Gerken Family History

The engine

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RR2 Humboldt, Kansas 66748

One hundred twenty-eight years ago, in 1862, my grandfather H.H. Gerken and his wife came as newlyweds onto the land where I (Junior H. Gerken) now reside. Soon after breaking the sod and establishing the farming operation, Grandfather supplemented his farm-ing operation by building a horse-powered sorghum mill with wooden rollers, and thus began making sorghum molasses for himself and for others in the surrounding area who brought their own cane to the mill to be processed.

About 90 years ago my grandfather purchased a Nichols & Shepard 'Red River Special' horsepower driven threshing unit and also a horsepower driven four-hole Sandwich corn sheller. Grandfather converted this com sheller to belt driven soon after he purchased his first steam traction engine. Thus began a Gerken family tradition and career of custom threshing and corn shelling over a period of almost 60 consecutive years which involved my grandfather and his two sons, L.F. Gerken and H.C. Gerken. H.C. was my father.

The first horsepower threshing unit did not have a mechanical self feeder. The grain had to be fed into the threshing cylinder manually. It also did not have a grain weigher. The grain was measured in half bushel containers from directly out of the auger at the bottom of the shoe, which was the bottom on the separating unit. This first unit also lacked a straw blower (stacker). It had a combination sprocket chain and crossbar device that conveyed the straw and chaff away from the rear of this separator. Grandfather's unit also had what was called a 'katydid' stacker which was set up beneath the first conveyor and then it oscillated back and forth and made a half moon stack of sorts.

My father, H.C. Gerken, was a teenager at this time and he broke into his lifelong career as a thresherman by hand feeding this first horse-power unit. In just a very few years Grandfather abandoned the horse-power concept and purchased his first steam traction engine. Gradually as time went on came the mechanical self feeder, the mechanical grain weigher, and the mechanical straw blower (stacker) as well. About this same time Grandfather purchased a French Burr (Stone Burr) mill and thus began a custom grinding operation of processing wheat into flour and corn into meal for the public of the surrounding area.

In those early years threshing units were comparatively few and far between and so it was not all that unusual that the custom threshing vocation was almost a year around affair. So it was at times with H.H. Gerken and sons during many of their early years. This was made possible by the fact that many farmers stacked their grain, thus making it possible to thresh their grain at most any time of the year, weather permitting.

All during these many years they purchased only Nichols and Shepard 'Red River Special' threshing units. However the steam traction engines were Nichols & Shepard, Garr Scott, and Buffalo Pitts.

Around 1915 Grandfather retired from being actively engaged in threshing, largely because of failing eyesight. From then on it was the Gerken Bros., L.F. and H.C. Gerken, my father.

Around 1925 they abandoned steam power and bought a 25-50 HP Nichols & Shepard oil gas tractor. It was this tractor along with the Nichols & Shepard 'Red River Special' separator purchased in 1918 that made up the threshing unit that carried on until the end of the era, the last year being 1948. In the late 1920's, not long before he passed away, my uncle L.F. Gerken sold his half interest in the enterprise to my father. He then continued as a custom thresherman until that last year, when he was well past 70 years of age.

There are a number of interesting facts and statistics about this 1918 'Red River Special.' It was a 32x52 size machine. As I recall the cost was somewhere between 12 and 15 hundred dollars. One might compare that cost to the cost of a modern combine harvester today. That 1918 machine considerably more than paid for itself that first year which ran from June 25th to the end of September. This separator threshed 30 seasons. I have a record of every job that it threshed, compiled in a record ledger taken from my father's thresherman's account book, of which I still have every one covering Shortly before his death in 1957, my father sold both the tractor and the separator to the Antique Engine and Thresher Association of Wichita. The 25x50 Nichols & Shepard tractor is presently owned by Mr. Harold Ottaway of Wichita. The separator is owned by Mr. Joe Harper of Sedgwick, Kansas. This separator, which is more than 70 years old, has never been exposed to the elements. During the years up until the time my father sold it, it was always shedded and during the time it was out on the threshing run it was always covered with a huge tarp if there was even the slightest threat of rain. If a rain should threaten during a working day they would always shut down in time to get pulled away from the straw stack because of its vulnerability to lightening, and get the separator covered with the tarp. It has been shedded continually since my father sold it in the 50's.

This picture was taken in July, 1919 on my father's nephew's farm here east of Humboldt, Kansas, Mr. John Mueller's farm. My father, H.C. Gerken, is Seen standing on the engine platform holding his hat. Mr. Fred Hattenstein, the water hauler, is standing behind him. My uncle, L.F. Gerken, is standing with his hands on his hips at the far left end of the picture. Three Mueller Bros, are standing at the front end of the separator: Jake standing next to the separator, John standing next to him, and brother Martin standing next to John. As you may notice this is the year with the Ruth feeder on the separator. The 30 year span. It threshed for 724 customers and put in approximately 500 days. If for example one might say 10 hour days, times 500 days, would mean about 5000 hours.

It was a tremendous thrill for me to once again see this 70 year old separator when I and a neighbor attended the Valley Center steam show near Wichita during the Labor Day weekend of 1986. This separator is capable of doing the same excellent job of threshing today that it did when it was new in 1918. Mr. Harper will attest to this because he takes it to various steam shows around the area and threshes with it.

Threshing by steam in the Red River Valley in the Fall of 1878.

This Nichols & Shepard 32 x 52 separator, presently owned by Mr. Joe Harper of Sedgwick, Kansas, was purchased new in 1918 by the Gerken family. They used it for thirty seasons in their threshing business. For that family's story.

These units were in mint mechanical operating condition when my father sold them. It was the Gerken philosophy all through the many years that before the beginning of the threshing season, both the engine and the separator were carefully given a fine tooth comb scrutinizing, and thereby make all necessary repairs before the season began. My father was proud to be able to say that through the many years of threshing they never suffered a major break-down. My father always said he dreaded the thought of being broke down with perhaps as many as 15 or more men, that being the size of the crew, standing around and unable to work because of a major breakdown.

Mr. Harper is so proud of this machine that he has restored the looks of this machine by meticulously cleaning it and then repainting it exactly the way it was done originally. Then he restenciled all the printing on the machine and feeder, the blower and weigher. It literally looks and operates like it did 70 years ago.

I guess the reason why this all means so much to me is because I was privileged to serve as Dad's separator man on this machine the last few years of its service. I came to appreciate its excellent response to the duties it was built to perform.