When David Petersburg attended an estate sale in the mid-1990s, he had no idea what he might end up carting home. Certainly he did not expect to come home with an Osborne No. 8 reaper dating to the early 1900s. “I work at finding horse-related equipment and I like 19th century stuff, primitives you might call them,” he says, “primarily because everybody else had a cultivator and plow, and that didn’t interest me.”
The Petersburgs owned draft horses for a number of years. During that time, they were often invited to bring their horses to a threshing show at Claremont, Minn., to give rides to show-goers. There, they became good friends with their German neighbors with whom they shared a common interest. “They were into tractors and a variety of antiques,” he says, “and my interest in old iron kind of perpetuated from there.”
When the Osborne No. 8 reaper came up for sale, David wasn’t certain what it was and neither was anyone else at the auction. Looking suspiciously like a pile of junk, it wasn’t generating much buyer interest. “It was in such bad condition that nobody wanted to bid on it,” he says. “But I had the same reaction I have whenever I’m going after a piece of equipment. I’m like a little kid that can hardly contain himself. I guess that’s part of the passion of collecting old equipment like this. It’s very exciting for me.”
After pulling the machine out of the shed where it had been stored, David says he could see damage caused by the building falling in on it. “Also, there were wear marks inside the apron and up against the divider boards, and the only way that could have happened was if it had been pulled too fast when it was in gear, or else when it was running somebody wasn’t paying attention when they were cutting grain. The freewheeling was out of adjustment, bolts were loose and there was some damage to the bed and so on.”
Every antiques collector sizes up potential acquisitions in his own way. When David evaluates old machinery, he doesn’t think in terms of whether the piece is a good candidate for restoration. His acquisitions fall into one of three categories: It’s a parts donor, a piece to resell or a piece to restore. After he got the pile otherwise known as an Osborne No. 8 reaper home, he set it in an open area so he could remove broken pieces and assess what needed to be done.
“Eveners, singletrees and other wood parts I usually have lying around, or else they’re pretty easily made or modified to be correct,” he says. “Some pieces I can do pretty quick. Then I get the rest of the machine cleaned up, check the gearing and make sure it’s lined up, see that the teeth are adjusted and nothing needs to be repaired. Once that’s accomplished, I repair broken pieces or fabricate new ones.”
Three of the reaper’s rakes were badly damaged, but one was in reasonably good shape. David used that one as a pattern for replacements. A cabinetmaker cut a cross-section from one of the broken rakes and found three types of wood had been used in its construction: hickory, maple and ash. The small fingers appeared to have been made of maple. Ash was used for the backboard, and the base component was made of hickory.
The only identifying marks on the reaper are the name “Osborne” in raised lettering on the metal and “No. 8” on one rake. Based on a 1912 advertisement for D.M. Osborne & Co., Auburn, N.Y., David believes his reaper dates to that period. Occasionally he finds vintage literature on eBay and he’s added a few of those pieces to his collection. Like many manufacturers of the era, Osborne produced reference booklets that included formulas to convert field and bushel measurements.
The Osborne reaper’s pole, neck yoke and apron (the piece the grain falls onto) are original. Grain was cut with a serrated sickle and the rakes helped lay it down. Grain could be swept off continuously or dropped into piles, depending on the farmer’s preference.
The operator’s right foot rested on a small stirrup. Using an adjacent foot pedal, the operator could drop or lift a small finger cam. The finger cam allowed variable travel space for the rakes, which adjusted where the grain would go: up and onto the table, or down and pushed to the back of the machine, dropping onto the ground and forming a swath.
“Typically these machines predated binders, so the results had to be tied by hand,” David explains. “An old guy told me there’s a method of tying stalks of grain into a bundle with a machine like this, but I don’t know how to do it.”
Reproducing the rakes proved the most difficult part of the project. “I don’t pretend to be that good a woodworker,” David says. “I’m more into metal and steel, so I had some help with those.”
He also had to create his own yoke assembly brace under the machine. The brace pitches the angle of the bull gear and helps synchronize it with the wheel. “Because there are no technical manuals or parts lists or anything, you have to study and figure out what the machine is doing, and how, and come up with a suitable fix,” David says. “That’s why sometimes it takes a long time to fix machinery like this. I usually have three or four projects going on at one time, so if I get stumped, I can walk away and work on something else. Lots of times I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and boom! I’ve got an answer.”
Restoration of the Osborne No. 8 reaper is not totally complete. Several issues remain unresolved, such as a problem with one rake. Each rake is spring-loaded, but one rake’s spring is missing and David has yet to find someone who can produce a replacement. But he remains optimistic. “A gentleman I befriended years ago said, ‘Well, if it can be made once, it can be made again.’ That’s a good motto that he lived by, and I try to, too.”
David rarely operates the reaper now, especially since he and Carmen have sold their last team of horses. “If I had a good pair that I knew and trusted, I would probably demonstrate it a time or two,” he says, “but to have somebody else do it, there’s the liability issue plus potential repair of the machine. That’s why most of the pieces I have at shows are there just for visual display.”
At home, he tends to a collection of 50 pieces of horse-drawn equipment, including horse powers, treadmills, hay presses and stump pullers. “Treadmills, for example, had many uses on the farm,” he says, “such as running a fanning mill, or groundhog thresher or butter churn. They allowed farmers to be more productive and eased the workload a bit.”
Collectors often overlook early horse-drawn equipment. But David finds enormous satisfaction in restoring relics that are more than a century old. “Why do I collect? To preserve history,” he says. “If I didn’t, a lot of these pieces would be scrapped or in a junk pile or gone. When a young person shows an interest in any of my machines, I hope he or she walks away much more knowledgeable. That’s a reward for me.”
In the end, his goal is to help people realize the importance of machines like his reaper. “The reaper eliminated a huge amount of labor. People no longer had to stand out in the field with a scythe and cradle and do that handwork,” he says. “The reaper’s position in history, from a mechanization standpoint, is huge. Other machines along the way did the same thing, but this was one of the first major inventions that really helped reduce the farmer’s physical labor.” FC
Know anything about the restoration or operation of a reaper? David Petersburg would like to hear from you. Contact him at: 7299 SW 22nd Ave, Owatonna, MN 55060; email: email@example.com.
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; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.