Friends team up to breathe new life into a 1923 McCormick-Deering threshing machine.
Jim and Tim unfold the feeder from transportation mode.
This is a story about the restoration of a 1923 McCormick-Deering wood-frame 22x38 threshing machine. But in actuality, this story is bigger than an old thresher, even if it is a rare piece. This is the story of an old thresher brought back to life by two people working side by side. It is the story of two men learning from each other. And in the end, it is a story of a friendship. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The threshing machine was in good shape for its age, but condition didn’t matter to the seller. He just wanted rid of the old thing. He put a classified ad in a magazine. If he didn’t get any takers, it was going to the junkyard.
“I saw the ad in a paper or a farm magazine in the fall of 2013,” Jim Koltes recalls.
“He reads every ad in every magazine ever published, ever,” says his neighbor and friend, Tim Fischer, in mock exasperation.
Jim owns a 1913 Nichols & Shephard 20-70 steam engine his dad bought for $250 in 1945. For 40 years, he, his brothers and his dad used the engine to steam tobacco beds, killing weed seeds. Jim wanted a Red River Special thresher (the line was built by Nichols & Shepard) to pair with the steam engine, but they’re hard to come by. When the McCormick-Deering turned up, he decided to hedge his bet. He’d continue to look for a Red River Special, but in the meantime he’d keep a fine antique out of the junkyard, and mark an item off his bucket list.
The two men met when Tim moved into the neighborhood near Jim’s home in DeForest, Wisconsin. “We’ve become great friends,” Tim says. “I’m a city boy from Green Bay. I didn’t know what a corn plant was when I moved here. Jim’s taught me a lot.”
Now they are nearly constant companions. “Oh yeah,” Tim says, rolling his eyes to signal a wisecrack. “I have breakfast with the old coots every Tuesday.” Over the years, the two have hunted together, gone to antique iron shows together and, last fall, attended steam school together. When Jim wrestled with health issues, it was only natural that his friend and neighbor would lend a hand.
Compact and wiry, Jim looks the picture of health for a man of 77. But he has a long history of poor health, including heart surgery since buying the thresher. “Tim’s helped me a lot,” Jim says. “He helps me get to the hospital or the doctor. And a lot of times I can’t drive home after treatments.” The thresher project proved a useful distraction during a rough stretch. “We’d be working on it and he’d be talking about buying a casket,” Tim says. “I just told him, ‘No way. That’s not going to happen.’”
Close examination was the first step of the restoration. “You could still see original lettering,” Jim marvels. Then the two restorers took pictures from every angle as a reference. Part of the wood frame had broken off. “That was the first major thing we had to fix,” Tim says.
All of the unit’s canvas had to be replaced, as were the tongue, belts, a missing feeder finger and clean-out cover. The auger trough, positioned close to the ground, was rusted beyond repair and was replaced, as was the auger bottom. And then there was the matter of cleanup.
“It was dirty, greasy, grimy and gross,” Tim recalls. “The thresher was in good shape, but it was still rusty. We washed it and then we used a steel brush on all the metal parts. We took all the pulleys off, brushed them and gave them a clear coat.” They were not satisfied with their efforts to clean galvanized parts. “We used 10 different cleaners,” Jim says, “but nothing really worked.”
The work was often tedious. “We cleaned a lot. I actually got sick of it,” Tim admits. “I’d say, ‘I’m going to burn it up!’ I’d go home mad, but I always came back.”
Then it was time to paint. By the gallon, by the can, the nearly century-old wood sucked up red paint like a sponge. “We found the original color underneath, on some real greasy parts,” Jim says. “We ended up using 100 cans of red spray paint. And we went through a lot of wire brushes.”
Jim has never lost sight of his initial goal. Despite all the time and money poured into the McCormick-Deering, he’d sell it in a minute if he found a Red River Special. “I just want to thresh with a Red River on that steam engine,” he says. In lieu of that, he’d thresh with the McCormick.
It is not a goal Tim shares. “If we use it,” he says in tone more typically reserved for discussions pertaining to end times, “it will get dirty instantly.”
The conversation moves in a different direction. “Every year there were major changes in these threshers,” Tim says. “The technology changed so rapidly. Innovation was moving so fast.”
“Ours has babbit bearings,” Jim adds. “Some were worn a little bit, but we’re not going to use it that much.”
Tim comes back to life. “We’re not going to use it at all,” he admonishes. “Threshing is a dirty business!”
Jim forges ahead. “I used an old grain drill to plant a field of oats,” he says brightly. “We’ll get enough oats to shock.”
Tim glares. “Don’t tell him I poisoned them,” he says.
An experienced woodworker, Tim had a clear plan for the finish. “I wanted to put on as little paint as possible. I didn’t want to overdo it,” he says. “The final coat will be a dull finish clear coat. Protection against ultraviolet rays is very important.”
“And that way,” Jim says with a ornery grin, “I can use it for custom work.”
McCormick-Deering produced wood threshers from 1912 to 1925, when the company built its first steel thresher. Jim’s thresher is a comparatively small model; it would have been used to harvest clover, oats, wheat and flax on small farms. “We found a couple of McCormick-Deering threshers at shows,” he says, “but both were bigger than this one.”
In fact, despite extensive research and inquiries, neither Jim nor Tim has been able to learn much about the thresher. “We contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society and a big International Harvester dealer,” Tim says. “Nobody knew anything about it. I’ve looked online and couldn’t find anything. We’ve been to shows all over, just looking at threshers, but we’ve never seen another 22-inch McCormick-Deering.”
Their only resource is an original parts book. “The prices are unbelievable,” Jim says. “Things were priced for 25 cents, 75 cents.” The fact that the thresher survived at all, let alone nearly totally complete, is equally unbelievable. “Eighty percent of these wood threshers burned in the field,” Tim says. “The bearings would get hot, or there’d be sparks from the steam engine that would land on the wood, and they’d catch fire.”
By late May, the project was 95 percent complete. “I figure we’ve got 2,000 hours in it,” Jim says. “It’s my biggest project ever. When we pulled it out of the shed today, I got goose bumps.”
With the exception of summer, when both men are busy with gardens and mowing, the project moved along at a brisk clip. “We worked on it almost every day,” Tim says. “Jim’s shop has a heated floor, so we did a lot in the winter.”
Good-natured ribbing aside, the thresher restoration is the happy product of a chance friendship. “His help just made my day,” Jim says. “I’ve got two sons, but they’re not really interested in this stuff.”
“I don’t know how he roped me in,” Tim grumbles. “I almost got a divorce over it.”
Jim responds with a wall-to-wall grin. He’s heard it all before. FC
For more information: Jim Koltes, (608) 576-2511; Tim Fischer, firstname.lastname@example.org.Leslie McManus is senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.