Corn Picker Makes a Hard Job Easier

The Overby brothers’ corn picker made a hard job much easier.

Corn picker teeth

The “business end” of the picker. It’s easy to see how the unit would also have gathered a crop of rocks.

Photo by Jim Lacey

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More than 100 years ago, corn, while it had its advantages as feed, was difficult to do much with on a large scale. With the advent of the husker-shredder in the 1890s, corn could be cut by hand in the field, taken to the farmyard and hand-fed into the husker-shredder.

There, ears were snapped off, fed through husking rolls and elevated into a waiting wagon. Cornstalks could be chopped at the same time for use as bedding or fodder.

When the corn binder came on the scene just before 1900, the process became a bit easier. Cornstalks could be arranged in bundles, stacked in shocks in the field (like oats) and left to dry. Later, the shocks were taken to the barn to run through the husker-shredder. That sometimes meant chopping the butts of the shocks out of the ice. Surely there was a better way!

Putting their heads together

Some years before Wilbur and Orville Wright got off the ground, so to speak, the Overby brothers — John and Theodore — decided there had to be a better way to harvest corn. The brothers, who lived near Brentford, S.D., had less than 16 years of formal education between them. Starting with a new pair of binder wheels (dating their invention to 1895 or later), they built a corn picker. Family descendants set the picker’s completion date in 1904.

Like the Wrights, the Overbys did a lot of cutting and fitting and refitting — by hand. The brothers did not acquire a machine shop until 1913, when they ordered one (complete with a 6 hp Economy gas engine, which they used as a prime mover) from Sears, Roebuck & Co. Their foundry and that original machine shop are now on display at Historic Prairie Village in Madison, S.D., courtesy of the Overby family.

The Overby brothers had to be pretty determined, as all 79 castings used on their machine were made in Minneapolis, some 270 miles east. One wonders who made the patterns. And how did they compute shrinkage in the finished castings? It is easy to imagine many letters to and fro on this project. Some of the castings — like the gearing that runs the wagon elevator — are fairly complex. How were ratios established with no benchmarks to go by? The brothers also had to figure out a differential, so both wheels could furnish power and still turn at the end of the field. (This mechanism is somewhat like that employed on the early side-delivery rakes many of us used in our younger days.)

The husking bed castings were originally made for two rows of rollers but more capacity was needed, so these were cut apart with a hacksaw. Another set of rolls was inserted, using strap irons for support. As a side note, the Overby brothers also ran a substantial farm operation; in later years they used a pair of Hart-Parr 30-60 tractors, literally driving them to acreage they farmed in North Dakota.

The Overbys put their picker through extensive field testing. In one trial, corn stalks were jammed into holes in a field. As winter ice and snow filled the holes, the stalks were frozen in position. The Overbys then ran their picker down this manufactured “row,” testing the unit’s performance.

Surprisingly advanced

Fortunately for the restorer, Overby family descendants had five original black-and-white photos dating to the picker’s invention. The unrestored picker showed changes from the original photographs, indicating a “work in progress.”

One obvious change was the addition of a sickle at the top of the gathering section to cut off any errant stalks making it up that far, as the unit had no snapping rolls. The very nature of open-pollinated corn (as well as damage by corn borers) resulted in regular ear drops. To deal with that, adjustable snouts and gathering chains were designed to pick up ears from the ground. Rocks could also make the trip to the top.

It would appear that the man running the picker would be fully engaged in its operation. He’d have to keep the unit centered on the row, manage several horses pulling the picker and watch for the fellow with a couple more horses on a wagon as that man tried to catch ears from the wagon elevator.

Superior craftsmanship

Much of the picker was built from used flat iron, bent to its new purpose. To cut friction, many roller bearings were employed. On one end of the main power shaft, a flywheel was used to store power for tough spots. In restoration a new flywheel was cast from a handcrafted pattern.

Shafting was made longer via forge welding, heating iron close to its melting point, adding flux and beating pieces together right smartly. Remarkably, the Overbys achieved straight shafts, even after welding pieces together. How do you hold all those pieces of wood and metal together? Simple: Somehow, you make your own bolts and drill, then drill through 18 inches of sandwiched hardwood pieces, creating a hole of light to come out right where you want it to be. It’s pretty amazing, really.

The picker’s only commercially made parts are two binder wheels and a mower seat (and its spring). The spring was shaped to fit the job at hand via heating and bending. Universal joints were also handcrafted. The more you compare the finished machine with photos taken during its construction, the more evident the subsequent changes — all in an attempt to get it right.

Decades ago, corn was planted in 42-inch rows, two or three kernels to a hill, 42 inches apart, so you could cross-cultivate to kill more weeds. Possibly that would give a picker more time to “digest” incoming corn. Maybe that is why there was a need for another set of husking rolls. The husking area is designed so each ear is held down against the rolls and then released to drop into the wagon elevator.

The restored picker was a worker: It had seen enough use that parts were worn out prior to the time it was abandoned in a grove where it would stay for decades. In operation, the unit was pulled by six horses. Even pulling was assured by a chain-and-pulley system to the eveners; pulling was done from the axle. A spring assisted in lifting the gathering section; an old binder pedal went to the clutch, so the machine could be taken out of gear as needed. No grease cups were used; everything was hand-oiled. Newer pieces had wood and babbitt bearings; these were also hand-oiled. Babbitt can tolerate oil shortages; wood bearings, when soaked with oil, often do just fine. As a side note, lots of combine straw walkers used wood bearings.

Historic relic restored

Fast forward to recent times. The historic picker was donated to the South Dakota State Agricultural Heritage Museum, Brookings, S.D., by descendants of the Overby brothers. Bill Lee, retired exhibit and restoration curator — and a master restorer in my estimation and that of many others — took this pile of rotten wood and rusty iron and made it what it was a short hundred years back.

Working from old photos and some “eureka” moments, he reassembled the unit in some 1,600 hours. He had to have some castings rebuilt and find the correct type and size of lumber to make it all look “right.” No detail was too small. To make the unit as authentic as possible, correct nuts and bolts were produced specifically for the picker. In short, Bill did an amazing job; the restored picker is now on display at the South Dakota State Agricultural Heritage Museum.

Legend surrounding the Overby picker suggests that IHC got wind of the invention early on. A dog barking in the night was said to have alerted folks to a fellow looking at the picker while it was stored in a shed; IHC was said to beat the Overbys to the patent office. In the end, the Overbys won a patent on part of their unit, plus they had the satisfaction of making a hard job easier. FC

Check out a video on restoration of the Overby picker.

For more information:

– Jim and Joan Lacey operate Little Village Farm, a museum of farm collectibles housed in 10 buildings at their home near Dell Rapids, S.D. Contact them at (605) 428-5979.

– South Dakota State Agricultural Heritage Museum (located on the campus of South Dakota State University), 925 11th St., Brookings, SD 57007; phone (605) 688-6226. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Sundays January-March.