The Grass is Always Greener

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Courtesy of Farm Collector Magazine Staff
Original paint on this Carson header is a remnant of the era when bluegrass seed production was a cash crop in and around Missouri.

More than 100 years ago, bluegrass seed production was a popular cash crop in the Midwest, where it also spurred development and manufacture of mechanized seed strippers and threshers.

Bluegrass is not native to the U.S.; the seed was apparently brought here by early European settlers. It spread across the country with the settlers, finding its way into north central Kentucky, where it produced excellent forage for livestock and earned the name “Kentucky bluegrass.”

The rhizomatous cool season grass has adapted to climates with cool summers and cold winters. It prefers average daily temperatures to not exceed 75 degrees F. It does well not only for pastures but also for lawns and golf courses because it is disease-resistant, and has attractive color and impressive longevity.

In the 1900s near Lexington, Kentucky, bluegrass was grown not only for livestock pastures but also for commercial seed sales. Its nutrient value and ease to establish drove demand for Kentucky bluegrass seed to spread west and north. It is now grown from coast to coast in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Rapid growth for the fledgling industry

In the 1920s through the 1950s, the region referred to as the “Missouri Area” – northwest Missouri and adjacent parts of Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska – became the largest commercial bluegrass seed-producing region in the U.S.

According to a 1924 article in the Maitland Herald in Holt County, Missouri, 72 farmers, plus many hand-strippers, collected seed and sent it to Kentucky and Kansas City to be threshed (or cleaned). They were getting $1.50-$2 per bushel, with the best seed bringing as much as $40 per acre. Once cleaned, the seed was used on golf courses in the northeast; some was even sent to Germany to use in making dyes.

By 1925, the bluegrass stripping industry was growing rapidly. Nodaway County, one of the five major bluegrass-producing counties in northwest Missouri, shipped 50,000 bushels to be cleaned. In that county, bluegrass was yielding about 4 bushels per acre and farmers were getting $3 per bushel. King City, in Gentry County, claimed to be the Bluegrass Capital of the World.

In Missouri, bluegrass developed seed heads in late May. Stripping started by early June and continued for about two weeks. Once the seed was harvested, livestock was allowed to return to the pastures, and grazing continued until the following spring.

In the late 1800s, William Armstrong established a foundry in Maryville, Missouri, where he designed and perfected a bluegrass-stripping machine. In 1927, Armstrong & Son manufactured 238 stripping machines. They also shipped 300 sets of irons to farmers who made the wooden parts of the machines themselves and assembled the units. Armstrong stripping machines were sold to seed companies and farmers in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

Growers eye investment

Bluegrass from the Missouri Area was said to have the heaviest weight reported in markets worldwide. In 1927, the area was producing 5 to 20 pounds per acre. During early years of seed production, most of the rough grass seed produced was sent to Kentucky to be cleaned.

As much as 40 to 60 percent of the product sent was waste. At a 1927 meeting of some 350 Missouri Area growers, participants learned that the savings in freight on one year’s crop alone would be enough to pay for the construction of an area cleaning plant. That plant would remove weed seed and trash from the rough bushels brought in from the fields, thus eliminating the need to ship seed to Kentucky for cleaning.

At that meeting, William Armstrong’s son, Hugh, estimated that the construction of a cleaning plant could cost $25,000 to $40,000. Given the fact that the small area of northwest Missouri and adjacent counties in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas (as well as one-half of Kentucky) then produced the world’s supply of bluegrass, such a venture must have seemed a safe bet.

Harvester development dates to the 1880s

In earlier times, grass seed was obtained by hand-stripping mature seed from the stalk. Eventually, hand-stripping combing devices were developed and used in small areas or along fencerows, as well as pastures, by women and young boys.

In 1884, Jacob Naff, Winchester, Kentucky, patented an improved grass seed harvester that was pulled by mules. He was awarded another patent in 1885 for a unit with an adjustable comb. In 1903, the McCormick brothers of Clark County near Lexington, Kentucky, were awarded a patent for an improved grass seed stripper. That unit required two people to operate: the driver and another person to load stripped seed into bags.

The Missouri Area became the center of bluegrass seed production for commercial use during the 1920s. Mechanical strippers quickly became essential equipment in harvesting the June bluegrass crop from vast pastures and fields of bluegrass. In the 1930s and ’40s, bluegrass stripping put a little cash in the pockets of young men, at least on a seasonal basis.

Maryville, Missouri, became a center for the production of bluegrass-stripping machines. By the early 1920s, Hugh Armstrong had begun to develop and produce mechanical strippers in his foundry. In 1946, former Armstrong employee John Carson became a partner in the business. Hundreds of bluegrass strippers were manufactured in the Maryville area.

Stripping machines were often purchased by seed companies and leased to farmers to use in harvesting their grass crop in early June. Those producers then returned the harvested seed and the machines to the seed company. Some farmers bought their own machines.

Labor intensive crop, from start to finish

The ground-driven machines were designed to be pulled by a tractor. Each machine had a hitch on the back of the frame, where another stripper could be attached. Some farmers attached several strippers together to pull them across their bluegrass pastures.

The drum of each stripper could be raised or lowered by a handle. As a tractor pulled the stripper across a field, the drum rotated very rapidly. Steel nails measuring 1-1/2 inches long protruding from the drum. As the stripper was pulled along, mature heads of bluegrass were beaten off their stems by the nails and deposited into a box at the back of the stripper. When the container was filled, it was emptied into sacks held in place by a sack holder located on the back of the box. The sacks were then taken to the seed company’s curing fields.

The freshly harvested bluegrass heads (with some green weed stems) would quickly begin to heat if left compressed in the harvesting sacks, reducing germination rates. To ensure quality seed curing, the heads were emptied onto long 2- to 2-1/2-foot-high windrows on centralized curing fields. Those windrows required frequent turning, airing and sunlight to facilitate the drying process. They were initially turned three or four times a day, but as the curing process progressed, fewer turnings were necessary.

In the Midwest, all curing occurred out in the open on closely mown patches of bluegrass sod. Depending upon the weather, the curing process could last two to four weeks, after which the material was again bagged and sent to processing centers.

The final step was preparation of seed for the market. The dried material was run through a special threshing machine. That complicated device separated the chaff and stems from the actual seed. The loss in weight from cleaning varied from 40 to 60 percent, depending upon the volume of weed seeds, grass stems and seed hulls. One pound of perfectly cleaned Kentucky bluegrass contains 2.4 million seeds.

The cleaned seed was then ready for the wholesale market. From the thresher, the seed was put in large 8-bushel bags for shipment to retailers, who divided the bags into smaller portions as needed by their customers.

Midwest row crops push out bluegrass

In 1944, clean bluegrass production in the U.S. totaled slightly more than 22 million pounds. A measured bushel of bluegrass seed weighs 14 pounds, although moisture and weed seed content will alter that standard weight.

A 1944 USDA statistical report indicates that a Missouri farmer’s profit from bluegrass per acre was $2.16. Profit from an acre of corn was $10.70. By the late 1950s, bluegrass seed production in the Missouri Area had largely ended. The marginal land once used for pastures was increasingly used to produce more profitable row crops such as corn and beans.

Commercial bluegrass seed production subsequently moved to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, where it remains today. Those regions can experience better weather and better yields per acre for producing bluegrass than is typical in the Midwest.

Extensive research and development by various state agriculture departments provided multiple varieties of bluegrass in the 1940s-60s. That research continues today. Although bluegrass thrives in cooler climates, researchers have developed varieties that do well in warmer regions. Some are drought-tolerant, shade-tolerant, and slow-growing, requiring less mowing.

The bluegrass strippers produced in Maryville played a significant part in the short-lived commercial bluegrass industry of the Missouri Area until the early 1950s. Some of those stripping machines may still be found today, long forgotten in barns, sheds, or fencerows. They might be labeled “Armstrong,” “Armstrong-Carson” or “Carson,” depending on the year of manufacture. FC

Retired school principal Don McKinley grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa. He has created a museum of 1930s vintage farm collectibles at his home in Quincy, Illinois. Contact him at 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; email: Visit his Facebook page at 1930’s Ag Museum.

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