One of the reasons Cyrus McCormick’s reaper succeeded where others failed was training. McCormick’s company undertook the job of teaching early farmers how to maintain their equipment. Men accustomed to working with horses and harness were taught how to turn wrenches and adjust mechanical objects. The idea that the average farmer was unfamiliar with nuts and bolts seems strange today, but such was the case in the mid-1800s.
Although farm equipment became more complicated as the years went by, most early farmers adapted quite well. But it wasn’t always easy. The International Harvester Co. logo was often translated as “In Hell Continually,” expressing the headaches that went along with utilizing and maintaining IH farm equipment. Even today, farmers routinely lament that those who make agricultural equipment have never had to work on it. If they did, conventional wisdom says, they would do a better job of making repairs possible.
As time passed, equipment became both more complicated and more expensive. American farmers became resourceful in utilizing whatever was handy to accomplish their goals with as little financial outlay as possible. In the early 20th century farmers quickly figured out how to recycle vehicles originally intended for transportation into machines useful on the farm. Cars were made into trucks, engines were made into air compressors, cars and trucks were modified to perform as tractors, and abandoned vehicles of all types were converted into sawmills (with the engine powering the saw and the running gear carrying logs past the saw blade). The variety of farmer-designed and -built objects is staggering.
From near the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s through the early 1950s, a variety of buck rakes were built in this area from old cars and trucks. In the days before balers became common, alfalfa and grass hay were still put up loose.
Hay was gathered in the field and transported to the stack. Traditionally, horse-powered mechanisms had been used for that purpose. Although they worked, they were somewhat unwieldy, as the fork that scooped the hay was positioned in front of the horse. If the field was large, the time it took to get the stack loaded and then return to the field for another load was quite lengthy because the entire operation was conducted at the speed of a horse’s walking pace.
Before the transition from loose hay to baled hay, almost every farmer around here had converted an old motorized vehicle into a buck rake. Any old car or truck available was fair game. In doing research for this article, I discovered use of everything from a 1930s Graham-Paige school bus to an early 1940s U.S. Army Dodge ambulance. The photos accompanying this article show a buck rake made from a 1929 Model A Ford sedan.
In the late 1980s, the remains of a local farm that had thrived through the first half of the 20th century were being cleared out. A friend who was responsible for that effort said a company that bought scrap metal offered only $5 a ton for the farm’s old equipment. He indicated that if I would like to take anything, it would have little impact on his bottom line. As an enthusiast of old farm equipment I jumped at the chance and salvaged several items, one of which was the remains of a derelict buck rake.
Since all buck rakes were homemade, many were crude beyond belief. However, whoever built this power unit was amazingly creative and did careful work. The body of the 1929 Model A sedan (I salvaged that, too) was removed, leaving just the hood, cowl and dash. The steering column was mounted straight up and adapted to steer the front wheels that then became the rear wheels.
To properly push a wide rake, the vehicle needed to go backward so the operator could see what he was doing. To facilitate this, the axle was flipped over, resulting in three speeds backward (which was now forward) and one reverse. Like all vehicles, the buck rake had to have clutch and brake pedals and they needed major modification to activate the proper components. Even more complicated were the controls for the foot-activated starter, accelerator, hand-operated throttle and spark control.
At the time the buck rake was created, farmers didn’t have welders like we have today. All modifications to iron and steel components were accomplished by forging. How that was accomplished is beyond my comprehension, but it was done neatly in almost every instance. The conversion’s only obviously commercially produced parts are the actual clutch and brake pedals, which are cast out of brass.
Having been outside for almost half a century, the rake’s wood components were mostly gone. That necessitated major effort to make the buck rake look as it did in its working days. We relied exclusively on parts obtained from old, abandoned buck rakes in the area. Although finding replacement parts was a time consuming process, new wood wouldn’t have matched the appearance of the power unit. The only variation from the original was the unit’s width: It was reduced to 8 feet from the original 12 feet, allowing transport on a car trailer.
Since the buck rake sat unused for an extremely long time before being rescued, it is hard to believe the only engine components that had to be replaced were the radiator hoses and fan belt. Because I have several Ford Model A cars and trucks, internal components were easily sourced from parts vehicles. The engine sucked in so much dust during its working years that it has almost no compression, all four spark plugs are different makes and the radiator seeps at a couple of seams. In spite of that, the engine starts easily, runs smoothly and doesn’t blow blue smoke. I love the characteristic Model A “cackle” sound it makes.
Driving the buck rake for long hours on hot days and in rough hay fields would be a killer job, but as it is used today it is a blast to drive on smooth surfaces. You do get a strange sensation since it steers in the back. I’ve driven it in parades and, at the request of the organizers, I transported it to a Northwest Regional Model A Ford Club meet. Although hundreds of beautiful Model As were in attendance, the modified buck rake was a hit of the show. Anyone interested in old cars and/or old farm equipment cannot help but be impressed. Somewhere there ought to be a museum dedicated exclusively to farmer-created equipment. If that doesn’t come about, we will lose some of the most interesting items ever used on the farms of America. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference: Mountain Standard Time) or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.