It seems only fitting that fields of corn grow high as an “elephant’s eye” within arm’s length of the two buildings where David Rieso keeps his collection of horse-drawn farm implements. In fact, the Riseo Agricultural Museum, in western Illinois near New Athens (pronounced with a long “a”), holds hundreds of items related to corn cultivation, as well as countless items from the horse-drawn era in farm history.
David began collecting horse-drawn farm implements and machines in 1975, when he attended a nearby auction. His father, Earl Rieso, mentioned that a horse-drawn cultivator would be for sale at the auction. David went over and won the cultivator with a bid of $15. “After that first auction, Dad and I just kinda fell into it, and I started reading the classifieds,” David says. “If anything was written about farm equipment being for sale, I’d be there.”
For more than 20 years, David attended auctions or farm shows around Illinois every weekend. When he wasn’t at the sales, or at his job as a dump truck driver, he could be found in his workshop on the farm, rebuilding and restoring his treasures.
When the pieces were ready to display, Earl tagged them for museum display. For example, the tag for a 1929 Model AA Ford truck reads “Goes back to the days when they hauled wheat away from threshing machines.”
When David bought the Ford in 1977 (for $1,050), it needed complete renovation.
“Nothing worked,” he says. “It was pitiful.”
He tore the truck completely down, had parts rebuilt, and completed the restoration with a re-creation of the original paint job: green cab and the wood bed in bright red.
Across from the truck sits a 1939 Allis-Chalmers tractor, capable of pulling one 16-inch plow or two 12-inch plows. On the tag, Earl wrote of war-era equipment shortages. Because of the war effort, manufacture of American farm equipment slowed dramatically by the early 1940s. When tractors were sold at auction, bidders wrote their names on slips of paper and put them in a box. The auctioneer would set the price for the tractor and draw the name of the new owner (who would pay the set price willingly) out of the box.
Most other pieces in David’s collection predate the tractor. He has restored an 1880s-vintage sleigh, and an equally old surrey and three-seat depot hack. The surrey boasts not only side lanterns and shades, but also fringe on top. The depot hack once carried passengers from the railroad depot in New Athens to the Bowman Clubhouse on the Kaskaskia River.
Horses played an integral part in the history of farming. David’s collection of horse-drawn implements brings the lesson home. Horse collars, snow shoes, a primitive horse-collar maker, and blacksmith equipment suggest the infinite challenges of farming with horses.
Before they were used for farming, though, horses helped clear the land. David’s collection includes a Kenwood No. 2 horse-powered stump-puller. The Kenwood could be used with a singletree or a doubletree. Similar to a modern-day come-along, the stump puller used a ratcheting cable system with a very low gear ratio. The low gear ratio allowed great force to be applied to the stump, but at a pace measured in inches.
Corn was once a common subsistence crop, and David’s collection includes remnants from that era. One of the oldest corn planters in the museum is a Barlow New Style corn planter from the 1870s. It is all hand-operated with no provision for a wheel drive. The farmer sat on the back seat, driving the team, while a helper sat in front between two planting boxes, manually releasing seed corn.
In those days, before the corn was planted, the fields were marked with a grid pattern. During planting, the person operating the planter watched for the “checks,” where the grid marks crossed, and then moved a handle that caused the machine to drop a seed. Check row planting was the predecessor to the drilling method used today. In the era of the check row planter, the mark of a good farmer was how well the corn plants lined up. Ideally, old farmers say, the fields resembled a military graveyard: Straight lines along the row, across the row, and diagonally.
Included in this part of the museum is a horse-drawn, two-row corn planter made at least 100 years ago by the George Brown Company in Galesburg, Ill. It boasts a hand or gear drive for planting. That way, the farmer could either check plant his corn, or drill it.
A wood-frame cultivator, complete with wooden wheels, made by a Kiwani, Ill., company stands near a collection of corn knives. David believes blacksmiths made two of the knives in the collection. The other two (patented March 29, 1892) were made by IZ Merriam in Whitewater, Wis.
An advancement over the corn knife came with the introduction of the two-row corn cutter. David’s corn cutter was made by the Dain Company in Ottumwa, Iowa. Farmers of the day called this piece of equipment “the man killer.” Two men stood side to side on a platform, where they caught and bundled corn stalks as the exposed blades at their feet cut the stalks.
Old timers have told David that when a farmer went to hitch up a horse for that job, he’d want to find “an old, old, really tired horse.” That way, the men could keep up with the job of bundling and tying the corn stalks.
One farmer, obviously tired of stopping the horse so he could walk back with the bundled corn, built a single-man corn-cutting sled. It stands near the “man killer,” and features a unique alternative: A rack on the back of the sled for stalk storage.
“Now, that’s innovative,” David says.
A variety of plows dating as far back as 1852 stand in neat rows in the museum. A Civil War gang plow, made by a local blacksmith and patented in 1862, is partially reassembled. David’s great-grandfather’s plow is also included in the collection. Earl pointed out how the right hand sides of most of the hand plows were slick and worn down, the result of turns made at row ends. Two plows in the collection have wooden moldboards: David believes you won’t see pieces like those anywhere else but the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Another piece of equipment on display in his museum similar to one at the Smithsonian is a McCormick Daisy Reaper from the 1850s. Unlike the first reapers, where men would walk beside the machine and rake the wheat, this one is self-raking. In restoring the piece, David disassembled the entire reaper and replaced all the wood, before repainting it in its original colors.
One of the oldest pieces in his collection is a drill press manufactured in January 1863 by C.W. Coe in Fenton, Mich. Predating that is a still functional Conestoga wagon jack from Pennsylvania. Simplicity of design sometimes outlasts more sophisticated pieces.
“There’s really not much more to it than an old block of wood,” David says.
David admits he gets a thrill out of repairing a machine or piece of equipment so it actually works again. And there’s no end in sight.
“You never come to an end when you’re collecting farm equipment,” he says. “Back in the 1800s, every little town had its own blacksmith (that built these things), and you can hardly ever run out of different things to collect.” FC
For more information: David Rieso, P.O. Box 41, Freeburg, IL 62243; phone (618) 539-3717 (evenings).
Barbara Baird is a freelance writer in the Ozarks of Missouri.