Trio of Old Iron Collectors Restore Threshing Machines for Pioneer Power Show

Minnesota trio brings antique threshing machines to life at LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show.

Machine has a carefully rolled belt

Note how carefully the belt is rolled up on this machine. 

Photo Courtesy Bill Vossler

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When it comes to antique threshing machines, great minds think alike at least at the LeSueur County (Minn.) Pioneer Power Assn. Three members of that club have joined forces to restore half a dozen ancient threshers, four of which are club-owned. In addition, the trio has 19 threshers (including eight jointly owned rigs), most of which are restored.

Dwight playfully blames Doug. “My interest in old iron goes back to my folks,” says Dwight, who lives in Mankato, Minn. “They collected household antiques. When Doug was a mechanic for my bus garage, he was interested in old iron. Doug kept hinting toward giving him a hand with the threshing at the LeSueur show, so I got started in that field.”

Mark remembers learning about threshers as a boy. At age 5, he listened to his father and a neighbor talk about a thresher. “I was sitting on a stump, watching them,” he recalls. “But I never in my life thought I would buy a thresher and run it.” Mark, who now lives in Good Thunder, Minn., bought his first threshing machine for $350 at a 1995 auction. Working on it at night and on weekends, he spent two years restoring the piece, “wire brushing the angle iron and hand-painting it,” he says.

Doug, also of Good Thunder, was fascinated with old iron as a kid. “Neighbors had vintage equipment,” he says. “They farmed with old 2-cylinder John Deere tractors, planted and cultivated, and that fueled my interest.” When he was 15, he saw a thresher listed on a local farm sale. Doug knew very little about threshers but that didn’t stop him. “In the mid-1970s I bought my first threshing machine for $100,” he says. “It was a 1928 Avery with a 28-inch cylinder. It had been shedded, so it needed mostly belt work and paint.”

The threshers gathered up by the three men represent most of the major lines of the past. Dwight’s set of eight includes five John Deere models (his personal favorites); a 28-inch McCormick-Deering, a 20-inch Belle City and a hand-fed Sterling with a 10 hp Fairbanks-Morse engine on it. Doug has an Avery; Mark has a pair of Red Rivers. Together the three own a 28-inch Case, two Belle City machines (24-inch and 28-inch) two Minneapolis machines (30-inch and 36-inch), two 22-inch Woods Bros. units (one of which is very early) and a 28-inch Woods Bros.

Laying the groundwork

Members of the Pioneer Power association, the three men discovered a shared interest in antique threshing machines in 1997. “Many were just rotting away,” Mark says, “so we went out and looked at machines and started buying them.”

The three amigos had two unofficial rules. First, focus on the unusual: Buy threshers different from what they’d seen in local collections. “We never wanted to duplicate what others around here had,” Dwight says. Second, they wanted machines in good condition. “We look for machines that have been in a shed and raccoons haven’t gotten inside them,” Dwight says. “Machines like those are usually in excellent shape and are good to work on.”

Their first cooperative effort for the club was a donated 36-inch double-wing Case thresher dating to 1911. “It had seen an awful lot of use,” Dwight recalls. It was a difficult undertaking, mostly because of the trio’s relative inexperience. “Doug had more experience than the two of us,” Dwight adds, “so we learned from him.”

Huber Roto-Rack thresher

An all-steel Huber 32x58-inch Roto-Rack thresher dating to the late 1920s was a later project. Manufactured by Huber Mfg. Co., Marion, Ohio, the Huber was one of the first threshers with big straw walkers. “McCormick-Deering and Huber had straw walkers but many other companies used a straw rack that went back and forth,” Doug says. “The Huber had a revolving straw rack (or walker), much like modern combines, and did a much better job of beating the straw and separating it, especially in tough conditions.”

Previously owned by a neighbor of Doug and Dwight, the Huber has a trough in the clean-grain area that shakes, moving grain to the clean grain elevator where it is picked up. Most other threshers of the era had a cross auger at the bottom that moved grain up to the weigher, Dwight says.

In addition to restoration work, the thresher needed extensive repairs. “The Huber had been pulled into a tree or against a machine shed, so a bunch of castings were broken,” Doug says. It also needed new stencils, belts and paint. They got belts from a Mankato company that specializes in hydraulic hoses and big conveyer belts for gravel and sand. “We measure the length, width and thickness of our belt,” Dwight says, “and they make a belt for us. Then we put metal clips on each end and use a Clipper belt splicer to put a pin or wire to get it together.”

Oliver Red River Special

The trio also restored a 1942 22x36 Red River Special thresher built by Oliver Farm Equipment Co., headquartered in Chicago. It had once belonged to a farmer east of Good Thunder. “It was a couple of farms away until the guy moved and took it with him,” Mark says. “I’d always liked the machine because it was from the Good Thunder area, where I was from, so I was glad to get it back.” The Red River Special was a smaller and cheaper thresher, made for use on a single farm or two, Mark adds, unlike the bigger Minneapolis and Case machines that were made for custom work.

In threshing machine nomenclature, the first number refers to the width of the cylinder. The second number describes the length of the area the straw goes through to separate the grain. “The longer the area, the more grain that will be separated,” Mark says. “Smaller machines ran in the 40-inch sizes, and when the threshers got bigger and longer, putting more product through, it took a little more time to shake it out.”

The Red River Special was in good shape, more or less. “I had to replace a couple pulleys,” Mark says, “and the first year I ran it, a bearing on the knives went out, probably because it had gotten rusty, sitting so long.” He used the bearing from a Huber that couldn’t be restored.

Having sat outside for a while, the Red River Special needed to be repainted. Although the metal was in good shape, rust had started to appear. Today it looks as good as new. “People are always amazed how good it looks and how well it runs,” Mark says.

Double-Wing Minneapolis

The king of difficulty for the three was a 36x67 Minneapolis double-wing thresher built by Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. in the early 1920s. Originally owned by a commercial threshing outfit, it was eventually sold to an area farmer. It was discovered in less than desirable condition just after it had been retired and left to sit outside.

“It was completely worn out, from the front of the feeder to the back of the blower housing,” Doug says. “We worked extensively and very hard for at least a full year on that machine.”

Wood in the thresher’s shoe needed to be replaced, a great deal of feeder work was needed, cylinder teeth and the concave were completely worn out, the elevator was shot, and a lot of bushings and shafts needed to be replaced. “The wheels had been pulled so far for so long that the inside of the cast had worn out, so they were crooked,” Doug says. “We built big bushings to press inside and tighten up the wheels. That was a big job. The entire machine was a big job.”

Breaking the rules

Although it violated their “good condition” requirement, the Minneapolis merited an exception to the rule, Doug says. “The real big machines are very desirable but they’re hard to find and hard to haul,” he says. “They’re big and high and wide; if you want to bring one 300-400 miles, it’s a big deal. This one was just 70 miles away so the logistics were much simpler.”

Double-wing threshers have two feeding trays, one off each side of the machine. “You can pitch from a wagon on each side or drive between two piles and pitch from both,” Mark notes. “It can thresh a lot in a short time. A regular machine has only one feeding tray. I think this machine was a little bit ahead of its time, because it’s very advanced.”

Both wings had to be rebuilt, and rusty and bent tin had to be replaced. “It looked like somebody had hit it with something and the metal couldn’t be straightened,” Doug says. “But these big double-wing machines are getting extinct and we wanted to have one of them.”

On the Minneapolis, a rattle chain moves grain up to the straw rack. On many other threshers of the era, a round beater kicked the grain back. “It was probably a sales point,” Doug says. “The rattle chain did a better job than its competitor.”

Wood slats on the thresher’s straw band were worn and needed to be replaced and the thresher’s steam drive pulley was in pieces. It was already apparent that a new gasoline pulley was needed; the only way to find one was to buy another entire threshing machine just for that part. “We’ve bought and rescued machines from salvage yards where they were going to be cut up for scrap iron,” Doug says, “and acquired them just for parts.”

Threshing machines have pulleys of various sizes for steam traction engines or gasoline tractors. The diameter of the drive pulley is smaller on a thresher that’s using a steam engine, Mark says, because the pulley on the steam engine is bigger. For a tractor, it’s reversed: a smaller pulley is used on the tractor and a larger one on the thresher. “Both were available for farmers,” Mark says. “I doubt anybody ever switched back and forth, but I suppose it could have happened.”

Method to the madness

Restoration by committee takes a unique approach. “We work on a machine depending on whoever has an opening and whatever needs to be done to that machine,“ Doug says. Sometimes a lot of the sandblasting and painting is done in his shop; heavy work is also done there. “We’ve had threshers in all three places,” Doug says. “Where the machine starts or ends up really depends on each shop’s schedules. Logistics determine what needs to be done and when.”

Repairs involving wood parts and components typically take place in Dwight’s shop. “I do most of the wood repair on the threshers, duplicating things like the feeder slats or in the chaff areas where it cleans the grain,” he says. “There’s lots of wood there, mostly pine and other lighter wood, which means it rots out most of the time and has to be replaced. I‘ve got the saws to cut it, because I have a wood shop with all the tools needed to duplicate the wood. Depending on how it has to be cut, I can use a router, band saw, table saw or a wood lathe to turn out round items for the machines.”

To get information on correct paint schemes and decal placement, the three collectors combine literature and online research efforts. Painting a thresher is time-consuming and laborious, Dwight says. A pressure washer is used to remove dirt and grease; remaining grease is removed by scraping.

Wire brushes, steel wool and an electric drill with a wire wheel are used to remove rust from steel surfaces that need to be painted. Remaining rust and dirt are removed with an air hose. The steel frame on a steel threshing machine is painted, but the galvanized panels riveted to the frame are not. Dwight painted the frame by hand, using two coats, after applying 2-inch masking tape to the galvanized panels on either side of the frame. When the paint was dry, the tape (about four rolls) was removed and new decals applied.

Link to the past

With the passage of time, threshing machines are increasingly important to the story of antique farm equipment. “Thirty years ago, we started out with guys who’d had steam engines that they used with the threshers,” Doug recalls. “Then it became, ‘my grandpa had a steam engine and threshing rig,’ and then it was, ‘I remember somebody in the family talking about steam and threshing.’ Now nobody talks about steam. But they will say that their grandpa did gas threshing.”

The questions and comments from people with no connection to farming are totally different today, he adds. “They’re most interested in the final product that’s coming out and what’s going on inside the machine, but maybe not the old machine itself. They might think that the machine is new and this is something people could still be doing. So there’s a huge broad spectrum of questions anywhere from really basic to really technical.”

Doug enjoys the completed project; seeing the machine finished and running. “But I will say that I get as much satisfaction out of the threshing machine today as I did then,” he says, “watching it sitting there and being fed, and working.” For Mark, the restoration process helps him understand early technology and farm practices. “And it’s also a good feeling when an older person comes around and says he is amazed that we are doing this,” he says. FC 

For more information: 

Dwight Yaeger, 56548 Doc Jones Rd., Mankato, MN 56001; email: thedeeredoctor@yahoo.com. 

Mark Meyer, 17974 568th Ave., Good Thunder, MN 56037. 

Doug Hager, 56549 171st St., Good Thunder, MN 56037; email: windmilldoug@gmail.com. 

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.