1917 Holt Combine Finds a Home in Iowa

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This 1917 Holt self-propelled hillside combine is a large, fearsome-looking beast made of wood, except for traction and engine parts.
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The Holt is quite difficult to turn, at least partly because of its huge front wheel.
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An opposite-side view of the 1917 Holt combine.
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Melanie and Larry Maasdam are active volunteers at the Heartland Museum in Clarion, Iowa.
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The 1917 Holt self-propelled hillside combine.
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The Holt ran on gasoline. The tank is shown here next to the ladder accessing the operator's area.
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Traces of original paint on this fine original combine show the manufacturer's name: Holt Mfg. Co., Stockton, Calif.
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The 1917 Holt self-propelled hillside combine. "It's an old machine I enjoy because it's unusual," says owner Larry Maasdam. "I just like old iron."

Larry Maasdam is an avid collector of farm-related items. The Clarion, Iowa, man has more than 7,000 farm and construction toys, hundreds of farm signs and clocks (including dozens of neon signs), 90 hi-crop tractors, 90 restored tractors, crawlers, garden tractors and antique snowmobiles. In their free time, he and his wife, Melanie, volunteer at the nearby Heartland Museum, home to a large collection of antique farm items. All of that is to explain that Larry knows a gem when he sees one — and a 1917 Holt self-propelled hillside combine is a definite gem.

In the right place at the right time

By age 15, Larry was already in the contracting business. His dad, Leonard, invented the Vermeer trencher at about the same time the nearby city of Killduff, Iowa, was putting its telephone wires underground. “They hired a Jeep trencher to dig the trenches,” Larry says. “But once it froze, they couldn’t dig across a gravel road, so the city came to Dad, and saw he had a trencher on tracks, and they wanted us to try it.”

It worked, and Larry found himself installed as full-time operator of the machine, digging trenches for every telephone wire in town. “Back then, there weren’t any gas lines or buried cables, so I didn’t have to worry too much,” he says. “After I was done, the city asked Dad what he wanted per foot, and he said the same as the Jeep trencher operator was going to get paid.”

The payment was enough for half of the cost of a Vermeer trencher. “My dad said he would buy the other half if I wanted it, and I could pay him as I could,” Larry says. “That’s how I got started, in the fall of what would have been my first year of high school. At age 17 I had my first dozer, and I kept doing construction, though I farmed for a while. But that’s how I got involved with all the antiques.”

That also led to the start of a crawler collection, in 1984. Today, Larry has about 40 crawlers.

A “must have” addition to the collection

In the late 1990s, Larry learned of a rare 1917 hillside combine built by Holt Mfg. Co., Stockton, California, for sale in Oklahoma. “I had never seen anything like it,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it was self-propelled, powered by one track, with about a 24-foot head.”

In 1997, he bought the combine, which (other than the header) was in very good original condition. The purchase was the easy part: Two trucks were needed to haul the combine to Iowa. “We had to take off the header, along with a big beam that goes back, and counterweights that offset the weight of the header pulling down on the front,” he says. The 24-foot header was hauled separately by a pickup and trailer.

Loading the combine required removing one of the augers. “But I didn’t have a low boy low enough, so I had to park in front of the combine while we winched it on,” Larry says. “Loading both pieces took about four hours.” He also had to obtain permits for an over-width and over-height load. “It probably weighs about 10 tons,” he says, “maybe a little bit more. Holt’s self-propelled combines aren’t as big as some of their pull-types.”

Ageless Iron debut

From Oklahoma, he drove straight to the Ageless Iron show in Ankeny, Iowa, where he put up a sign announcing that he would start the Holt at 2 p.m. “The people I bought it from told me it ran, so I had a guy that was helping me restore stuff sitting in the seat,” he recalls. “We put a belt on it, and at 2 p.m., it started and took off, but it was missing on two cylinders.”

Through amazing coincidence, a spectator had a pair of the correct spark plugs in his pocket. “The Holt uses the same plugs as his old Cat,” Larry says. “We put them in and it purred like a kitten. The driver on the seat pushed the clutch in to run the combine, and it started rolling. It wasn’t very noisy, about as loud as regular farm stuff. We did move it back and forth a little bit, but we never drove it and turned it. Going back and forth is simple, but it turns very hard. When we pull it out of a shed, it’s a job to turn it. Guys had to be strong back then to run it all day long.”

A distinctive display piece

The Holt sees little action today. A building was erected at the Prairie Homestead Antique Power Tractor Show grounds in Belmond, Iowa, to house pieces from Larry’s collection. “My crawlers are there, and a 10-bottom plow and a big Avery 40-80,” he says. “It turned out to be a good place to put the Holt combine, out of the weather.”

Nor is the Holt the kind of piece that is run in parades. “It was made to go in a straight line,” Larry says. “If you try to turn it or do anything else, it’s hard steering. It’s hard to move. Field-to-field wouldn’t have been too hard, but to get it on the road and take it to different shows, we’d have to tear it down quite a bit.”

A hillside machine, the Holt was designed to have the combine level with the header on a downhill slope. It took a crew of six to run it: “The driver, someone to run the reel up and down, and a man by the gearshift in the back of the combine, because the driver can’t shift from where he sits,” Larry says. “The other people must have been those who sacked the grain.”

The Holt is unusual on several counts: First, it runs on a single track; second, it is made mostly of wood; third, it’s self-propelled. “Back in those days, that was rare,” Larry says. It runs on gasoline, and has an engine like a Holt 45 or Holt 60, and steers with the front wheel; fourth, it’s rare. “It isn’t in too many of the books,” Larry says. “I know of mine, one in South Dakota, one in Idaho and one or two in California. That’s about it, four or five all together.” Interestingly, the Holt was a precursor to today’s John Deere combines.

Good pieces still sell high

The rare Holt combine never fails to generate interest from collectors, and for Larry, that is clear evidence of a hobby that’s going strong.

“I hear all this talk about how tractor shows are dying out,” he says. “I don’t see it. I think they’re getting stronger. When I go to sales, the good stuff still sells for a lot of money, and there is no shortage of money at those places. I mean, things go high, even signs. That’s good for guys who are selling, but not for those of us who are buying.”

Once a collector, always a collector. Larry continues to add pieces to his collection, and in his view, every one is a treasure. “I’ve got too many favorites,” he says. “I don’t know how else to say it. I just like them all.” 

Harvester development worked its way west, and back again.

The combination harvester and thresher – today’s combine – was invented as early as 1835, according to Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems, edited by Neal K. Van Alfren. “Many inventors in the East and Midwest had attempted to perfect a machine that both reaped and threshed,” he wrote. “One of the most successful was Hiram Moore’s combine (built in 1835.) Moore operated his machines on his own and neighboring farms in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for about five seasons, yet it did not gain lasting acceptance in the Midwest.”

Almost two decades later, Moore’s son took that combine west to California. Even though it was destroyed after harvesting only 600 acres, the tide had turned. California became a hotbed for combine development.

The Holt brothers got involved when their first link and V-belt combined harvester appeared in 1886. Thirty-three mules were required to pull the monster, with five men working the machine.

But those enormous teams posed a threat. If the mules bolted, Van Alfren says, the combine would likely be destroyed. The search for a solution led George Berry, Visalia, California, to develop the first steam traction combine in 1886.

With steam-powered equipment, though, fire was the problem. Eventually, Holt (a forerunner of Caterpillar) moved to gasoline-powered, pull-type rigs, and finally to self-propelled units, like Larry Maasdam’s 1917 Holt hillside combine – one of just 308 built from 1917 to 1921.

Meanwhile, in Moline, Illinois, John Deere engineers were working feverishly to develop a combine. The company launched the John Deere No. 2 combine in 1927, followed by the smaller, lighter No. 1 a year later. The company added a thresher to its line in 1929. In 1935, Deere purchased Caterpillar’s harvester business, gaining complete rights to build Caterpillar’s hillside combine and access to all engineering and manufacturing expertise amassed by that company in development of its harvester line. – Bill Vossler FC

For more information:

– Larry Maasdam, 2205 195th St., Clarion, IA 50525; (515) 689-3501, email: maasdam.melanie@gmail.com.

– Heartland Museum, celebrating Iowa’s agriculture and rural heritage (and current home of Big Bud, the 16-V 747 billed as “the world’s largest farm tractor”), 119 9th St., Clarion, IA 50525. Open 1-4 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday during the summer and by appointment year ’round. Phone (515) 602-6000; online at www.heartlandmuseum.org.

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: bvossler@juno.com.

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