Rotary Reaper Saved from the Scrap Man

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Wilfred Ables with the Rotary Reaper at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
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The Rotary Reaper cut with a special sickle in combination with tapered steel guards (shown here) and delivered with a spiral conveyor.
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The Rotary Reaper is semi-mounted on an International Harvester Farmall F-20.
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The combine’s lift and drives.
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The Rotary Reaper’s sieve unit going together.
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A tree was growing through the combine’s outer wheel assembly, so the previous owner cut off the branch and left the iron in the tree. Years later, when the tree died and crumbled, Richard retrieved the assembly.
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Richard hand-lettered the manufacturer’s name on his Rotary Reaper.
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Curtis Baldwin’s Bear Cat combine with reel.
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Hauling the unrestored Rotary Reaper from Kansas to Iowa.
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A pull-type Rotary Reaper on display at the Old Threshers grounds, Culbertson, Mont.
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A 1940 photo of the Rotary Reaper at work in the field.The only non-rotary processing elements in the Rotary Reaper are the cutter bar and cleaning shoe.
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Author Richard Stout


PATENT NO. 2,212,465 – SERIAL NO. 113
CYLINDER, BAR, OVERSHOT, CHAIN DRIVE, 34 inches wide, 1,200 rpm; 9-foot swath
LENGTH OF SEPARATOR: 140 inches of raddle chain
BIN CAPACITY: 38 bushels

Wilfred Ables, who lived west of Clay Center, Kansas, came home with many unusual farm machines over the years. He told his neighbor, Jim Unruh (who is also my son-in-law), that he was hauling home an uncommon combine that he had gotten at a farm sale. Jim sent photos to me. It was unusual, all right. It was a Rotary Reaper, built in the early 1940s in Ottawa, Kansas, by Curtis C. Baldwin.

I had reworked a Fordson-mounted Gleaner combine in part, but this was a really different machine. I saw Wilfred at the Waukee, Iowa, swap meet the next May, and he wanted to know when I was coming out to buy that combine. In July, I went out to Kansas. Wilfred had laid out the parts somewhat as they should go together. Wilfred did this kind of thing a lot with old cars, tractors or what not. Someone would come, drooling and dreaming over what the project would look like when it was done. Wilfred said you had to pick the cherries when they were ripe.

The Rotary Reaper was unusual in that it had a stripper head and used blowers instead of elevators to move grain into the bin and return the tailings. Years before, someone had torn the sieve unit apart and took the two fans to be used on a truck to unload grain.

When Wilfred was hauling the combine home, a wheel unit had a tree growing through it, so he just cut the unit off with a fire axe and left it in the tree. Luckily, when he was loading it, a fellow said there was a bin in a nearby barn with “Rotary Reaper” lettered on it, and Wilfred also took that home.

Later, when I got to know Gene Lahodny, Concordia, Kansas, and Ernest Nutsch, Washington, Kansas, they told me that three Rotary Reaper combines were sold north of Morrowville, Kansas, a mile or two south of the Kansas/Nebraska border. Lew Prellwitz, Albert Nutsch and Joe Nutsch each got a combine. Two of the machines were tried and sent back to the factory. The Prellwitz combine, which was semi-mounted on a Farmall F-20, was used for two years in about 1940. The second year, they put a Model A Ford engine on for auxiliary power. The blowers for the bin and tailings were a problem when trying to cut tough grain.

I bought what Wilfred had. We took the header off and Wilfred loaded it on my trailer with his Ford-Ferguson and steel-wheeled PTO boom cart. Since the combine had no wheels, I had to build a trailer to its size when I got it home. I had no building to put it. As this was looking like a long-haul project, I built a tin roof over the trailer to get it out of the weather. When I did chores, I’d give it a squirt of WD-40 on the bolts, bearings and whatever else looked like it would have to come apart. There was also the problem of trying to figure out how it was built, the combine being in pieces and some of them missing completely.

‘Conglomeration of junk’

In September 1991, I was showing a Fordson-mounted Gleaner combine at the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I put a photo on the Gleaner of the Rotary Reaper asking for information. A fellow named Frank Hamata wrote to me in October of that year.

“Just before World War II, I was a part-time flunky for Minneapolis-Moline and we had an exhibit at the Nebraska State Fair. Just east of us, probably a half a block, Curtis Baldwin was showing a Rotary Reaper. I didn’t get a close look. I thought perhaps the boss wouldn’t appreciate my going over there, but I could see it had a ‘stripper’ type header such as I had seen on pictures of harvesting in Australia.

“Also, you could see a blower arrangement for putting the grain up in the bin. The machine was mounted on the right side of an Oliver Row-Crop 70, and the right side of the machine was carried by a wire spoke wheel and rubber tire that I felt was obtained at an auto junkyard off of some big tub of an automobile. I didn’t like the looks of a wire spoke wheel on a farm machine. I felt that Baldwin was showing a conglomeration of junk. I wish I had gone over to see that one they had at the Lincoln fair.”

Sold for $225, ‘truck and all’

Frank also told me that there was a pull-type Rotary Reaper combine at the Culbertson, Montana, threshing show. The Northeastern Montana Threshers Assn. directed me to Clifford L. Johnson, Poplar, Montana. The son of the original owner, Clifford sent photos, dimensions and information that helped me, although my machine was quite different from the one he remembers. Here is what he wrote to me in 1991-92:

“I was glad to hear from someone who is acquainted with the Rotary Reaper. In either 1940 or ’41, my father went into Poplar to hire a combiner and here is what he came home with. It was a custom operator out of Kansas. He only had this one machine. It was pulled by a 1929 GMC truck cut off short (also the top of the cab was cut off). We did have a picture, but it got lost over the years. The serial number plate has been robbed off. It also has a recleaner separator.

“This was originally a PTO machine. A Hercules engine had been put on, but that has also been robbed off, so we put on an engine from an old IHC combine. Also, the lift mechanism was added, as originally it was a one-man machine.

“My father, Andrew Johnson, ended up buying this rig and the man went back to Kansas. He bought it for $225, truck and all, and the guy threw in 120 acres that he had already cut. I think he was cutting for $1.25 an acre. Quite a contrast from today!

“My father owned the Rotary Reaper for just two years before selling it. It sat for 40 years before we got it. The wheels were gone. It had duals on both sides. It appears the grain tank may have been raised to have clearance for a truck. The frame is made mostly of pipe of various sizes up to 4 inches.

“The grain is put in the tank by means of a blower. The blower runs the same speed as the cylinder. This seems very fast for a blower. That would account for the cracking of the grain by the blower in light grain, which I remember my dad complaining about. I was quite young, about 14, when we had this machine in the field. There are a lot of Ford and Gleaner parts on it.”

Tracking down the patent

Later, my son-in-law, Larry Gugel, and I went to the Culbertson, Montana, show and I got to meet Mr. Johnson. That winter, I got the combine loosened up, and reworked the raddle chains with some new sticks and different links to get them to turn over. I put the repaired bottoms in the cylinder, beater unit, got the header loosened up and bolted back on the thresher unit. All that time I was looking for information on the machine. I even wrote to the library in Ottawa, Kansas, where it was made. Later I sent the library what information I had collected on the Rotary Reaper Co. for their files.

Finally, I went to the patent index at the University of Iowa Library in Iowa City, Iowa, and found the patent number. I wrote the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., to get the complete patent and drawings, which showed something like my machine. All this time I was piecing together the machine. Another year went by with my “help wanted” sign on the Gleaner displayed at Old Threshers. Then, in 1993, James Gall, Reserve, Kansas, told me his neighbor had a Rotary Reaper.

“I can remember the Rotary Reaper combine,” James said. “The main machine was on the right side of the tractor with a large wheel on the right side. The header was in front of the machine and tractor with a small wheel under the right end of the header with a tie rod connector between it and the front wheels of the tractor. The grain bin was mounted on the tractor, above the operator. An extra engine was mounted behind the operator in such a way that the operator could shift a hand clutch in or out when it was needed.

“They used the machine one summer, and the company recalled it to make it into a pull-type machine. In the time it took to return the machine to the factory, the company closed its doors and the combine was never seen again. The neighbor who owned it was William Spare. His oldest son operated it. The tractor they used was a 1936 John Deere Model A that belonged to another neighbor.”

Semi-mounted on an F-20

The next summer, I decided I needed a place where I could work on the combine and keep it inside, so I built a 25- by 16-foot lean-to, putting another Kansas son-in-law, Marlin Schmidt, to work during his vacation. I had to guess how high to build the shed, hoping the bin would fit under the roof.

A couple years earlier, a local man (Daniel Richards) had a Farmall F-20 for sale. I looked at the tractor by flashlight in his garage one cold, dark evening. The tires were up, there was antifreeze in it, it had been shedded, the paint was fair, the engine turned over and he said it would run, so I bought it. Daniel towed the F-20 to my farm and pushed it into the shed. Then I took the roof off the combine, put the unit in the shed, removed the trailer and left the combine on blocks. I had hung the combine bin from the roof of the shed, so it was above the tractor before I put it in the shed.

At that point, I was rebuilding the sieve shakers, fans, augers and making side panels to hold it all together. One thing I like to do when I rework old combines is to find decent used galvanized sheet metal, as it blends in with the original metal. I got the unit together and got it fitted up under the back. I was pleasantly surprised when it pivoted, shook, turned over and did not drag or hit on anything. This unit pivots by cable to be self-leveling when the header is raised and lowered.

Then I moved the combine beside the F-20, rebuilding the missing parts of the mounting pipe, and got it semi-mounted on the right side of the F-20. I let the bin down over the seat and the rear wheels, putting longer angle irons on the bin legs to get it over the tractor and still got it out of the shed. I got the blower pipes to the bin and tailings made and installed. I got all the chains, sprockets and U-joints to the PTO hooked up so everything turned over by hand.

On the outside of the thresher unit, there were two tandem wheels, one in line with the rear wheels of the tractor. The other was parallel to the tractor’s front wheels. These two wheels oscillated, like on a tandem trailer, to give a smoother ride. Originally, the front wheel was attached with a pipe to the front wheels of the F-20 and steered. Wilfred had cut off the steering portion and the front wheel of the tandem, leaving it in the tree. So I got a used caster wheel unit from a New Idea corn husking bed unit to replace it.

Third time’s a charm

When my son, Eric, Jim Unruh and I tried to start the F-20, we found old gas and no spark. Later, I drained the gas and got a local mechanic, Robert Anderson, to put points on the magneto. He had to loosen a couple of valves, one with a weak spring, but he got it to run.

When I tried to shift into gear, all I could do was grind the gears. The clutch would not release. Thank goodness, taking apart an F-20 clutch wasn’t difficult. By the time I had done it three times, I was quite good at it. At some point, the clutch housing cover was lost and mice had moved in. When they heeded the call of nature, the resulting moisture swelled up the clutch plate, so I had to reset the clutch plate fingers to get the clutch adjusted to release.

Then I started the tractor, got the combine to turn over and watched all the dirt fog out as it sped up. I felt good enough about it that I cut out stencils and painted the Rotary Reaper logo on the bin and back hood. After more than two years of spare-time work, I took the machine to the Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, where it has been on display ever since.

Andrew Sewell, an agricultural engineer from England, contacted me for information on the Rotary Reaper. He was doing a paper on the various types of combines. Later he came to see it, as he was working for a U.S. company at the time. The best part was that he told me of someone I could contact to get a copy of an advertising flyer for the Rotary Reaper combine.

Rotary Reaper on the move

In 2003, I received a letter from Eugene Hand, Lawrence, Kansas. He had gotten my name from the Ottawa library when he was looking for information on the Rotary Reaper. “In searching through records at the Ottawa, Kansas, Record Center on the Rotary Reaper combine,” he said, “I found your letter concerning a Rotary Reaper in Poplar, Montana.

“In 1939, we were living in Tonganoxie, Kansas, 14 miles northeast of Lawrence,” he said. “Dad was helping a man from Nebraska convert a Rotary Reaper to a self-propelled combine in Ottawa. It had two engines on it. I drove it about a block to another location the first time it was ever moved. My only connection was taking Dad down there to work on it. I don’t remember how he connected with the man, but he stayed down there all week.

“On June 15, 1940, a man named Leonard Slotzhauer bought a Rotary Reaper and started combining in Winfield, Kansas, with me as a helper. The Rotary Reaper was new when he bought it. Near as I can remember, we had very little trouble with it. There was a bearing I had to replace. I think it was on the sieve in the second stage section. We pulled it with a GMC truck that had been shortened. I had towed it as fast as 70 miles per hour on the highway.

“We got reports from elevators that it was some of the cleanest wheat they had seen. We were cutting on a farm 16 miles north of Alliance, Nebraska. The lady owned about a thousand acres. We had cut several hundred acres when she hired another combine to help. I was at the house getting water when he came. He told her that you can’t cut that fast. We were going 15-20 miles per hour. She told him to drive her out there. I followed them. She got down on her hands and knees, looking for grain on the ground, and then she looked at the wheat in the truck. She said there was none on the ground, and it was clean. The guy dropped his price to $1 an acre. Slotzhauer said he couldn’t cut for that, so we went to Harden, Montana, and on to the Kopack Farm, the largest wheat grower in Montana. From his long driveway, we saw 14 combines, each 20 feet long, coming down the field, each behind the other. What a sight!

“South of Poplar, Montana, we crossed the Missouri River on a ferry. The ferry operator told us not to come back that way, because the combine nearly sank the ferry! We combined for a farmer whose land bordered the river. This was in August. After combining a couple of days, he bought the rig. This combine had an engine for power.”

Saved from the scrap man

Now I know that there are purists and nitpickers out there who’ll say I should have it like new and ready to go to the field. But I started out with a pile that most people would have junked because it would have taken more than a coat of paint to rework it. When Wilfred bought it at the sale, if anyone bid against him, I’m pretty sure it was the scrap man. I feel Wilfred and I saved a rare machine from being cut up and scrapped. After I am done with it, the next fellow can have the challenge of fixing it just right. FC

Richard Stout is ably assisted in his writing endeavors by his granddaughter, Ashley Stout. Contact Richard at 3105 Larch Ave., Washington, IA 52353.

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