Corn Picker Makes a Hard Job Easier

The Overby brothers’ corn picker made a hard job much easier.

| April 2014

  • The “business end” of the picker. It’s easy to see how the unit would also have gathered a crop of rocks.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • This sickle arrangement was added later, as indicated by the use of wood bearings.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • Another modification, possibly to aid in getting rid of stalks at the top of the gathering section.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • Detail of the picker’s lift arrangement and seat with custom-bent spring.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • The restored Overby picker. The original unit was completed in about 1904 after several years’ work.
    Photo courtesy South Dakota State Agricultural Heritage Museum
  • A copy of the picker's original toolbox, down to and including the handcrafted corners.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • A view into the husking bed, where ears were held down on rolls.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • This gear drives the entire machine; the flywheel is on the other end of this shaft.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • Details showing the lower end of the wagon elevator as well as the reproduced flywheel — all of which were missing.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • These four pieces of hardwood attach to the axle as well as to other components. This construction required use of long bolts.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • This interesting gear arrangement drives the wagon elevator.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • The main shaft (flywheel removed).
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • Tensioner arrangement on the husking bed; notice the twisted bend in the strap iron.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • A binder foot pedal was used to throw the machine in and out of gear.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • This homebuilt universal joint is probably the most technical piece of the entire unit.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • Rear view of the restored picker.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • This photo shows the location of the wagon elevator. The only clues were the drive gear from the main shaft and the long bolts. Archival photographs filled in the gaps.
    Photo by Jim Lacey
  • Front view of the finished picker.
    Photo by Jim Lacey

More than 100 years ago, corn, while it had its advantages as feed, was difficult to do much with on a large scale. With the advent of the husker-shredder in the 1890s, corn could be cut by hand in the field, taken to the farmyard and hand-fed into the husker-shredder.

There, ears were snapped off, fed through husking rolls and elevated into a waiting wagon. Cornstalks could be chopped at the same time for use as bedding or fodder.

When the corn binder came on the scene just before 1900, the process became a bit easier. Cornstalks could be arranged in bundles, stacked in shocks in the field (like oats) and left to dry. Later, the shocks were taken to the barn to run through the husker-shredder. That sometimes meant chopping the butts of the shocks out of the ice. Surely there was a better way!

Putting their heads together

Some years before Wilbur and Orville Wright got off the ground, so to speak, the Overby brothers — John and Theodore — decided there had to be a better way to harvest corn. The brothers, who lived near Brentford, S.D., had less than 16 years of formal education between them. Starting with a new pair of binder wheels (dating their invention to 1895 or later), they built a corn picker. Family descendants set the picker’s completion date in 1904.



Like the Wrights, the Overbys did a lot of cutting and fitting and refitting — by hand. The brothers did not acquire a machine shop until 1913, when they ordered one (complete with a 6 hp Economy gas engine, which they used as a prime mover) from Sears, Roebuck & Co. Their foundry and that original machine shop are now on display at Historic Prairie Village in Madison, S.D., courtesy of the Overby family.

The Overby brothers had to be pretty determined, as all 79 castings used on their machine were made in Minneapolis, some 270 miles east. One wonders who made the patterns. And how did they compute shrinkage in the finished castings? It is easy to imagine many letters to and fro on this project. Some of the castings — like the gearing that runs the wagon elevator — are fairly complex. How were ratios established with no benchmarks to go by? The brothers also had to figure out a differential, so both wheels could furnish power and still turn at the end of the field. (This mechanism is somewhat like that employed on the early side-delivery rakes many of us used in our younger days.)