Family Ties Made of Hay Baling Wire

Four generations of a Minnesota family share the old iron gene through collecting hay balers.

international baling chamber

The International’s baling chamber.

Photo by Bill Vossler

Content Tools

When Doug Johnson’s father, Lloyd, retired, the rural Shafer, Minnesota, man took up the old iron hobby in a big way. “I’d been collecting for a while by then,” Doug says, “but he just blew me away with everything he was collecting. My dad is 89, and still working at it. He keeps us going.”

Today, four generations of the Johnson family are active collectors. Doug’s brother and sisters (Brad, Sharon and Julie) are collectors, as are many of their children and grandchildren. “Everybody has a little part,” Doug says.

Many pieces from the family collection are housed and shown at the Almelund, Minnesota, Threshing Show, northwest of Taylors Falls, Minnesota. A trio of stationary hay balers – an International, Case and Massey Ferguson – are family favorites. As working units at the show, they’re also reliable crowd pleasers.

IH unit has local ties

The Johnsons’ 1920s International Harvester Co. baler came from a nearby farm museum. “My dad bought it from them about 20 years ago,” Doug says. “We decided not to restore it any more than was required to keep it running. We prefer the old rusty look.”

History on the old machine is spotty, as the owners of the museum have passed away. “He was a local auctioneer who picked up stuff all over the place,” Doug says. “It’s pretty hard now to trace where it came from.”

Everything on the baler was workable when they got it. “There were a few bushing issues that we tightened up,” Doug says, “and the wood blocks for braking were worn out, so we had to make new ones. We oiled it up and freed the works, and it worked as it did before. If something comes up, we fix it, but we want to keep it original.”

At some point, the baler must have had some timing issues, as part of the plunger arm that feeds the straw had been broken and put back together – but not quite according to Hoyle. “Many years ago, somebody did something not quite right,” Doug says.

Getting the piece prepared for work each year is not complicated. “We just belt it up and get it turned on slow so the oil cocks get oiled,” he says. “There’s not a lot of maintenance, because few of the bushings can be oiled. So preparation is minimal.”

Efficient, but dangerous

In use, the stationary baler was pulled out to a field, positioned next to a hay or straw stack and belted up. Once the unit was running, hay or straw was thrown onto a collapsible wooden table. A worker on top shoved stalks into the chamber each time before the plunger advanced. 

Doug says the International really produces bales, if there are enough workers on the crew. Three or four people are required to put it through its paces. “You need one guy pitching the hay or straw, one guy poking wires through the blocks (also called spacer boards or blocks), another guy tying the wires and one more on the hand brake to stop the machine when you need to put another board in or if something goes wrong.”

Get a pitchfork too close to the working parts, for instance, and it’ll be jerked right out of your hands. “That’s the only time the machine clogs,” Doug says with a laugh. “If you’re not watching what you do with the pitchfork, and don’t time things right, it will grab the pitchfork and that’s the end of it. Some guys have lost pitchforks. It’s a dangerous piece of equipment. When we run it at a show, we run it at a slow speed – about half-speed – instead of what it’s supposed to be, because there are too many moving parts.”

Board placement critical

Belted to one of the Johnsons’ old tractors, the baler is a true crowd pleaser.

A bell is set to determine bale length. As the plunger pushes the bale down the chute, the bell rings, indicating enough hay or straw is in the chute to make the specified length of bale. “That means it’s time to slide in another board with a special slot,” Doug says.

Slotted 1-inch plywood boards are dropped in at the beginning and end of each bale. The board allows wire to be slid lengthways around the bale on the side so it can be tied, making the bale easier to handle. As soon as the end board on a bale is inserted, a leading board for the next bale must be inserted as well, or it would be impossible to get one in because of the compression of the hay or straw.

“If you miss putting a board in, you let the hay or straw push out, and run it through again, rebaling it,” Doug says. “It’s pretty much like what’s done with newer balers.”

As the bale comes out, workers on each side tie the wire and put in the next board and wire. “It’s dangerous work,” Doug admits, “but there’s a hand brake on the main wheel to stop the whole works to get the board in and get it rolling again.”

A pair of tension wheels near the end of the unit is used to turn the bale tighter or looser from the top down. “If you get them packed too tight or too heavy you have to loosen those tension wheels,” Doug says. “They are strictly for bale density.”

On-the-job training

No one in the family had previous experience with a baler like the International, so members of the first crew had to learn by the seat of their pants. “It’s like that with a lot of that old equipment,” Doug says. “But this baler is a fun thing to run.”

As new equipment, the unit was sold with a table used when feeding in hay or straw by hand. By the time the Johnsons got their baler, its table was long gone and they haven’t gotten around to adding a replacement. “With a table, you can fill faster,” Doug explains. “As it is, if we’re running the baler wide open like it’s meant to be used, we can make a new bale every 10 or 15 seconds. When we run it slower, as we usually do, the plunger cycles every five or 10 seconds, so it could take five minutes to make a bale.”

Wire to tie the bales is purchased from a Minneapolis vendor. “It’s the same 10-foot wire used for cardboard balers,” Doug says, “with a turned loop on one end where the other end of the wire is pushed through and twisted tight.”

Doug says early IHC balers remained largely unchanged for years, making them difficult to date. “You don’t see many of them up in this country,” he says, “but that could be because potatoes were grown around here. And I’ve only seen one other at a show.”

Many show-goers have no idea what they’re looking at when they see the balers. “The people who didn’t grow up on a farm will say, ‘Wow, what a piece of machinery.’ But they don’t realize how dangerous all the moving parts are,” he says. “You can lose an arm real quick working on this machine. You’ve got to pay attention.”

March of progress

At about the same time Doug graduated from high school, his dad bought a 1965 Massey Ferguson No. 9 baler. “When he lost help, he needed a better baler,” Doug says. “That ’65 model was the first year they had a belt kicker. The bale hit turning belts back there, and it was spit back out into the wagon, so it became a one-person operation out in the field.”

A 1950 Case Model NCM baler is another popular Johnson family exhibit. “We had one just like it on the farm,” Doug says, “and though this isn’t the same one, it was used in the area and came from the same local museum. It was actually used over there before they set it out in the weeds.”

When the Johnsons used their Case NCM, Doug says the wire-tie machine was pulled out into the field through the windrow with one person on the tractor and two more (one on each side of the baler in back of the chute) to tie the wire as the bales came through. “There also had to be one man on the hayrack,” he adds, “so it was a four-man operation to bale with that one.”

Sitting next to the plunger, the two men with the job of tying wires were stuck in what had to be about the dustiest, dirtiest place on the farm. “I remember one of my uncles coming out of the field after doing that,” Doug says. “He was wearing an eye mask, and when he took it off, he looked like a raccoon. The only thing that was white was right around his eyes. It was a dirty, dirty job, but it was still better than working on the earlier balers.”

The Case always draws a crowd. “It seems everybody used one of these older balers at one time,” he says. “This one has been painted and completely restored with an umbrella and the whole bit. It has a new engine, new belts and the busted-up sheet metal parts we remade.”

During the first year they showed it, a man offered $6,000 for the piece. “But we turned it down,” Doug says. “After all that work, we decided we would just as soon hang onto it.”

Making it work again

The Johnsons own dozens of pieces of old iron, mostly International Harvester. “That’s interesting, because we never had any reds on the farm as we were growing up,” Doug says. “But now Dad has pretty much all the tractors from the McCormick-Deering I-12 (built by International Harvester from 1934-’36) up through the Model H and Model M, nearly the whole line of Internationals. Maybe he thought they would be worth more eventually, because IH went under.”

Other lines in the collection include Massey Ferguson, Case, Massey-Harris, CO-OP, Caterpillar and a Rumely 15-30 OilPull that Doug refers to as Lloyd’s “big ticket item.”

The brands, though, seem less important than the heritage. “We grew up with a lot of that stuff, and once you start with it, there’s no stopping,” he says. “You get hooked on it. You dig up these old treasures and get them working again. Some of this stuff is hard to find, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. So the fun is finding it, and seeing if you can make it work again.” FC


For more information: Doug Johnson, 34320 Red Wing Ave., Shafer, MN 55074; (612) 532-5253.

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; or by email