Threshing with the Old Rumely

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Far left: An early-day threshing rig near Wiota, Iowa. At far left: John Tibken Jr., one of the owners of the rig (a 20-40 Rumely and Nichols & Shepard Red River Special 32-inch-by-56-inch threshing machine) shown at back. The identities of the other two men shown are not known. The photo dates to about 1927.
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Right: Hauling away the 20-40 Rumely in 1948. “My granddad and uncles, John Tibken Jr. and William Tibken, decided to sell the old Rumely for scrap,” recalls Hubert Porter. “They cranked it up in the shed and ran it up on to the truck. The top had to be cut off because it was too high to run down the highway.”

In the early 1920s, promotional materials for
the Rumely OilPull were wide-eyed with wonder at the machine’s
technology. “They said Rumelys were made of the finest materials
and the featured the finest machining available at the time,”
recalls Hubert K. Porter, Atlantic, Iowa. “They also said they
didn’t know how long the Rumely would last, because they had been
building them since 1913 and hadn’t had trouble with any of them
yet.” It was a tone that suggested the machines might last for
decades.

Advancing technology, however, fast made the Rumely obsolete. In
1921, Hubert’s grandfather and uncles (John Tibken Sr., John Tibken
Jr. and William Tibken) traded an old steam engine for their Rumely
20-40. Just 27 years later, as combines gained increasing
acceptance in the post-war years, the cherished Rumely was sold for
scrap.

Hubert cut his mechanical teeth on the family Rumely. “I was
always tinkering and mechanical minded, so the old Rumely was kind
of my pride and joy as a kid,” he says. “I used to sit on it and
admire it. Finally, I did get to run it some when I was a little
older. I was pretty proud of that.”

He recalls the Rumely’s mechanical innovations, impressive in
their day. “It had three carburetors: One for gas to start, one for
kerosene and one for water.” The kerosene and water carburetors
were made without floats and needle valves. The pumps continuously
pumped water and kerosene. The levels in the bowls for each were
maintained by overflow pipes, which drained back into the
tanks.

A one-gallon tank of gas on the left fender was used to start
the engine. “You had to pump the gas up to the carburetor by hand
and fill the left carburetor that was used to start the Rumely,” he
says. “The other two tanks, the water and the kerosene, had
mechanical pumps down off the end of the camshaft. One pump would
pump water and the other kerosene up to the carburetor. It had
something new or different, I guess. The kerosene pump would pump
kerosene up around the right exhaust pipe through a heat exchanger.
The kerosene that went to the carburetor was hot. Hot kerosene is
just about as volatile as gasoline. I guess that was one of the
reasons the Rumely ran so good and lasted so long.”

The Rumely had a drip oiling system. “It had a pump that sat
high above the engine. And it had a lever that ran to the
camshaft.” The system dripped fresh oil into pipes running to every
bearing and cylinder. Advance Rumely Co. literature stated that the
OilPull was an engine that would have fresh oil all the time and
never need an oil change. “After it ran a thresher for an hour or
two, there was always a puddle of oil under the engine,” Hubert
recalls. “A little bit of oil dripped out of the crankcase all the
time it was running. When the Rumely came out, I think it had an
oil plug in it. You were supposed to take the plug out and drain it
every day or two, but Uncle John and Uncle Bill had the plug
unscrewed and just let it run on the ground.”

The carburetors were unique as well, Hubert says. Each had its
own metering valve, which needed constant adjustment according to
the load. In newer vehicles, he notes, metering valves are
automatic. “But the carburetor valves on the Rumely were manually
screwed in and out. It took an engineer to know what the engine
needed, and he had to continually adjust the valves on the water
and kerosene to make the engine pull. If the metering valves were
not adjusted correctly, the engine would have no power.”

Another thing the engineer couldn’t overlook: Water had to be
added to the hot kerosene before it burned. If that wasn’t done,
Hubert says, the hot kerosene would pre-ignite and the engine
wouldn’t run properly. In fact, the engine used almost as much
water as it did kerosene. When the water was mixed with kerosene in
the cylinders, it turned to steam. Accordingly, he says, the engine
always burned clean and carbon-free and had plenty of power.

The water also required constant adjustment. If the engine was
under a heavy load for some time and needed to be clutched out, the
water had to be turned off immediately. If it wasn’t, there would
be so much steam in the cylinder that it would condense on the
spark plugs, causing them to short out. The engine would then coast
a few turns and fill the exhaust pipe with hot gas. “All of a
sudden you’d hear a loud ‘kaboom!’ The gas would explode in the
exhaust pipe just like a stick of dynamite,” Hubert says.
“Occasionally Uncle Bill would do that to be ornery, scaring the
horses and everyone nearby.”

When you clutched the engine back in after it had been sitting
for a while, he adds, you had to remember to turn on the water.
“The minute you pushed in the clutch without water, it would rattle
and ping, just like a modern car filled with bad gas. When you
turned on the water, the noises went away.”

The cooling system on the Rumely was filled with oil circulated
by a pump on the engine. There was no need for antifreeze to keep
the engine from freezing in cold weather: In fact, that was one of
the company’s promotional claims. “The oil looked really black,
almost like crude oil,” Hubert says, “but it kept the engine
cool.”

“Most of the farmers in our neighborhood, probably 10 to 15 of
them, worked together at threshing time,” Hubert says. “It is hard
for people nowadays to understand how people once worked together.
I think it’s a lot different now.”

The Rumely played an important role in Hubert’s family’s
threshing operation. Hubert’s grandfather and uncles initially used
an old wooden Avery threshing machine, but traded it for a Nichols
& Shepard Red River Special in 1923, two years after buying the
OilPull. The Nichols & Shepard was an all-metal machine with
roller bearings on all the fast-moving shafts. “It was really
something in its time,” Hubert recalls. “They used the outfit every
year until 1947, when combines became available after World War
II.”

The days of the community threshing, though irretrievably lost,
remain a unique element in the American agriculture tradition.
“Most of the farmers in our neighborhood, probably 10 to 15 of
them, worked together at threshing time,” Hubert says. “It is hard
for people nowadays to understand how people once worked together.
I think it’s a lot different now.”

In those days, threshing was more a season than an activity.
“Back in the early days, I think my granddad’s outfit ran most of
the fall,” Hubert recalls. “Some farmers, however, stacked their
grain in big piles to be threshed later. They believed the grain
would ‘sweat’ in those piles, making better oats and wheat. In the
winter, when the rest of the threshing was done, the threshers
would go in and pull up to one of those big stacks and thresh it
out. It was a pretty common practice in those days.

“My granddad was an old die-hard thresher man. He looked at the
newer combines and said ‘Them combines will never work in this
hilly country!’ I wish he could see them now. I think the big
combines of today get the harvesting done in a couple of days. In
the days of the old Rumely, though, threshing lasted several weeks,
maybe longer if there was much rain. Threshing was always a time of
hard work, but everyone enjoyed it (and the wonderful home-cooked
meals served to the crews!). Those who were lucky enough to be a
part of it never forgot the experience.”

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