Spend a day with Paul Cummings and it’s obvious he knows his vintage farm equipment. In fact, Paul has memorized nearly all the serial numbers from his 62 antique tractors, and a quick glance at a random machine part is all he needs to identify the piece.
Many of Paul’s collected machinery have stories. Some are rare models of antique International Harvester Farmall, McCormick and John Deere tractors and equipment, and most are restored to their original shine.
‘If these tractors could talk, they’d have some great stories,’ Paul says.
Perhaps Paul’s most unique collectible is an 1890 McCormick Daisy folding reaper, a machine used to cut and bind grain into shocks for separation of the seeds from chaff. Paul and his wife’s uncle found the reaper while on an old-iron ‘treasure hunt.’ After hitting several sales in one day, their journey ended at a barn in Colony, Kan. Inside, they found the reaper disassembled, but in pristine condition. The owner had planned to restore the reaper, but didn’t have the time. Even though it was in near-pristine condition, Paul says they got a good deal and brought it home on a flatbed trailer in April 2000.
‘It’s only been off the trailer twice since I brought it home,’ Paul says of the unusual find.
Paul began collecting antique farm equipment in 1992, and stores the treasurers on his farm in Amsterdam, Mo. He bought his first vintage machine – a Farmall F-12 tractor – at a salvage yard, and has been collecting since. Today, Paul serves as vice president of the IH Collectors Missouri State Chapter.
‘Once you get one, it gets in your blood,’ Paul admits. ‘But my shed is getting full, so I’m getting more particular about what I buy.’
A royal reaper
Dubbed ‘Queen of the Reapers,’ by farmers who found it superior to other reapers, the McCormick Harvesting Co. produced Daisy reapers from 1890 to 1905. It was invented by Cyrus McCormick and was a culmination of the first McCormick ‘Virginia’ reaper and later McCormick models (see ‘A Reaper Revolution’ on page 26).
Early reapers featured a rake that swept across a wooden platform at regular intervals and gathered grain bundles for later removal. The Daisy version included a platform, but also a bonus feature: an adjustable latch for regulating bundle size. As a result of the new design, a farmer could adjust the speed at which the rakes gathered the grains and still make even-sized shocks when he came to the end of a field or along a timberline where grain tends to grow sparsely.
As its name implies, the long, comb-like rakes on Paul’s Daisy folding reaper can be collapsed to fit through a gate as narrow as 5 or 6 feet wide. Although it appears cumbersome, the machine is quite balanced and easy to maneuver when folded, Paul says. The smaller wheel under the platform changes positions when the machine is folded so it still rolls, and a flip-down jack under the center shaft supports the reaper when flat.
The operator’s seat is situated outside the drive wheel to improve traction, and can also be folded away when passing through narrow gates. Traditionally, the reaper also included a 13-foot tongue for attachment to a team of two horses or mules, but Paul kept his restored tongue short for more convenient moving and storage.
‘It wouldn’t have been too heavy a load for a team to pull,’ he says of the Daisy reaper.
An (almost) painless process
The Daisy reaper required little restoration. All its components were accounted for and showed little wear, despite its age. As a result, Paul only had to replace a few wooden cross-pieces on the platform’s bottom. Like many old-iron restorers, Paul obtained his resources close to home. The local sawmill cut 3/8-inch lumber to replace the original cross-pieces, but had to specially configure its saws to cut the wood to the proper dimension.
Paul also built two replacement parts: The rods that hold the grain shield and a metal rod to hold the machine together when it’s folded. Fortunately, the rakes still had the original McCormick logo imprints on them and only needed cleaning.
‘You don’t find these every day, especially in this good of condition,’ Paul says.
To determine the proper color scheme and the machine’s place in agricultural history, Paul sought help from Lee Grady, curator of the McCormick-International Harvesters Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society, housed on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. Paul also used color pictures from a 1902 brochure and the book 150 Years of International Harvester by C.H.Wendel to reassemble the dismantled reaper. Neighbors helped paint the machine to restore its original red, white and blue glory.
Assembling a complex implement just by looking at pictures may sound difficult, but Paul says practice makes perfect: He has 20 years of machinery experience from his profession as a pipe fitter, and 10 years experience in farm equipment restoration after he retired.
‘After working with machines for that long,’ Paul explains, ‘you just figure out how things are supposed to fit together.’
Shortly after Paul began the reaper restoration, he discovered he was under an unexpected dead-line to finish the project. ‘The president of my International Harvesters group came by and showed me an announcement he had put in our newsletter that I was showing the reaper at a show coming up,’ Paul says. ‘So I knew I had better get busy.’
After that realization, Paul devoted four weeks of night-and-day work to the project. He started the restoration alone, but a neighbor offered to help after discovering Paul’s approaching deadline.
Although the restoration work was fairly easy for an experienced collector like Paul, he encountered two difficulties along the way. First, he had trouble finding square-head nuts to attach various joints, because most hardware stores only sell hex-head nuts and bolts. Paul managed to find a few square-heads, but finally gave up looking for consistent-looking parts and used a few hex nuts.
The second difficulty came when Paul discovered the center shaft bearings were stuck, and the rakes wouldn’t turn. This problem was a bit more pressing than the lack of proper hex-heads, because the rotating rakes were central to the machine’s operation. More importantly, the farm show at which the machine was scheduled to debut was only five days away. To top it off, the center shaft was made from cast iron, which can crack or break when exposed to excessive heat or cold during repair.
Paul’s neighbor and restoration assistant came up with an idea: Use a flame weeder to heat the center shaft’s metal enough to loosen it and allow it to turn freely. Luckily, the trick worked like a charm. Unlike other hot wrenches, a weeder’s flame is cool and broad, so it evenly and slowly heated the cast iron parts. After half an hour of well-placed fire from the flame weeder, the shaft finally began to turn, Paul says.
Overall, Paul says he was very pleased with the restored Daisy reaper. Paul even added his own splash of personality to the machine’s look: He painted the IH Collectors logo and attached an acorn-shaped handle on the built-in toolbox.
Paul is no stranger to farm equipment. He grew up with six brothers and sisters and drove a tractor on his father’s farm in Bates County, Mo. Paul still has the only tractor his father owned, a 1939 Ford Ferguson tractor, serial No. 1310, which he restored and painted solid gray. ‘I spent many hours on it,’ Paul recalls.
Paul’s family supports his collecting hobby. His 17-year-old grandson, Billy, has an interest in old iron and helps him with projects, and his wife, Kay, accompanies him to farm shows. After so many years in the hobby, Paul offers advice for collectors just starting out: Collect smaller equipment. Such pieces are easier to move around and restore, Paul adds.
Paul also displays a small hand scythe and a wooden hay cradle to compliment the Daisy reaper at shows to further demonstrate the historical tools used to harvest grains. The cradle is a hand-held predecessor of the mechanical reaper. Paul bought it in 2000 at an auction in Stillwell, Kan., for $65.
Another piece of McCormick history in Paul’s collection is his 1924 McCormick row-crop tractor, serial No. QC529. Like Paul’s Daisy reaper, the tractor’s history is unique. Burt Benjamin, a McCormick employee, convinced the company to manufacture the tractors, but only allowed Benjamin to produce 200 tractors – all by hand. Because the machines were built entirely by hand, Paul says, they would’ve been priced at $825 each, a steep price for almost anyone at the time, especially farmers. Paul owns the 29th tractor built, No. 529, which somehow ended up at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Researchers there used the machine for tractor research on a 70-acre test plot.
‘This tractor went to college,’ Paul proudly declares about the McCormick machine.
Paul sometimes gives tours of his collection to visitors, but warns that not all of his restoration projects are finished. ‘I’m a one-man operation, and I haven’t gotten to everything yet,’ Paul says. Even without enough free time, he works on his collection whenever he gets the chance. ‘I don’t make any money, but I sure do have a lot of fun.’
– Lindsey Model is a freelance writer who shares a passion for preserving land and farm heritage. You can contact her by e-mail at email@example.com