Harvesting Old Iron: Antique Threshing Machines Restored

Wood Bros. and Sterling antique threshing machines rediscovered and restored to working condition.

Wood Bros Antique Thresher

Restoration of the Humming Bird took four years. "Just as an example," Bruce Anderson says, "there are 100 pieces of wood in each straw walker, and six straw walkers, so that’s 600 little pieces of wood."

Photo by Nikki Rajala

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Orville Anderson grew up around a 32-inch Wood Bros. threshing machine that was part of the threshing ring that operated near his home in Madelia, Minn. “He was the grain hauler,” says Orville’s son, Bruce Anderson, “and in that ring part of his responsibilities were to help grease and maintain that threshing machine, so he was pretty well versed in it.”

So it was no surprise when Orville bought a circa 1910 Wood Bros. Humming Bird thresher in 1987. “In those days you could still get antique threshing machines at farm auctions for $5,” Bruce says, “or $25 if someone was bidding against you.”

The antique thresher travels sixty miles on steel

The huge Humming Bird came from the Storden, Minn., area, some 60 miles from Madelia. “We loaded the pickup with every type of tool we could think of when we went to get it,” Bruce recalls. “Jacks, planks and everything.” Before the Humming Bird could be pulled by a four-wheel drive pickup, it had to be jacked up out of the dirt and planks were placed under the wheels. “We pulled it 60 miles on highways on those steel wheels,” Bruce says. “We had quite an adventure pulling it home.”

As it was being pulled, for instance, a front wheel came off, dropping the axle onto the road and almost snapping the pole off. “We had to jack it up on the highway and take some parts from a back wheel to the front to hold the wheel on,” Bruce says. Later, a part from the blower fell off. But by the time the Andersons returned to retrieve the part, another driver stopped, picked up the part and drove away. “So some part of the machine got away from us,” Bruce says. “We never did find out what it was.”

Restoration of the Humming Bird promised to be a huge project, so it was put on hold while Orville restored 13 other threshers, including a 22-inch Case that didn’t need a lot of work, a Case double-wing feeder from about 1910 and an almost-new Oliver Red River Special. “It was a ball-bearing machine with rubber tires,” Bruce recalls. “A nice, smooth-running machine.”

Giving the antique threshing machine a close look

Meanwhile, Orville dug in deep, studying and researching the Humming Bird. Many of the thresher’s parts had been modified and several tin pieces were missing. When he finally went to work, he stripped the old machine down to the bones.

“He knew it would be quite a project,” Bruce says. The blower pipe, for instance, consists of sections of telescoping, curved pipe. “That was a very frustrating piece to try to make,” he says. “A sheet metal shop tried to make it, but it didn’t come out right, so Dad ended up making it himself.”

The project was uniquely labor intensive. Orville built tool and die blocks to bend tiny ridges in the metal, a very challenging undertaking. “The sieves were stamped and not adjustable,” Bruce says, “so a friend offered to make necessary tool and die equipment to punch those sieves out.”

The Wood Bros. experiment

The wood on the Humming Bird was completely shot, so Orville stripped it down to the main channel-iron frame. All of the tin work was so rough that it had to be redone. In the process, Orville gained insight into industrial design. “He discovered Wood Bros. was experimenting with removing the beater behind the cylinder from the machine,” Bruce says. “They felt they could get a lot more through the machine in most conditions if that beater wasn’t behind there. It also took less power.”

Orville’s Humming Bird was originally equipped with a beater, but it had been removed at some point. The beater bearings’ location was visible, and it was obvious that pieces had been cut out of the thresher’s side. Bruce says comparison of this thresher to other machines of the era gives a glimpse at different approaches to engineering and design. “The Humming Bird’s interior is very simple, with very little inside,” he says. “Inside a Minneapolis machine, for instance, there are many more moving parts. It’s very different.”

Wood Bros. antique threshing machines: progressive design

An unusual chain-and-paddle return elevator system sets Woods Bros. threshing machines apart. The elevator stretches across the back of the machine, up one side, across the cylinder where it drops the grain into the cylinder and then goes down the other side.

A Farmers Friend straw blower, which automatically swings the blowing spout to make a larger pile of straw, is another unique feature. “Dad searched a long time to find a picture of the Farmers Friend decal and had one made,” Bruce says. “People always comment on it.”

The Humming Bird’s specifications remain a bit of a mystery. “Dad never could find out much information about this machine,” Bruce says. “I think it’s a 40-inch cylinder, but I’m not sure of the separating size.”

The vintage classic always draws a crowd at shows. “People are pretty amazed to see the Humming Bird work,” Bruce says. “When I see these machines from 100 years ago, it’s amazing that the people who designed them had the audacity to be thinking that big. But those were the years that anything was thought possible. They built the Panama Canal during that time, and that was a big enough undertaking, but they had to conceive of and design the huge machines to dig it.”

Rebirth of the Sterling thresher

The Andersons’ Sterling thresher has its roots in a Pennsylvania company. Heebner & Sons, Lansdale, Pa., built a full line of agricultural equipment including the Little Giant thresher. In about 1909, Heebner licensed production of its entire line to International Harvester Co., which began marketing it as the Sterling line.

When Orville bought a Sterling from John Norberg, Prairie Farm, Wis., the highest point on the thresher was its rear wheels. Everything else had rotted and collapsed into a pile. “We picked up what we could,” Bruce says, “and Dad did quite a bit of research to find out what it had looked like and how it operated.”

The Andersons’ Sterling, designed for use on small farms, was produced from 1915-1918. All of its pulleys, metal parts and castings were usable, but the thresher’s wood needed to be replaced. “Dad made the little metal cups for the grain elevator,” Bruce says. “He made a little jig and pounded those cups together.” After a complete restoration, the antique threshing machine became a regular at local threshing shows, working dependably in countless demonstrations.

The Sterling really is a unique little machine. “It has an overshot cylinder, so where you feed it the concave is on the top,” Bruce says. “The cylinder turns so the grain goes over the top of the cylinder, which is the same width as the cleaning area of the machine.” The Sterling has no augers. The sieves and grain shoe move side to side instead of front to back as in most threshers. “It has a little trough that slopes to the side,” he says, “so clean grain shakes one way and returns the other.”

Orville’s handmade elevator cups raise the grain and drop it into the sacker system. A valve switches back and forth allowing the operator to change sacks and keep going. The Sterling came with straw carriers in lengths up to 40 feet. A couple of webbing belts pull the straw up the incline so the end could be placed in a barn’s haymow and straw stacked there. Though this Sterling is probably a No. 26, the company had a No. 21 small enough to be used in a barn.

Then there were two antique farm machines

At the same time Orville got the Sterling thresher, he bought a 1922 McCormick-Deering hay press, also from John Norberg. “That baler was pretty well complete,” Bruce says. “Some hopper ironwork where you feed straw in had to be made new, but the rest of it was all heavy iron and very complete.”

Wood blocks through which the baling wire is fed were replaced, as was the friction clutch on the big flywheel. “Dad didn’t have a sand blaster, so everything was done with scrapers and wire brushes,” Bruce says. “He wore out a lot of pocket knives.”

Some McCormick-Deering balers of the early 1920s had a platform for the straw pitcher, but not this one. “As you feed the straw into the baler, you put a mark on the bale chamber,” Bruce explains. “When the bale gets to a certain length, you stop pitching straw, tip up the frame holding the spacer block, and a plunger takes the wood block down into the bale chamber where the main plunger pushes it into the bale area. The blocks allow wire to be fed from one side of the baler to the other, where they are twisted together by hand.”

The machine needs four or five operators, because it will push out bales very fast if someone keeps pitching the straw. And it didn’t require much power. “It was available with only a 6 hp gas engine on the frame,” Bruce says. “It had such a big flywheel that we put a little tractor on it. It hardly ever makes the tractor pull because the momentum of that big flywheel keeps it going.”

Preserving the past restoring antique threshing machines and more

Bruce and other family members are committed to keeping Orville’s collection in good order and working when possible. “It started as my father’s hobby,” Bruce says. “He started collecting in 1970 when a neighbor egged him on. He said he was too late to get into tractors, because prices had already gone up, so he started collecting threshing machines.”

Over the years, Bruce helped his father restore the vintage machinery. “After my father passed away four years ago, I decided to try to maintain the equipment,” he says. “I guess I am like the curator of the collection. I’m busier than I’d like to be and don’t have much time to do collecting on my own, but my sister Amy and I are keeping Dad’s collection here, maintained, and going at shows.” Bruce’s three sons, Paul, Tim and Jacob, help as well. Together, the family is helping honor the life of a cherished relative and preserve agricultural traditions. FC 

See the Humming Bird at work at the 2011 Rock River Thresheree in our Old Iron Videos blog.

For more information: Bruce Anderson, 27745 800th Ave., Madelia, MN 56062. 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.