Agricultural history is laden with machines and ideas that were ahead of their time.
That’s particularly true of the harvesting equipment developed by Curtis, George and Ernest Baldwin, three brothers who grew up on a farm near Nickerson, Kan. Credited with developing the Baldwin Gleaner combine line – including the industry’s first self-propelled combine – the brothers also introduced the first standing corn combine.
However, for all the success in the Baldwin brothers’ lives, there seems to have been an equal number of failures. One of those was the Baldwin standing grain harvester developed in 1911. The first machine of its type, it was designed to take threshing to the field by stripping grain heads from standing grain and delivering them to a cylinder for threshing. Unfortunately, the Baldwin Mfg. Co., which was established to build the machine, folded in 1918.
The Curtis combine, built in 1930 and named after the oldest Baldwin brother, was equally short-lived. In fact, the Curtis combine was built for only one year, making the machines extremely rare today. In the case of the Curtis combine, though, you might say there was a separation of direction between the brothers and the Gleaner brand in general.
Blood thicker than water
It all started in 1918, shortly after the failure of the standing grain combine and the Baldwin Mfg. Co. While Ernest and George Baldwin (along with Clarence Stevens) reorganized as Baldwin Brothers Co., Curtis went to work for Savage Harvester Co. While he was with the Savage company in Denver, he began working on his idea for a tractor-mounted (or self-propelled) combine. However, before his idea could be put on the market, the Savage enterprise failed and the assets were acquired by Advance-Rumely Thresher Co. Consequently, Curtis moved to LaPorte, Ind., where he worked for Rumely from 1922 to 1924.
In the meantime, George and Ernest, along with Stevens and George Michael, were in Wichita, Kan., designing the self-propelled Gleaner, which was built around the Fordson tractor. However, it has been long suspected that Curtis Baldwin actually sent his ideas for the Gleaner to his brothers and Stevens, who ultimately patented the design.
Shortly thereafter, Curtis Baldwin left Rumely and rejoined his brothers as vice president of the company. He began development of a new pull-type combine that was introduced in 1927. Unfortunately, misfortune frowned on the Baldwins once again. Due to a large financial loss in 1926, Stephen Hale, who had advanced a significant amount of financial capital to the company, demanded a reorganization. At that point Gleaner Mfg. Co. reorganized and changed its name to Gleaner Combine Harvester Corp.
Having completed the design and testing of a 10-foot pull-type combine at about the same time, Curtis naturally expected the new corporation to build his machine. When the board refused, Curtis packed his bags a second time and formed his own company, which he named Baldwin Harvester Co.
“The Gleaner Corp., however, filed suit to protect its trademark ‘Gleaner-Baldwin’ name,” says Norm Swinford, a 30-year Allis-Chalmers employee and author of Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment 1914-1985. “The suit was settled and the name of Curtis’ company was changed to Curtis Harvesters Inc. and his pull-type combine was marketed as the Curtis Model 30, since it was introduced in 1930.”
Building the Curtis
According to Swinford, the Curtis harvester was built by Ottawa (Kan.) Mfg. Co., under Curtis Baldwin’s supervision. The combine was also sold directly to the customer, rather than through a dealer network, since Curtis believed that the dealer “did little or nothing to merit his commission.”
Unlike other pull-type combines, the header on the Curtis design was positioned to the right side of the tractor instead of the left. Baldwin’s idea was that the header would be on the side of the road closest to the ditch during transport. Curtis also felt that a combine with a 10-foot cutting width needed a bigger engine than most companies were using. He added a Waukesha Model V engine, which offered a significant power increase over the Ford Model A engine used on the 10-foot Gleaner machine. Finally, Curtis added a feed regulator (or cylinder feeder) ahead of the beater to increase capacity.
Curtis had barely gotten its feet on the ground when the Great Depression hit; the company was one of the early fatalities. Shortly after the Model 31 was introduced in 1931, the company went out of business. At that point, Curtis Baldwin went on to work on threshing and separation using rotary principles – drifting forever away from Gleaner and the Baldwin company. A few years later, Curtis Baldwin sold all his patents to Massey-Harris, and then in 1960, he died in California at the age of 58.
Gleaner Harvester Corp., as it came to be known, was purchased by Allis-Chalmers in 1955. Thirty years later, Allis-Chalmers Corp. (which included Gleaner) was purchased by Kloeckner-Humboldt-Deutz A.G. (KHD) of West Germany and renamed Deutz-Allis. Finally, in 1990, a group of U.S.-based KHD senior managers and investors acquired the Deutz-Allis Corp. from KHD to form AGCO Corp. Today, AGCO continues to build and market Gleaner combines throughout North America.
Today, only five Curtis combines are known to exist. Gleaner combine enthusiast Ed Larson, Milan, Kan., owns four of them. (Read more about Ed Larson’s collection: “ Rare Documents Complement Curtis Combine Collection .”) One was basically complete when he bought it, and he has salvaged enough parts from the other three to assemble a second complete unit.
In the meantime, Gilbert Vust, an Allis-Chalmers collector from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, has located a fifth Curtis and rebuilt it to a point that he used it to harvest several acres of wheat in the summers of 2008 and 2009. Serial numbers from all five machines owned by Gilbert and Ed are from 1930 units.
“I managed to locate this one on a farm in southwest Nebraska near Hayes Center,” Gilbert says. “It was purchased new by the grandfather of the guy I bought it from and it had not been used for about 55 years.
“He told me that his grandfather had used it for almost 19 years, or until he could no longer get any parts for it, since the company had long since gone out of business,” he adds. “So, the machine was parked and abandoned and the farmer replaced it with a new Gleaner.”
As one would expect, Gilbert says, the combine was in pretty bad shape. Virtually all wooden components had rotted, which meant that Gilbert had to fabricate new parts for the reel, chaffer and sieve, as well as a unique set of raker bars that the Curtis machine used to pull the straw back across the sieve.
Gilbert also had to patch several pieces of sheet metal, replace several chains and sprockets, fabricate new leg housings and paddles for the elevators and rebuild the raddle that feeds straw to the cylinder.
“I basically worked on the machine off and on for more than a year,” Gilbert says. “The thing that took the most time to rebuild was the grain pan under the machine. It was literally in two pieces tied together with baling wire. The engine, on the other hand, wasn’t in too bad of shape, although I did take it all apart and tighten the bearings.”
Numbers remain elusive
While Gilbert has been successful in restoring his Curtis (the only one known in running condition), he’s been less successful finding out how many Curtis combines were actually built.
“We’ve never been able to find any kind of record on combine production, so we thought maybe we could get an estimate by finding out how many engines the Waukesha company shipped to the Ottawa factory,” he explains. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find a number that way either.
“About the only thing I’ve been able to learn is that the serial number on the engine in one of Ed Larson’s combines is one number away from the serial number on my machine,” he says. “So it’s either a real coincidence or there weren’t that many of them built in the first place.
“We may still have a few things to discover about the Curtis machine,” he concludes. “But at least it’s not going to disappear into history.” FC