Restoration of a 1922 threshing machine gives Iowa youth a clear view of old iron.
Corren Olson stays busy during his local Albert City, Iowa, Threshermen and Collectors Show, keeping concession stands stocked with food and beverages, driving trolleys and explaining displays to show-goers. He also has a unique display there: a 1922 Wood Bros. Humming Bird thresher with one side removed, allowing a full view of its interior mechanisms. He even rigged up a small motor to run the walkers so people could see how they worked. Fortunately, he has energy to burn: Corren is just 18 years old.
Corren’s dad, Scott, introduced him to the old iron hobby. “He’s always been part of the Albert City show, so I trailed along,” Corren says. “When I was 10, I began working with the food service operation, making sure the stands got everything they needed. Because I was there a week early, I also helped get equipment out and ready to go. That was fascinating to me, because there were things I’d never seen, and because I’m interested in history, this was an outlet for me to see this part of history. Now that I’m working with the trolley rides and explaining what’s going on, it’s another chance to share the history that’s so important to remember.”
Corren’s family has a long history with the Albert City show. “Four generations of my family grew up a quarter of a mile from here, south of the threshing site,” he says, “and they worked in the fields that we’re threshing in now.”
When it came time to develop an agricultural-based project as part of his involvement in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter at Sioux Central High School, Sioux Rapids, Iowa, Corren found a way to incorporate old iron. Then 16, he decided to create a cutaway that would demonstrate the mechanisms of a decades-old threshing machine.
“The project’s purpose is to develop skills in different areas, including hands-on work with materials,” he says. “We realized that a lot of people don’t understand how threshing machines work. My dad got the idea to add plexiglass after seeing similar displays at other threshing shows. We’ve never seen another thresher with it, so I took the idea and ran with it.”
The first part of the project was finding a thresher that would work. “We started talking with the (Albert City) Threshermen board,” Corren says. “They knew of a guy who had an old threshing machine that had been stored in his shed for years. He decided to donate it to the show. The board told us to just go ahead and use it.”
That meant getting the nearly century-old machine – a 1922 Wood Bros. Humming Bird built in Des Moines, Iowa – to a former munitions factory just outside Albert City, where Corren and his family live. Now controlled by a trust, the site offers space for projects like this. “They allowed us to work on the thresher in one of their buildings,” Corren says.
The project began with a close examination to assess condition. “The Humming Bird was in very good condition,” Corren says. “I was told that years ago, at the end of a harvest season, the thresher was stored in that old shed, and it was never brought back out again until the fall of 2011. That’s when it was donated to the Threshermen’s show.”
Work began the following spring. A few boards that held parts together were rotted out on the neck, where grain enters the machine. Rotted supports were also replaced. “We examined the walkers inside that actually do the threshing,” Corren recalls, “and were relieved to see that they were still all attached and not damaged at all.”
Next, all the panels on one side had to be removed. “Thankfully, none of the parts broke while we were tearing it apart and working on it,” Corren says. Following that, all the dents had to be pounded out from the inside. “We wanted to get it looking right,” he says.
Corren and Scott worked on the thresher whenever they had a chance. “We tore it apart and cleaned it out,” Corren says. “The original metal plates were all riveted in, so when we cut the bolts and removed the metal, the holes for the rivets were still there for us to use.”
The next step was measuring sizes of panels they’d removed. Two were identical, but others were varied. “We used cardboard to make templates to show where the plexiglass needed to be cut to fit various angles,” he says, “and used those templates to trace onto the plexiglass.”
Then the thresher was on the move again, transported to the home of a Threshermen’s board member experienced in working with plexiglass. “It’s easy to chip and crack if you don’t do it correctly,” Corren says. “He cut the plexiglass to the sizes we needed, and helped us figure out how to get the pieces on the thresher.”
Finally, it was time for installation. “With the holes that had been drilled in the plexiglass, we inserted the bolts and put them into the rivet holes,” Corren says. “I was on the outside, and someone had to be on the inside to hold the nut on the back side and tighten it down. The most difficult part was probably doing a lot of things that had to be done, and finding out that it was a lot more work than I’d thought. It’s an old machine, and some spots were difficult to get into. Also it was hard trying to take apart the machine without damaging it. We wanted it to be as close to the original condition as possible.”
Corren says he was surprised by how similar some parts of the old thresher were to those in today’s combines. “The way many of the systems work is very similar,” he says. “Actually, some new combines have wood walkers to move the material through and thresh it. The process hasn’t changed that much. The walkers on many new combines are metal, but some are still wood.”
They didn’t use any special tools for their work. “Just basic wrenches,” he says. “It’s an old machine, and taking off some of the old square-head bolts was a little complicated.”
That job might have been easier had they opened the toolbox on the side of the thresher. After the project was finished, father and son discovered an old square-head wrench in the toolbox, along with an operator’s manual. Belts were also stored inside the machine. “Every year after threshing was finished, they’d remove the old belts and put them inside the machine,” Corren says. “Most were actually still in decent condition, so we could use them. We had to buy material and make our own belts for a few of them.”
He enjoyed mastering that skill. “We had to use old tools to make new belts,” he says. “We took a roll of belt material, cut off the proper length, and used a splicer to put little metal clips and bolt the ends of the belt together so it would hold.”
Corren says what he enjoyed most was disassembling the entire machine, cleaning it, putting it back together and taking it to the threshing show that first year. “We got that little engine to run, so I could explain to people how these machines worked,” he says. “On the trolleys I got to stand up front with a microphone and explain what was going on in the show, and explain that with this Wood thresher, this is how machines worked.”
The engine that originally powered the thresher had been set aside on the Threshermen’s grounds, unused. “We had to find a gearbox to gear it down, to slow the process so everybody could see how it was working,” Corren says. “Getting all those things connected together and then to the machine was tough. We didn’t have a flywheel, and we were running the thresher so slow that the small engine couldn’t have pulled the belt.”
Normally, a power belt would run from the side pulley to a tractor or steamer. Instead, they fabricated an adapter and attached it to the machine’s main drive wheel so they can run the thresher with an electric motor. “Where it is currently attached on the machine would normally have a belt running off to a tractor or steamer to power the machine,” he says.
The cutaway thresher was an instant crowd pleaser. “A lot of people were really surprised, because they had no idea how the thresher worked inside,” Corren says. “It’s really such a simple machine, so it was kind of a shock to see that it could do all that work. That little motor is too small for the project, too, so we had to shut it down after running it for five or 10 minutes.
“A lot of people asked, ‘How did you do this?’ or, ‘What’s the difference between a combine today, and what it was then?’ It was cool to explain that it’s almost the same thing,” he says. “There’s not that much difference.”
The Humming Bird was Corren’s first big project. “I learned how to work on big equipment, and the basic hand-working processes,” he says. “It was cool to get to learn how old machines work together. I was surprised, for example, how the auger that puts out the grain had a basket that measured each bushel, when a counterweight tripped it and kept count of how many bushels had been harvested.”
At one point the Olsons thought about displaying the Humming Bird at other shows. “We decided it was easier and better for the machine if we didn’t take it all over the place,” Corren says. “It’s difficult to load onto a trailer, and it’s so old. We don’t want to do anything that might damage it. And it isn’t light, either.”
Completing the restoration was just the beginning. For an FFA project, the student must complete a proficiency application describing the project. “I kept good records,” Corren says. “The application was judged on my records, the uniqueness of the project, how well it fit the category and how well it related to the mission of the national FFA organization, which is dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.”
After advancing from the chapter level, Corren’s project moved onto the district and state levels during his sophomore year. At state, he received a bronze third-bracket rating, falling between 10th and 15th place. “I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of what it all took going into the project,” he says, “so for what I had, I was happy with that result.”
Corren was active in FFA in other ways as well. He managed his chapter’s fruit sales for two years and performed volunteer service at his church. He also managed the nonprofit FFA2Haiti project, which his chapter started in 2012, sending FFA members from across the country to Haiti for one week in the summer. Participants worked alongside GoServ Global (formerly Global Compassion Network) from Eagle Grove, Iowa, building homes and working in an orphanage.
Today, Corren is a freshman at Iowa State University, studying mechanical engineering. “Understanding how these different components worked together, and why they were designed this way or that way, and working with the threshing machine has given me some good hands-on experience,” he says.
“With that thresher, I wanted to show people what the old times were like. I’m a huge fan of the Threshermen’s show up here. Many shows have tractors lined up nicely, and threshers setting there, but here, we’re a working show, and it’s really important to keeping the history alive, to remember that this is where we were, where we came from, and look at what we’ve come to. I thought this was a great way to remind people that this is the way they used to do it, and it’s not that different from where we are now.” FC
For more information: Corren Olson, P.O. Box 23, Albert City, IA 50510; (712) 291-1370.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.