I have always wanted to learn how to do things that my grandfather and great-grandfather had to do to survive and make a living many years ago. Raising sorghum cane for molasses was one of the things that my father did almost every year. He stopped raising the cane soon after taking a regular job to stabilize the family finances, so I didn’t get to learn much of the grown-up work that was associated with making syrup. But I do remember lots of the fieldwork.
I was looking at a PTO-driven binder at Burl Staten’s place near Decatur, Ala., when he said he had a ground-driven one that worked better, and that I needed it and it was for sale. I asked to look at it, and we walked to where he had last used it in the field. When I saw it, I knew that I had to have it, whether I restored it or not.
The 1934 McCormick-Deering corn binder was bought new in Madison County, Ala., and was used to cut corn until 1959. The original owner sold it to a Morgan County man in 1985, and he used it to cut sorghum cane until he retired in 2007. Burl says that it is not necessary to strip the leaf fodder from the stalks before pressing as long as they are allowed to dry, though the seed heads do have to be removed. He also taught me the fine art of cooking the juice into molasses without burning it. He was just passing along to me what he had been doing in his 20 years of making syrup.
The popular McCormick-Deering (Milwaukee-style) corn binder was built by International Harvester from 1902 until 1953. The binder was developed to reduce the tiring labor of cutting and shocking during harvest. This model is a small, lightweight unit that adapted a grain binder mechanism to handle stalk crops (originally corn), but which was later adapted to handle sorghum and other cane crops. The packers, compression device and knotter are nearly identical to those in the original grain binder design.
Everything on this tired old machine was in working order, but all of the wood parts needed to be replaced. I carried it home and began working on it in July 2011. I took off all of the wood and made new pieces as best I could, using the old pieces as patterns where possible. There was some guesswork, as many upper boards fell apart when the bolts were removed.
None of the lumber I had on hand was wide enough for the largest pieces, but my uncle owns a band sawmill and he had all of the necessary lumber except one for the butt chain board. He had some wild cherry slabs that were wide enough for the last piece.
When I started replacing wood on the binder, I was not planning to clean all of the metal parts nor was I planning to paint the finished project. But as work progressed, it became clear that the wood had to be painted. Every metal part was eventually sandblasted and repainted. All but a few parts are red and the remaining ones are blue, the piece’s original colors.
The drive wheel had a lot of play on the axle. I took it off and found the long roller bearing had come apart and the hub sleeve into which it was pressed was worn out. I found some metal in the shop to make a new sleeve and pressed it into place. The roller bearing cage could be repaired. It was not like new but serviceable enough to last longer than I will. Very few metal parts needed repair or replacement, and I had kept all of the original bolts and nuts.
When the reassembly began, parts that had already been installed several times had to be removed so that another part could go in first. I found a parts manual for this machine and it had detailed, sequential instructions for assembly. It occurred to me that the detail in the book was necessary because the machine was originally shipped in pieces and was put together by the purchaser. By following this guide exactly I made no more mistakes in parts assembly sequence. Lesson learned: Follow the book and things go more smoothly.
At first I had a bit of trouble making the knotter tie the bundles properly, so I went back to the book. The instructions said all paint and rust should be removed from those pieces, so all my fresh paint had to be stripped off those parts, which I then polished. In every use since, the binder has never failed to make a proper knot.
The binder cuts and gathers the stalks — cane, corn or whatever — upright and funnels them to the back of the machine until the bundle is of proper size (I set mine for six or seven stalks collected). Then the knotter is tripped and it ties the twine tightly around the bundle. The bundle is then tossed to the ground in parallel rows, ready for easy collection and shocking.
That fall, my wife, Johnnie, and some friends helped me cut a half acre of sorghum cane, which we then squeezed and cooked into delicious molasses. It was a lot of work, but we had an enjoyable time of it. I did not keep a log of the hours spent in this restoration, but they were many and very satisfying.
A growing list of arts and crafts are being lost to history as time goes by. I just hope I can influence others, particularly young folks, to take an interest in saving some of the old machinery and practicing the methods in which it was used. FC
For a look at an antique corn binder, check out video of a McCormick-Deering corn binder in action through the month of November and on Farm Collector’s YouTube channel.
For more information, contact Larry Lemmond, 1358 Community Lane, Hartselle, AL 35640.