Tom Helke is building a family legacy around the love of old iron. And what better way than to use his father’s Wood Bros. Humming Bird thresher as the central foundation?
Tom, who lives near Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, grew up working with the thresher, which dates to the late 1930s. “We used it on our farm in southeast Minnesota near Brownsville,” he says. “It sat in my mother’s shed for 45 years before I thought I’d better get it out and get it going again.”
His mother, Elsie, was excited by the project. “She was happy to get it up and going again instead of just leaving it sitting in the shed,” Tom says. “She worked with it too in the 1960s. There’s a photo of her sacking out from the grain auger spout. During that time, they worked with neighbors, and threshed neighbors’ grain.”
“Dad never put anything away broken”
The Humming Bird hadn’t been used for nearly 50 years when Tom began to bring it back to life. When it was relegated to the shed decades ago, the thresher gradually settled into the dirt floor, eventually sinking some 16 inches (“up to the axles,” Tom says) before he decided to bring it out.
“When we got it out, we turned it over by hand, and there was a little clunk,” he says. “Opening the throat shields, we found a little rock in there. Dad never put anything away broken. The belts for the pulley were all in a floor compartment, so we belted it up, turned it over and it worked just fine.”
The family lived on a small dairy farm and milked 20 cows, while Tom’s dad, Carl, worked in La Crosse, Wisconsin. “I started milking those 20 cows when I was 11 and cleaned the barn,” Tom says. “No barn cleaner or anything like that, except for us. We used a shovel and a fork to do everything.”
Farm chores taught him responsibility, he says. “There were no sick days,” he says. “It was just our way of life. “I never thought, ‘I have to work.’ It was just a matter of getting everyday chores done.”
Replacement parts key to preservation
Built by Wood Bros., Des Moines, Iowa, the Humming Bird came to the Helkes from a mere mile away. “Dad bought it in the 1960s at a neighbor’s auction and they pulled it home on its steel wheels,” he recalls. “I was 10 and vaguely remember it coming home. He bought a second one that was in poor shape to use for parts.”
Belts are a major challenge in keeping the thresher running. “Whenever we run into any parts or materials, we buy them because you don’t know how long they’ll be around,” Tom says. “The Almelund Threshing Co. also has some parts, and Ed Erickson, who heads up the old threshing machines at Almelund, has belts and parts. One year when the main drive belt broke, we were lucky that Ed had one on hand, like new.”
Tom’s goal is to keep the machine running as long as possible. “My grandkids are very interested,” he says, “especially my 19-year-old granddaughter. She said, ‘Grandpa, when you can’t do it any more, I’m going to carry that on.’ That’s a really good feeling.”
“Get to work and do it in a hurry”
Today, Tom belts the thresher to the same 1937 F-20 Farmall long used to power the machine on the Helke farm. When he pulled it out of the shed to use with the Humming Bird, the F-20 had four different tires on it. “When one went flat, Dad took one a size smaller off another old F-20, which made it pull in the wrong direction,” Tom says. “Last year I finally put matching tires on back, but not yet on the front.”
He plans to keep the tractor in its working clothes. “Though it’s been in the shed most of its life, it’s rusted,” he says. “At first I thought of restoring it, but a number of people, as well as Doug Johnson, who is an important part of the Almelund show, said I shouldn’t. He said, ‘Leave it the way it is.’ That convinced me.”
Tom demonstrates the thresher at Almelund and also at a small show in Scandia, Minnesota. “Some old farmers and neighbors bring a couple of wagons of oats for us to shock, and we used an old John Deere binder,” he says. “We hooked up the belt to the F-20 and the first time it ran straight, with no jockeying.
“I like to see it turning slow,” he adds. “The most exciting part is seeing it come to life, getting it going with all the pulleys turning. The older people like to see bundles going in and straw blowing out the back.”
Tom says every time he uses the thresher and F-20 tractor, he thinks of his father. Tom started helping with the threshing at age 12, and kept at it for four years. “Dad got everything ready and I helped shock and load the wagons,” he says. “My ma pulled oats bundles up to the thresher with a team of horses.
“People were lined up to help,” he recalls. “It was such a big day for my dad. He was always in a hurry to get things done, and keep moving and working. He had a lot of energy that day. He wasn’t the best explainer, but just told us to get to work and do it in a hurry.”
When farmers helped each other
Before Tom takes the thresher to Almelund, friends and family gather to put it through its paces in Scandia, using oats grown by him or a neighbor. He recruits family members to pitch bundles and lines up grandkids to load bundles out of the field. “That kind of cooperation is a big reason why I want to do this,” he says. “It reminds me of the way I grew up. There were always people helping each other on small farms.”
One of the grandkids asked how much money they were going to make for shocking. “I told him, ‘This is a non-profit: You don’t get paid,'” he says with a laugh. “I think they’re just happy to come out and do it and see who can get the most shocks. I tell them that if one tips over, it doesn’t count, so they’ll have to redo it. It’s a little game to help keep them enthused.”
After that, Tom checks over the Humming Bird to make sure everything is in order and then hauls it to Almelund. “We’ve made the trip every year for six years now,” he says. His mother, now 91, also enjoys going to the Almelund show to see the thresher at work.
At Almelund, club members plant 8 acres of oats to use in thresher demonstrations. “It’s always neat to see shocks in the field,” Tom says. “It’s a big highlight.”
Passing knowledge to a new generation
Through trial and error, Tom is learning to take care of the decades-old thresher. “You have to grease and oil it and check the belts,” he says. “I got a belt-lacing machine, so with Jeffrey Erickson’s help, I’ve been able to make a couple of belts for it.”
A decal on the Humming Bird recommends running the crankshaft at 210-220 revolutions per minute. “Each year we run the machine with the F-20 wide open,” Tom says. “That’s the perfect combination. If there is too much speed, you’ll blow oats through the machine. You want it so it sifts through the machine into the cylinder, and the straw walks its way back. If it’s too slow, the straw plugs the blower, and if it’s too fast, the fans draw too hard.
“I’m 63, and I’m still trying to learn what those in their 70s and 80s know,” Tom admits. “They can just check the straw and see how it’s working. I need to learn more from those guys. Dad always had it set up and we pitched bundles and went from there. I want to be able to pass knowledge down to my grandkids so they will know how to run it correctly and it lasts another 100 years.”
Still, Tom says he learned a lot from his father before he died in 1994. “He was determined to work,” he says. “He made sure we learned how to work and do everything the hard way, so when we did get a piece of equipment that made it easier, we would really appreciate everything that made our jobs easier.” FC
For more information: Tom Helke, 20487 Olinda Trail N., Marine on St. Croix, MN 55047; (651) 248-0575 or (651) 433-3472.
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: email@example.com.