While still teenagers, brothers Fred and John Mellenbruch purchased and operated a horse-powered thresher in Brown County, Kansas. A few steam-powered engines were showing up, and probably the horse-powered unit was reasonably priced. Eight teams of horses – working in two-hour rotations – provided power. The brothers started in summer threshing from shocked grain in the field, and finished in late fall, threshing from stacked grain.
As steam became more popular, Fred wanted to modernize. Although John left the partnership, Fred made the investment required to change from horses to steam. In order to augment the income from the short harvest season, some owners used their rigs to power sawmills. Since he had a silage cutter, Fred used his engine to do custom silage filling. The four-bottom plow and large tandem disc designed to be pulled by the steam engine had limited value in Brown County, as the fields were too small for the required turning area.
When large tractors powered by gasoline or kerosene became available, Fred stopped using steam power and bought a Russell. The Russell, though, was not powerful enough to run the 42-inch separator. He sold the Russell after one season, and purchased a 16-30 Rumely tractor. The Rumely ran on a mixture of kerosene and water, and used oil for cooling.
I was Fred's youngest son. When I was 8 or 9 and big enough to put the tractor in and out of gear, and with my brother Lawrence to run the separator, Dad announced that 30 years of eating dust was enough: he had two boys to run the threshing rig, so he would haul bundles.
As small rigs became popular, farmers were less inclined to wait three or four weeks for the threshers. Combines were being tested. Dad sold the Rumely to his nephew, Dale Mellenbruch, who took it to the wheat fields of western Kansas.
But neighboring farmers still needed their silos filled. A major drought and an invasion of grasshoppers in 1933 ended hopes of a good corn crop, but the undeveloped ears and stalks would make stock food, and farmers were desperate to salvage part of their investment. I took a team of horses, the hayrack and silage cutter, and set off. Local officials allowed use of township equipment to dig a trench for each farmer who did not have a silo, so that all would have the opportunity to utilize the destroyed crop.
I started filling in July, and when it was time to start school in the fall, I had set up at 49 farms. As I was finishing up the last job, a local farmer came by to say that he had just bought the silage cutter from my Dad. So I unhooked the cutter and turned the team toward home, ending the Mellenbruchs' custom work ventures in Brown County, Kan. FC