Threshing with the Old Rumely

Innovative OilPull long a workhorse on the farm

AnEarly-DayThreshingRig.jpg

Far left: An early-day threshing rig near Wiota, Iowa. At far left: John Tibken Jr., one of the owners of the rig (a 20-40 Rumely and Nichols & Shepard Red River Special 32-inch-by-56-inch threshing machine) shown at back. The identities of the other two men shown are not known. The photo dates to about 1927.

Content Tools

In the early 1920s, promotional materials for the Rumely OilPull were wide-eyed with wonder at the machine's technology. "They said Rumelys were made of the finest materials and the featured the finest machining available at the time," recalls Hubert K. Porter, Atlantic, Iowa. "They also said they didn't know how long the Rumely would last, because they had been building them since 1913 and hadn't had trouble with any of them yet." It was a tone that suggested the machines might last for decades.

Advancing technology, however, fast made the Rumely obsolete. In 1921, Hubert's grandfather and uncles (John Tibken Sr., John Tibken Jr. and William Tibken) traded an old steam engine for their Rumely 20-40. Just 27 years later, as combines gained increasing acceptance in the post-war years, the cherished Rumely was sold for scrap.

Hubert cut his mechanical teeth on the family Rumely. "I was always tinkering and mechanical minded, so the old Rumely was kind of my pride and joy as a kid," he says. "I used to sit on it and admire it. Finally, I did get to run it some when I was a little older. I was pretty proud of that."

He recalls the Rumely's mechanical innovations, impressive in their day. "It had three carburetors: One for gas to start, one for kerosene and one for water." The kerosene and water carburetors were made without floats and needle valves. The pumps continuously pumped water and kerosene. The levels in the bowls for each were maintained by overflow pipes, which drained back into the tanks.

A one-gallon tank of gas on the left fender was used to start the engine. "You had to pump the gas up to the carburetor by hand and fill the left carburetor that was used to start the Rumely," he says. "The other two tanks, the water and the kerosene, had mechanical pumps down off the end of the camshaft. One pump would pump water and the other kerosene up to the carburetor. It had something new or different, I guess. The kerosene pump would pump kerosene up around the right exhaust pipe through a heat exchanger. The kerosene that went to the carburetor was hot. Hot kerosene is just about as volatile as gasoline. I guess that was one of the reasons the Rumely ran so good and lasted so long."

The Rumely had a drip oiling system. "It had a pump that sat high above the engine. And it had a lever that ran to the camshaft." The system dripped fresh oil into pipes running to every bearing and cylinder. Advance Rumely Co. literature stated that the OilPull was an engine that would have fresh oil all the time and never need an oil change. "After it ran a thresher for an hour or two, there was always a puddle of oil under the engine," Hubert recalls. "A little bit of oil dripped out of the crankcase all the time it was running. When the Rumely came out, I think it had an oil plug in it. You were supposed to take the plug out and drain it every day or two, but Uncle John and Uncle Bill had the plug unscrewed and just let it run on the ground."

The carburetors were unique as well, Hubert says. Each had its own metering valve, which needed constant adjustment according to the load. In newer vehicles, he notes, metering valves are automatic. "But the carburetor valves on the Rumely were manually screwed in and out. It took an engineer to know what the engine needed, and he had to continually adjust the valves on the water and kerosene to make the engine pull. If the metering valves were not adjusted correctly, the engine would have no power."

Another thing the engineer couldn't overlook: Water had to be added to the hot kerosene before it burned. If that wasn't done, Hubert says, the hot kerosene would pre-ignite and the engine wouldn't run properly. In fact, the engine used almost as much water as it did kerosene. When the water was mixed with kerosene in the cylinders, it turned to steam. Accordingly, he says, the engine always burned clean and carbon-free and had plenty of power.

The water also required constant adjustment. If the engine was under a heavy load for some time and needed to be clutched out, the water had to be turned off immediately. If it wasn't, there would be so much steam in the cylinder that it would condense on the spark plugs, causing them to short out. The engine would then coast a few turns and fill the exhaust pipe with hot gas. "All of a sudden you'd hear a loud 'kaboom!' The gas would explode in the exhaust pipe just like a stick of dynamite," Hubert says. "Occasionally Uncle Bill would do that to be ornery, scaring the horses and everyone nearby."

When you clutched the engine back in after it had been sitting for a while, he adds, you had to remember to turn on the water. "The minute you pushed in the clutch without water, it would rattle and ping, just like a modern car filled with bad gas. When you turned on the water, the noises went away."

The cooling system on the Rumely was filled with oil circulated by a pump on the engine. There was no need for antifreeze to keep the engine from freezing in cold weather: In fact, that was one of the company's promotional claims. "The oil looked really black, almost like crude oil," Hubert says, "but it kept the engine cool."

"Most of the farmers in our neighborhood, probably 10 to 15 of them, worked together at threshing time," Hubert says. "It is hard for people nowadays to understand how people once worked together. I think it's a lot different now."

The Rumely played an important role in Hubert's family's threshing operation. Hubert's grandfather and uncles initially used an old wooden Avery threshing machine, but traded it for a Nichols & Shepard Red River Special in 1923, two years after buying the OilPull. The Nichols & Shepard was an all-metal machine with roller bearings on all the fast-moving shafts. "It was really something in its time," Hubert recalls. "They used the outfit every year until 1947, when combines became available after World War II."

The days of the community threshing, though irretrievably lost, remain a unique element in the American agriculture tradition. "Most of the farmers in our neighborhood, probably 10 to 15 of them, worked together at threshing time," Hubert says. "It is hard for people nowadays to understand how people once worked together. I think it's a lot different now."

In those days, threshing was more a season than an activity. "Back in the early days, I think my granddad's outfit ran most of the fall," Hubert recalls. "Some farmers, however, stacked their grain in big piles to be threshed later. They believed the grain would 'sweat' in those piles, making better oats and wheat. In the winter, when the rest of the threshing was done, the threshers would go in and pull up to one of those big stacks and thresh it out. It was a pretty common practice in those days.

"My granddad was an old die-hard thresher man. He looked at the newer combines and said 'Them combines will never work in this hilly country!' I wish he could see them now. I think the big combines of today get the harvesting done in a couple of days. In the days of the old Rumely, though, threshing lasted several weeks, maybe longer if there was much rain. Threshing was always a time of hard work, but everyone enjoyed it (and the wonderful home-cooked meals served to the crews!). Those who were lucky enough to be a part of it never forgot the experience."