A Perfect Pair: Gleaner’s Combines and Fordson Tractors

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Sam MooreSam Moore
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The cover of a 1921 manual
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Top-view patent drawing of the Gleaner harvester
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 Gleaner self-propelled harvester-thresher

Gleaner’s combines and Fordson tractors made the perfect combination

The famous Fordson tractor is credited with bringing mechanical power to thousands of farms thanks to its low selling price, and was known as ‘the poor man’s tractor.’ Despite the fact that Fordsons were difficult to start, had no governor or brakes and an often-fatal tendency to flip backward, a whopping 739,977 Fordsons were sold during their 10 years of U.S. production, mainly because they were cheap and farmers trusted Henry Ford.

Yet, Ford built no implements to go with his best-selling tractor. As a result, hundreds of farm equipment manufacturers filled that void and designed a variety of accessories and attachments specifically used by Fordsons. One catalog published in 1928 by Bateman Bros, of Philadelphia, Pa. – a distribution house for farm implements and supplies – describes some of the implements a farmer could buy for his Fordson. The catalog includes a mounted corn picker and a potato digger, as well as a row-crop cultivating attachment for the Fordson. The most interesting implement mentioned is the Gleaner self-propelled harvester-thresher, built exclusively for Henry’s little wonder.

A Gleaner glimmer

Gleaner combines were developed by the Baldwin brothers, Curtis, George and Ernest, although Curtis was the oldest and seems to have been the brains behind the enterprise.

Curtis C. Baldwin was born in 1888, and grew up in a sod house in the wheat country of western Kansas. During the hot summers of his boyhood, Baldwin pitched wheat sheaves into a threshing machine from dawn to dusk and grew sick of the unending toil. He later said he decided, ‘A machine that could make this drudgery unnecessary would be a blessing, and I was fired with ambition to build such a machine.’

Baldwin patented his first ‘Standing Grain Thresher’ in 1911. The machine was pushed through standing grain by four horses and was powered by a small gasoline engine. The Standing Grain Thresher stripped the grain heads from the stalks and used an air blast to force the grain heads into a threshing cylinder.

That same year, Curtis and his brothers formed the Baldwin Co. in Nickerson, Kan., to build the machines. About 100 of the harvesters were sold, but farmers later learned the machine couldn’t handle weedy or downed crops, and grain loss at the stripper drum was excessive. Curtis worked at improving the machine but left the company in 1918. He joined the Savage Harvester Co. of Denver, where he developed a combine to mount on the Savage tractor. The Savage enterprise failed, and Curtis then briefly worked for the Advance-Rumely Thresher Co., LaPorte, Ind.

Focus on Fordson

Meanwhile, Curtis’ brothers teamed up with partner Clarence Stevens and designed a harvester built around the Fordson tractor. The first machine was built at Wichita, Kan., and worked well during the 1923 harvest season. The Gleaner Mfg. Co. trademark was registered in April 1924, and a U.S. patent was filed in December 1924 for a ‘combined harvester, thrasher and separator’ to be mounted on a Fordson.

The four or five harvesters built during 1924 were sold, but one was used as a demonstrator model, and was well received as it traveled to farms across more than 1,000 miles of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Since the new Gleaner Mfg. Co. had no factory facility, the firm contracted with Butler Mfg. Co., a Kansas City, Mo., firm, to build 100 harvesters in 1925. So many orders – with cash deposits – were taken at the Wichita Farm Show in February 1925, that the contract was doubled. All 200 machines built for that year’s harvest were sold in no time.

By August 1925, the Baldwins bought a plant in Independence, Mo., and convinced Curtis to return to the fold, after which he designed a 10-foot pull-type combine dubbed the ‘Baldwin Gleaner.’ Five hundred Gleaner and 1,050 Baldwin Gleaner harvesters were built by 1927, and more than $1.2 million worth of the machines were sold that year.

However, just one year later, Henry Ford ceased Fordson tractor production in the U.S., and the market for the Fordson-mounted Gleaner combines dried up. The company stopped making the mounted harvester in 1928, but continued to prosper with its pull-type machines.

About 1928, Curtis again left Gleaner and started building Curtis combines at Ottawa, Kan. During the 1930s, he worked on developing a rotary, tractor-mounted combine that featured centrifugal grain threshing and separation. During the 1950s, sources say Curtis spent his time working on an alfalfa wafering machine. Curtis Baldwin’s tinkering days ended when he died April 19, 1960.

After Curtis left the company, Gleaner developed the first corn head for a combine and had a banner year in 1929, but the Great Depression hit hard. Gleaner went into receivership in 1931, and was reorganized as the Gleaner Harvester Corp., which prospered until 1955 when the firm merged with Allis-Chalmers Co.

Today, AGCO Corp. still sells Gleaner combines with up to 30-foot headers and 330-hp diesel engines, a far cry from the 8-foot 3-inch cut and 20 hp of the first Gleaner self-propelled machines. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and other related items. Contact Sam by e-mail: letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com

A Gleaner at a glance

The Gleaner self-propelled harvester-thresher was mounted on a Fordson\tractor, and driven by a shaft connected to the tractor’s belt pulley drive. The combine head cut an 8-foot 3-inch swath, which meant the combine harvested 1 acre for each mile the machine traveled. Fordsons could travel about 3 mph in second gear, so about 30 acres , could be harvested in a 10-hour day if conditions were favorable.

Cut grain was carried into the rasp bar cylinder by a spiral auger behind the cutter bar, a feature that didn’t come into general use on small combines for another 25 years. The Gleaner is usually pictured with an attached grain bin, but one patent drawing shows a bagging attachment and a seat for the bagger.

Gleaner offered several accessories to make the Fordson perform better with the combine attachment. Extensions to raise both the steering wheel and the seat gave the driver a better view over the header, and got him above some of the dirt and dust. An auxiliary water tank mounted above the hood and radiator increased the tractor’s cooling capacity. The ‘Camel Clenair’ attachment consisted of a long, vertical air intake pipe, complete with cloth filter, to draw clean air into the engine from above the dust zone, while a long, vertical exhaust pipe helped eliminate fire hazards.

The 1928 Bateman Bros. catalog listed the Gleaner self-propelled harvester-thresher at $960 complete (less the tractor), with a net price (perhaps a dealer discount) of $800. In contrast, a Gleaner Baldwin 10-foot pull-type, with a Model T Ford engine, sold for $1,290 or $1,075 net. A six-horse hitch cost an extra $18.

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