Everyone has dreams, but a handful of dreamers turn their nighttime visions into reality - such as an old-iron lover who once dreamed of an old combine. 'This was the dream that wouldn't go away ... It was literally a dream ... I dreamed of taking one of these old combines and restoring it,' says Len Holo of Eau Claire, Wis., matter-of-factly describing how his 1949 Massey-Harris No. 21A combine restoration began two years ago. The revelation wasn't merely happenstance, however. It was more akin to actor Kevin Costner's epiphany in the movie, Field of Dreams. Len awoke the next morning unable to shake the indelible vision that haunted him for the next month.
His daughter, Lynda, provided the impetus and encouragement to carry that dream to the next level. Far from just another shop job, Len dreamed of a specific goal: Commemorate the 1944 Harvest Brigade's multi-state harvest by 500 Massey-Harris No. 21 and No. 21A combines for the war effort in parts of the West and Midwest. Len's commemoration effort, which is planned for spring and summer 2004, will take him and the combine south from North Dakota through Kansas, Oklahoma and into northern Texas. Along the way, he'll display the combine at selected sites. Then Len will reverse the trek and make his way toward the northernmost tip of the Dakotas, plotting his course to closely match the original Harvest Brigade. Before Len could fulfill the dream, he first had to find and restore a special combine.
Len began his search for as many Massey-Harris No. 21 and No. 21A combines as he could get his hands on beginning in October 2001. Garnering assistance from Ralph and Charles Schneulle of Blair, Neb., and Ralph's son, Michael, he looked in salvage yards around the immediate area, but the fruitless effort forced Len to scour salvage yards and implement businesses outside Wisconsin. Once he put feelers out in a broader area, results started to trickle back in the form of sightings and sundry information. 'It's kind of easy to find them if you know what you're looking for,' Len admits. 'I started finding them pretty quick once I started looking.' Len's goal was to find as many derelict machines as it would take to construct a single perfectly restored combine. The first combine was located in Kindred, N.D.
The Kindred combine was a No. 21, which sported a canvass header. It didn't have a serial number tag, but Len was confident it dated to about 1945 or 1946. Friends located the sleeping giant, and the farmer who owned it readily parted with it provided Len would haul it away. 'I took the whole thing during a big snowstorm,' he remembers. 'I'd come all that way to get it, so I figured that I was too far from home to back out.' The combine was in very poor condition since it had been sitting exposed in a grove of trees, but it wasn't a complete loss. Len salvaged numerous parts including a windrow attachment and a gas tank in good shape.
The next few combines that Len located were also in poor condition. By luck, he spotted a 1947 No. 21 in Peever, S.D., with rare dual drive-wheel options, but it was too far-gone to restore. Len gave the owner $50 for the machine, mainly for its mostly intact engine and its 14-foot auger attachment. Another combine came from Blair, and Len thought this one would be the one to restore, but his hopes crumbled just like the old combine's parts as he dismantled it in mid-April 2001. 'As I started washing it, it literally started falling apart from the acidic sap of pine needles that had fallen on it over the years,' Len recalls. Disappointed, but not discouraged, Len focused on yet another combine in Hankinson, N.D., where he nabbed a set of factory-original rims. All other combines Len located were fitted with aftermarket styles, which made it an important find because he was closer than ever to his dream machine.
Unfortunately, Len's search hit a brick wall after a few initial successes. Len let all of the machines sit all winter long, and then in April 2002 he bought a classified ad in a farm magazine desperately searching for that special No. 21 he could restore. 'I was scared that I wouldn't find one good enough to restore, so the advertisement was my last effort to find a good one before I expanded my search farther east and west,' Len says.
Two weeks later, Len got the call. A man in Martel, Neb., had two machines and encouraged Len to visit. Thrilled, he headed for Martel without hesitation. 'As soon as I got there, I got really, really excited,' he says with exuberance. The seller, Roger Servina, owned a 1949 No. 21A with an ugly brush-painted coat. Ironically, the hideous paint job preserved the combine extremely well. The poor paint mattered little to Len. In addition to the top-notch body, the machine had only combined 165 acres each year before it was permanently parked in 1963. Only $50 secured the combine deal, and a boom truck driven by Charles literally picked it up the following Saturday and hauled it to Omaha.
Len's restoration headquarters was based in Omaha at Ralph's mechanical shop and trucking garage that provided the equipment and sheltered them until restoration began in May 2002.
Working four or five hours each night for the duration of the restoration, Len extracted the engine and took it to a rebuilder. 'It needed your normal engine stuff, and the shop rebuilt the block,' he says of the motor work. 'I did work on the clutch, generator, starter and electrical stuff.' Len estimates that he used about 40 feet of wire to rewire the No. 21 A. He also rebuilt the distributor starter and electrical header motor by cleaning the contacts and reassembling the switches.
Throughout the restoration, Len used original parts from the five combines he'd accumulated, but he also bought new belts, rollers, feeder and elevator chains, rumbars, canvas and wood boxings for the grain pan.
Anything that was made of wood was rotted, he says. Fortunately, he was able to use the old wooden components to pattern new oak parts for the combine. Some of the original wood was so badly degraded that Len was hardly able to stencil a pattern. Persistence paid off, and almost all of the wooden parts were eventually replaced. 'I was able to keep the original wooden pitman drive arm because it was in good shape,' he recalls.
'I already knew what I was doing on the restoration so there were no surprises - I worked on these in the '50s,' Len admits despite acknowledging that the combine was his first complete restoration. 'So it's kind of a natural thing to me, just a procedure. There's only one way these things go together.' Confidence aside, Len relied on a few gimmicks to make the restoration flow smoothly. He took pictures of the combine parts as he disassembled it. What's more, Len also videotaped the restoration process and wound up with about six 60-minute tapes that, he admits, aren't very interesting. 'It's kind of like watching paint dry,' he jokes. Interesting or not, Len plans to edit them to assemble the best restoration footage since people have shown an interest in watching the process. Len contemplated releasing the videos commercially, although no plans are solidified.
Sandblasting the combine was a job in itself, Len says. After the entire combine was disassembled down to the last nut, he hauled every single piece - big and small - 50 miles to a friend's body shop where paint was removed during the business's off hours. Len used his minivan to carry most of the combine, much to the bafflement of his neighbors. 'Anyone who tells you that you can't fit a combine in a Plymouth Voyager is wrong!' he says. The Plymouth must've made about seven or eight trips with pieces crammed into every conceivable compartment in the minivan, and larger pieces such as the auger were strapped to the van's roof. Only the combine's body, header and grain tank had to be hauled in a separate trailer.
After the machine was sandblasted, the combine's sheet metal was smoothed using fiberglass patches on the smaller areas and new metal for the larger sections. Painting began after the sheet metal was like-new, and the old paint was entirely removed, a process that lasted from mid-August 2002 to the end of November 2002. Tires were located more easier than Len imagined, donated by a Nebraska store as a tribute to the Harvest Brigade re-creation. Len received 9 l/2-by-24-inch front drive tires and 6-by-16-inch tires for the rear, which literally rounded out the restoration's formative stage.
A ghost of a shell sat on cinder blocks when Len began to reassemble the No. 21A combine. First, he attached the wheel hubs and bearings, and then began assembling the front end, working his way back until he reached the engine. He installed the canvas, put in the grain pan and its rubber seals, and attached the belts and roller chains. Then, in February 2003, the No. 21A was essentially finished. 'On Feb. 16, I started it up,' Len explains. 'I wasn't surprised at all that it started. Everything worked just fine except for an old gas line I tried to salvage off an old combine. It had a pinhole, so I replaced it.'
Decals followed soon after the initial test drive. The patterns came from the protected from the sun's color-stealing rays. After the decal detail, Len returned the immaculately restored No. 21A to the field for the first time in decades to cut oats, on July 13, 2003. 'That was the happiest moment of the whole project,' Len admits.
The restoration went better than expected, Len reports, and no major problems cropped up. Yet, if he changed one aspect about the project, Len says he'd select another sandblasting location because the distance was too great back and forth.
Now that the No. 21A is restored and working, one might ask 'what's next?' Plenty needs to be done before the Harvest Brigade commemoration in spring and summer 2004, Len says. He plans to restore one yet-to-be-determined 2-ton grain truck, one pickup truck and a travel trailer, all from the 1940s. Len will be accompanied by a few others who will maintain and prepare the combine for its harvest jobs. Also, Massey Ferguson has donated money and a parts truck for the trip. Although the exact path of his route is still unclear, Len guesses he will stop at Massey Ferguson dealerships in the Midwest. Anyone interested in the exact route should contact Len or visit his Web site listed below.
Len's Harvest Brigade dream is similar to a stone rolling down a steep hill. It gains momentum with each passing day. Len's progress to next summer's goal - like the rolling stone - is almost unstoppable, but Len says he needs funding for the dream to become reality. Anyone interested in donating time or financial support is encouraged to do so, Len says. 'I'm grateful to Massey Ferguson and a handful of businesses who have donated time and energy to the custom-harvest tribute.' More support is needed to make his harvest i tribute dream come true. FC.
- Len hopes to communicate with anyone who participated in the original Harvest Brigade. You can reach Len at 2810 Hallie Lane, Eau Claire, WI 54703; (402) 672-8684. Learn more about his plans on Len's Web siteshttp://customharvesttribute.tripod.com or www.uschi.com