Old hands teach young farmer to harvest wheat
I truly enjoy Farm Collector, and when you asked for some recollections of days gone by, I couldn't resist writing about my first wheat harvest, pulling a combine in Kansas.
The year was 1941, and we used two 1928 15-30 McCormick-Deering tractors and two No. 8 combines, one was a 1927 model, and the other was a 1931 model. There was little difference between the two, but the operator's deck on the 1931 model was located on the right side behind the cutting platform.
Dad had put rubber tires on one tractor just before wheat harvest that year, bought with money he earned selling calves. Back in those days, the wheat grew very tall - 36 to 42 inches. The most common varieties were Tenmarq, Early Blackhull and Red Chief.
On my first afternoon pulling a combine, I followed the other machine. That gave me some idea about how the combine would handle and sound when properly operated. The combine man stood right behind me as I pulled the combine, and offered advice such as slow down or speed up, and told me when I wasn't cutting a full swath or tried to cut too much in one pass. The wheat was good and ripe, so we cut until 'dark thirty' - which means it was very dark by the time we quit.
That night, it rained 7 inches. The next morning we went to the field, unhooked the combines, pulled the rubber-tired tractor to the road and took it to the house. There we took the wheel weights off, which consisted of concrete-filled front-wheel rims held on with 3/4-inch bolts. Then we removed the wheels, which were held on the axle with large hexagonal nuts - two per axle, one called a 'jam nut.' They were large because the axle was 3 inches in diameter. We didn't have a wrench that big, so we used a dull cold chisel and a hammer to remove the two nuts on each axle. The weighted wheels probably weighted 500 pounds each.
Then we put the steel wheels back on, but the lugs were worn out so we had to take them off. In those days, most farmers had very few good tools, like ratchet handles and socket sets. All we had was a socket wrench with a 24-inch handle and an end wrench that fit square bolt heads. There were 13 lugs per row, and two rows of lugs per wheel. Each lug had two bolts with a lock washer that held it on.
Next, Dad went to the foundry in Dodge City, Kan., with Granddad Wolfs and bought 52 Case 'sand pack' lugs. Dad put cardboard on the seats and floor boards and put all 52 lugs in a 1937 Chevrolet car. There was only one pickup in the whole area that I knew about, and it just had car tires all around, so it wasn't much better than the Chevrolet.
After we got the 52 lugs on, we put the extension rims on, which were half the width of the wheels. The extension rims already had pretty good lugs. We attached the extension rims with pieces of strap iron. Each strap was about 3 inches wide and 16 inches long, and had two bolts for the wheel and two bolts for the extension rim to hold them.
Then we took that tractor to the muddy field, brought the other one to the house and put extension rims on it. This was before hydraulic jacks, so we used a Simplex screw jack. The thread (or screw) was about 2 inches in diameter. Just below the top where the turn table was, there were four holes in which we inserted the iron rod to turn the screw. It took awhile to lift a tractor high enough for the lugs to clear the ground!
Forty rods wide
Then, three days after the big rain, we went to the wheat field with the tractors, put 15 feet of 1/2-inch log chain between the two and hooked them to the combine. With Dad walking in front, we slowly started cutting wheat.
The man driving the other tractor was talented, could do almost anything we asked him and did a very good job. He told me he'd drive the lead tractor for five days, then I was going to drive it, because I wasn't going to learn if I didn't try. On the fifth day, he said, 'Now it's your turn, but remember, every time you jerk me it is going to cost you a beer.'
Schlitz beer sold for 15 cents in 1941, and I earned only a dollar a day. Needless to say, I didn't make very much money the first two or three days, because I hadn't learned to pull the combine steadily, and I jostled him too many times.
Dad had to rent another McCormick-Deering Model 15-30 from the local dealer just to pull our truck out of the field. The old truck would haul 80 bushels, it had single rear tires, which were 32-by-6 10 ply -which meant they were 32 inches in diameter and 6 inches wide.
Dad liked to keep the fields 40-rods wide and a 1/2-mile long. If we had an 80-acre field, we would divide it into two fields, which meant driving through the tall, standing wheat. On this given day, with me driving the lead tractor and Dad walking ahead, we started down through wheat. I had to keep opening the throttle more and more, and we were going slower and slower in the mud.
The other driver whistled, we stopped and I went back to see what the problem was. Apparently, when a steel wheel sinks in soft ground it will turn backwards, and the tractor had pushed up a huge amount of mud and tall wheat between it and the combine.
We unhooked my tractor and went around to the back of the combine. With two log chains, one tied to each side of the combine and with Dad standing out to where both tractor drivers could see him, we very carefully pulled the combine over the huge gob of straw and mud. We farmed around that pile for nearly three years, because no one had a back blade or a front-end loader in those days to knock it down.
The 'good' part of the story came when the mosquitoes moved in. We wore leather jackets and put bandanas on our heads then put our caps on. This would keep the mosquitoes off of our necks, and we wore leather gloves, but the back of our wrists would be nearly white every evening from all the mosquito bites.
Nearly everybody listed the ground they were going to replant with wheat. Listers were a 16-inch plowshare with a moldboard above, and were spaced on 42-inch centers. We tried to go 6 to 8 inches deep, which made a good-sized ridge between the furrows.
The listers had three bottoms, and the wheels were widely spaced. They were so wide, in fact, that when we dropped one wheel down in tracks we'd made during harvest, about all we could do was change to a lower gear until we got out of the rut.
Toward the end of August, we were pretty well caught up on the farming. Dad said, 'Let's go cut mud holes,' which meant cutting the wheat growing in the lowest spots we'd left standing during harvest. The hard part was getting tractors and implements into fields where the water was 3 or 4 inches deep. Once we got there, however, we could roll right along.
The mosquitoes were still there, but not as many. Still, they were big enough to ask the one next to him, 'Shall we eat him here or shall we take him with us?' And usually the answer was, 'Let's eat him here, because the big boys will take him away from us over the hill.'
It's difficult to believe we cut 997 bushels of wheat out of the mud holes, and we only farmed 640 acres, with about 400 of those planted in wheat that year.
- To learn more about Donald Hudson's experiences as a young farmer, write him at 2600 E. Trail H7, Dodge City, KS 67801.