Most folks who remember “thrashing” machines from their youth, or who have seen them demonstrated at shows, likely think they all came with the big round pipe at the back that blew the straw into a pile. Well, from about 1890 that’s probably true, but it wasn’t always so.
When farmers graduated from the flail to the first groundhog-type mechanical separators (and for many years after that) the straw was dropped on the ground behind the thresher. To keep it from burying the machine, the straw had to be moved away, at first by men with hand rakes and pitchforks and then by horse rakes. At about the time of the Civil War, conveyor-type straw stackers appeared, usually hinged onto the rear of the thresher and arranged with ropes and pulleys to raise the outer end as the stack grew.
Such conveyor stackers had disadvantages; since they were driven by the same power source as the thresher, usually a horse tread or sweep power, they increased the power requirements needed. Although the elevator was hinged so its height could be varied, there was originally no way to swing the stacker from side to side, so the stack had to be made directly behind the separator and was thus limited in size. In addition, even though some labor was saved, two or three men were still needed on the stack to move the straw into place with pitchforks.
Swinged stacker evolves
To make the elevator stacker more useful, it was soon pivoted as well as hinged at its bottom, which enabled it to swing from side to side, making it easier to distribute the straw on top of the stack while at the same time permitting larger and longer stacks to be built. The first swinging stackers were stand-alone units on wheels. They were transported separately; when set in place, they were powered by a belt or rope from the thresher.
Improved versions of the swinging stacker were permanently attached to the threshing machine and provided for automatic swinging from side to side on an arc that could be regulated by moving pins to different holes on the large supporting wheel. As the stack grew and the elevator was raised, the outer end also moved out so the straw was always dropped on the stack’s center line.
A veritable cyclone
Then, in 1884, James Buchanan of Indianapolis won a patent for a stacker that dispensed with belts, chains, canvas aprons and wooden slats to carry the straw to the stack. Instead, Buchanan used a large fan to blow the straw through a long metal pipe that was adjustable in height and length and capable of being pivoted from side to side. This first pneumatic, or wind, stacker was mounted on its own four wheels and was positioned at the rear of a thresher to receive the straw and blow it where desired.
B.B. Clarke, longtime editor of The American Thresherman, wrote in 1926 of his first encounter many years before with Buchanan at an Indiana State Fair where Clarke was demonstrating a Robinson & Co. threshing rig and Buchanan asked to try his new stacker on the Robinson machine. “It was not because of any favoritism on the part of the inventor,” Clarke writes, “but because the engine operating my outfit … had the power to operate the ‘Cyclone,’ whereas no 10-horse engine had any business with (it). You could hear it roar from 3 to 7 miles away, and an ordinary-sized separator with this stacker attached required nearer 20 than 10 horsepower.”
Threshermen quickly saw the benefits of Buchanan’s stacker, which was dubbed “The Farmers Friend.” After it was improved and made to be an integral part of the thresher in a patent granted in 1892, Buchanan offered to allow anyone to use his patent so long as they paid him $30 (about $770 today) royalty per stacker. However, most threshing machine manufacturers considered that royalty fee “highway robbery” and refused to have anything to do with the wind stacker. But people wanted it; Clarke says: “Threshing machines were shipped (by their buyers) to Indiana Mfg. Co. at Indianapolis, if they were (to be) equipped with wind stackers. What would you think of having to pay $100 to $200 freight and then $250 more to have a wind stacker attached? Yet that was the only way at that time.”
The manufacturers tried in every way and spent lots of money trying to break Buchanan’s patent, but in the end gave in to customer demand and began to pay the $30 fee. If you’ve ever been to a steam show where they were threshing grain, you may have noticed a large round decal on each side of the rear of the separator. The decal features the head and shoulders of a straw-hatted and fringe-bearded farmer with a kindly face and one cautionary forefinger lifted. This is the logo of the “Farmers Friend,” and Indianapolis Mfg. required it to be applied to each stacker licensed by them.
Even though the manufacturers kicked long and loud about the $30 charge, Clarke writes that each wind stacker cost the final buyer $250 extra and “that wind stacker cost them (the manufacturers) less than $100 to build, including royalty and all!”
Preventing bad language
Farmers being farmers, there was some opposition to the new gadget. Straw and debris, as well as the inevitable few grain kernels that went through the machine, rattled and banged on the tin pipe as they went through, sounding like a veritable hail of grain, and farmers claimed the stacker was sucking grain from the cleaning shoe. Several accounts tell us that Buchanan arranged demonstrations to disprove the doubters, but only one actually describes the demo, so it may or may not be true. The story goes that they shut down the machine and laid 10 one-dollar bills on the cleaning shoe and when they again fired up the thresher the bills stayed right there and weren’t blown onto the stack.
In any case, by the turn of the 20th century, virtually every new thresher was sold with a wind stacker, a device that enabled a skilled operator, by manipulating the stacker controls, to build a good straw stack single-handed. This “took the men off the straw stack, and relieved the thresherman from care and trouble, preventing him from using bad language and thus imperiling his soul.” FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.