Farm Collector

Heat and Drought Put Tumblebugs to Work

In 1936, heat and drought burned the corn crop until it was given up for lost by late summer. Farmers in southwest Iowa used “sleds” to cut the corn and make chopped silage since the withered stalks would never make even “nubbin” ears.
The sled was a homemade platform of boards with metal runners and was dragged by horses. A deep “V” cut in the front of the sled was centered on one row. Farmers balanced on the platform and cut the corn as it entered the “V.” Others tied the stalks in bundles, sometimes all that one man could lift. As the bundles were rolled off the sled, men with hayracks came by and hauled them to the silage cutter, a machine powered by a belt from a tractor.

Ever present danger Some of the prosperous farmers had tall silos built of cement or hardened clay bricks. It was an adventure to climb those silos when they were empty and look down from the top. The ladder rungs were enclosed by a wooden box or metal bars. It was almost impossible to fall. The thrill was there all the same. I still get jelly knees thinking of the farmers who walked the top rim of the silo as it was filling.
Around any farm operation that had an element of danger, there were stories for boys’ ears. Older men enjoyed telling us of the farmer who filled his tall silo with corn that was too wet and green. The heat of the curing process became so intense that great holes smoldered in the bowels of the silage, leaving a hard, dry crust on top. When the farmer jumped in to begin feeding in the fall, he plunged into a smothering pit of heat and decay. That story convinced us to tread lightly on silage crusts everywhere.
The silage cutter was simply a set of flailing knives that chopped the corn stalks and fed them into a fan that blew them up a pipe to the top of the silo. Teenagers heard bloody tales of farmers who had been pulled into the slashing knives, losing arms or legs or disappearing completely up the pipe. We were too wide-eyed to separate fact from fiction.

Cutting a trench silo Our own silo was a simple trench in the ground dug by horse or tractor power. The horse scraper was a big metal scoop with a sharp blade in front and two handles like a wheelbarrow behind. The scoop was tilted, the blade cut into the ground until the container was full and the rig dragged to the dumping area where it was filled and emptied.
These rules were good in theory. They worked most of the time. There were bruises to prove the possibility of exceptions. For instance, with the team leaning hard into the harness, the blade might dig far too deep or hit a rock. Then the operator better have a strong back to wrench those handles down or quick reflexes to let go. If he did neither, the scraper stood on end and then flipped over, with the driver paying the price for being slow.
A “tumblebug” was an advanced, barrel-like scraper tripped by a rope from the tractor seat. A well-placed yank on the rope set the blade at various angles; a longer pull allowed the barrel to roll over and empty. Over and over, I had to work for a light touch on the rope when the scraper was filling. An awkward pull and it would roll over and empty itself. Back I’d go to fill it again. My dad stood with folded arms and watched.
This was a slow way to move earth. For us, my brother Dudley and me, it was fun. We had moved plenty of dirt with a spade. We thought the tumblebug was the work of some genius.

Warm winter memory It took several days to fill a trench silo with chopped corn. We drove the tractor over each new layer to pack the corn tightly. After pastures died out in the fall, cattle came in to feedlots. Each morning and evening, it was our chore to fill metal baskets, holding about a bushel and a half of silage, and carry them on our shoulders to the feed bunks.
Our silo lay on a slight rise southwest of the hay shed near the windmill and stock tank. On freezing winter mornings or when darkness was falling on January evenings, we waded into the silage and shuffled our feet, sinking almost knee-deep in the warm, fermenting corn. In a few moments, cold toes were pleasantly warm.
We stood quietly watching the sun set, warmth flowing up inside our winter coats, wondering if mother was fixing “frickadella,” a wondrous mixture of bread, egg and onions (and liver and scrapings from the hog’s head at butcher time). It was fried in patties and served with a mound of brown fried potatoes. Life was good. FC

Reprinted with permission from Good Old Days Magazine.
Dale Geise is a retired educator who grew up on a farm near Underwood in southwest Iowa. Contact him at 1051 X Ave., Boone, IA 50036; (515) 292-5533; e-mail:

  • Published on Sep 24, 2010
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