When Francis “Sonny” Smith looks for old iron, he doesn’t intentionally try to find mystery machines. “It just seems that a lot of the old machinery I’m interested in that’s different and unique – like the Rosenthal steel 40 corn husker/shredder and my 1920 White truck – don’t come with any information,” he says, “and there’s very little of it around.”
Sonny grew up on farms near Princeton, Minn., as his parents worked the sandy soil there for a few years. “The soil wasn’t very good, and with nine kids, it meant they had to work outside the farm,” he says. “Raising cattle and farming was a sideline.”
On the farms they used a VAC Case, International H and M, all of which Sonny has purchased and restored. “I always loved that kind of old equipment,” he says, reminiscing.
In 1996 Sonny tagged along with friends who called themselves “The Nickel Hitch” to look at horse-related items at the farm of a collector who had died. The inventory included all sorts of horse-drawn equipment, harvest equipment and self-propelled equipment, as well as a horse-powered crosscut saw. While there, Sonny spotted the steel Rosenthal 40 corn husker/shredder in a shed. “The first time I saw it I thought it was a pretty neat machine,” he recalls. “Eventually the group made a deal with the collector’s widow and I helped them haul out all the items they purchased. They were going to take some of the horse stuff and the Rosenthal to an auction in Waverly, Iowa.” Sonny spoke up and asked for the Rosenthal and it became his.
He didn’t have any storage room for the machine, so he ended up housing it in a shed at the Le Sueur (Minn.) Pioneer Power Assn. grounds. His intention was to run the machine but being busy with other projects he didn’t get back to the Rosenthal for a couple of years.
In the late 1990s, during a lull in the action at the Le Sueur show, Sonny remembered the husker and pulled it out of the shed. “We really didn’t know anything about it, because that was the first time we had it running,” he says. “So we started asking people at the show about it. How do you set it up? How do you run it? Nobody knew anything about it. Nobody had ever seen another one, and manuals and other information weren’t available.”
Sonny and his friends tinkered with the machine until they figured out how to operate it. The piece ran like a top. “The only problem we couldn’t solve was a pair of what we think are brace mounts,” Sonny says. “We tried to fit them on every which way, and figured they must be little stabilizers, but we couldn’t figure out how to hook them up.”
The Rosenthal was pure fun. “A friend and I had a great time setting it up,” Sonny says. “We decided to keep it going each time the show was open.”
Operation of the husker followed a familiar pattern. “You pull the machine out of the shed, grease it, level it like you would with a threshing machine, block it up so when you belt it up to the tractor the shredder will stay stationary,” Sonny says, “and then crank out the elevator chute for your ear corn to go into a wagon, and crank out the other chute for the chopped stock to pile when it came out.” A pair of black steering wheels is used to adjust the chutes.
During show demonstrations, corn shocks made by a corn binder were loaded into a wagon in the field and brought to the hand-operated Rosenthal. Sonny stood with a shocking knife in one hand, attached to his wrist with a rope. When he was thrown a bound shock of corn, he’d cut the twine and feed corn stalks by hand into the machine, butt end first. “It hit the rollers and the corn ears were husked out,” he says. “The rest of the stalk goes through the machine, where it was chopped into finer particles used for cattle feed or bedding.”
The implement was designed to operate with maximum efficiency. A gunnysack attached to a red pipe in back caught shelled corn knocked loose as the ears passed through the machine. Ear corn moved through one chute into a wagon while the detritus shot through the other chute to form a pile on the ground. “Everything was used out of the Rosenthal,” Sonny notes.
The machine was in pristine condition when Sonny found it. “I don’t think it had been used at all,” he says. “Or maybe it was used a couple of times and then put in the shed. You can determine that by the perfect lettering, but the biggest tip-off was the knobs on the wheels. Those wooden knobs usually wear fast, but these don’t show any wear. It was such an immaculate machine, with no reconstruction of any kind, probably from the late 1930s or early 1940s. I’ve never been able to find out the exact year.”
Eventually, Sonny had to let the Rosenthal go. “My wife, Margaret, pressured me a little bit,” he says with a laugh. “We didn’t have enough room to store everything, so I sold it. Now we live in the country and we’d have enough room for it, so I’m really sorry I sold it. I had it for 10 years and had a lot of fun with it. Margaret still thinks I have too much old iron, with 14 tractors, old gas pump signs, oil cans, plows and other old farm equipment. But I always think there’s room for one more piece of old iron.”
He and a buddy are currently in the middle of a frame-up restoration of a 1920 White truck. He likes the feeling of accomplishment that comes with bringing an old machine back to life, but it’s also great entertainment. “Sometimes the fun of it is just tearing something apart,” he says, “and remembering how to put it back together.“
Sonny’s four children have taken to the old iron hobby as well. “We attended the Pioneer Power Assn. show at Le Sueur with our kids,” he says. “They surprised me; they just really enjoyed it. They learned a lot about how things worked in the past, and brought their friends along to camp with us. Mainly, I enjoy showing them how old equipment ran. It wasn’t as simple as today, just going out and putting a key in the machine. It took a lot of hard work. It’s also a chance to show them how my dad and my grandpa farmed, and some of the machinery they used.
“I just love old iron, old machines of any kind,” he says. “One of the reasons I have this old iron is so my five grandchildren can enjoy it. I give them rides and when they come out here, you always catch them in a shed playing with the tractors. I wanted a place where they could run around on the farm like I did when I was a kid.” FC
For more information: Francis “Sonny” Smith, (612) 760-7774 or (507) 357-6692.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.