Corn Harvest Memories

Tractor-mounted New Idea corn picker demanded farm boy's respect.

| November 2007

I am a city dweller who, like many others, grew up on one of the thousands of small farms that once dotted the countryside. Over the years, country roots were forgotten as we embraced an urban lifestyle. Today, many of us frequently drive by the remaining farms and fields, oblivious to them in the air-conditioned solitude of our vans and SUVs. A recent open-window drive past a cornfield undergoing harvest ended that oblivion for this farm boy of the 1960s. The smell of newly harvested corn triggered memories long forgotten.

The 1960s were the best years for a boy to be part of the corn harvest. Long days of picking corn by hand were distant memories for fathers and grandfathers. The giant corn-harvesting combines of the future, capable of swallowing and digesting 12 rows of corn simultaneously, had yet to be invented. The harvester of choice was the 2-row, tractor-mounted picker and in the 1960s it was at its zenith.

Every major farm equipment manufacturer and several short-line companies designed and sold mounted pickers. On our farm a New Idea No. 20 corn picker mounted on our Farmall M (later a Model No. 307 mounted on a Farmall 400) harvested thousands of bushels every fall. Regardless of design and manufacturer, a corn picker demanded maturity, competence and respect from an operator. Another step on the journey to manhood was achieved when a boy was given the responsibility to operate one.

Such opportunities usually came for me on Saturdays. Dad captained the harvest through the week. On Saturday the first mate manned the helm. A typical harvest Saturday began before sunrise. Livestock were tended to first, then people and finally the equipment.

Proper equipment servicing was vitally important to prevent a breakdown. Every rotating bearing or shaft on the New Idea corn picker was thoroughly greased before heading for the field. The grease had a sweet smell and the appearance of blackberry jelly. According to Dad, a bearing or shaft was not properly lubricated until the grease oozed out like jelly between two slices of breakfast toast. The grease job was followed by filling the tractor's gas tank and checking air pressure on all tractor and wagon tires. Once all preparations were completed, it was time to head to the field.

Driving down gravel roads at 15 mph was still fast enough to leave a cloud of limestone dust in our wake. The constant dust clung to every vehicle traveling the white rock roads and easily invaded even the tightest Fisher bodies. Dew hung heavily from partially opened cattails and all manner of dormant ditch weeds and grasses. Occasionally a pheasant called from its hiding place in the fence line. Its call sounded like two quick passes of fingernails on a rusty bucket. If it felt threatened, it would take flight, rising almost vertically and then crossing the road in a blur, just as a helicopter rises from behind a tree line and disappears in a blur of rotating blades.