Beating Swords into Plowshares

Aircraft factory turned briefly to farm implements in post-war years

15HarvestersAssembled1day.jpg

Left: During a short-term contract in the late 1940s, workers at Beechcraft assembled 15 corn harvesters per day. The finished units (which were painted bright red) were shipped by rail from the Wichita, Kan., plant to implement distributors and dealers throughout the Midwest. Those with sharp eyes will note at the top right of this photo a line of partially assembled aircraft, Beechcraft’s primary line.

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Today, when companies lose major contracts, workforce reductions are a grim but familiar routine. It was not always so: Look no further than the case of an aircraft manufacturer in the post-war years.

Sometime in April 1949, Beech Aircraft Corp., Wichita, Kan., received a million-dollar contract from the Great American Farm Implement Corp., Chicago, to produce several thousand ready-to-roll corn harvesters.

In manufacturing corn harvesters, Beech was not diversifying. In fact, the company was desperately trying to generate enough work to justify keeping experienced employees on the payroll. Although Beech continued to manufacture its mainstay aircraft, in the years immediately following World War II, many government contracts were cancelled, leaving the company with a shortage of production work. In an effort to keep its workforce intact, Beechcraft jumped at varied opportunities, including the manufacture of pie pans and refrigerator racks, in addition to agricultural implements.

The Great American corn harvester was a power takeoff-powered machine. It harvested one row of corn, and was capable of harvesting eight to 12 acres per day. The machine weighed 1,800 pounds, and was so well balanced that one person could easily hitch the unit to a tractor.

The Great American corn harvester was a power takeoff-powered machine. It harvested one row of corn, and was capable of harvesting eight to 12 acres per day. The machine weighed 1,800 pounds, and was so well balanced that one person could easily hitch the unit to a tractor.

It was not without its shortcomings, however. One Beech worker noted design problems with the unit's gearbox, where some of the turning shafts ran against the cast housing. In dusty conditions, the shafts didn't stand up well at all. The result: A field modification program to add bearings and seals to the gearbox.

The first unit was scheduled for production in May 1949, and the contract was to run into November 1950. The number of units produced is unknown.

- Farm Collector is grateful to reader Ralph Look, who submitted this information and who seeks any information related to Great American corn harvesters. Mail responses to him at: 8006 Watson Lane, Wichita, KS 67207.