Allen Jacobson, Tolley, North Dakota, discovered this article in a 1950 issue of the Renville County Farmer in Mohall, North Dakota, and shared it with us. Written by Gail Compton, then agricultural editor of the Chicago Tribune, the article captures the rhythms and routines of custom combining in the years immediately following World War II.
“Caution next mile, Hammtown combine caravan.”
That sign on the back of a big lumbering truck poking down the highway in the heart of the wheat belt is likely to be your first glimpse of “Hammtown,” the self-contained traveling harvest city with a population of 23.
Then for the next mile along the highway will be strung a strange assortment of grain trucks, huge self-propelled Massey-Harris combines, sleeping and dining trailers, and an assortment of gasoline and water trucks and other trailers.
This unique organization plays a vital role in the harvest of the nation’s vast wheat fields. Working through the gigantic wheat belt which stretches from Texas to Canada through the middle of the nation, Hammtown is typical of America’s ingenuity in getting its crop harvested.
To get the millions of acres of wheat harvested in the grain belt would be impossible without the aid of the traveling combines. Farmer-owned and -operated, these machines start in Texas in May and work up to the Canadian border cutting wheat for farmers at so much per acre or per bushel. Most of the farmers who run the custom combines have farms and crops of their own which they leave to take part in this well-paid job of threshing the country’s wheat.
Massey-Harris credited with industrialized approach to custom combining
Before the war, the job of custom combining the thousands of miles of golden grain was a haphazard hit-or-miss proposition. Fly-by-night combine operators who sometimes did a good job and more often a poor one traveled the wheat circuit. Then, in 1944, Massey-Harris evolved the unusual plan of organizing the work and put onto the road the great “Harvest Brigade” consisting of hundreds of machines.
The urgent need for wheat to feed our armies and our allies made it imperative the nation’s wheat be harvested on time and properly. The Massey-Harris combines set a high standard during 1944-’45 that wheat farmers have come to accept as normal and the job of custom combining has moved from the realm of casualness into the field of big business with millions of dollars involved.
More than 20,000 combines are traveling the wheat circuit each year and well over 30 percent of them are Massey-Harris machines. Proved under the most arduous and grueling test of months of continual top-notch performances, the Massey-Harris combines have come to be a symbol to the nation’s wheat farmers of perfect harvest.
Hammtown is the invention of N.R. Hamm of Perry, Kansas. A genial slight man of 36, Hamm fell into the business of custom combining in the most natural fashion in the world. To harvest the wheat on his own farm near Perry, Hamm bought a combine. He soon found himself doing a little cutting for his neighbors. Then it was a quick step to cutting a few acres in the adjoining county. From here it was only natural that Hamm should decide to try the wheat circuit and in 1940 headed down into Texas with his one machine to cut wheat. From his modest start, Hammtown now numbers eight combines.
Low trailers were built by Hamm to carry the Massey-Harris combines on the highway. To tow the trailers and also haul grain from the field to the elevator, Hamm has 10 big grain trucks. In addition to these, there is a gasoline truck, a pickup truck, a 500-gallon water truck and a maintenance truck which carries a complete line of repair parts and is equipped with everything from electric drills to welding outfits.
To care for the population of Hamm- town there are two large sleeping trailers, each of which will bunk 10 men. Then there is a dining trailer with two butane cookstoves, iceboxes, table room to feed 30 men and bunk space for the cook and her husband.
To make life more comfortable, there is a recreational trailer, or smoker, which is equipped with a shower with hot and cold water, a washing machine so the crew can keep their clothes clean, and space for card games.
Traveling the circuit, from Texas to the Canadian border
Hammtown starts its trek in May when it travels down to Texas to begin the wheat harvest. From there on, it’s Hammtown, Kansas, during June; Hammtown, Nebraska, during July; and so on up through the Dakotas, Montana or Wyoming and on to the Canadian border. By the time Hammtown finally returns to Perry, Kansas, in September, it has traveled more than 6,000 miles.
During the harvest period, Hammtown will combine between 16,000 and 20,000 acres of wheat or well over 400,000 bushels of grain.
Hammtown is a welcome sight along the wheat circuit, for the farmers not only appreciate the good job the outfit does in harvesting but also because the Hammtown crew is a clean-cut, good appearing and intelligent group of young men.
The old-fashioned picture of the itinerant harvest hand as a rough, brawling, hard-drinking man has faded. The typical harvester of today is young, often a college man, and well trained.
The present day combine operators must do a good job to stay in business. Should an outfit fail to cut cleanly and satisfy the farmer, it will not be hired back again. Competition is keen and it is for this reason that so many operators choose the Massey-Harris combines when following the wheat circuit, as they demand the best performance possible.
Advance man sold on Massey-Harris
Business manager and advance man is George Martin of Atchison, Kansas, who leaves his own farm each year to handle any headaches Hammtown may develop. Lean, brown and partly bald, Martin will range from 200 to 400 miles ahead of the lumbering caravan, making sure of the harvesting contracts made during the early spring. He selects sites for Hammtown to settle in and checks the farmers’ wheat to see that it is ready for cutting.
Martin does not let Hammtown come to rest until he has at least 2,000 acres of wheat for combining. He finds that once the city has established itself in a locality, it is easy to pick up another 1,000-2,000 acres of work.
“During Hammtown’s existence, we have tried almost every type of combine,” Martin states. “Finally, after exhaustive tests under actual field conditions, we settled on Massey-Harris as the only machine that will fit our needs. We will never get another type, for our self-propelled combines do such an excellent job, whether the wheat is standing straight or on the ground in a tangled mess, that we are able to satisfy the most particular farmer.”
Foreman can “out-run, out-wrestle and out-work anybody in the crew”
Responsibility for keeping the crew working and getting the job done right rests with husky, smooth-faced Mason Brunton who carries the title of foreman or superintendent. During the months when Hammtown is idle, Brunton tends to his regular job as superintendent of schools at Perry, Kansas. His training in handling boys and young men comes in handy as Hammtown’s workers are young men from 12 to 27 years old, and a good proportion of them are college men.
Brunton has no trouble enforcing Hammtown’s rules, the most strict of which is no drinking. The reason for this is that Brunton can out-run, out-wrestle and out-work anybody in the crew and his word commands respect. The only other rules Brunton expects his workers to follow are cleanliness and decency to the rest of the crew.
His men are hand-picked for their intelligence and ability to get along with one another. They are chosen from the more than 200 applications Brunton gets each spring from men anxious to join the now-famous caravan. As a result of this careful selecting, there is almost a negligible turnover during the summer in the Hammtown population.
An army marches on its stomach
The most important personage in Hammtown is its only woman — plump, smiling Mrs. Winnie Peterson, the cook. Enthroned in her comfortable dining trailer, she cooks 23 meals for hungry threshers three times a day. This is a chore that most farm wives would shudder over, but to Winnie, it’s a lot of fun to watch her “boys” tuck away 12 pounds of meat and a peck of potatoes every noon and night.
The trailer is home to her for she and her husband, a combine driver, share comfortable quarters in the rear of the diner.
“Mayor” of Hammtown is handyman Gyp Gardner, who takes care of the trailers, hauls water for Winnie, and generally makes himself useful. Gyp spends his spare time with “Texas Mary,” a half-wild collie pup he found running the Texas plains. It took him two weeks to get the pup to come to him but now it is a part of the Hammtown scenery and gets a disgraceful amount of attention from the boys in the crew.
What does Hammtown (Pop. 23) mean to you? Of course, Hammtown is a big harvest operation … yet their harvesting problems are the same as yours. Each of those big Massey-Harris combines saves grain, saves time, saves fuel and labor for its owner. And a Massey-Harris combine will do the same for you on your farm. When you own the combine … you pocket the savings. Big acreage or small — there’s a Massey-Harris suited to your operations.
— from a 1950 Massey-Harris
College students, young veterans make up a diverse crew
The crew of Hammtown is an impressive group to the farmer who once was accustomed to dealing with average itinerant harvest hands, many of whom were unshaven, untutored and took little pride in their work.
Driving the lead truck and setting the pace as the outfit moves from job to job is Herman Jantz, an Oklahoma A&M student who has been part of Hammtown since 1936. Jantz operates the No. 1 combine and is the first man in the field in the morning.
A typical combine operator is handsome, 27-year-old Jack Bowers. A former 1st lieutenant in the army for more than two years, Jack is financing his way through Virginia Polytechnical Institute, after finishing a year at the well-known Berea College in Kentucky.
It is not unusual to find Jack sitting in his bunk after a day in the wheat fields, studying mathematics. Other workers sprawled in nearby bunks may be reading philosophy or studying American history.
A fellow combine driver with Jack is Dale Wood, 27, from Hoxie, Kansas. Dale served overseas during the war as a pilot of a P51, flying more than the 25 missions required. Now Dale feels quite at home sitting in the high seat of the combine surrounded by metal, rumbling down the field. It makes him feel like he is back in his old pilot seat on his fighter, he claims.
Hammtown mechanic never rests
Those in the crew who do not drive combines have the job of handling the grain trucks. These usually are the younger men, from 19 to 25. They pull the trucks up to the combines while the machines empty their 45-bushel bins into the truck. When the truck is filled, they drive fast for the grain elevator in town, dump the load and return for a refill.
The crew is not paid until the end of the season, but they can draw money against their salary any time they wish. Most of the boys, according to Brunton, bring a few dollars with them for cigarettes, magazines and an occasional movie, and never touch their pay until the end of the harvest. Thus, savings of from $1,000 to $1,500 are not uncommon. The college men in the crew insist it’s the best-paid summer job in the world.
To keep the combines rolling in the field with a minimum amount of delay is the responsibility of grizzled-haired Floyd Crews, Hammtown mechanic. Crews, early in the morning, wheels his mobile garage out to the wheat fields and parks there the rest of the day servicing the machines when they roll up to him for lubrication and maintenance. His traveling machine shop is completely equipped for any emergency.
Replacing dull cutting bars, cleaning a motor and a hundred other odd tasks are all part of a day’s work for Crews. “Don’t forget the beating these machines take running day after day, month after month, with scarcely any let-up,” he says. “I don’t know any other combine that can equal the performance we get from these Massey-Harris machines. They’re really tough.”
Crew scatters in the off-season
In a normal work day, the combines will harvest from 300 to 500 acres of wheat. Hammtown trucks and combines will burn 500 gallons of gasoline during one day and use about 250 gallons of water. Work continues until about 8:30 or 9 p.m. if the weather is good. Then it’s a quick shower and a big supper. After eating, the boys expend what little energy they have left wrestling, talking, reading or writing home.
In the fall when Hammtown arrives back in Perry, the whole crew disbands. Some of the workers go to other farm jobs, many return to school, and some go to work for Hamm at his sideline of road contracting or custom corn husking.
Before the men know it, however, January rolls around and it’s time for Hamm, Martin and Brunton to start planning for the new harvest season. Then in May, Hammtown is off on the highway again, traveling along at 35mph, on its way to perform a vital part in harvesting the nation’s wheat crop. FC