One day Roger Dale, Hanley Falls, Minn., received a call from a local bank officer, urging him to come to a grove of trees on a repossessed farmstead between Cottonwood and Minneota, Minn. There was something Roger should see.
As soon as Roger saw the piece of old machinery abandoned in the trees, he knew it was a ensilage harvester. He also knew it was a type he had never seen before. “It was semi-mounted on a Fordson tractor, and neither one of them was in very good shape,” he says.
But old iron collectors aren’t always concerned with condition. Roger put in a small bid on the piece, won it and took the harvester home, where it languished for four years. It wasn’t that Roger had lost interest in the harvester; there were just so many pieces of old iron to have fun with. Besides, he already had another harvester.
Then, during a rural electric-sponsored bus trip, Roger got to talking old iron with another collector. In passing, he described his unusual harvester. After a while, a woman (Adair Kelley) who’d been listening in from across the aisle leaned over and said, “I think I know what that machine is, and if it is, my father invented it.”
“I explained what it looked like, and she said it indeed was the one her father had invented, and I was in second heaven,” Roger says. “It was unreal. I couldn’t believe it. From then on Adair Kelley and I took over the conversation, and the other guy was long-lost. She and I were instant buddies.”
Restoring a relic
So begins the saga of Roger’s involvement with a 1918 Ronning ensilage harvester invented by Adolph Ronning, Boyd, Minn. After discovering its background, and talking with Adair, daughter of the late inventor, Roger decided to restore the machine.
“It was in pretty rough condition,” he says. Fortunately, Roger had illustrations from original Ronning literature to use as a guide – and help from friends. “It was fun doing it, because we knew we had something that was probably one of a kind,” he says.
First, deteriorating wood pieces were replaced with new pine. Some of the metal parts had to be pounded out and straightened, and parts of the frame were broken, so sections were cut out and replaced.
Finding replacement parts for an implement dating to 1918 can be a challenge. “We had to find a couple of pieces of gathering chain for the snoots, which help bring the corn into the cutter,” he says. “Old corn pickers (and corn heads for combines and corn binders) use gathering chain too.” One of the snoots was bent and had to be replaced.
Much of this work is to be expected when working with old iron. But there was a greater problem, Roger says: metal fatigue. “The sprockets and gears are made of cast iron, and they’re brittle. They wouldn’t last if we actually ran the machine,” he explains. “If you ran it with that metal fatigue, you’d not only have a mess at the end, but something worse, if something happened when it was running and people were right beside it. For safety reasons, we decided we couldn’t actually run it. It’s only driven in the Pioneer Power Threshing Show parade at Hanley Falls, but we don’t actually run it. It’s just set up for show.”
Ahead of its time
One wheel carries the bulk of the harvester’s weight. The rest is mounted on the tractor, with a lawnmower-type cutter and side elevator drive. A team of horses pulled a high-wheel wagon alongside, catching the cut silage as it came out of the machine.
The first mechanical ensilage harvester not pulled by horses, the Ronning ran off the tractor’s PTO. “I didn’t know those early tractors even had a power take-off,” Roger says, “but on the Fordson, when you take off a little cone in back, there’s the PTO.”
Very few people know what the piece is when they first see it, Roger says. “They’re usually amazed that it was so advanced,” he says, “but a lot of the things Adolph Ronning invented were ahead of his time.” Still, the invention was hardly a slam dunk. Frustrated by his inability to find a buyer for the patent, Ronning formed his own company (Morgan Machinery Co., Minneapolis), and built the harvesters himself.
Roger’s Ronning harvester isn’t the first of the line. Ronning’s first version was horse-drawn and had a mounted engine. Later Ronning harvesters were folded into the McCormick-Deering and International Harvester lines. Nor was the harvester Ronning’s only invention: He held more than 100 patents for various farm implements and machines alone, Adair says.
“If I wanted to talk to my father,” she says with a fond laugh, “I had to talk about his machines or else I didn’t have a conversation with him. So I grew up with his work and got to know a lot about it.” She has saved all of the prolific inventor’s effects, including patents, machinery, notebooks and awards.
“Some of the awards he used as paperweights,” Adair says, “because he was very modest and didn’t think about awards and rewards.” In fact, she says, because he rarely renewed his patents, other companies often took them over after the term expired. “One of the more obvious ones is the power road grader,” she says. “More than 20 companies started making them after the patent ran out. You’ve probably noticed they all look alike, and that’s because they all came from the same patent.”
Tracking down a tractor
Like the ensilage harvester, the Fordson found with it was a basket case. “This silage cutter was designed to work with either a 10-20 International tractor or a Fordson,” Roger says. “Because the tractor was in such difficult condition, I bought an old 10-20 International on steel but then realized I didn’t have the right brackets to mount it, because the Fordson brackets were different.”
A friend gave him a lead on a 1922 Fordson in good condition across the river in South Dakota. That tractor’s fenders had to be removed so the Ronning could be hooked to it, Roger notes.
The Ronning isn’t just another piece in Roger’s collection: It’s also a sentimental favorite. “When I was a kid, we filled silo with two neighbors who had a late model International-Ronning pull-type silage cutter,” he says. “It was a little more modern than this one, but it still had the side elevator on it. So when I found out this one was a Ronning, I was very interested in it.”
Preserving the past
Roger’s collection includes a hand-fed Ellis Keystone threshing machine (Ellis Keystone Agricultural Works, Pottstown, Pa.) he owns in partnership with Arlan Gustafson, Hanley Falls. “It’s on wheels now, but when it was in use in 1870, it originally stood on the ground,” he says. “You had to cut the twine and feed it in by hand.”
Roger also has a 1937 John Deere B with a live mechanical loader that runs off the flywheel. “What tickles me is when my son and I were working on a stationary silage cutter we have, an old fellow came up there and put his hand in his back pocket, and said to his grandson, ‘This is the way we did it when I was a kid like you.’ That’s what’s so much fun about putting these shows on. People are interested in seeing how the old days were.
“People at these shows share their information and the piece of equipment that they’re showing. It is part of preserving history, is what it amounts to. For young people, a picture is one thing, but a school visit to a museum is another thing entirely.”
Roger’s Ronning ensilage harvester is on display at the Minnesota Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls. Roger’s heard rumors of another one in eastern Wisconsin, but the rumors have yet to be substantiated – meaning his Ronning might truly be one of a kind. FC
Read about the inventor, Adolph Ronning: “Making Things Better.”
For more information:
– Roger Dale, 2089 480th St., Hanley Falls, MN 56245-3096; (507) 768-3556.
– Minnesota Machinery Museum, 100 First St., Hanley Falls, MN 56425; (507) 768-3522; open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4:30 p.m. (closed holidays), May through September. To schedule group tours, contact Director Mavis Gustafson, (507) 768-3522 or (507) 768-3580; e-mail: email@example.com.
– Pioneer Power Threshing Show and Old Timer’s Reunion, held yearly the second weekend in August on the grounds of the Minnesota Machinery Museum, Hanley Falls, Minn.; contact Byron Kampelien, 2159 Lyon Yellow Medicine Rd., Cottonwood, MN 56229; (507) 829-5495; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 56569; e-mail: email@example.com.