Vintage hay presses, including a rare Kansas City Lightning, get back to work with help from Minnesota collector
Dwight Yaeger grew up in a household where family members collected dishes and household antiques. But Dwight veered toward old iron. “I enjoyed mechanical work and nobody else on the farm was doing that,” he says. “That’s how I got started.”
A 1949 John Deere 830 Rice Special tractor was his first project. “I was farming at the time, and Doug Hager (a friend and then-employee) urged me to start.” After restoring more than 30 John Deere tractors for his own collection, Dwight began looking for a new challenge in antique farm equipment.
Now 64 and owner of a Mankato, Minn., school bus service, Dwight has dozens of pieces of restored farm machinery, including rare ones like a 1920 Kansas City Lightning combined hay press (sometimes misidentified as a “lighting” hay press).
Dwight’s first unusual restoration project was a 1920 International Harvester Co. hay press. “At the time, nobody else was doing much with old iron, so it was an easy thing to pick up,” he says.
When he happened on to a vintage operator’s manual, the find proved useful in many ways. In studying the manual, Dwight discovered the unit was typically sold with a 6 hp International engine. The International hay press is belt-driven from the engine, a customary design in that era.
Since he’d found his press minus an engine, he began the search for a replacement. Tracking one down, he got more than he bargained for. The seller mentioned an old hay press in the shed in need of restoration. “I figured I already had one hay press,” Dwight recalls, “so I might as well have another.” Thus began his Kansas City Lightning combined hay press restoration project.
Kansas City Hay Press Co., Kansas City, Mo., sold three models of hay presses: the Lightning Jr., which ran on belt power; the Lightning one-horse press; and the Lightning combined, which had an engine. The company also manufactured Kansas City Lightning farm engines ranging in size from 4 to 22 hp.
The Kansas City Lightning combined press differed from other presses of the day in that it was gear-driven rather than belt-driven. The Lightning’s setup is also different. “The divider boards swing down into the chamber,” Dwight says, “while divider boards on other machines lay flat on the bale chamber and tipped up.”
Dwight speculates that the Lightning must have been a pretty solid machine compared to others of its era. From what he’s read, many were made and the company had a wide sales area. “They were as prevalent as the International hay press,” he says. And yet few turn up for sale or on display at shows. “I don’t know how rare mine is,” he says, “but I think it’s rare that it’s been restored.”
Dwight’s Lightning combined press needed a complete restoration. He started by dismantling the unit and making an inventory of parts needed. A tooth was broken on a pinion gear, the upper and lower metal on the bale chute had to be replaced along with all the wood on the machine, and the wood arm that stomped the hay down into the chamber — a solid piece of oak — needed to be duplicated. He used 6-inch strips of inch-thick cedar decking material to replace the platform’s deteriorated wood.
The rig’s engine (manufactured by Stover Mfg. & Engine Co., Freeport, Ill.) was also shot. Kansas City Hay Press Co. initially made its own engines, but in about 1920 the company switched to the Stover line. Luckily, the same friend who had a duplicate International engine had a second Stover 8 hp engine for the Lightning combined press. Between the one that came with the press and his buddy’s engine, Dwight was able to make one good working engine.
As he worked, Dwight discovered that the Stover was specifically designed for use on the hay press: It had a unique engine with a special crank and a clutch mounted on the crankshaft. But the engine needed new rings and bearings, no easy task. “The bearings were the most difficult part of the hay press restoration,” Dwight says. “The machine had been out in the weather for the last 50 or 60 years so the bearings were seized up. It required a lot of acetylene and heat to get them loose and pull the bearing caps and bolts.”
Dwight also needed to make the wood inserts used to separate bales in the chamber. Wire used to bind the bale was guided in place by two grooves on each side of the insert. Finding a supply of that wire was a matter of serendipity. “When you restore, you rely on many people to complete the work,” Dwight says. “When I was in the hardware store one day, the owner, who is really interested in what I do, asked what I was working on.”
When Dwight told him about the hay press and mentioned the quandary of finding wire, the store owner showed him wires used on a cardboard box baler. Each had a twisted loop on the end — just what Dwight needed. “I picked up some at Waste Management,” he says, “cut off about 3 feet, and had my baling wire.”
During its working days, the Lightning would have been pulled by a tractor to a stack of hay or straw and fired up to produce bales. Manufacturers such as Case, New Holland and John Deere eventually added windrow pickups, allowing the machines to be pulled through the field, eventually evolving into the modern hay baler.
Like most hay presses of its time, the Lightning combined press was operated by a five-man crew. “Somebody on the ground pitched hay onto the platform. A man standing there forked the hay into the top of the bale chamber,” Dwight explains. “Then the solid oak arm shoved the hay into the bale chamber and the plunger closed. That same person also controlled the divider board. He’d swing an arm on the machine and push the board into the chamber. A man on each side of the bale chamber fed wire through and around the bale and hand-tied it. A fifth worker stacked finished bales.”
An uncommon show display, the working press generates a lot of interest and big crowds. “People look at hay presses and just marvel,” Dwight says. “They can’t believe that somebody could work behind them all day.” The tedium of that work doubtless inspired many a farm hand to greater things. Dwight heard just such a story when he sought medical attention for an injury suffered during restoration of the press.
“My doctor asked what I had been working on. When I told him, he said the hay press was the reason he’d become a doctor. He said when he was a kid they stuck him between the haystack and the hay press platform, shoveling hay from the stack to the platform for the next guy on the press. It didn’t take him long to realize, ‘I’m not going to do this all my life.’”
For Dwight, the most fun is seeing the machine completed and running. “I enjoy working on something different,” he says, “because it presents a different challenge. But when you’re done and you first roll it over and it runs like it used to, that’s the most enjoyable.”
Dwight has also restored a 1915 International Harvester Co. Sterling hand-feed threshing machine with its own 10 hp engine. “I really enjoy that one, along with the Kansas City hay press,” he admits. “They draw a lot of attention at shows.”
At the annual Pioneer Power Show in Le Sueur, Minn., the club begins by threshing with the big machines, and Dwight is right in the middle of that. “John Deere made five threshing machines at one time and I own four of them,” he says. “I’m only missing the 28-inch straw rack machine, which is really hard to find. It was one of the first ones they made after buying out Wagner-Langemo Co., Minneapolis, in 1929, and making their own improved version of the straw rack machine.”
Doug Hager, Mark Meyer and Dwight are partners on 17 antique threshers. They display various units from the collection at each year’s show so people can see all of them at one time or another. “We start threshing with the big machines, and then rotate around to the hand-feed and then the horse-powered,” he says. “They all take a turn.”
Dwight is currently restoring a Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. 39-57 tractor. “Only 12 to 15 of them are known to exist,” he says. “It was only manufactured in 1929, before Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. joined with Moline Plow Co. and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. to make Minneapolis-Moline Co.”
He’s also working on a 1915 Gehl Bros. Mfg. Co. ensilage cutter, another unique piece. “It has a wood elevator that goes up into the silo or a blower pipe with a unique belt system,” he says. “When the corn bundles came in, knives like those on a reel lawnmower chopped it into pieces.”
Doug takes considerable pleasure in the fact that his hobby holds meaning for future generations. “These pieces have been rescued from the scrap iron pile and I’m just trying to stay one step ahead,” he says. “With the prices paid today for scrap iron, these old machines are disappearing fast. I hope the next generation takes care of these machines. Without restorations like these, the next generation will have no idea what was used on farms in the old days.” FC
For more information: Dwight Yaeger, 56548 Doc Jones Rd., Mankato, MN 56001.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about the History of the Hay Press, discover interesting engines and equipment in Struck by Lightning: The Kansas City Hay Press Co. and read up on portable Lightning engines in 1905 6 HP Kansas City Hay Press Lightning. Also, see Vintage Hay Presses At Work.