After the Dust Bowl: Making a Grain Truck from a School Bus

It's All Trew: Harvest and grain-hauling machinery was few and far between in the years following the Dust Bowl

A farmer and his sons walking in the face of a dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla., April 1936

A farmer and his sons walking in the face of a dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla., April 1936.

Arthur Rothstein/Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

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If you’ve ever spent a long, hot day on the end of a No. 10 grain scoop, these memories should trigger a few emotions.

After the Dust Bowl, ample rain fell that left only a few farmers prepared to cope with such abundant crops. Most farmers were too poor to purchase new equipment, so harvest and grain-hauling machinery was few and far between. Our first grain truck was a well-used, former school bus chassis that Dad brought home along with enough materials to build a wooden grain bed.

Every hole in the wood was drilled with a brace and bit, and every cut we made was accomplished with a hand saw since electricity hadn’t made it to the farm. Each piece of metal was cut with a hacksaw, and holes were drilled on a wall-mounted, hand-cranked drill press using lots of “squirt can” oil. All odd-length bolts were threaded with a tap and die that was set after clamping the cut rod in a vise. In other words, it took a lot of hands-on work.

First, we attached the 4-by-8-inch wooden beams to the truck frame with homemade clamps. Next, we spaced and bolted 4-by-4-inch joists across the beams. Flat iron loops, made to fit the bed stakes, were bolted to the joist ends to hold the sideboards in place. Oak bed stakes were cut and trimmed with a draw knife to fit inside the loops.

The floor was built from 2-by-6-inch tongue-and-groove boards nailed to the floor joists to fit the bed stakes along the sides. Finally, we built the sideboards out of tongue-and-groove car siding and tied it all together with long wagon rods. A hinged door in the rear was used to remove the grain. We didn’t worry about a grain tarp since the loaded truck didn’t run fast enough to blow the grain out of the truck bed. The truck bed held about 125 bushels of grain, which was all the tires could haul, anyway.

Grain bins were mounted high on our drag-type John Deere combines and dumped into the trucks. Loaded trucks made a slow crawl to town where they emptied their cargo with a winch or sling device that lifted the front of the vehicle high into the air, dumping the grain into the pit. When the town elevators filled to capacity, we filled our own storage bins and piled the rest on the ground in long ricks.

As bumper crops continued, huge grain elevator complexes were built. Larger combines, trucks and better grain-handling equipment also became standard. At the time, our family’s favorite modern innovation was a Mayrath grain auger with a “pig-tail auger” at the bottom that collected the grain from the ground ricks, which eliminated almost all of the manual scooping.

Immediately after World War II, small manufacturers of steel truck beds and a variety of sideboard manufacturers sprang up in many small towns across the Midwest. The greatest invention at this time was the addition of hydraulic dumps that attached to the truck beds, eliminating almost all hand scooping.

Scooping grain in the hot summer sun is probably my least-favorite memory of the good ole days. But after suffering through the Dust Bowl without crops, no one complained about the hard work. FC