Battling on the Home Front

Battle on the home front. Learn how belt pulleys V-belts helped aging equipment bring in crops during World War II.

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by Jack Delano, courtesy by Library of Congress
Making adjustments on an Oliver on a farm near Rockville, Md., in May 1940.

World War II was raging. Ration cards were a way of life, bountiful grain harvests were desperately needed and the old Dust Bowl-era farm equipment was worn out. New equipment existed only on manufacturers’ drawing boards, as steel went to the war effort. The only replacement parts disappeared quickly from dealers’ shelves and could not be replaced. The crisis was here!

Only the ingenuity, patience and fortitude of the old long-time farmer could save the harvest. He donned his best overalls, dragged his old pull-type combine onto bare ground where he could find a tool or bolt if dropped, gathered all his wrenches and tools and went to work.

First, he changed the engine oil and toilet-paper oil filter. Then he turned off the engine block water drains, if they turned, and filled the radiator with water as antifreeze was not available yet. Next, he removed the glass sediment bowl under the gas tank, washed it and cut a new gasket so it wouldn’t leak. Nearby was the bottom pan of the oil breather, which had an inch of last year’s dust caked in the bottom. Clean and shining with new oil, it was now ready to clean again.

He removed the spark plugs, brushed them with a steel brush, set the gap and reinstalled them. He tried to remember the last time he had the magneto tuned up. May have to take it to town if the engine is hard to start. Finally, he was ready. He set the choke and turned the crank. On the third turn, the old engine fired and quickly settled down into a smooth hum. That was a biggie!

The remainder of the preparedness was simple. Check every grease zerk to make sure each bearing was getting grease. Tighten up the slow-moving, square-link chains, check for rusted holes in the elevator bottoms, pull and clean the shaker screens in the rear, making sure every comb was in place to separate the grain and straw. Roll the reel canvas out on the ground, replace copper rivets, and repair worn leather belting, making sure each belt buckle had a good hole that was not worn out.

Last was something new. His dealer showed him a new conversion kit, changing old speed chains and sprockets to newly available belt pulleys and rubber V-belts, all authorized by the government to help speed up harvest and guarantee that the grain would be saved.

It was not a total conversion from steel to rubber, but an effort to convert the few fast-moving speed chains and machined steel sprockets to V-belt drive. It would take work, but could be done in the workshop or the field. A kit was ordered for the particular machine, a special force-feed crank drill device was included and maybe what would be the last attempt at modernizing the old combine began.

With speed chains removed, the new belt pulleys were fitted over the old sprockets, a center punch was used to mark the holes to be drilled, the new hand-cranked force-feed drill was put in place, the oil squirt can was filled and made ready, and the drill bit was sharpened to its finest cutting edge.

At the same time, square-head, regular-thread iron bolts were used as modern steel was being used in the war. The new pulley device was placed over the old sprocket, bolts installed and tightened, the old wooden idler block removed and a new metal idler pulley used to keep the new V-belts tight. It was not perfect by any means, but the conversion effort might save the day.

All understood the exact rpm of the old chain and sprocket might not be exactly the same. But it would be close enough to work reasonably well. The quietness of the converted machine was amazing and served as a serious forecast of the use of V-belts in the future.

In hopes that this innovation would be explored further in research, the old sprocket/pulley shown here was purchased at a flea market and photographed. It reflects all that was done by a farmer hoping to gain one more year of work with his faithful, old, worn-out machine. FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; email:

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