A Penchant for Red Machinery

Red machinery, including International Harvester and Deering implements dating to the 1920s, are brought back to life.

Deering binder

In about 1920, this 8-foot Deering grain binder sold for $115.58 – about $1,428 in today’s terms.

Photo by Bill Vossler

Content Tools

As a kid, Arnold Zempel fell in love with red farm machinery, from Deering right on up through International Harvester. “When I was in preschool, my dad traded our 1941 John Deere Model A for a 1953 Farmall Super H,” he recalls. “He’d already purchased another Farmall at an auction, and he liked driving it better than the John Deere.”

Arnold’s pair of older brothers had John Deere toys emulating the full-size equipment used on the family farm near Montevideo, Minnesota. “At that time more John Deere toys were made than most of the others and they were made of metal, but I didn’t want one of those,” he says. “I wanted a red one, and all they could find was a red Farmall made out of plastic. Even though it was played with and used, I still have that toy today.”

Along with it, he has a penchant for red machinery. Although Arnold’s collection includes pieces from other lines, he farms primarily with IH equipment. That led to a string of old red machinery, beginning with an F-20 tractor purchased at an auction. “It was something I was interested in because I grew up on a farm,” he says. “As I bought more, I thought it was just interesting and fun to look at the development of the engineering and how it progressed. It might also have something to do with my engineering degree from the University of Minnesota.”

Awed by steam technology

Like many collectors, Arnold’s interest in old machinery was whetted when he attended a threshing show in the late 1950s. “I found that very fascinating,” he says. “Seeing a steam engine was probably the main attraction. Some of those big heavyweight tractors really looked like antiques, because they were something way older than I was used to seeing.”

Arnold also garnered information from his father, Harold. “He had knowledge of that kind of equipment, because he’d seen it,” he says. “I’d watched steam, but had never been around it much. It’s a different kind of engineering and far more dangerous to work with because you have to maintain the boilers, watch the water pressure and levels and all the other things required to work with steam. It’s extremely expensive to maintain and operate.”

As he began building a collection, Arnold knew the heavyweights predating 1920 were out of his reach. “They were expensive then and they’re still expensive, so I started buying red equipment from the 1920s and ‘30s,” he says. “I was really looking more for all the corn machinery – for corn planting, elevating and cutting silage. Even though I remember it all, it was out of date by the time I could have used it. One of my dad’s brothers-in-law still used some of that equipment into the 1960s, but I didn’t get to see it much. We did a lot of custom corn shelling when I grew up, so I’m very familiar with shelling corn.”

Fueled by nostalgia, he began looking for old corn-related machinery in the late 1970s: a corn binder, stationary ensilage cutter and a steel-wheeled ground lift plow. And as every collector says, it just took off from there.

Starting with a binder

For Arnold, a Deering grain binder was just another piece of equipment to add to his collection of red machinery dating to the 1920s-’30s. “It was still being produced in the mid-1920s, but I’m not sure what year mine was built,” he says. “It was owned by the Minnesota Machinery Museum, and when they had an auction to get rid of some inventory, I figured that was the kind of equipment I would buy. It’s IH and it’s from that 1920s-1930s era.

“There were a lot of corn machines built in that era – corn binders, planters and shellers – and I have almost a complete line of equipment, though most of it is unrestored and needs some work,” he adds. “Most of them were originally horse-drawn and ground-driven, but were converted later into tractor use.”

In the early 1920s, only a few tractors – like the International Harvester 8-16 – had PTOs, and they were built in small numbers. “I think it became standard equipment on Farmalls in about 1924,” he says.

Arnold says he never rode the grain binder when he was a kid, but he’s seen binders used. “The grain binder is a major step up from the reaper,” he says, “which just left the grain laying in a little pile in the field, and the field hands would come by and tie it by hand. That was very slow compared to the self-tying binder.”

Evolution of the binder

A ground-driven bull wheel provides power to the gears and chains, that in turn provide power to the sickle and the canvases that bring the grain up to the knotters and needles to make a bundle. “It makes a bundle similar to the way a baler makes a bale, but it’s much, much smaller,” Arnold says, “and usually there’s only one string on the bundle.”

At first, the bundles were tied together with wire, which did not prove very effective. “Before that, they used hand-tying similar to that of a marsh harvester,” he says, “but that was a killer, because the grain just keeps on coming.” Finally, in the late 1800s, William Deering invented a binder that used twine and a knotter, simplifying the entire process.

After about half a dozen bundles accumulate on the grain binder (the number depending on shock size), the bundles are dropped in a pile. Later, a crew sets the shocks. “The standing grain is cut and each bundle is tied in the same place,” Arnold says. “You can adjust where each one is tied by moving the board that they are packed against. The longer the grain, the higher the bundles have to be tied or else they fall apart. I’ve done a little bit of shocking at a couple of shows, so I’ve seen how that works. That was all ancient history by the time I could remember, though my dad said he was still threshing when I was 2 years old.”

Initially a one-man operation

Originally a horse-drawn machine, the Deering grain binder required only one person to operate it. “A horse didn’t need a lot of direction all the time, so one guy could do it,” Arnold explains. “When a tractor was used on this kind of equipment, you could do it with one person, if you had the materials that made the arrangements so the tractor could be driven from the binder seat with a steering mechanism and linkages, and a method to clutch the tractor. But that proved awkward. I’m sure more of them were sold than were used much.”

A second person was required then, usually a youngster age 8-10 to drive the tractor. “Driving a tractor around the field wasn’t considered that difficult a job,” he says. By age 15 or 16, that youth was considered a full-grown man capable of performing harder labor.

Deering grain binders were made in three cut widths: 6-, 7- and (like Arnold’s) 8-foot. In 1925 advertising, this binder was said to have “a reputation for harvesting down and tangled grain successfully, and the ball and roller bearings made it light. If there were more bushings, it would pull harder.” Four horses were shown pulling the piece.

Although many Deering grain binders were built, Arnold says, by now most have been scrapped. “It’s always surprising to find that a number of them are still around,” he says. “But most of that stuff has been picked up by collectors, people who collect machinery and will drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to swap meets and auctions.”

Comprehensive collection

Arnold’s collection includes most of the tillage equipment used on a farm in the 1920s and ’30s. “I’m sure there are a few pieces I don’t have,” he says, “but I think I have quite a bit of it: discs, plows, field cultivators, diggers, many of them both horse-drawn and tractor-drawn.”

An International Harvester No. 3 corn picker is one of the rarest pieces in his collection. Built in two versions from 1922-’29, one model was ground-driven and the other was PTO-driven, to be pulled by tractor. “They made only a few of the PTO-driven model, which is the one I have,” he says. “They are quite rare; you don’t see them around. I don’t know of many others that are in shape. This one is in working order, but I haven’t used it.”

A stationary Climax Model D silage cutter built in New York takes Arnold back to his childhood. “We had cows and fed calves when I was a kid, and obviously we had to fill silage,” he says. “We hauled the corn and elevated it up to the corn cribs, usually in the evenings or weekends. We used pitchforks to unload the silage.”

Demonstrating lost arts

Arnold enjoys displaying his machinery at threshing shows. He began demonstrating a stationary silage cutter and corn binder in the 1980s. Since then, he’s expanded his display. “I don’t do the same thing all the time, because that becomes boring,” he says. “In the last few years I’ve been working with a group that does horse-powered events close to home. We’ve demonstrated a stationary burr mill that’s horse powered, a horse-drawn potato planter and a few other pieces from my collection.”

The demonstrations invariably spur comments from onlookers. “Most interesting to me are the very senior citizens who talk about their memories of using similar equipment,” he says. “One year we demonstrated a corn drier and a hand-crank sheller for small amounts of seed. People told us stories about helping to sort seed when they were kids, and how they hung seed in the granary to keep mice away from it. That’s the most fun, hearing stories from that era many years before my time.” FC

For more information:

- Arnold Zempel, 150 60th St. SE, Montevideo, MN 56265; (320) 269-8003.

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.