of answering just held out his arm and pointed in a southerly direction.  The other men nodded, and without any further talk they disappeared back into the woods from whence they had come.  A few minutes later they gathered once more in the dark clearing, this time dragging cedar rails along the ground.  One of the men held up an oil lamp.

“Are we all here now?” asked Johan Peter Swanson.  “My friends on the other side of the border are waiting for us.”  He talked in a hushed voice.  “There, Silas lay your rails across the swamp right here.  Get Robert to help you.”  And once more silence, this time only broken by the soft noise of tree trunks being sucked down in the mire.

The men worked intensely for about two hours piling cedar logs upon cedar logs and finally the big Swede motioned them ahead.  They crossed the international boundary just four miles south of Jackman’s Corner and about a mile from the border crossing at Patricia.

The year was 1896 and the late summer’s day had been a real scorcher.  The approaching night, however, was pleasant for the work that lay ahead of the eleven Aldergrove friends and neighbours.  A light breeze wafted across the low land north of Lynden in Whatcom County.

The men once more formed into a single file and the train slid across a field to a lonely American farmhouse a few hundred yards south of the international boundary.

For some years already customs officers had checked the travellers passing across the boundary.  On the Canadian side Bill Vanetta was the customs officer and travellers had to check in with him at his office-home near Shortreed’s Corner.  Vanetta had first been unofficial customs officer before being commissioned to the job by decree from Ottawa in 1887.  The official American customs was at Fort Townsend.

A light shone through the window in the small, but neat farmhouse and Johan Swenson walked up to the door, knocked and entered.  Inside the room another 15 men were gathered most of them standing around a small table and a few handmade chairs.  “We’ve been waiting for you, Johan,” a stout looking farmer said.  A woman, busy brewing coffee at a hot burning stove, smiled at the newcomers.

“I don’t think we’ll have time for a cup of your coffee tonight, Sophie” said Johan.   “We have work ahead of us.”  The American farmer nodded agreement, and the men all got to their feet.

Through the now total darkness moved the enlarged army of men.  “It’s all ready, Jim,” said Johan, and then not another word was spoken.

Quietly, the 26 men moved out into a field near the U.S. – Canadian border where they were joined by another thirteen dark shadows and all of a sudden a large piece of farm machinery loomed in the pitch black silhouette in front of them.  And like true soldiers every one of the men knew what his job was to be.  They started pulling and pushing the huge monstrosity toward the bog which the eleven Canadians had crossed on their cedar rails about half an hour earlier.  The noise now only being the creaking of the wheels on the large steam threshing machine, a bit of huffing and puffing and the occasional mumbled swearword.

The sun was casting its first rays across the mountains in the east when the men finally stopped.  They had pulled the large machine across the quagmire on the wooden rails and onto Canadian territory and hidden it away alongside the trail that led to Jackman’s Corner.  They sat down and chatted for a while and for the first time laughter was heard.  Then the American farmers and Indian braves bade farewell and left in the opposite direction for their homes at Alder Grove and a much needed rest.

Later that Sunday afternoon Johan Swanson came back with a team of oxen to retrieve his expensive machine and pull it back to the homestead on the Yale Wagon Trail.  He felt good.  The Stars and Stripes which had been painted all over his thresher he scratched away before he hitched up his team.  Young Bill had come along this time and his father was whistling while the thrasher slowly bumped along the narrow, potholed trail.

Johan had bought the 10 horsepower “Minnesota Chief” a few months earlier in Canada for $300.00  It had been shipped out from Hamilton, Ontario, and all the savings of the small pioneer family had been invested in the venture.  It had paid off, it was the first steam-powered thrasher in the lower mainland and Johan had been kept busy doing custom work for farmers in Langley, Surrey and Delta, moving the machine from farm to farm with his team of oxen.  And then his friends and former neighbours from south of the 49th parallel had asked him to do their work as well.  He’d agreed when they promised to clear the paper work at the customs in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. But somehow, somebody had slipped up.  Only Johan didn’t know.

It had taken him and his older son Charles about two weeks to do all the American fields around the town of Lynden and the season was just about over when the sheriff caught up with the Aldergrove entrepreneur.  He appeared one day at a farm just south of the Canadian border, claimed the machine in the name of the U.S. of A. and painted Old Glory in three of four prominent places on the steam thrasher.  It was revealed that no arrangements had been made at the far – off port – of – entry and furthermore, that an American plying the same trade had heard of the Canadian “pirate”, and jealously had complained to the local authorities at Whatcom.  The machine was to be hauled away and sold at auction in the Puget Sound Community.

However, the word spread as wildfire, and an anonymous group of famers, small businessmen and tradesmen formed in Lynden that very same Saturday afternoon.  Indians from the local band joined the group and those were the men Johan and his neighbours had met that dark night south of the border.

The Washington State sheriff was fuming but nobody knew who had done the dastardly deed.  Only Johan received word that he better not ever again set foot upon American soil or he would surely be arrested.

The tall, powerful Swede remained in his adopted Canada.

Copyright (C) The Star

The foregoing short story is a chapter in a book about early Aldergrove to be published by The Star.  It is a true event, taken from the diary of an early Aldergrove pioneer.

The machine mentioned in the story, the first steam operated thrasher in the lower mainland, was many years later sold to the Forslund brothers of Langley who in turn donated it to  the Fort Langley farm museum when this was opened about six years ago. 

It can still be seen by visitors to the museum although “Old Glory” has disappeared long ago.  And, we expect, the American authorities have forgiven the Aldergrove hillbillies.