RR2 Humboldt, Kansas 66748
One hundred twenty-eight years ago, in 1862, my grandfather H.H.
Gerken and his wife came as newlyweds onto the land where I (Junior
H. Gerken) now reside. Soon after breaking the sod and establishing
the farming operation, Grandfather supplemented his farm-ing
operation by building a horse-powered sorghum mill with wooden
rollers, and thus began making sorghum molasses for himself and for
others in the surrounding area who brought their own cane to the
mill to be processed.
About 90 years ago my grandfather purchased a Nichols &
Shepard ‘Red River Special’ horsepower driven threshing
unit and also a horsepower driven four-hole Sandwich corn sheller.
Grandfather converted this com sheller to belt driven soon after he
purchased his first steam traction engine. Thus began a Gerken
family tradition and career of custom threshing and corn shelling
over a period of almost 60 consecutive years which involved my
grandfather and his two sons, L.F. Gerken and H.C. Gerken. H.C. was
The first horsepower threshing unit did not have a mechanical
self feeder. The grain had to be fed into the threshing cylinder
manually. It also did not have a grain weigher. The grain was
measured in half bushel containers from directly out of the auger
at the bottom of the shoe, which was the bottom on the separating
unit. This first unit also lacked a straw blower (stacker). It had
a combination sprocket chain and crossbar device that conveyed the
straw and chaff away from the rear of this separator.
Grandfather’s unit also had what was called a ‘katydid’
stacker which was set up beneath the first conveyor and then it
oscillated back and forth and made a half moon stack of sorts.
My father, H.C. Gerken, was a teenager at this time and he broke
into his lifelong career as a thresherman by hand feeding this
first horse-power unit. In just a very few years Grandfather
abandoned the horse-power concept and purchased his first steam
traction engine. Gradually as time went on came the mechanical self
feeder, the mechanical grain weigher, and the mechanical straw
blower (stacker) as well. About this same time Grandfather
purchased a French Burr (Stone Burr) mill and thus began a custom
grinding operation of processing wheat into flour and corn into
meal for the public of the surrounding area.
In those early years threshing units were comparatively few and
far between and so it was not all that unusual that the custom
threshing vocation was almost a year around affair. So it was at
times with H.H. Gerken and sons during many of their early years.
This was made possible by the fact that many farmers stacked their
grain, thus making it possible to thresh their grain at most any
time of the year, weather permitting.
All during these many years they purchased only Nichols and
Shepard ‘Red River Special’ threshing units. However the
steam traction engines were Nichols & Shepard, Garr Scott, and
Around 1915 Grandfather retired from being actively engaged in
threshing, largely because of failing eyesight. From then on it was
the Gerken Bros., L.F. and H.C. Gerken, my father.
Around 1925 they abandoned steam power and bought a 25-50 HP
Nichols & Shepard oil gas tractor. It was this tractor along
with the Nichols & Shepard ‘Red River Special’
separator purchased in 1918 that made up the threshing unit that
carried on until the end of the era, the last year being 1948. In
the late 1920’s, not long before he passed away, my uncle L.F.
Gerken sold his half interest in the enterprise to my father. He
then continued as a custom thresherman until that last year, when
he was well past 70 years of age.
There are a number of interesting facts and statistics about
this 1918 ‘Red River Special.’ It was a 32×52 size machine.
As I recall the cost was somewhere between 12 and 15 hundred
dollars. One might compare that cost to the cost of a modern
combine harvester today. That 1918 machine considerably more than
paid for itself that first year which ran from June 25th to the end
of September. This separator threshed 30 seasons. I have a record
of every job that it threshed, compiled in a record ledger taken
from my father’s thresherman’s account book, of which I
still have every one covering Shortly before his death in 1957, my
father sold both the tractor and the separator to the Antique
Engine and Thresher Association of Wichita. The 25×50 Nichols &
Shepard tractor is presently owned by Mr. Harold Ottaway of
Wichita. The separator is owned by Mr. Joe Harper of Sedgwick,
Kansas. This separator, which is more than 70 years old, has never
been exposed to the elements. During the years up until the time my
father sold it, it was always shedded and during the time it was
out on the threshing run it was always covered with a huge tarp if
there was even the slightest threat of rain. If a rain should
threaten during a working day they would always shut down in time
to get pulled away from the straw stack because of its
vulnerability to lightening, and get the separator covered with the
tarp. It has been shedded continually since my father sold it in
This picture was taken in July, 1919 on my father’s
nephew’s farm here east of Humboldt, Kansas, Mr. John
Mueller’s farm. My father, H.C. Gerken, is Seen standing on the
engine platform holding his hat. Mr. Fred Hattenstein, the water
hauler, is standing behind him. My uncle, L.F. Gerken, is standing
with his hands on his hips at the far left end of the picture.
Three Mueller Bros, are standing at the front end of the separator:
Jake standing next to the separator, John standing next to him, and
brother Martin standing next to John. As you may notice this is the
year with the Ruth feeder on the separator. The 30 year span. It
threshed for 724 customers and put in approximately 500 days. If
for example one might say 10 hour days, times 500 days, would mean
about 5000 hours.
It was a tremendous thrill for me to once again see this 70 year
old separator when I and a neighbor attended the Valley Center
steam show near Wichita during the Labor Day weekend of 1986. This
separator is capable of doing the same excellent job of threshing
today that it did when it was new in 1918. Mr. Harper will attest
to this because he takes it to various steam shows around the area
and threshes with it.
Threshing by steam in the Red River Valley in the Fall of
This Nichols & Shepard 32 x 52 separator, presently owned by
Mr. Joe Harper of Sedgwick, Kansas, was purchased new in 1918 by
the Gerken family. They used it for thirty seasons in their
threshing business. For that family’s story.
These units were in mint mechanical operating condition when my
father sold them. It was the Gerken philosophy all through the many
years that before the beginning of the threshing season, both the
engine and the separator were carefully given a fine tooth comb
scrutinizing, and thereby make all necessary repairs before the
season began. My father was proud to be able to say that through
the many years of threshing they never suffered a major break-down.
My father always said he dreaded the thought of being broke down
with perhaps as many as 15 or more men, that being the size of the
crew, standing around and unable to work because of a major
Mr. Harper is so proud of this machine that he has restored the
looks of this machine by meticulously cleaning it and then
repainting it exactly the way it was done originally. Then he
restenciled all the printing on the machine and feeder, the blower
and weigher. It literally looks and operates like it did 70 years
I guess the reason why this all means so much to me is because I
was privileged to serve as Dad’s separator man on this machine
the last few years of its service. I came to appreciate its
excellent response to the duties it was built to perform.