The photograph John Wolfe held in his work-weathered hands was faded and tattered, but the striking image was unmistakable. The photo showed a giant oak tree fallen across an old International Harvester Co. hay press, seemingly trapped forever by the tree's tangled branches. Fortunately for John and the hay press, that scene was just the beginning of the story.
After a few days spent cutting the old oak into firewood, John managed to uncover the hay press: a 1914 International Harvester powered by a 4-hp IH-made Titan engine. Even though he rescued it in fall of 2002, the Faucett, Mo., native was very familiar with the machine. He'd first seen it on Clyde Miles' St. Joseph, Mo., farm where John and his family have baled hay and raised crops since 1949.
Clyde's father bought the hay press new, John says, and used it on the farm where they raised wheat, as well as alfalfa sold each year to feed livestock at the nearby St. Joseph stockyard. The hay press served the Miles family well until it was replaced by modern baling equipment after World War II. More than 30 feet long with its wooden tongue, the hay press was too big to fit inside the barn, so it was parked behind an old shed and fair game for falling trees.
Although the hay press was exposed for more than 50 years, Clyde had placed a sheet of tin roofing over it years before deflecting the rain. 'It wouldn't have been worth a plug nickel without that tin,' John declares.
John tried to convince Clyde to sell the press when his family rented the Miles' farm during the 1960s, but he always refused. Then in the early 1970s, Clyde gave the press to John and he's owned it ever since. The hay press remained on the Miles' farm until the tree nearly destroyed the antique, how-ever, and John realized that the machine must be removed and restored or it would be lost forever.
John's an old hand with old iron, so the effort was a labor of love. The IH hay press was a good fit for the life-long farmer, because he also collects IH tractors and Cub Cadets. He owns 35 of the famed red farm machines - all manufactured before 1960 - with some still in use around the farm. Few of his tractors are restored. 'There's just not enough time,' John says.
John serves as president of the Platte County Steam & Gas Engine Association and is a member of the International Harvester Collector's Association, Missouri Chapter 1. John shared his restored hay press with other red-power lovers at the IHCA's national convention held in Topeka, Kan., last March, where he and the hay press drew a crowd.
The unusual baling equipment attracted spectators, perhaps because of its bright red and green paint scheme -or maybe because it completely filled a huge flatbed trailer parked among tractors and other equipment brought by convention-goers. As folks crowded around to take a closer look, John eagerly demonstrated how the big hay press works and shared photos and stories about its restoration. With a few turns of the flywheel, and a sputtering cough from the Titan engine, the gears slowly turned the massive chain that powers the press. Like a long-sleeping giant, the engine and the hay press whirred to life again.
'I've never seen one like it,' John says over the noisy engine. 'Few people have. Most were junked during wartime, so there's very few still around.' Like most resourceful farm collectors, John scrounged up an illustration of a similar hay press printed in the 1915 IH Almanac, which helped him decipher the original color scheme. The company introduced the device at a time when most people baled hay with oat-driven horsepower, John says, and gasoline tractors were still in their infancy.
As restorations go, John's took no time at all. The project began Jan. 15, 2003, and the first hay bales were pressed in mid-March. With farm work to fill his time, John sought restoration help from Jim, Paul, John and Tom Turnbull, brothers who operate a machine shop south of St. Joseph by day and tinker with restorations in off hours. Luckily for John, the restoration didn't cost much. New paint and some shop time were the biggest investments needed to get the machine operational again. In fact, the specialty wire used to bind the hay bales was one of the most expensive details, John says.
A 4-hp Titan engine, Serial No. RC 2942, also built by IH in 1914, powers the hay press. Time took its toll on the entire hay press, John says, but especially the engine. The fittings were so corroded that he didn't know they were actually finely crafted brass until he polished the engine. The Turnbull brothers easily fixed the motor, he adds, but honed the one-cylinder engine's sleeve and made minor repairs to the worn piston. In another stroke of luck, the magneto still functioned, a detail that saved John about $900.
That mighty IH engine powers the press using a complex 4:1 gear-reduction system, a pitman arm and a sturdy 8-foot chain, John explains. The gears and pitman arm increase the engine's horsepower, he adds, and ensure that there's plenty of force to compress the hay into wire-tied bales. The drive chain, which transfers energy from the engine to the press, was badly rusted. Along with a few wooden pieces, it was the only major component that required replacing, John says. The Turnbulls applied red paint to most of the machine, while John painted the green parts. The faded original decals were unreadable, so John replaced them with exact replicas.
The finished product looks as beautiful as when it first pressed hay nearly 90 years ago, but it's also functional. The paint was barely dry when John and the Turnbull brothers gathered with friends and family to fill the press with hay and make bales. With whirling gears, a wildly spinning chain and a powerful wooden plunger arm that presses the hay, the machine is dangerous, John says. He learned the hard way not to overload the device, because the plunger can (and did) break under too much stress.
After his initial experience with the hay press, John estimates that eight people are needed to tend the engine, feed the press and stack bales. 'It's an awful lot of work makin' hay the old fashioned way,' John says with a knowing grin. FC
-To see John's hay press in action, attend the 42nd Annual Platte County Steam and Gas Engine Show, Aug. 8-10, held at the Tracy County Fairgrounds in Platte City, Mo. To learn more about John Wolfe's 1914 IH hay press, write him at 4105 S.E. State Route H, Faucett, MO 64448; or call (816) 253-9445.