By the time this appears in print, combines will have started to roll in some parts of the country and soon will be in action in the rest.
When I was a kid in western Pennsylvania during the 1940s, back in the dark ages when grain was still cut with a binder, shocked by hand and then threshed, I don’t think wheat cutting began before the 4th of July. We made hay and cultivated corn in June, with the final cultivation (usually called “laying by” the corn crop) done around the 4th, by which time the corn stalks should have been “knee high by the 4th of July,” high enough that weeds would no longer offer much competition.
It would then be time to drag the old McCormick-Deering grain binder out of the barn, blow off the dust and get it ready for the field. This entailed sharpening the knife sections with a file and a hand sharpening stone, while replacing any broken knife sections. This was accomplished by pulling the 6-foot-long knife out of the cutter bar and clamping it into a vise so that the jaws of the vise supported the knife bar under the broken section. The back edge of the offending section was rapped smartly with a hammer, shearing off the two soft iron rivets holding it to the bar. A new section was then riveted in its place.
The binder was checked over for loose or broken parts, which were tightened, repaired or replaced as necessary. All the owner’s manuals and farm machinery “how-to” books recommended doing this the previous year before putting the binder away for the winter, but I doubt most farmers followed those prudent instructions.
There were dozens of oil cups and oil holes on a binder in the days before zerk and alemite pressure grease fittings were adopted during the 1930s, and each had to be cleaned out with a nail and filled with a liberal amount of oil.
Finally, the three canvases (sometimes called drapers) were installed. Those items had been removed after the previous season and stored in a dry place where, hopefully, the mice couldn’t get at them.
Each canvas was stretched around two wooden rollers. As the rollers turned, the canvases moved around them and carried the cut grain to the tying deck, where the bundle or sheaf was formed and automatically tied with twine.
A binder canvas is a rectangular piece of heavy canvas (what else?), maybe 3 or 4 feet wide and 10 to 20 feet long, depending upon the size of the binder. Narrow hardwood strips are riveted at regular intervals to one side of the canvas across the narrow width. Hemmed on all four sides, the canvas is equipped with four canvas straps at each end, one set plain and the other equipped with metal buckles.
The longest canvas moves across the length of a platform behind the cutter bar. The cut stalks are swept onto the horizontally moving canvas by the binder’s reel and carried sideways to the two elevating canvases. One elevating canvas is above the other and they revolve in opposite directions at a slant up over the binder’s large bull wheel. The grain stalks from the platform canvas are caught by the two elevator canvases and carried between them up to the tying deck where they drop off the canvas and are collected into a bundle (or gavel) for tying.
The canvases have to operate just so, and they can be a pain to install. They must be threaded around the rollers, always with the canvas strap buckles leading in the direction the canvas will turn. Then the thick and remarkably stiff straps are worried through the buckles and each is pulled up to the exact same tightness so the canvas will run straight.
At last, the binder is ready to take to the field. There is, however, one more hurdle once the field is reached. You see, a binder – with its 6-, 7-, 8- or 10-foot cutting platform and reel sticking out to the side of the elevating mechanism and tying deck – is too wide to pass through gates or down narrow country lanes. So, the machine is mounted on a pair of removable transport wheels allowing it to be pulled lengthwise on the road.
To convert the binder from transport to cutting mode, the team or tractor is unhitched from the tongue, which is jutting out from under the outer end of the cutting platform. The platform is lifted (by hand) and the tongue is unlatched from beneath it. A wheel (called the grain wheel) is then lowered into place to support the platform end.
The large bull wheel, which supports the main part of the binder, is then lowered with a hand crank to raise the transport wheels clear of the ground. The rear transport wheel is removed, the binder is rocked back on the bull wheel and the tongue is latched into position on the front of the binder. The front transport wheel is removed, the tractor or team is rehitched, and it’s off to cut and bind grain.
All this sounds like a lot of bother and it is. But it’s much easier than the methods that came before. Not long ago, my cousin, Charles Townsend, told me a story he’d heard many years ago from his dad (also named Charles Townsend).
During the Great Depression both my father and my uncle lost their town jobs. The only way they could support their families was to take over my grandfather’s farm, which was laying fallow at the time. One of the first crops they planted was wheat. The next summer Uncle Chuck started out to harvest the crop with a cradle scythe that was already on the farm.
My uncle told his son that he made one cut around what was probably a 5-acre field and was more tired than he’d ever been in his life. He kept going, however. About a third of the way on the second round, the cradle broke. Chuck said he was never so happy as when that cradle scythe broke, and apparently he and Dad then somehow managed to scrounge a binder. I’m not sure that was the same machine I remember, but it may have been. Ah, the good old days. FCSam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.