Antique Combine Questions and Answers

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Ping into the hillside combine

Attached are two pictures found in my mother-in-law’s collection of pictures. She had an older uncle who was a wheat farmer, and who lived in Washington. The pictures were most likely taken in the central/south central part of the state.

While I have seen pictures of a combine of that vintage being pulled by a tractor, I have never seen a picture of such a combine being pulled by horses. My count of the horses is five rows of six horses in each row. In addition, there are three more horses that appear to be the main leaders for all the horses. All together, it appears that a total of 33 horses are involved in pulling the combine.

You will also notice that the driver was located in back of and high above the horses so as to be able to see and drive all the horses. It appears that the lines from the driver go to the three lead horses.

I know nothing about the combine, but I assume an engine provided the power to operate the many pieces of the combine. In one picture, you can see that the horses are pulling the combine. In the other, the horses are apparently standing rather than pulling. Notice the traces and single trees are slack on the ground. It also appears that the combine is at the end of the field. You will also notice that there appears to be dust in back or at the side of the combine.

It would be interesting to know if the movement of the combine was greater than the ability of the combine to thresh the wheat. If this were true, it would require stopping the forward movement in order for the combine to complete the threshing process.

One more observation is that of the many men that would be required to operate the combine. I can identify four plus the driver. I believe that I read someplace that the combine had no hopper in which to store the wheat. If so, does that mean the wheat was bagged as it was threshed?

Robert C. Wiseman, Charleston, Illinois

Editor’s note: For answers to Robert’s questions, we turn to David Ruark of Pomeroy, Washington, a fifth-generation dryland wheat farmer and one well-versed in the intricacies of antique combines: 

As shown in this photo, the driver only controlled the two outside lead horses with a rein to each, as pulling on the left-hand horse made him go left and the other two followed (they were hitched together also) so they didn’t have a lot of choice, and the other 30 horses followed suit.

Regarding power: In this case, the combine is engine-powered. By looking close at the front left corner by the ladder up to the combine, just behind the left-hand horse in the last row, you will see the engine flywheel – plus the engine exhaust pipe is very prominent and tall with the big top just in front of the man standing and operating the header. Earlier combines did not have engines mounted on them and were called “ground powered.” They took more “horse power” and special effort by the driver. The combine shown here was made by Holt Mfg. in California. (Holt and Best later merged to form Caterpillar, now headquartered in Peoria, Illinois.)

Dust during operation was normal. In photos where no dust is seen, the horses are being rested. It was not necessary to stop the horses so the combine could “catch up,” as it was a continuous operation.

The photo shows four men working plus the driver. When tractors started pulling combines and the sacking operation was eliminated, the number of men involved dropped from the afore-mentioned five down to three and then to two, and with the advent of new technology, eventually down to only one: the tractor driver!

The man sitting at the top of the ladder going up to the combine (he is facing backward, and is right above the engine flywheel) is the sack sewer. His job is to sew the sacks of grain closed, using a “sack needle and sack twine.” He then tips the sack into the sack chute on his left. When the sack chute is full, he releases the sacks and tries to stand the last sack upright, so the row of sacks are easier to spot by the two men who pick them up and haul them with horses and a wagon to a storage or shipping point.

David Ruark, Pomeroy, Washington

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