The Story of the Sageng Thresher

The Sageng Thresher eliminated many problems faced by conventional steam threshing rigs

The Sageng Threshing Machine Company building in St. Paul, during the company's heyday

The Sageng Threshing Machine Company building in St. Paul, during the company's heyday.

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Of all the machines invented after the turn of the century to ease the working life of the farmer, surely the Sageng self-propelled thresher was one of the most unique. It was conceived in an unlikely place – the island of Madagascar, alongside Africa; it was designed and manufactured by a most surprising person: a missionary, Halvor O. Sageng; it was one of the earliest made entirely of metal (the industry leader, Nichols & Shepard Company, would not come out with their all-steel Red River Special Thresher until nine years later, 1917); it was one of the earliest – if not the earliest – self-propelled threshers; and it could be operated by one man, at a time when it was still customary to need three to six men. 

Early Sageng advertising said, "This machine combines in one frame all the apparatus necessary for threshing of grain. The power for operating both threshing and traction mechanisms is furnished by a powerful four cylinder gasoline motor built into the front of the machine (under the driver's platform.) Only one man is required to operate the whole machine. This is the greatest labor, time and money saving invention of recent years and will wholly revolutionize the threshing industry." Sageng advertisements pointed out 15 points of superiority over conventional steam threshing rigs. Sageng claimed this all-steel machine was absolutely free from the danger of fire or explosion, much-feared hazards of the time.

C.H. Wendel writes in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, "The Sageng was intended to eliminate the problems of the long drive belt, and was claimed to save time and money. It ... had a unique double straw rack. The sheaves of grain were pitched into the feeder at the rear of the machine, and the straw blower was also located at the rear. Threshed grain emerged from the front end."

Missionary Has Time To Plan

Sageng, born in Norway and raised on a farm 4-1/2 miles west of Dalton, Minn., conceived the idea of a self-propelled thresher while a missionary for the Lutheran Free Church. When he returned to the United States a few years later, he set to work on it. It was announced in Farm Implements magazine on Dec. 19, 1908: "The Sageng Threshing Machine Company recently filed articles of incorporation under the Minnesota law ... for the purpose of manufacturing and putting on the market a new type of threshing machine invented by Halvor O. Sageng, of Dalton, Minnesota. A machine has been constructed by the Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company, from Mr. Sageng's patterns, and presents some novel features. The main distinctive point is that the engine and separator are combined in one machine. The motor is installed at the rear, and is cut off from the separator by a steel partition. The whole machine is encased in steel as a precaution against fire. Another radical difference is that the separator is equipped with two sets of shakers, so that the straw is passed over double the amount of shaker surface that it is in the ordinary separator, which should surely clean it thoroughly of loose grain."

Other companies had tried to invent self-propelled threshers, but for various reasons, all had met with failure. Sageng's concept, however, was sound, and promising.

Whoops!

Unfortunately, his prototype machines were so heavy – the 36x60 inch Sageng weighed 24,000 pounds, compared to only 10,000 pounds for the same-size Nichols & Shepard (without the engine) – that its cast-iron gears which propelled the thresher over the rough country roads couldn't take the pounding.

So Sageng took his machine back to the drawing board. During the winter of 1909, says the Weekly Journal of Fergus Falls, Minn., the machine was redesigned. "... the design of the machine has been materially changed, and those who saw the machine which operated so successfully this week, scarcely recognized its resemblance to the one which they saw working last year."

The trial for the redesigned 1910 model thresher was held on May 26, 1910, at Dane Prairie, Minn., near Sageng's home town of Dalton, Minn., and where his brother Ole, an investor in the firm, lived. "Arrangements had been made with Mr. Fossan (an area farmer)," the newspaper said, "to keep his entire crop unthreshed (over the winter) until the machine was ready for its trial. (The thresher) was run out from Dalton over a very hilly, and in some places, soft road and handled itself with perfect ease."

Sageng himself was present, along with a party of people he had brought out for the occasion. The Weekly Journal wrote "The grain had been well stacked, and when it was opened up, it was found in excellent condition, although a trifle too dry. The machine ran all that afternoon without a hitch, and at times, threshed 150 bushels an hour, which is very fair running for a 36-inch cylinder machine. Those present watched the blower very closely and found that all the grain was saved." Losing grain on the ground was the bane of farmers at the time, and rightly so.

The results of the field test of that Sageng thresher were very positive. "(Sageng) was gratified," the paper continues, "with the success of his invention. After finishing threshing at Mr. Fossan's, it will be taken to North Dakota, and then to South Dakota, where grain has been saved in order to enable threshermen and those interested in the enterprise, to see a demonstration."

New Plant

Meanwhile, Sageng's new Sageng Threshing Machine Company plant at 2324 University Avenue in St. Paul employed 150 men, working on new machines. Sageng told stockholders that engines had been ordered for the first lot of 25 threshing machines, which would be run through the factory. He said some of the machines would be ready for early  threshing (that fall) in Oklahoma and Kansas, while others would be scattered through the northwest to familiarize farmers with the machine through as wide a territory as possible.

Beautiful Dreamer

Sageng had big plans. He wanted to build his own gasoline engines for the Sageng thresher, and he had decided to sell directly to farmers, and as the Weekly Record says, "thus save commissions. Also, it will be the policy to sell the machines on a cash basis, (unusual for the time) under a sufficient warranty, and to keep in close touch with all the machines sent out, so that they may be kept in first-class working order."

This was advanced thinking for the time. Lack of farmer know-how about machinery had resulted in tractors languishing in corners of fields where they quit; other machinery rusted because farmers didn't know how to fix it, and couldn't get experts out to work on it. To familiarize farmers with the machinery, Farm Implements wrote, "It is (Sageng's) purpose to take prospective purchasers – thresher men and farmers' boys – into the factory during the winter months, for the purpose of teaching them the details of construction, and; the practical operation of the machine."

The Farmer's Tractor

In addition to his thresher, Sageng also planned to build "The Farmer's Tractor." Its literature read: "We desire especially to call the attention of our farmer friends to this most excellent farm tractor, designed particularly to meet the demand for a practical, durable and simple farm tractor, possessing all the good qualities of the large tractor, yet adapted to the small farms at a price that owners of small farms can afford to pay. The designing of a small tractor has been a big problem to solve, and the designers of the Farmer's Tractor are deserving of great credit for producing so much efficiency and common sense practicability, making it possible for owners of small farms to share in the up-to-date methods of tractor farming." The tractor, along with four sizes of the Sageng Combination self-propelled thresher (28x50, 50 hp; 32x54, 60 hp; 36x60, 70 hp; and 40x64, 80 hp), were advertised in 1911, when Sageng said he had enough material on hand to make 100 new threshers for the 1911 threshing season.

He Likes It!

Reviews for the Sageng threshers were solid: J. G. Rydeen of Carver, Minn, wrote, "I have operated Mr. Hurtig's machine two weeks, and it is my candid opinion that the Sageng Combination Thresher is a much more suitable rig for custom work threshing than any rig I ever saw; the machine is easily operated by one man. It cleans and separates fine and also beats any I ever saw climbing hills."

Ole Severson of the Severson Brothers of Hanley Falls, Minn., wrote "I also have a steam outfit, and a two-piece gasoline outfit that I used in the same harvest, and it is my candid opinion that the Combination Thresher is much to be preferred, because of its compactness and convenient handling, easy setting and general adaptability for all kinds of roads, and also quarters in farm yards, and hilly country. The double straw rack separating system is especially a good feature of the machine in securing clean threshing and having the power hitched up so close to the separator part of the thresher, insures a steadier motion, and it is my opinion that the machine has in every way superior qualities that will recommend it to every careful thresher."

But alas, testimonials were not enough. For unknown reasons, the thresher did not sell; only about a dozen of the odd-looking machines were ever built, and perhaps only one tractor. In April 1912, Sageng Threshing Machine Company went bankrupt, and Halvor Sageng returned to bringing in the sheaves of souls instead of wheat sheaves in the field.

Unfortunately, no full-size Sageng threshers or Farmer's Tractors have survived.

1/3 Scale Model of Sageng Thresher Actually Works

Though no actual Sageng threshers have survived, you can still see a working model of the machine if you attend the right thresher's reunion, usually in the upper midwest area. This 1/3-scale model has been a hit wherever it has been exhibited.

87-year-old Alfred Steidl of Fingal, N.D., has a vague recollection of a Sageng.

"There was a Sageng thresher in our vicinity when I was a kid. But of course I never gave a thought of looking at that thing then," he says. "And now there's nothing left of it except part of the ladder. I wish I would have looked at that machine then. In recent years we've looked all over, but we cannot find a single one of the original machines."

The Sageng was not much on the mind of Steidl, who has made dozens of wonderful 1/16 scale models of farm toys, until one day a dozen years ago when he met Loren Lund in Enderlin, N.D. "Loren said I should stop out to his farm because he had something I should see," Alfred recalls.

That something turned out to be an original blueprint of the Sageng thresher from the State Historical Society of Minnesota, which Lund had gotten from a relative, Roy Frydenlund.

"He gave me that blueprint, and I took it home and looked at it, and then filed it away for a whole year," Alfred says. Then he pulled it out, examined it once more, and decided to make a 1/16 scale model of it, "Which I did," he adds.

Kind of in commemoration, Alfred took the 1/16-scale model to Sageng's home area of Dalton, Minn., where it went over so well that people finally convinced him he should make a working model of the Sageng.

"So in January 1987, we (Alfred, Loren Lund and his son, Keenan Lund) went to Fargo to pick up the material," he says.

Alfred says he really doesn't have an answer to why he decided to make the 1/3 scale Sageng.

"The challenge, I suppose, to see if we could make this thing and make it work," he says. "It's not an elaborate job, but a monkey-wrench deal, although we had some pretty fair equipment, a welder and everything else we needed."

They started building it on Jan. 14 and finished three months later, on April 18.

"We didn't work on it every day, but whenever we had time, in Loren's workshop near Enderlin," Alfred says. "This machine had to be built from the ground up, the wheels and everything, and making it in 1/3 scale took some effort, but we wanted everything to be as exact to the big machine as possible. We went just as close to everything as we could." Parts included channel iron for the frame, regular heavy tin, ("Ordinary tin," Alfred says), and a lot of other parts.

"There's parts in that machine from a Maytag washing machine, Ford V8 timing gears, parts of a Massey-Harris swather, other machines, and a lot of the stuff we had to make ourselves. What wasn't available we simply had to go ahead and make. You don't realize how many arguments were involved in this," Alfred laughs. "'Let's make it this way.' 'No, let's make it this way.' 'No, we've got to make it this way.'"

But eventually the three men ironed out their differences, and finished the machine, except for the engine.

"Finally down at McCloud, N.D., we found a little Hercules four-cylinder engine with a head only 12 or 13 inches long, and it fit in there just perfect."

When the final day came, they stepped back from the finished machine and took a gander at it. They cranked it up, and on the first try, it ran.

"That was quite a feeling," Alfred says. "It did take some longer adjustments to make it thresh. There we had a few problems, you know, to make the straw racks work so they'd throw the straw back properly." But finally everything was in a-one working order.

Since then, one or the other of the three men have shown the working model at numerous places, from Rollag, Dalton, and Albany, MN, to Makoti and Crosby, ND; Manitoba, South Dakota, and many points in between.

'We built an enclosed trailer to put the Sageng thresher inside, along with a small old flare-type grain tank and bundle rack we built,' Alfred says, 'and hook the trailer up behind a car or pickup or van and haul it where we want.' They fold up the ends of the machine so it fits.

Reactions to the Sageng have mostly been very positive.

"For a few years, people were lined up three deep around the fence surrounding the thresher at the Rollag show," Alfred says. Nobody has offered to buy the machine, he says, which they wouldn't sell, anyway.

"What is a machine like that worth?" he muses. "Who could make an offer? Is it worth $25,000? $50,000? $100,000?"

They did have an offer on the 1/16-scale Sageng while it was being shown in Aberdeen, S.D.

"I wasn't there, but they said a guy took out a roll of $100 bills and started peeling them off and said, 'Tell me when to quit.'"

But they didn't sell that one, either.

Occasionally, Alfred says, someone will claim that no such thresher was ever built. But for every person like that, there is someone like the collector from Wisconsin who found out the 1/3 model was going to be shown at Rollag, and drove seven hours just to see it.

"It propels itself, and drives itself like the original, and it actually threshes. It doesn't do such a good job, but it actually works," Alfred says. "The front end of the machine, with a belt, runs the thresher; the back end of the machine has a simple gear shift where it drives itself so we can drive it ahead and back it up, and do everything the original one did." It weighs about 800 pounds, Alfred says, and to the top of the platform it's 42 inches.

"It's the only one in existence," Alfred says, "so people are really curious to see what it was like." The most fun of building the machine was meeting the challenge, Alfred says, "to see if we could make this thing, and make it work." FC 

Bill Vossler writes on a variety of collectible farm equipment, and is the author of Toy Farm Tractors.