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Tending to the Canvas

Taking care of the canvas on early grain harvesting machines was an important part of life on the farm

| June 2011

  • A beautifully restored John Deere tractor binder from the mid-1930s, complete with wood-slatted canvas
    A beautifully restored John Deere tractor binder from the mid-1930s, complete with wood-slatted canvas.
    From the collection of Don McKinley, Quincy, Ill.

  • A beautifully restored John Deere tractor binder from the mid-1930s, complete with wood-slatted canvas

Once upon a time, there was an interval in farm implement history when almost every grain harvesting machine required lengths of wood-slatted canvas to carry the cut stalks into the cylinder for threshing or through a tying-device making bundles. In my 77 years, this was between the years of 1936 and 1944, best I can remember.

First, we had a McCormick-Deering binder that cut the standing stalks, laying them down on the reel canvas that then delivered them to two elevator canvases that carried them into a gathering/tying device creating a nice, heavy bundle of grain or stalks. These bundles were then placed into “shocks of bundles” to dry before feeding to livestock or further threshing.

Next we acquired drag-type John Deere combines with 16-foot platforms that cut the stalks, laying them down on canvas, carrying the stalks eventually into a whirling cylinder with teeth that threshed out the grain.

One of my fondest early memories dates to the time I was between ages 5 and 9, when I helped my father “tend the canvas.” Our binder had three canvases. The long reel canvas measured 20-33 feet long. The two elevator canvases were 12-14 feet long. Each canvas was 3 feet wide with three 2-inch-wide leather straps along each edge and the middle with buckles on one end for tightening. About every 10 inches a wooden slat was placed and everything was riveted together with copper rivets.

The canvas was heavy and the leather belts were strong in order to hold up under a long day’s use. But sooner or later, a rivet would tear out or wear off, or a wooden slat would break under the hard use of a day’s threshing, especially if large weeds were growing in a late-harvested crop.

After harvest the canvases were rolled tightly, tied with baling wire and swung from the rafters above our shop where the mice and rats couldn’t damage them. Rats loved to gnaw on the leather belts when hungry. Just before harvest every year, the canvases were unrolled on a freshly swept floor for inspection and repair.


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