The area surrounding Wagon Mound, New Mexico, about 70 miles south of the Colorado line in northeastern New Mexico, gets less than 20 inches of rainfall a year. Today, no one would consider it farm country. But JD Schmidt recalls a time when a few stubborn, gritty men did.
“I was born in Newton, Kansas,” he says, “but years ago, my dad and my uncle were looking for a place to make a living. They went to the Texas panhandle for a little while, but when I was 3, in 1930, my folks came to Wagon Mound and I’ve been here ever since.”
Among his keepsakes are a 1919 Twin City 12-20 tractor and a 1928 Chevrolet truck that were important parts of his family’s farming operation in those years. And, until about 17 years ago, he still had the Holt combine his dad bought as a young man.
Now 89, JD has clear memories of growing up in rural New Mexico. Just 9 when his dad died, he was raised in part by his uncle, Simon Schmidt, the father of two sons. “Me and my brother and our cousins were raised like four brothers,” he says.
In the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, “people were literally starving out of this country,” JD says. But a decade later, some – Simon among them – persisted in trying to raise wheat near Wagon Mound. Perhaps motivated by the presence of a family-owned Holt combine, Simon did everything he could to eke out a crop.
“This country is not good farming country,” JD says. “The only farming done here now is where streams run out of the mountains and they grow hay.” Seventy-five years ago, Simon attempted to grow summer fallow wheat. “He’d try to use two years’ rain to grow one crop,” JD says. “He wouldn’t graze cattle on that wheat in the winter. His theory was to let the wheat grow as much as it would. If you didn’t and you had a dry winter, when the spring winds came, you’d have a dust storm on your hands. And once that started, you’ve got nothing.”
Growing up on the harvest crew
The Holt combine was used equipment when JD’s dad, Edwin Schmidt, bought it in Texas. Dating to the late 1920s or early 1930s, the pull-type unit had a 15-foot header. “Those old combines were pretty maintenance-intensive,” JD recalls.
“Since the tractor sat outside all the time, and it was hand crank, not electric, usually the carburetor would have to be taken off to get it ready for harvest, because it would get a little bit of rust in it. You could get going, but it wouldn’t idle.
As a little boy, JD hung around during harvest season. “A couple of times, I’d find a loose bolt and call it to my uncle’s attention,” he says, “and he appreciated that.”
A single flat belt stretched from the Holt’s engine back to the works. Fans, shakers and screens were run by link chains that required nearly continuous oiling. “Those screens were continually vibrating, and there were no sealed ball bearings on the shafts. All that had to be greased at least once a day, preferably twice a day,” JD recalls. “Just as quick as I got big enough, I was involved in all that.”
As he got older, JD was given more demanding jobs. “One season, I drove the tractor,” he says. “My uncle was very fussy. When there was one more row to pick up, you better not miss it, and when that row ran out, you’d better get to next one, because the other end of the header should pick up all it can.”
Very clean grain
The combine’s engine – a 4-cylinder water-cooled flathead Wisconsin – was prone to overloading. “If you got too much wheat in there, that was a problem,” he says. “It also depended on how low you had to go to get all the heads on the wheat. If some was way tall and some was way low, you’d get a lot of straw. Then you’d overload the machine and the engine would overload and just stop. And it was hard to get it going again with all that wheat in there.”
Grain and straw went onto a screen, and with a fan blowing up through the screen, the straw was blown out the back of the combine. When the grain got to the bottom, it was picked up and returned to the machine’s re-cleaner.
“If a guy knew how to get them adjusted right, those combines would provide very clean grain,” JD says. “There was no straw or anything in it. Actually, I think all those early combines were just old threshing machines with a header stuck off the side and a tractor to pull it.”
In the photos accompanying this article, a pickup attachment is visible over the combine’s header. But JD never saw it. “I guess the pickup was abandoned because the wheat would get so dry, that in the process of picking it up, you’d lose some of it on the ground,” he says. “You’d go behind the combine and count the grains on the ground. If there were very many, that guy didn’t know how to adjust that combine, or it was overloaded.”
In the early days, the crop was cut and laid on the ground in windrows. “I think the reason for that was those old combines – at least that one – couldn’t handle wheat if it was the least bit damp, so they would cut it and leave it to dry.”
Driver kept his ear tuned
Moisture – however rare – caused other problems as well. Early combines, headers and swathers used canvas to transport the grain. “That canvas was made of cotton,” JD explains. “If you let it get wet and it shrunk, you’d have a heck of a time. If it looked like rain, you’d try to get the last of the wheat before the rain, but you also had to get that canvas to a dry place so it wouldn’t get wet.”
“When I got to where I drove the tractor, my uncle was very particular,” he says. “If you did something he didn’t like, you knew about it right quick like. I never really operated the combine, but there wasn’t much to it. The tractor driver controlled how fast it was pulled, and he had to keep his ear tuned to that combine engine. If it slowed down, he had to slow down.”
Simon used the Holt until self-propelled combines had been widely adopted. “He was old school,” JD says. “He’d use those old tractors with iron wheels and lugs. He said, ‘Those rubber tires are no good; they’ll just pack the soil down.’” As his uncle grew older, JD bought the combine but has since sold it.
‘Give me a couple hours …’
“The Twin City 12-20 is somewhat unusual in this area,” JD says. “My uncle bought it brand new in 1919 when he and my dad went to the Texas panhandle. They broke out a section of sod with that tractor.”
The tractor’s crankshaft bearing surfaces are round. “My uncle probably went through three sets of sleeves and pistons,” JD says. “He would pull the pan off and adjust the rod and main bearings. That’s the secret to keeping the crankshaft round instead of letting it get egg-shaped.”
Early air cleaners were not very efficient. “They’d get a fair amount of dust in the oil, so pistons and rings just didn’t last that long,” JD says. “The pre-cleaner on our late model equipment is probably more efficient than the main air cleaner on an old tractor.”
JD bought the 12-20 from his uncle and it’s been in a closed building ever since. “It hasn’t been run for a while, but give me a couple hours and it’d probably run, because my uncle was very particular,” he says.
Bias ply tires with cotton cords
As a teenager working on the harvest crew, JD used the 1928 Chevrolet truck to haul wheat from the combine. Long stored indoors, the Chevy still has its original wood spoke factory wheels, and a bed Simon built. Like the Twin City, it too is in running condition.
“It would probably be rated a little more than today’s half-ton truck in load-carrying capacity,” he says. “It doesn’t have dual wheels and the rims aren’t drop center. After the rim and tire assembly were removed, you’d use a special tool to collapse the jointed rim and remove the tire and tube. If you didn’t know how to do that, you’d be lost. And those tires, my guess is they’re still the old bias ply tires with cotton cords. And they still hold air.
“I don’t think either the truck or tractor ever saw an ounce of antifreeze,” he adds. “Back in those days, antifreeze was too expensive. We just drained the water.”
“We did everything by hand”
JD worked as a heavy equipment contractor most of his life. “Early on, I worked as a mechanic until I came to the conclusion that the people who needed mechanical work done had no money to pay for it,” he says, “and those with the money just bought new vehicles.
“I’ve done a lot of mechanical work myself,” JD says. “I’m an engine nut. When I work on an engine, I almost always tear it completely down. There’s just no telling how much crud is in it or what condition it’s in, and if you try to get it going without doing that, your problems are going to snowball.
“I still have one or two one-lung engines with the water hopper on top,” he says. “Where I was raised, we didn’t get electricity until 1951; we had a pretty small operation. We didn’t have engines. We just did everything by hand.”
It was a way of life barely comprehensible now. “When you don’t have a refrigerator, you eat chicken all summer, because when you butcher one, it’ll last two days,” he says. “We had chicken every day because there was no way to keep pork or beef.”
A car that would move
Every year in early September, with assistance from his grandson and great-grandson, JD readies three tractors (a Minneapolis-Moline G6, a John Deere Model R and the 12-20 Twin City), the 1928 Chevy truck and two cars for entry in Wagon Mound’s annual Bean Day parade. Held on what is known elsewhere in the U.S. as Labor Day weekend, the event honors local heritage. “More than 100 years ago, this was big pinto bean country,” JD says. “Now we have to import our beans from southwest Colorado.
“On any other day, our population here – if you count dogs and cats, too – is about 300,” he says. “On Bean Day, at the free barbecue, we serve anywhere from 3,000 to 3,500 people.”
JD’s parade entries include a 1979 Lincoln Town Car he refers to as “the last of big boats,” and a 1967 small body style Olds F-85. “Mom bought that car brand new,” he says. “She liked to have a car that would move.”
Olds offered a Turnpike Cruiser Kit. “It had a 400 engine,” he says, “built to cruise down the highway at good speed.” The kit was only available by special order. By the time his mother ordered the car, it was at the end of the production year. “The only way they would put in the 400 engine at that point was on police cruisers,” he says. “So she bought a police cruiser that was never in police service, and it moves. It’s got 37,000 original miles. If I was to get rid of that car, my grandson would kill me.” FC