Drawn to Oddities

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When Paul Fossler of Polo, Ill., bought his wooden-frame Eagle straw spreader in June 2001 at an estate sale five miles from home, he didn't know what it was but, he says, 'for $25, I thought I ought to own it.'

A number of people made guesses about the implement's identity that day, but Paul didn't get the right answer until he displayed his bargain in August, with a 'What is it?' sign, at the Franklin Grove, Ill., Thresheree, a small show about 30 miles from Polo.

'I see something at a sale,' Paul says, 'and if I don't know what it is (and I can identify a lot!), and if it's a reasonable price, I'll buy it. That's one of the interesting parts of this collecting thing.'

The man who identified the spreader was Charles Doty of Princeton, Ill., a retired implement dealer. He also owns an Eagle straw spreader, Paul says, and said he'd seen a third one, sold earlier at a central Illinois auction - for $380.

Charles shared information with Paul about the maker - Eagle Manufacturing Co. of Morton, Ill., which is just south and east of Peoria. First known as the Kramer Rotary Harrow Co. of Paxton, Ill., Eagle moved in 1915 from Paxton to Morton with Emil Kramer, founder of the firm, as manager.

By 1917, the business was flourishing, and selling not only rotary harrows but other farm implements, including the straw spreaders. In 1920, E.J. Leman was Eagle's secretary and general manager, as well as head of Manson, Campbell and Sons, a Detroit firm that also had moved to Morton and that produced a grain grading and cleaning device.

But by 1922, Eagle was in financial trouble; in January, the firm reorganized, and in February 1923, the fatal blow struck when the company's manufacturing facility burned to the ground. The fire loss was estimated at $125,000; Eagle never reopened.

Paul says he does not know how many Eagle spreaders were produced but he's sure the wooden ones preceded the metal models.

One of the company's advertisements for the spreader, which Paul received from Doty, explains the spreader's purpose: 'Every ton of straw has an actual cash value of from $4 to $5 as a commercial fertilizer. But straw has many other assets that make it even more valuable than when used as mulch. Its value as a crop protector against winter kill and drying up is beyond calculation.

'It is your best assurance of big yields. It's a soil mellower, a valuable source of humus and a reservoir of moisture. One ton will absorb two tons of water, besides what soaks in the ground. An even mulch of straw prevents soil-blowing and patchy spots. It will hold a protecting blanket of snow on wheat.'

The company claimed state experimental stations and 'hundreds of Eagle Straw Spreader users' confirmed that straw spreading with an 'Eagle' would net $5 to $25 more per acre per year.

Paul says although he has never operated one of these spreaders in the field, he thinks from their looks that they would break up the straw quite a bit before spreading it.

Here's how the machine works: Straw is fed into the spreader from a hayrack, to which the spreader is hitched, as the hayrack is pulled through the field by a team of horses or a tractor. On the spreader, 11 wooden paddles kick the straw forward along a rolling conveyor belt, from which the straw eventually drops back onto the field in more orderly fashion.

The idea, Paul says, was to put the straw right back on the stubble where the grain crop had been. 'The spreader gave it an even covering; it did a reasonable job.'

The company apparently had too good a warranty on the machines, though, Paul speculates. It offered 'complete satisfaction or a refund of the purchase price,' and such a generous policy may have contributed to the company's financial problems.

He says his Eagle apparently sat on dirt for years, although it was shedded. The previous owner, the late Howard Webster, actually used it, but by the time Paul got the machine, the 2-by-4s along its front were rotted out. Paul replaced all the outside ones and spliced those on the inside.

Also, the 2-by-4 across the top was broken, probably by something heavy that fell on it. To fix that, he had to unbolt and remove all the paddles, install a new 2-by-4 across the top, drill holes for the paddles in it, and bolt the paddles back in place. Now the machine is field-ready again.

Paul didn't repaint the spreader but said it would have been red originally because he found faint touches still on the wood.

The necessary repair work was easy to do, and didn't take long. 'I had it ready for Franklin Grove (in August) in good time.'

Now that the spreader is restored, Paul, who is in his mid-80s, says he's on the lookout for something else to buy and identify. He's been collecting for 20 years, and also has a few things that belonged to his folks, including a barrel butter churn and a wood box that he was assigned to keep filled with kindling as a child. He's built a little log cabin in his backyard where he keeps that wood box today.

Another recent bargain that Paul picked up and that is similar to the straw spreader is a one-row lister corn planter, which he bought for $50 this spring at a Galena, Ill., sale. The words 'A lister planter made by the Gale Mfg. Co. of Albion, Mich.' still can be clearly seen on the front of the seat box.

Two years ago, Paul says, he saw a similar planter, this one a Deere & Mansur, sell for $180, and he wishes now that he'd bought it too. 'They're very, very scarce. Anything like that is.'

Paul's also got a collection of hay forks and carriers (some of which are wooden), and 'a jewel' of a wooden 2-row Union corn planter made by James Selby in the latter half of the 1800s at Peoria, Ill. 'I had seen it sell once at an estate auction, and eventually it came up at another estate auction. It sold for $300 the first time; I had to pay a lot more for it 10 years later.'

Paul did the restoration work on that piece too, except for the pinstriping; the planter is red with green wheels and yellow pinstripes, and the name 'James Selby & Co.' is cast right into the seat.

Paul also is proud of his two Illinois-made three-wheeled David Bradley garden tractors. They're mid-1950s vintage, and he's got 10 original attachments and a 1954 Sears & Roebuck catalog that carries a full-page advertisement on the machines. 'One had only about 10 hours on it,' he said, 'and original tools that had never been unwrapped.'

Paul's 'wish list' for the future includes more pieces like the spreader and the lister planters. 'I know they are rarer,' he says. 'You just are real fortunate if and when you find one.'

And unless he ends up with two of something, he says he doesn't plan to sell, trade 'or anything else' any item in his collection. 'My son and one grandson are interested too, so these pieces will stay in the family a long time.'

Eagle Manufacturing Co.'s 'complete line' included a limestone distributor, rotary harrow and the Eagle grain and straw racks, as well as the spreader.

- For more information on Paul's Eagle straw spreader or other vintage equipment, contact him at: (815) 946-3781.