McCormick Corn Binder Restoration

Turn-of-the-century McCormick binder shines after lavish restoration

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by Leslie C. McManus
Lou Sanchez with the McCormick binder he restored. Lou re-created wooden parts for the binder through a trial-and-error process of pattern making. The top flight was particularly challenging, in that the boards were angled, as shown here.

When the corn binder was replaced in the 1940s by the field cutter, there was no second act for this workhorse implement. No one in his right mind would be nostalgic for the hard work associated with using a binder, lugging heavy bundles of green corn hour after hour, day after day. Completely useless for any other purpose, the vast majority of binders were scrapped.

Today, binders show up in the occasional collection, but rarely outside of the Midwest, and even more rarely, fully restored. A one-row horse-drawn McCormick binder that was new about the time Grover Cleveland was president is the exception to the rule. Fully restored, it has been installed in a position of honor in Owyhee County Historical Society Museum in Murphy, Idaho.

Taking pictures from every angle

Sam Pitman, Melba, Idaho, bought the 1890s-vintage McCormick binder at a farm auction in the 1960s. He did nothing with it until he moved off his home place. After holding the binder out of his auction, Sam asked his neighbor, Lou Sanchez, if he would restore it. “I didn’t even know what a corn binder was,” Lou says. “So I went to look at it. ‘Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s unique looking.'”

Lou’s particular expertise is as a woodworker. He’s built furniture and buckboard benches out of juniper. “I’ve never worked on anything antique before,” he readily admits. “This was fun; I enjoyed it! But it was more difficult than I expected.”

Abandoned to the elements since the 1960s, the binder was in sorry shape. All of the wood parts were gone or rotten. Lou used his front-end loader to move what was left to his shop. “I couldn’t believe how heavy it was,” he says. “It’s all made of cast iron. I put it in my shop and started dismantling it. It had roller bearings on the main parts but everything was seized.”

As he dismantled the relic, Lou was careful to take pictures as a guide in reassembly. “I had no references, so I took pictures from underneath, on top and sideways,” he says. “I was taking pictures from every angle.”

red and white corn binder

Cleats set relic apart from the rest

Lou says Sam’s theory is the binder came west with the original owner. “It’s a unique piece in this area,” he says. “The seller said his granddad used it in Melba, and his son remembered seeing his great-granddad using it in the field.”

The binder probably didn’t look as sharp then as it does post-restoration, complete with freshly painted white wheels and red cleats (“So they’ll stand out,” Lou says). The cleats make the piece unusual, he adds. “I’ve seen lots of pictures of binders but none had cleats,” he says. “In our heavy clay soil, cleats would have added more traction for the horses, so the binder would run more efficiently. The cleats would dig in and it would run smoother without slipping.”

The binder is missing its carrier. As the binder takes the stalks to the back of the machine, a knotter (“like the ones on today’s balers,” Lou says) would wrap seven to nine stalks and release them. A shield would keep them to one side and they’d drop onto the carrier. A series of moving chains then dumped the stalks on the field for retrieval by a team and wagon.

red and white corn binder facing to the left

Creating something from nothing

Lou spent the winter of 2019-’20 dismantling the binder, sandblasting and painting every part. “It was a rust bucket,” he says. “I made a sandblaster out of a livestock feeder, 8 feet tall on wheels.” Once everything was painted, he tackled reassembly. “It took a while,” he says. “I did a lot of research, figuring out how to duplicate it to make it look right.”

With no photo to go by, Lou took an exceptionally deliberate approach. “I had to think about what I was doing,” he says. “When I started putting it together, I had to give it a lot of thought, consider the sequence of functions, and think about how it would work.”

Replacing the wood parts was a particular challenge. Never having seen them in anything but old catalog images, Lou used large sheets of cardboard to create templates. “After we put the brackets back in place that the wood would attach to, I started forming patterns,” he says. “But the bottom half of the top tier is angled. I’d put cardboard in place and tweak it and then stop and think, because it all had to fit the brackets with the bolt pattern.”

He used poplar for the replacement wood. “In the era when this was built, in the Midwest, they probably weren’t using pine,” he says. “Poplar was predominant back then.”

He also recalled a lesson learned from his father-in-law. “He was a cattleman. He had poplar trees on his land and he’d have lumber cut in 2×6 boards when he was building corrals. He told me poplar gives a little where pine will break,” he says. “The grain is different from pine grain; it has a spongy feel to it. If a steer hits it, poplar will rebound; it won’t break. It just made sense to me to use it on the binder.”

man working on a red and white corn binder

Parts from a friend of a friend of a friend

Late in the restoration process, it became apparent that key parts – the sprocket and base, and additional cast iron driver chains – were missing. Meanwhile, local resident Bill Shields was visiting family in Missouri. Through contacts there, he connected Lou with a Garnett, Kansas, man who was able to provide the missing parts.

No original paint remained on the binder, so Lou researched the paint scheme. Eventually he settled on McCormick red and McCormick white purchased from the International dealership to get as close as possible. And what we would refer to as decals? Lou hand-painted them. “It was challenging,” he says. “I looked at a lot of photos online and tried to scale the lettering.”

In reassembly, Lou got an assist from a 1922 McCormick parts manual. Earlier, Sam had bought the manual at a tractor dealership that was going out of business. “It had all the parts listed for this binder,” Lou says. “Every part on the binder has a parts number, and all the numbers in the book matched up. That really helped me know the names of the parts.”

Once completed, the binder and the parts manual were put on display in the Owyhee County Historical Society Museum. “We don’t want to see it out in the elements now,” Lou says. Museum officials were ecstatic, he says, describing an excited conversation where they discussed the most advantageous position for its display. “We’re going to put this under the lights,” one said. FC

man standing with one foot leaning on a red and white corn binder

For more information: Lou Sanchez, (208) 271-6000; 11060 Park Lane, Melba, ID 83641; email:

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