The tall tailings elevator tossed the straw into an ever-growing pile, while wheat slowly worked its way through the swaying separator’s sieve-filled belly and fell into bags below.
Like a threshing crew from days gone by, Bob Honsberger and his son, Russ, fed wheat into the 19th-century Westinghouse Company threshing machine as a crowd stood fascinated by a sight rarely seen in the 21st century outside of farm shows and museums.
“The world today is in too big a hurry to go nowhere and do nothing,” Bob says as he swings a pitchfork full of unthreshed wheat.
That’s why Bob and Russ wheel out the vintage separator each year to demonstrate how the rare and historical piece of farm equipment works.
“It keeps the past alive,” Bob says.
Bob has owned the separator since he inherited it from friend and longtime farm equipment collector Barney Haas. Barney, who was well known in Ohio old-iron circles, died in 1999 and willed the machine to Bob. Yet, the separator might’ve never seen the light of day if not for a chance rainstorm, Bob says.
Back in 1970, Barney’s father, Ernie Haas, hid from the rain in an old barn near Clarion, Pa., Bob explains. Inside, Ernie discovered the separator sitting under a thick layer of dust. After the storm passed, Ernie located the machine’s owner and asked if he could buy it. If Ernie’s plan was to plant the separator in a museum, the farmer wouldn’t sell. But if he planned on putting it to good use, then they had an agreement. With a promise and a handshake, the deal was sealed, and the thresher again saw daylight.
Ernie showed the separator for decades at farm shows across Ohio, and Barney took care of the machine after his father died. A sign that carries both Bob and Barney’s names still hangs from the separator.
Bob and Russ now work as a team to demonstrate how the old thresher operates. Jennifer, Bob’s wife, says she helps feed wheat into the machine “in a pinch.” The Perrysburg, Ohio, trio and the thresher worked fast and furious in June 2003 at the 59th National Threshers Association Reunion in Wauseon, Ohio. “We don’t even dream of missing this show,” Russ declares.
They also thresh wheat with the separator at the Five Points Steam Threshers Association show held near Perrysburg each July. “We do this to let people see how special this machine is,” Bob explains.
By any measure, the separator is truly special. It’s one of three known to exist, although Bob’s convinced that more like it could be lurking in barns across America. Built by Westinghouse Company in Schenectady, N.Y., the thresher bears serial no. 7760 burned into its tailings elevator and painted on its wooden side panel.
Bob speculates the machine was built about 1860, and the number signifies it was the 77th separator built in 1860. Or perhaps it was the 60th machine built in 1877. Either way, Bob isn’t certain about the exact date.
Unfortunately, detailed company records – and virtually any other information about the thresher – are nearly impossible to locate. When Bob contacted Westinghouse and inquired about the machine’s age, he realized the modern company wasn’t likely to help. “You have what?” the company representative asked. Naturally, Bob continues to search for clues.
A similar – but non-functional – thresher is housed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and another was spotted near Marion, Ohio, although Bob says he’s never seen either machine. Clues to the thresher’s age can be found in an old catalog image displayed at the Ford museum, which shows a machine like Bob’s for sale in 1885, so it’s safe to say the device is at least that old, Bob agrees.
Remarkably, the venerable machine required little restoration, Bob says. The separator’s once-red paint has faded to a light-pink hue, but the Westinghouse logo is still visible after more than 100 years. Bob says he’d never consider repainting it. “Why?” he asks. “You’d spoil it.”
Rather than risk ruining the original patina, Bob treats the wood with linseed oil once a year, which seals the wood and brings out the original colors.
The thresher was in good condition, and required only minor restoration. Luckily for Bob, his 32 years as a Chrysler Motor Company machinist and his farm upbringing provided the expertise needed to avoid paying others for expensive restoration work.
“You don’t go to a hardware store for parts,” Bob says. As a result, he and Russ fabricated all the parts required. Bob replaced the tailings elevator’s wooden floor using old corncrib slats. The straw walker’s crankshaft babbitt bearings were worn and replaced with freshly poured bearings, and the fan’s crankshaft received the same treatment. Other parts, like the paint, are all original, including the inner screens that sort the grain.
When not used to demonstrate how wheat was threshed in days gone by, Bob stores the separator out of the weather. “At our house, the trucks stay outside and this is parked in the garage,” Bob jokes.
Even though the separator is certainly museum worthy, Bob says he’d never consider selling the piece or parking it for permanent display. Kids love to watch the straw as it falls off the elevator, while threshermen who remember the unmistakable feel of a swaying separator in action rarely miss a chance to reminisce with Bob about the old days. With a little luck, Bob says, the separator will thrill crowds at farm shows for years to come – a tradition Russ says he’ll continue.
“Even if I’m in a wheelchair, I’ll keep threshing,” Bob adds with a sense of certainty. FC
Read about George Westinghouse, founder of Westinghouse Company: “The Genius of George Westinghouse.”
For more information, contact Bob Honsberger at (419) 874-3820.