Dad's Insurance Policy: A Rope

How Dad controlled the tractor from the binder when custom grain cutting

Robert Saugstad on a binder during the 1942 wheat harvest

Robert Saugstad on a binder during the 1942 wheat harvest in Vernon County, Wis.

Courtesy Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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My dad had an insurance policy in the 1940s when we went out custom cutting grain for our neighbors: a rope!

Grain harvest then was a long process with the reaper cutting swaths through the field and tying the oats in bundles with twine. The bundles were carried along on the side of the binder until enough were gathered to make a shock (about eight), and then the bundles were dropped in a pile. Shockers, usually hired men, stood the bundles on end leaning one against another with the grain heads in the sun to cure. Later the threshing crew completed the harvest, but that is another story.

My dad rode on the binder to work all the levers raising or lowering the cutting blades, to kick the pedal that let the bundles drop in piles, and to sweat over and cuss the knotter that tied the bundles neatly when it wasn’t tangled in twine like a backwash of fishing line. My job was to drive the tractor.

Dad and I practiced in a big open space west of the house, starting and stopping and learning to stomp on the foot brakes at the right time. Stepping on one brake made that wheel stop while the other big drive wheel forced the tractor in a tight circle. Hopefully the front wheels were turned to match the direction everything was going. We churned up the dirt while the brake drums smoked and Dad was patient. Ready to go on our first job, Dad looked me over carefully and arranged “an insurance policy.”

Our old John Deere had a hand clutch, a metal rod about 2-1/2 feet long. Pushing it forward made things go, as long as I didn’t forgetfully have the brakes set and locked. Pulling it back brought a halt. Dad wired and taped a long rope to the upper end of the clutch and draped it back to his seat on the binder. He knew I was a dreamer and might run directly off some creek bank or flatten a gatepost while going to the field.

When he saw trouble ahead, he could haul back on his “insurance policy” and avert disaster. Only one crucial time did his plan fail. Before that happened, there were little things like me driving into ditches that couldn’t be crossed.

Smoothing out ditches and planting grassed waterways was seldom done except by very progressive farmers. We usually cut oats for conservative hill farmers. By late July, when we brought our binder to the field, a full summer’s rain had run down the hills. Ditches were washed out, leaving ragged, rough and sometimes steep edges. This was often too much for my 12-year-old judgment, trying to measure a trickle against a gully. I’d drive on until the big rear wheels of the tractor dropped in a washout while the drawbar and binder tongue jammed up on the dirt of the bank edge. We were soon “high centered” with the tractor drive wheels nearly suspended in air.

That was why we carried a spade wired to the binder and my dad muttered a lot when he was down digging out a drawbar on a sultry afternoon. When we were free again, I kept a wary eye out for big ditches for a while. I’m sure my dad often worked the binder controls while gripping the rope with one hand.

We were cutting oats on bottomland down by the creek west of Uncle Ralph’s when the rope didn’t help at all. We were churning along the nice straight edge of the cut in high oats. My mind was off somewhere chasing rabbits like a poorly trained hound, or dreaming of building cabins in the woods.

The front end of the tractor dropped out of sight. It just fell away! We had come upon a deep sinkhole. I pitched forward into the steering wheel of the tractor and looked down into the bottom of the pit. Luckily the great wheels of the tractor were on either side of the hole.

I was still wondering what happened long after Dad yanked the rope and stopped the tractor wheels from spinning. How had we missed seeing that hole on the previous round? Did the vibration of our passing cause the giant cave-in? No matter. It took all afternoon and Uncle Ralph’s tractor to get us out.

My dad’s rope insurance policy saved us a lot of trouble. I was probably lucky to have relatively slow reflexes. If I had responded to danger quickly and been reaching for that long metal clutch just as Dad heaved back on the rope, it would have been like getting hit in the hand with a metal ball bat – and my handwriting would be even more erratic than it is today. FC