The sun hung high in the sky when friends and neighbors gathered last June at Frank and Dottie Waterman’s farm near Nokomis, Ill. It was wheat-cutting time, and the crowd had come to help with and watch the progress of what has become an annual event – bringing in the harvest with Frank’s collection of vintage combines.
The varied makes and models of pull-type combines, and the tractors pulling them, soon were rolling across the golden field. Moving methodically through the ripened wheat, the combines cut the grain and dumped it into an antique grain wagon that once belonged to Dottie’s father. From there, it was headed to town.
With the specially planted 10-acre field yielding some 50 bushels of grain per acre, the combines had to work extra hard. In their heyday, they more commonly brought in harvests of about 25 bushels an acre.
This contemporary ‘threshing party’ has been going on for about five years now, but the reasons for it date back to Frank’s youth. ‘It was a JD 30 that started all this mess,’ he recalled. He bought a 1950’s-era John Deere 30 combine about 15 years ago because his father had always wanted one.
‘Dad had a John Deere 25,’ he said, ‘and every night he would say he needed a 30.’ The desire to own a 30 was tied to a piece of stubborn cloth. Back in the late 1950s, Frank explained, canvas was commonly used on many pull-type combines, including his dad’s JD 25.
As Frank described it, ‘Using canvas was a 10-cuss-word job.’ During harvest, the combine canvas routinely had to be replaced several times because cockleburs and other debris would get caught in it, slowing progress through the field. Canvas was sold at most grain elevators back then, but replacing it was a cumbersome, time-consuming job.
Frank’s dad was eager to replace his JD 25 to get rid of the canvas, and his frustration with the problem stuck in Frank’s memory. One day when Frank was attending an auction, one of the ‘canvas-free’ JD 30s came up for sale. ‘I bought (it) for $90,’ he said. ‘I thought it would be fun to have a Farm Progress Show 1950’s style. These are memories and conversation pieces. Old guys will tell about every combine they ever drove.’
From then on, Frank just kept buying combines. His collection numbers about 10 combines now and it includes, in addition to the JD 30, a mid-1950s Case with canvas, a 1957 or ’58 Massey pull-type, an early 1950s Oliver 88 and a late 1950s International Harvester 80.
He said the combines were easy to pick up and reasonably priced because they weren’t considered collector’s items. ‘I was buying combines when everyone else was buying corn pickers,’ he said.
Now, with so many on hand, Frank celebrates his harvest with a party.
To help out at last summer’s event, several friends brought along their own vintage equipment. Jim Sutterlee hauled in three tractors: a 1949 Minneapolis Moline U, a 1950 John Deere A and a 1958 John Deere 720 diesel, as well as his own ‘little creation’ for the kids, built from an old engine.
Jim said one of the reasons the combine party appealed to him so much was that he got to see the antique tractors in use again. ‘I like to see tractors in the workplace,’ he said, ‘to see them putt-putt in the fields, where they belong.’
Another friend, Roger Miller, brought his John Deere 730 diesel tractor, and neighbor Charlie King and Frank’s brothers Mike and Vic were there to help out, too.
‘I come every year,’ Vic said. ‘This was the first year my combine went down. It’s a Massey. Last year, it was running circles around everybody. I started bragging and said I want that Massey, and then the feeder house went out on me and Roger blew by me with a smile.’
Roger, by then driving the hay baler, got in a dig. ‘I was driving my 720,’ he said. ‘John Deere is just the best.’
Frank smiled and noted that without the help of his friends and neighbors, his annual combine party couldn’t possibly be staged.
After the wheat was harvested, Frank’s Oliver 100 baler with a Wisconsin V-4 engine was used to bale the straw. Like many items in his collection, the baler was another piece of equipment he couldn’t resist.
‘The baler is an early 1950s model,’ he said. ‘I went to a sale and the baler was setting there, and the auctioneer said he was going to sell the motor off of it. It went for $40, and the baler for $30. I bid against a guy with a cutting torch in his hands.’
Once the straw was baled, the bales had to be picked up and put on the sled for transport to the barn – a job for the young, and Frank’s son Chris turned out to be the star of the baling team. His Uncle Vic watched with approval. ‘You have just got to know how to do it,’ he said. ‘You have got to have a technique. Chris can stack higher than any other man I know on a sled.’
The 2001 combine party provided partygoers – young and old – with a wonderful look into the agricultural past and Frank with another opportunity to enjoy his hobby.
‘Nobody collected combines,’ he said. ‘I was just keeping people from getting the combines to the cutting torches. Some people get their $5,000 boats, and I have my $10 combines and I’m having just as much fun. Memories are the real reason a person does anything.’
Cindy Ladage lives in Virden, Illl., and is frequent contributor to Farm Collector.