When Don Brown couldn’t find anybody to haul his John Deere 70 tractor home at a satisfactory price, he took matters into his own hands. He decided on a unique solution, which is how he typically solves the challenges of life: Drive the tractor 140 miles on state highways, from Rosemount, Minn., to near Burtrum, Minn.
“Heck, I thought, ‘It’ll do 12 miles per hour, 140 miles, 12 hours or so, that’s not so bad.’ People looked at me strangely,” he says. “They thought it was kind of goofy, but it would have cost a lot of money to haul it up here.”
It’s not as if the drive was unprecedented. After all, Don pulls his unique 1949 Allis-Chalmers Model 10 Roto-Baler 30 miles to the Pioneer Days show in Albany, Minn., every fall, driving his restored 1952 Oliver 88 tractor.
Oliver man switches sides
Don started out farming with an Oliver 88 tractor, but soon became interested in Allis-Chalmers equipment — particularly an Allis-Chalmers power take-off side-delivery rake he used. His father had an Allis-Chalmers 60 combine. “I wasn’t in love with AC equipment,” he says, “but I saw they had a lot of unique designs.”
He owns an Allis-Chalmers 90 combine (which he’d like to get running so he can display it at shows), an AC square baler and that Allis-Chalmers PTO side-delivery rake that always draws big crowds at shows. “Most rakes are ground-driven, but this one is driven by the PTO, and its unusual feature is that it runs in two speeds,” he explains. “If you want to turn over a new-cut windrow of alfalfa without much loss, you can drive fast with the tractor, but the rake will turn slowly so it won’t beat the leaves off. Or you can run it at a faster speed.”
Don first heard about the Roto-Baler as a kid. “I remember going to St. Cloud a different way than normal one day and seeing an Allis-Chalmers Roto-Baler setting there,” he says. “I stopped to see if the owner wanted to sell it.” No luck. Then he spotted another one nearby. He asked that farmer if he wanted to sell. “He said, ‘No, I use it all the time.’”
Later he bought two Allis Roto-Balers at auctions. “Nobody was interested in them,” he says. “One sold for $35. But their uniqueness drew me to them. The first one was a workable unit and the second one was for parts: You can’t just walk into stores and buy the parts you need. I put new belts on the workable Roto-Baler and planned to restore that one. But I run a resort and there’s not a lot of time in the summer to work on it. In the winter you need a heated space if you’re going to work on it and I don’t have that either. So getting it restored was a slow process.”
Expanding the collection
Don laughingly says his son Scott likes to spend some of Don’s money. “One night Scott called and said, ‘Dad, I found an Allis-Chalmers Roto-Baler on eBay.’” Another unique situation.
Investigating the piece online, Don discovered it had been painted and was in working condition. He decided to take a chance on it. Owner Everett Foster, Polo, Mo., suggested potential buyers should look at it before buying it, which was exactly what Don was thinking.
“My son Scott and his wife LuAnn went down to look at it and make sure it was okay,” he says. “They took along a money order and a fifth-wheel trailer.” Once they determined the machine was in good condition, they moved it over toward the trailer only to realize they would have trouble loading it: The wheels were too wide to roll up the ramp.
A creative solution was called for. Finally they figured that with the shovel of a loader on each side they could lift the Roto-Baler up, then back the fifth-wheel trailer under it before setting it down. “They had to finagle it to make it work,” Don says.
Design ahead of its time
In talking with local farmer Dave Zimmerman, Don learned that Allis Roto-Balers were commonly used in Missouri. “Years ago, farmers used to cut the first long growth of grass in the spring with AC balers,” Don says. “As the bales dropped out onto the ground, they left them there because they shed water really well and stayed usable. At that time, most balers were square balers whose bales didn’t shed water nearly as well.”
Once summer grass got too short, cattle started eating the bales that were still out in the field. “I suspect they even went into winter at times,” Don says. “Think how labor-saving that would be.”
Another of the baler’s unique aspects was that twine was wrapped around the bales rather than tied, saving time and work. “Allis-Chalmers literature said if you planned on jockeying the bales around a lot you should tie the string,” Don says. “Those balers had no knotters.”
Don marvels that the concept for round, untied bales was developed 65 years ago and remains in use in today’s huge round balers. “It’s amazing too that in 1910 the inventor of the idea, this Nebraska farmer Ummo F. Luebben, had the foresight and ability to design a round baler system that’s still in use,” he says. “I think we always tend to think that the people in the past didn’t have as much going for them as we do.”
Don runs his Roto-Baler occasionally to make a few bales and says it performs admirably. “But I still can’t figure out how it makes the bale using a series of two belts,” he says. “I think I’m going to have to walk behind it while it’s working to figure it out.”
The unique equipment draws crowds at tractor shows. “So many people tell me that their uncle or dad had a baler like that. But where are those balers now?” he muses. “There’s something nice about taking anything from the past and holding it up now, showing that we don’t scrap out everything old; we save some of what’s past. It’s one reason I got involved with the Central Minnesota Heritage Club. There’s always somebody who has worked on this stuff and can answer questions.”
What is that stuff?
Reactions to Don’s unusual display vary. “The power rake really draws a crowd,” he says. “Most people are in awe of the rake and the baler. Most of them have never seen either one. They had no idea that a machine way back then could make round bales with a series of belts.”
Many ask why the bales are so small. “This generation figures, ‘Why make such dinky bales?’ They don’t realize that, back then, they didn’t have skid steers and bale handling equipment like they do today. They needed smaller bales for that reason.”
Don also explains how much easier it was for a cow to eat Roto-Baler bales. “In the manger, the cow has to break a square bale and take a slug of it and some of the hay goes flying. But the Roto-Baler bales aren’t packed in little tight bunches, so they unroll easier for the cows with less loss.”
Differences in the details
Small, round bales; twine wrapped rather than tied. Those weren’t the only specifications setting the Roto-Baler apart from other balers of the era. “The bales were 36 inches long with an adjustable diameter of 14-22 inches. The manual says they could weigh from 40-100 pounds,” he says. “And they could be loaded using pitchforks, which was different from other bales of the time, too.”
Picking bales right out of the machine didn’t work so well with this baler. “They come out crosswise and pretty low down to the ground, making it difficult to grab them,” he notes. “And the twine wasn’t tied, so it would burst open if the bale was lifted that way. Most farmers just dropped them on the ground and picked them up later.”
Though his Roto-Baler worked great when he baled with it, Don didn’t buy it to make bales. But he does want people to see what the bales look like, so he connected a pair of iron rods at the rear of the baler onto which he places a bale so show-goers can see what the bales look like.
The biggest problem with the baler is getting it to shows, he says. “The bearings in those days were bronze and weren’t meant to be driven 30 miles on the road,” he says. “Worse, if I want to take it to a show farther away, I have to load it on the flatbed and the wheels are still too wide. So I need a pair of loaders to lift it onto the flatbed, and I need to hope there are two loaders at the other end that can help me take it off the trailer and put it back on when the show is done.”
But problems like those don’t daunt him. “I find it exciting to encounter the unexpected in life and try to figure out how you’re going to think about it and what you’re going to do to deal with it,” he says. “We respect the old equipment of the past and save it to show others how it worked. For me the highlight is to grab a little piece of all that history in one of these machines, and do it myself.” FC
For more on the Allis-Chalmers Roto-Baler:Putting a Spin on the Roto-Baler's Round Bales.
To see video of the Roto-Baler in action, visit the Old Iron Videos blog at www.farmcollector.com/ac-roto-baler.
For more information: Don Brown, (320) 285-4305.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.