The vast swath cut by Massey-Harris combines during the 1944 Harvest Brigade can be best understood by events beginning in 1942. Reeling from the attack at Pearl Harbor, America braced itself for all-out war and allocated all nonessential materials to wartime production, governed by the newly formed War Production Board. That same year, the grain crop broke all previous records, tallying more than 3 billion bushels of corn and close to a billion bushels of wheat. In spite of these huge harvests, millions of the world’s , people faced starvation because of the war’s devastation. The solution to the problem was best described by & Massey-Harris advertisement: ‘The 1944 Battle for Bread is on!’
Farm harvest equipment was a rare commodity for most American farmers. As a result of a 1942 Production Board limitation order, quotas for new farm machinery were based on only 20 percent of each manufacturer’s total sales in either 1940 or 1941, whichever year was higher. Larger agricultural equipment manufacturers with larger and better-equipped factories were expected to produce more wartime equipment than smaller companies, which left a window of opportunity for smaller manufacturers such as Massey-Harris to gain ground on their larger competitors.
Joe Tucker, vice president and sales manager of Massey-Harris, apparently saw the writing on the wall. With an intuitive business sense and a prescience for what would eventually occur, Tucker rushed the company’s now-famous No. 21, one-man, self-propelled combine into production just prior to World War II. Tucker had served on the Production Boards in both the U.S. and Canada, and knew how to seize the opportunity. In 1944, Tucker approached the board to discuss a major deal. Citing the record 1942 harvest and the dire need for wartime food stocks, he convinced the board that the No. 21 could – using the same amount of scarce raw material – harvest more grain than any other machine produced. If 500 extra machines were built, he boasted, he could harvest at least 15 million bushels of grain from more than 1 million acres, while releasing some 1,000 tractors for other work and saving 500,000 gallons of fuel in 1944 alone. He also claimed that the self-propelled combines would save 500,000 bushels typically lost by tractors that crushed the delicate grain plants. Convinced, the board authorized Tucker to build 500 of the No. 21 combines in addition to the company’s quota, provided that sales of such combines were restricted to experienced operators who agreed to take delivery at the southern edge of the grain belt and to harvest at least 2,000 acres each.
Likening the farm harvest to a military battle, the U.S. War Food Administration set a 1944 goal to harvest 1 billion bushels of wheat. Tucker responded by organizing the Massey-Harris harvest as a military operation – deemed the ‘Harvest Brigade’ – sending scouts ahead of the combines to lay the preparatory groundwork. Technical and supply ‘sergeants’ repaired the machines in the field to aid the combines’ work.
Highly publicized, the western brigade began cutting flax in Texas and California, moving northward to the Pacific Northwest. The Great Plains unit began in Texas as well, and progressed through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. By August, the brigade reached the Dakotas, and in September it reached Canada. When all the work was completed, the Harvest Brigade was 1,500 miles farther north than when it started, and Tucker’s 500 combines had cut 1,019,500 acres yielding more than 25 million bushels of grain, while saving 333,000 man-hours and 500,000 gallons of fuel.
– Harvest Brigade information is courtesy of Sam Moore, a regular contributor to Farm Collector.