I still marvel at the invention of the sickle bar and reel. Those innovations enabled the grain binders and combines to harvest the golden grains we grew on our Michigan farm in the mid-20th century.
I'd sit on the old McCormick-Deering 10-20's seat as it pulled and powered the combine in low gear, almost at an idle, while the heavy Case combine trailed behind me, and devoured the tall stems of wheat. The sickle knives created their own unique sound and rhythm, so quiet and smooth - and deadly - in their task of slicing anything standing in their path. Age and wear would eventually alter their smooth motions to a loud clatter through years of use.
As I watched the grain fall to the canvas behind the sickle, laid down by the silent slats of the reel as it slowly turned above, it occurred to me that the sickle did the dirty work. It unmercifully cut the once-growing, living wheat. The reel seemed gentle by comparison. Just as a soldier eases a dying comrade to the ground, the reel softly, quietly laid the once-tall grain onto the canvas below. From there, the unknowing stalks were a split-second from total destruction. The canvas was striped with thin, wooden slats and seemed oblivious to its part in the deadly work. Continually moving, always upward, it threw its grain into the flailing arms that lay hidden just out of sight.
Separating the tiny kernels of wheat from the straw and chaff was done in secret. Belts sang, arms moved, shafts turned and chains rattled on both sides of the big combine. The only evidence of the commotion inside was a steady flow of clean, reddish-brown wheat kernels dropping into the 25-bushel hopper. The broken, bent straw stems fell gently atop the stubble almost at the exact spot where they stood swaying in the breeze just seconds before.
In the early 1950s, my dad purchased a 6-foot Case combine, looking for the biggest metal thresher that he could find. Wider, larger and much taller than the neighbor's Massey-Harris or John Deere 6-foot combines, the Case was so big and heavy that the tongue holding it to the rear of the tractor had to be welded and reinforced several times during its tenure on our farm.
Balanced on two large wheels, the combine pushed the old 10-20 slightly sideways when we turned on an incline. It did do a wonderful job of cleaning the wheat, however. We didn't get too much chaff back from the mill after drying our load, but it took more than an hour each morning for Dad to grease the dozens of zerks that dotted the gears, chains and pulleys on the larger combine.
A big, gray Wisconsin stationary engine sat on top of the combine. I don't recall the horsepower, but it took someone with a strong arm and good balance to hand start the engine. One long lever beside the hopper started the contraption, instantly forcing it to hum, shim and shake by lowering an idler pulley onto the drive belt.
In spite of the constant dust and noise, I loved to operate the big, lumbering machine. If I were driving the combine, I'd gladly stay in the field and miss supper while Dad and my brothers milked and did chores. During my mid-teens, Dad finally let me operate the combine alone. Wheat was our 'cash' crop, so we sold most of it, only saving a bin-full in the granary for the chickens and next year's seed.
Morning dew was a daily occurrence in lower Michigan where we farmed, and the daily moisture dictated our schedule. Combining couldn't start until 11 or 11:30 a.m., so we usually only were able to make a round or two in the field before dinner. As the day wore on, the crops got dryer, and the dust that drifted up from the moving combine grew thicker. We carried a short broom for the dust, which we stuck into a slot at the top of the hopper. When we stopped to unload the grain, as part of our routine we swept off the hot motor where chaff built up. Each summer, chaff that built up caught fire on the combine's hot engine and occasionally burned some farmers' combines as well as part of their wheat fields, but Dad was definitely a preventive-maintenance person and taught us how to avoid such danger.
The evening dew began to settle as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon. About 7:30 p.m., we began to hear the subtle difference in the motion of the combine as the dew increased. The motor worked harder as the slender stalks became increasingly damp, and by then it was time to quit for the day.
I'm glad the big Case had a motor of its own. To this day, I'm still uncomfortable with PTO-driven machinery. I'm uneasy keeping a tractor rpm at high speed to meet the power requirements of the machine it powers. . don't feel in control of the tractor under those conditions. No matter which of our four tractors we hooked to the Case combine, I was able to gear it so that it quietly pulled the combine at the right speed. Keeping the tractor's noise down also let me hear any problems that occurred in the combine. A squeaky belt or an overloaded combine motor were always easy to detect.
In the low, marshy areas of our wheat fields, the wheat grew so tall and the heads so heavy before harvest, that a strong gust of wind could permanently lay them on the ground. Luckily our land had few rocks, which allowed us to lower the combine head to within an inch of the ground and scoop up most of the downed wheat.
Oats were a different story. They competed with the ragweed every year and since they ripened a few weeks later than the wheat, the ragweed often grew within a few inches of the heads - especially in a wet year.
Our combine work naturally increased as a result. Occasionally, we were forced to combine before the oats were at a safe moisture for storage because of the ragweed. We unloaded the oats on the big barn floor, and every day Dad and I dried them by turning them with scoop shovels before finally carrying them to the bin in bushel baskets.
Years later, Dad finally hired a man with a huge self-propelled combine to harvest our wheat. Our prized Holstein herd was growing so large that the majority of our time was dedicated to baling extra hay. We also needed more acres of corn, and what's more, the live-stock show circuit started in July with the state show, and we had a reputation for having show winners, which also took an increasing amount of time. In the end, it was good we could hire someone else to harvest the wheat, because we had more time to dedicate to other farm chores.
One of my many responsibilities was to take our Dodge 1 1/2-ton truck to the field and drive up beside the self-propelled combine so Dad could unload it. Sometimes, I'd see Dad study the ground behind the big combine. He was looking for wheat kernels that missed the hopper and ended up on the ground. He'd shake his head in disgust, but Dad never said much about it to the combine operator. That was the price he paid for not doing it himself with our old 6-foot Case.
Dad finally traded the Case combine in for credit on a new D-l 7 Allis-Chalmers tractor. The D-l 7 did a fair job, but it was no Case. It may be been big and cumbersome, but that old Case did the best combining job I've ever seen. FC
Each summer, chaff that built up caught fire on the combine's hot engine and occasionally burned some farmers' combines as well as part of their wheat fields, but Dad was definitely a preventive-maintenance person and taught us how to avoid such danger.
- Harry Macomber lived on a Michigan farm until he was 24. He now resides in Watertown, Tenn., and works in the printing and publishing industry.