When Ron Roebuck first saw the 1914 Avery Yellow Kid thresher in 1975, it had sat unused in a barn south of Platte City, Mo., for more than 20 years. “A local farmer named Frank Southers owned the thresher, which had been in his family since the late 1920s or early ’30s,” says Ron, a retired engineer and steam engine collector living in Shawnee, Kan. “Frank was asking $150 for it, but he wanted to find someone who would husband it and not just burn it down for the iron.”
The hook was set. “I knew Avery made quality equipment, and even though it had been years since the thresher had been run, it was still in good shape,” Ron says. “Frank said they’d tried to run it with a Farmall F-20 but the F-20 couldn’t handle it until they took a lot of the cylinder teeth out.” The thresher came with a full complement of belts still in usable condition, and sieves for wheat, clover seed, beans and other crops. “Although coons had built nests in it,” Ron says, “it was just too good a machine not to save.”
There was just one small problem. The Avery thresher had been stored in an old barn facing a hillside. “Over the years, the hillside had eroded and filled the barn doors at least a quarter of the way up with silt,” Ron recalls. “My dad and I would go out there in the evenings after I got home from work. Using hand tools, we dug the doors out. The thresher’s wheels were pretty well buried, too, so we ended up digging two ruts for the wheels so the thresher weigher would clear the door. Then I hooked it to the hitch of a little 1954 3/4-ton Chevy truck, and we pulled it to the Platte County Fairgrounds, where we stored it under an open-sided shed.”
The fairgrounds are also the home of the Platte County Steam & Gas Engine Show. In 1976, the Avery was pulled out for a threshing demonstration. Then the old thresher sat unused until 2012. “At one point, the Fair Association wanted to use that building, so they drug the thresher out and never put it back,” Ron says. “One of the club members called me and said the thresher was sitting out in the rain. When I got there, kids had gotten into it and pulled off some of the grease cups, and the housing for the windstacker fan had rusted out. It was kind of a mess.”
Things began looking up for the thresher when the Platte County group got involved. “Ron gave the Avery to one of our club members, Jim Turnbull, who in turn donated it to our club,” says Rich Canning, Platte City. “Last spring we decided to make it a club project, so we loaded it on a flatbed and hauled it to Steve Foster’s place. We used his shop to start disassembling it. We probably spent 100 hours getting it back in working order, with as many as six to 10 members working at a time.”
“Basically, we took the thresher apart and replaced those parts that were beyond repair,” explains Allen McFall, a club member from Dearborn, Mo. “Jim Turnbull did the metal work, including fabricating and welding a new bottom for the fan housing. We also replaced the cross-arms across the bottom, made a new bottom grid on one side of the return elevator, and replaced all the bolts on the front feeder. The front bolster was pretty well dry-rotted out, so Charlie Porter, our woodworker, made a brand new one.”
“I found a 6-foot long piece of well-aged 6-by-6-inch oak at a lumberyard for the bolster,” says Charlie, who lives in nearby Smithville, Mo. “We also discovered that rats and coons had gnawed on the five wooden straw walkers, which are shaped like saw teeth, so I fashioned replacements for those.”
“We also did quite a bit of work up under the windstacker duct where the straw blows out,” Allen adds. “Then we spent a lot of time replacing the missing grease cups. Over the years, most all of the grease cups had disappeared. John Plank, one of our members, had a gallon bucket filled with grease cups and I had a couple, so we put in new cotton-fiber packing material and got the grease cups back in place.”
The refurbished Avery made its post-restoration debut when it was pulled out of the fairgrounds shed Aug. 11, 2012, during the 51st annual Platte County Steam & Gas Engine Show. The old thresher was powered by a nicely restored 1906 Buffalo-Pitts 25 hp steam engine owned by area residents Bill Thurman and Shan Johnson. The refurbished Avery hummed like the day it was new and kept a crew of workers busy, just as it did decades ago.
“It took several men to keep that thresher running back in the days of steam power,” Ron says. “You had one man at the power source and one man up on top listening for problems, watching to make sure the bearings didn’t overheat and keeping an eye on the windstacker to make sure the straw pile was well away from the thresher. You had a water boy whose job was to drive a team with a water tank and make round trips to the water source. And you might have three, four or more men driving bundle wagons, and more workers in the field loading the bundles.”
While the Platte County Steam & Gas Engine Show didn’t set out to build a collection of antique farm equipment, it now owns two vintage sawmills along with the Avery thresher. This year, the club was also entrusted with a Rumely steam engine.
“Our dad (JT Stenner) bought it in the early 1960s from Bill’s Salvage Yard in Liberty, Mo., after he heard they were going to scrap it,” says Ester Ferrell, who owns the Rumely with her sisters, Barbara and Linda. “Although it has cleated wheels for a field tractor, we were told it was used for years to run a sawmill in St. Joseph, Mo. Dad got it running shortly after he bought it, equipped it with a headlight from a locomotive and mounted a pressure generator on one side that runs off steam. While he was living, he used to run it every Fourth of July.” FC
For more information:
— The 52nd annual Platte County Steam & Gas Engine Show will be held Aug. 9-11, 2013, in conjunction with the National Hart-Parr Oliver Summer Show.
— Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in Galesburg, Ill., in 1877 by brothers R.H. and C.M. Avery, Avery Co. relocated to Peoria, Ill., in 1882. By 1891, the company was producing steam engines, corn planters, cultivators and stalk cutters. Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing for more than 30 years, the company manufactured wooden threshers in eight sizes ranging from a small 19-by-30-inch model to a large 42-by-70-inch unit. The Yellow Fellow line included the full-size Yellow Fellow, the Yellow Kid and the Yellow Baby. According to a company catalog, the Yellow Fellow featured 52 total inches of concave and grate surface, adjustable front and rear concaves, an adjustable grate behind the cylinder and a moving grate under the beater. Company literature promised, “Avery separating devices are guaranteed to shake out 99-52/100 percent or more of the loose grain in the straw.”