Windrower with a Mind of Its Own

Check out how a Wyoming man tackles the restoration of a Mid-Century Owatonna windrower.

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by Larry Fulton

My thrill is taking a piece of equipment that has not run for a long time and bringing it back to life. My latest project is a self-propelled, all-mechanical 1953 Owatonna windrower built by Owatonna Mfg. Co., Owatonna, Minnesota.

An old friend, Mickey Fike, was raised on a farm near Shoshoni, Wyoming. He was cleaning up his father’s farmyard. This old windrower had been left behind the corrals. He hated to scrap it out. He knew I like to restore unique equipment and called to see if I wanted it. I told him, “sure!” but it would be a while before I could pick it up.

I finally retrieved the windrower and parked it out by my shop, where it sat for at least two years. I got tired of walking around it and started to restore it. First, I removed the Wisconsin V-4 engine, which was stuck. After much difficulty, I found a piston frozen solid in the cylinder and the connecting rod bent like a crank. As I searched for engine parts, a supplier had me look inside the block for damage. Sure enough, the block had a large crack. I now needed another V-4 engine equipped with a variable speed pulley. I found a replacement V-4 on Craigslist and brought the engine home.

Working on the rest of the machine, I found most of the bearings were rusted, frozen or worn out and two shafts were bent, but all the parts were there. The reel had thin, 12-foot boards. I matched up boards the same size at a do-it-yourself store and installed them. I set the reel outside and in two weeks, the boards were warped! I had some 1-by-4-inch oak boards close to the original size and put them on the reel. I think they look good as new.

The tractor tires were rotted off. An online “thanksgiving special” in Hershey, Pennsylvania, had tires available with free shipping; a very good bargain. The planetaries and reverse brake bands were in good shape. I scraped off a lot of old grease, rust and paint. Getting the adjustable pulley threads free took a lot of heat and sweat. I used my 4-inch grinder to cut off the old bearings. Then it became a neat project to put back together.

Like a bucking bronco

I called Mickey to tell him I was about to paint the windrower. That’s when he told me the history of the unit. His father, Tommy, bought it new from a Pavillion, Wyoming, dealer who ordered it from Western Equipment Co., Salt Lake City, Utah. The dealer stamped “received June 6, 1953,” on the front cover of the manual. It is thought to be the first windrower in Fremont County, and possibly the first self-propelled windrower in Wyoming. When Mickey was in high school, Tommy had a bad truck accident and was paralyzed; Mickey took over the farming.

Mickey remembers operating the windrower. He said you sat out in the open sun, wind, bugs and dust. It took all of his muscle to raise the header and reel. In the wet irrigated alfalfa fields, the windrower got stuck all the time, because of the single small 14-inch drive wheels. With these small tires going across furrows, it would buck him off very easily. Sitting out on the far left made steering slow and easy, but when steering to the right, you were in a wide, fast swing, bouncing around. The windrower was made for flat, smooth fields.

To operate this machine, first you hand-cranked the engine and then set the rpm. Then you could get on the small tractor seat (no steps), straddling two steering levers. The steering levers were in the reverse lock position (parking brake). You released them to neutral position and engaged the variable speed travelling shaft to the desired speed (no brakes), and then you were ready to move. Pushing and holding the steering levers forward, you would go forward; by pulling and holding the levers back, you traveled in reverse.

A memorable first outing

I had the restoration pretty well complete and was anxious to try the windrower out. I rolled it out of the shop, on level ground, started it and climbed on. I set the variable speed and moved forward, backward and did a few zero-turns: no problem!

The area out in the open is on a slope and I started to head out there. Going up the slope, I pulled the left steering lever, releasing the left wheel, which immediately rolled backward while the right wheel was still going uphill! I reversed the levers (wow!) which jerked me off the seat as it rushed forward into a right turn. There was no way to stop; it was all I could do to hang on. I had a heck of a time getting it under control to stop it.

I got a first-time experience riding a wild machine from the beginning. I have plans to drive this windrower at fairs and parades. I knew I had to make modifications to make it safe.

I installed engine controls near the operator’s seat, put on a gas foot-feed pedal and am in the process of installing brake calipers on the drive sprockets with cables running up to hand grips on the steering levers.

“The windrower is 12 feet wide, but I can collapse the back caster tail wheel up against the frame making it 8 feet, 3 inches wide and 12 feet long. On the left side, I installed a receiver box for a detachable hitch and installed two detachable dolly wheels on the right side. I can now pull or tow it legally down the road or load it on my gooseneck trailer.

I have searched the internet and looked in magazines and books but have not located another windrower of this model. I sure would like to find out if there are more around. FC

For more information: Larry Fulton, 4504 East 17th St., Cheyenne, WY 82001; cell: (307)631-1398; email:

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