Chapter 2 Section F
I've often thought about all the various crops my Dad raised, or tried
to raise, on our Kansas farms. He tried hard to follow the best advice
he could get from the Farm Bureau, the County Farm Agents and his own reading.
Through the years he planted wheat, sweet corn, field corn, milo, kafir,
oats, barley, alfalfa, sugar beets, sugar cane, sedan grass, watermelons,
cantaloupes, peonies, and probably other things I have forgotten. Peonies
were popular flowers for Decoration Day and did bring in some ready cash,
but they also required lots of work by the entire family. Some years weather
conditions were right and crops were good. However, in too many years,
either the crops were poor or prices were low. Nothing stopped my parents
from trying again and again, and both of them would tell you they would
never trade farm life for city life with an eight-to-five job.
When I was very young, there were still about forty acres of native grass that Dad used as pasture land for his animals. We called it buffalo grass. It was our last remnant of the Kansas plain. I hated to see it plowed up. Helen and I liked to play in that pasture in the early twenties and dream of real pioneer days where the buffalo roamed. Their wallows were still there as dents in the grass. I would imagine seeing those big animals rolling around in the dirt and dust to rid themselves of flies.
"Dad, why did you plow up that pasture? Now we don't have any pasture left at all. Our buffalo grass and the buffalo wallows are all gone!"
"That 40-acre pasture was worn out," he said. "The alfalfa I will replace it with will produce more and better food for livestock."
Of course I had to accept his decision, but it made me sad. That pasture had given Helen and me lots of good times.
If one of us happened to spy some prairie dogs, we'd caution, "Sh!" We'd have to be very quiet and keep our distance. They looked so cute standing erect on their hind legs on the edge of their mounds. Since they were always on the lookout for any signs of danger, we were never able to get very close before they darted into their holes.
Helen and I thought all the prairie dog "towns" in our pasture were really neat things, but Dad had other ideas.
"Those little guys are pests and sure death to the corn crop," he explained to us. "It will be good to get rid of them."
One pleasure Helen and I especially enjoyed after a good rain was walking through the grass before the water had soaked into the ground. The water would be clear and quiet, just like a glass mirror. We could see ourselves in it. Many times we would even bend down and drink it.
Looking back, I have to agree with Dad. That patch of buffalo grass,
with its buffalo wallows and prairie dogs, wasn't a very profitable crop,
if it could be called a crop at all.
In our part of Kansas, wheat was the principal farm crop. The Mennonites who immigrated from Russia had introduced hard winter wheat to Kansas. I learned about that when I attended Bethel, which was a Mennonite College. That new wheat was great for grinding into flour, and it made Kansas worthy of its motto, "Kansas Grows the Best Wheat in the World."
The annual Kansas State Fair made big "hay" over that motto. Farmers throughout the state submitted wheat samples and lovely heads of wheat to have them judged.
Growing and harvesting a good wheat crop wasn't as easy as it might
seem to the city folk who saw those state fair displays. I'm sure it's
still not an easy job even today with all the modern equipment, such as
air-conditioned tractors and combines. However, when I was a kid, it entailed
many more hours of hard labor. The farmer had to have two or three teams
of horses and an array of implements. Farmers in an area often shared their
time and labor, and their horses and equipment, moving from one farm to
another as the need arose. As a child I was always fascinated with all
the various farm implements and how they worked.
As soon as possible after Dad's wheat crop was harvested, he'd plan to plow under the stubble. When I was very small, before we had a tractor, I remember Dad using the horse-drawn three-bottom riding plow for this job. He thought it was quite an improvement over the one- bottom walking plows he and his father had used. He told me how they used to work together side-by-side, each with a one-bottom plow, so they could get the job done twice as fast. Even then it took hour upon hour to cover 80 acres of ground.
As Dad would describe the operation to me, I'd try to imagine my operating my own plow along with him. I wonder if his father had to keep prodding him along. I'm sure my Dad would have had to do that with me as I know how bored I got going around and around fields even with the tractor.
Those old share or mold plows were simple instruments that turned the soil completely over. The usual rule of thumb was that it took one horse to pull a one-bottom plow, two horses for a two-bottom plow, three horses for three-bottom plow, and so on. The term "bottom" refers to the cutting share on the plow. Those with several plows attached together were called gang-plows.
I had some experience with the one-bottom plow. Dad had both a riding and a walking single plow. These were used for small jobs, such as plowing the garden plot. Despite my "rule of thumb" rule mentioned above, we would use two horses to pull our single or one-bottom plow. It was still a difficult job to guide that plow and keep the horses going in a straight line.
There was a problem connected to using any plow. It could go only one direction. After years of being plowed, the soil would gradually be moved from the center to the fence row. Soon there was a ditch right in the center of the field that always trapped water after a rain. Likewise, the fence row had too much dirt, and that was trouble.
Then came the "flip-flop" plow. Rather than going around and around, the farmer could go back and forth across the field with this plow. It was an interesting plow. It had both a left-hand and a right- hand cutting share, one on top of the other. At the end of the field, the operator would turn his horses around, pull a lever causing the plow to do a "flip-flop," and go back the other direction.
Inventors almost went crazy trying to invent better ways to turn the
soil and keep a level field. When irrigation came into its own, keeping
the field level was mandatory. Even before irrigation, it was necessary
to keep rain puddles from forming.
Fall Wheat Planting
After the wheat had been harvested and the fields had been plowed, some type of implement, such as a disc or harrow, is needed to kill weeds and volunteer wheat. After a few rains, the fields are green with these unwanted plants if the farmer hasn't done his job properly. Because weeds sap the soil water and volunteer wheat doesn't produce a good crop, the farmer has the continuous job of keeping his fields clean. After the field is clean and the rains come, a hard crust forms. That, too, must be broken with disc or harrow.
Of course, keeping the field nice and clean also causes problems. Kansas winds blow the soil and that's a "no-no." I've spent much time trying to keep a field from blowing. I don't want to even think about blowing fields, especially during real dust storms. It's disastrous to lose top soil from farm land.
In the fall, the drill is needed to place the wheat seeds into their little rows. If you are lucky, the drill spouts guiding the grain to the ground will function nicely. But this is not always the case, and Dad had to be on constant alert for clogged spouts. After all, no seed planted, no new plants and no wheat crop.
"Well, the wheat's all in," Dad would say. "Now all we can do is let mother nature take over. If all goes well, in a few days, we'll see those little rows of green wheat blades showing."
Those were always anxious times, waiting for the wheat seeds to awake from their dormant sleep and creep through the warm soil to sunlight.
I once heard my Dad use the word "stooling" when he was discussing the progress of his growing wheat. That word puzzled me.
"What does stooling mean, Dad?" I asked the first chance I had after overhearing his conversation.
"Well, Glenn, there are two kinds of wheat, spring and winter. We grow winter wheat here in Kansas. We plant in the early fall and soon, we hope, that each little grain of wheat will sprout, showing as a single green blade. From that single blade, stooling occurs, that is other blades sprout. When the snow comes and covers the growing wheat, the stooled wheat, that is the sprouts, continue to spread out and the root systems grow underground. With spring, the melting snow will water the plants. Through the warm weather the plants grow and heads of grain form. About July, when the heads are mature and the fields are dry enough, the wheat can be harvested."
After Dad gave me that explanation, he continued to explain all the risks involved in having a good wheat crop. The grain has to be planted at the right time, when there is some moisture, but not too much to drown the sprouting seeds. If the snow and very cold weather come too early, the tender sprouts may freeze and the field may need to be planted again. If there is not enough rain, the plants will die. If the fields stay too wet, especially at harvest time, the plants may rot. There are also other dangers to threaten the wheat crop, such as fire caused by lightning, wind storms, heavy rain and hail.
Yes, I learned from my Dad that a wheat farmer's life is not all a bed of roses. Of course, the similar risks such as he described apply to all crops.
"Now all we need is a nice little shower and some warm sunshine," Mom would always say after Dad announced that the wheat drilling was done. She was the weather watcher. Actually she never did get over her interest in the weather, even when she visited us in Southern California.
Day after day we'd watch that wheat get taller and more green. Soon we could see the wheat waving in the breeze. The whole field would appear to be moving like a lake of water. It was a beautiful sight. Many times I've watched Mom and Dad, hand in hand, walking around the field, assessing the chances for a good crop.
There were always two other exciting moments for us as the wheat grew.
One was when it began to head out and the other one was when the heads
started to change from the rich green color to a beautiful golden yellow.
By this time, the wheat would be about two or three feet tall. As summer
drew near, the hot sun and dry wind would evaporate the moisture from the
wheat heads. About the first of July, we all knew that harvest time wasn't
I saw Grandpa McMurry use the scythe with a cradle from time to time. I certainly wouldn't want to use one of those hour upon hour to cut wheat. Anything was better than that.
The next improvement over the scythe was the header. This was a massive device that would cut the wheat and either load it into wagons, or just drop it in rows onto the field. In either method, the farmer then had to carefully stack it until threshing time.
To the best of my knowledge, the machines for harvesting wheat weren't invented in a one-two-three order, but rather they developed simultaneously. When Dad heard about the horse-drawn binder, he couldn't believe it really could do what was claimed. However, the claims were really true. Although it was an awkward looking piece of machinery, it worked like magic and became a welcome replacement on our farm for the scythe and the header.
"It's time to get out the binder and be sure it's OK," Dad would warn one day. He knew that the minute the wheat was dry enough and the heads were firm, we had to be ready to harvest it. Knowing exactly when to harvest was an art. The heads had to be firm, but not too dry. If they were too dry, the grains of wheat would shatter and be lost on the ground in the harvesting process.
I can still see Dad and Junior pulling the binder out from its corner in the machine shop. Then, they'd place it in a protected area in the yard where they could inspect every cog, canvas and bearing. Everything had to be ship-shape before heading into that sea of ripe golden wheat.
I can readily understand why horses hated to be hitched to that binder. It was heavy and very hard to pull. Its large center wheel did all the work, both of moving the machine forward down the field, and also furnishing the power to operate the entire binding mechanism. The frame of the large center wheel was attached to a tongue to which the horses were harnessed. Getting it moving was difficult under the best circumstances, but if the ground was even a little wet, starting that big wheel turning was an almost impossible task. There was another smaller wheel out to the left of the driver. It was on the end of the eight or nine foot bar which was fitted with the cutting sickle blades. This wheel served to hold up the cutting mechanism and rotating canvases, and turned the paddle-wheel-like reel that bent the wheat down toward the cutting blades. The cut straws fell on a slatted rotating canvas that moved them across to a pair of canvases. These carried the wheat up over the large wheel and dropped it on the right side of the driver. One of the problems often encountered with the binder was frequent breakage of the straps that held the slats in the rotating canvases. If not taken care of immediately, they would cause the slats to break also. That would make a real mess.
If everything worked right, the straws dropped onto a bed and were pushed toward a bar at the end of this bed. When there were enough straws gathered against this bar, the pressure created caused the binder mechanism to work. What I really remember best about the entire operation was the way that tying device did its job. It was like magic! A large curved needle threaded with twine would dart out and carry the twine over the bundle. The twine was pulled tight around the straws, a knot was tied, the twine was cut and the needle returned to its place. Somehow the needle remained threaded, and the twine would be laid down so it would be under the next bunch of straws as they fell into place. The tied bundle was pushed onto a holder or carrier. When the carrier was full, the person driving the binder tripped a lever and the load would fall onto the ground. The guy that invented that tying arrangement must have gone crazy figuring out how to make it work. For sure, it did work, and it worked well.
I'm sure the horses were happy when tractors came on the scene and could be used in their place to pull binders over the wheat fields.
Dad on the Binder and Aunt Myrtle Driving the Tractor
The next job was to arrange the bundles in shocks, that is, to stand them upon end in a group. Neatly shocked bundles of wheat could stand much bad weather before being hauled off to the thresher.
"It is important that the bundles are gathered together and stacked properly so they will shed the rain," Dad would explain to his hired hands. Since they were sometimes young boys from town who didn't know how to set-up a good shock, Dad would have to teach them.
"Those shocks must stand upright," Dad would explain. "See how I set the first two bundles down. Give them that extra push into the stubble and they will stay right there. Next put down two more bundles opposite those and push them down hard. Then put a nice bundle flat on the top. If you set the first bundles right, you can then stand twenty or more bundles around them and they will stay right there."
One or two hired men who knew how to shock the wheat could easily keep
up with the binder's output. I remember as a little kid watching my Dad
do everything by himself. He would use the binder for a few hours and then
shock until he caught up with it. Also that gave the horses a chance to
When the wheat in the shocks got thoroughly dry in the hot summer sun, it was time to separate the wheat from the straw. Dad then needed to call in the thresing crew. It was a great day for farmers when tractor operated threshers came on the scene. Dad's Uncle Charlie was responsible for getting the local farmers together, including my Dad, to purchase a threshing machine. Chester, one of our neighbors, contributed a large Avery tractor to pull it from farm to farm and provide belt power to run it. Uncle Charlie scheduled the use of the cooperative venture. Again it was time to hope that it didn't rain before it was our turn to get the crew to our farm.
The threshing rig consisted of the threshing machine, the Avery tractor, and three or four teams of horses hitched to large wagons.
"There comes the threshing rig," I would yell excitedly if I heard them coming. "Dad, can I ride on the tractor?" (I'm sure I said "can," not "may.")
Usually, they would stop in the driveway and let me get on. Before we owned our own tractor, a tractor ride was always a thrill.
Dad would show them where to set-up the threshing equipment. It had to be where he wanted his pile of straw to be left.
The threshing machine was a marvel to me. It had scads of pulleys, belts and chains. The Avery tractor engine was the power unit that operated it. The tractor and thresher were connected with a long belt that was about ten inches wide. This belt had to be long enough so the tractor could be thirty or forty feet away from the threshing operation. The operators had to watch for all kinds of problems, such as hot bearings, or broken chains and belts. Fire was always foremost in everyone's mind. One careless match or a spark from the tractor engine that got in that dry straw could cause a disaster. Not only would such a fire spread quickly through all the dry straw in the area, the thresher and tractor, too, would be ruined.
With an extension feeder on the thresher, two hay racks could unload at the same time, one on one side and one on the other. There were always wagons either coming in to be unloaded or heading back to pick up more bundles from the shocks scattered throughout the field. Two or three men were needed for each wagon. In addition, there were the grain wagons to be loaded with the kernels of wheat.
Threshing Crew Loading the Wheat Shocks onto a Wagon
I loved to watch the bundles of wheat as they were unloaded onto the long feeder that moved them to the head of the machine. There those razor-sharp knives would cut the strings and break the bundles apart. Then the wheat would head down into the spinning cylinder which knocked out the kernels, and blew the straw out the back of the thresher.
The straw was blown out through a galvanized pipe about twenty-five feet long and fourteen inches in diameter. There was an adjustable spout on the end of the pipe. It could be moved about so that the straw would be left where Dad wanted it to be. I can still hear him call to me, "Glenn, move that spout. That pile of straw is getting too big."
I liked to watch the straw be blown from the tail of that machine. You know, as I think about it, that outfit reminds me of a monstrous opossum. It had gruesome jaws with sharp teeth, four feet firmly planted on the ground, a long fat belly and a long tail that spouted out the straw.
The thresher was full of shaking sieves and blowers that cleaned the wheat and sent it to the weighing device. Any grains that didn't "pass muster" had to be returned to the spinning cylinder to be banged around again. The grains that were cracked were dropped onto the ground. Dad would have me shovel them up and sack them for chicken feed. If too much cracked wheat began to show up, everything stopped.
"Hold everything," Dad would say with his hands waving. "We have to adjust things. There's too much cracked wheat. We're either running the thresher too fast or the cylinder needs adjusting."
It was fun to watch the fresh kernels of wheat tumble from the thresher into the grain wagon, and it was even more fun to take off my shoes, socks and even my pants sometimes, get in the wagon and let the wheat cover me. I was always amazed how many zillions of grains of wheat would come from the field.
Hour after hour, and sometimes for several days, from morning to night the work went on until every stalk was threshed of its grain. While the threshers were working on your crop, it was your responsibility to furnish their meals. That meant that Mom would need some extra help in the kitchen.
As soon as the threshing crew finished at our farm, they would move on to the next place on their schedule. I was always sorry to see them go.
"Did they have to leave us so soon?" I'd ask.
"That's it, Glenn. We didn't have any oats or barley this year. I expect to have some next year. You'll just have to wait another year for the rig to come back."
Oh, well, I still had plenty of things to do like playing on the new straw pile and trying to suck water through wheat straw stems.
Most of the time the wheat was taken to the elevator right from the threshing machine. If the quality was good, Dad might save enough for next year's seed. If he didn't feel it was premium wheat, all would be sold and he'd buy his seed wheat later.
Sometimes, there would be a bumper harvest, and that would cause a sort
of disaster. When the elevators were full and all available rail cars were
also full, the elevators would shut down. When the farmers had filled all
their bins, the only thing they could do was pile the wheat on the ground
and pray for no rain. Farmers, who were depending upon cash from their
crop, would be in trouble. The banks would have a heyday loaning money
to them so they could pay their bills. Sometimes a bumper crop was almost
as bad as having no wheat at all.
Before telling about other crops on our farm, I must discuss our tractors. Before man invented tractors, the horse was certainly the farmer's best friend. Nevertheless, when tractors began to appear on the farm scene, farmers were eager to exchange their horses for something better. They got their wish, but the replacements certainly brought with them lots of headaches. The early tractors were monsters and caused many problems. They were too big and cumbersome, and were next to impossible to drive in a soft field.
No matter the problems with the early tractors, every farmer was eager to have one. My Dad bought one as soon as he could find the money for it. His first was an Avery like the one used to pull the threshing machine in Uncle Charlie's cooperative scheme.
That old Avery was a perfect example of poor design. To turn it, Dad had to twist a large iron steering wheel with great effort, and no matter how hard he tried, he wasn't sure just where the tractor wheels would go. Shifting from low to high was a marvel of mis-design. In order to shift gears, Dad had to shift the entire engine on its frame.
Dad had hoped to get a tractor that could both pull his farming equipment and also operate his machinery, such as, thresher, corn sheller, grinder and wood saw. Unfortunately, the Avery proved to be a poor unit for pulling the plow and lister from the draw bar. In addition, aligning that beast with the corn grinder or the thresher was an engineering feat. The belt was at least thirty feet long and unless it was set just right it would throw itself off the pulley.
"We're going to have to move that Avery over about six inches," Dad would groan. "Some day I hope I'll learn to align it properly the first time."
Despite the problems the Avery caused, I still liked to watch Dad move it around. I longed for the time I was big enough to operate it, but that time never arrived. Dad soon realized his Avery was too large and heavy for the draw bar. One might say it was just a no-good beast for pulling farm implements. For plowing and preparing wheat land, it was "a dinosaur doomed to extinction."
After his first tractor experience, I'm sure Dad sometimes wondered which caused him more trouble, horses or that tractor. At least he didn't have to feed the tractor morning and night. He only had to keep gas in the tank. Moreover, storing gas was much easier than storing hay in the barn loft.
The invention of the automobile by Henry Ford later led to the development of the Fordson tractor named in his honor. It was smaller and more manageable than the Avery. Dad made a deal to use Uncle Charlie's Fordson. He liked it so well that he bought it from him.
Our McCormick binder was eventually replaced with the Gleaner Baldwin combine which, when fitted on our Fordson tractor, became a self-propelled thresher. Now Dad could cut and thresh grain in one operation. Although the concept itself was good, like the Avery, it was also doomed. By the time we got that outfit mounted on the tractor, it looked like a knight in armor. When loaded with wheat, it became so heavy and awkward that it was hard to steer around corners. Not only that, the tractor wheels would sink into the soft ground, and we'd have to get the Avery to pull the Fordson out of the mud. That process would waste precious hours of harvest time.
It was always important to get the wheat harvest done as quickly as possible before it rained. Any moisture in the wheat, making the straw damp and tough, would cause the thresher to get clogged. Then would come the messy job of pulling the straw out by the handfuls, and Dad had to call off the harvesting until the wheat was completely dry again. Sometimes this would take several days.
After finishing the harvesting job, the next job was to remove that ungainly thresher from the Fordson. It was just as hard to get off as it was to put on. It reminded me of how Mom would sometimes take off her dress by pulling it over her head. That's exactly how that gleaner had to be removed from the Fordson tractor. Of course, the gleaner- tractor job was much more difficult, and besides that, it was dangerous. When it was removed, it had to be carefully propped up so it wouldn't fall over and get damaged, or damage anything near it.
Another problem with the Fordson was that it would rear up like a horse when the load was too great and wasn't balanced properly. It would simply stop and rear up in front! I have known of farmers being crushed that way. My Dad was very aware of that danger and always tried to be very careful.
I don't know what ever happened to that old Fordson. I surmise it met the fate of much old farm machinery. To borrow part of a phrase from General MacArthur's farewell address, I might say, "Old tractors never die, they just rust away."
If anyone had horror thoughts about that Fordson tractor, Mom did. She was so afraid someone would get hurt with it. When Dad started to think about replacing it for a more powerful tractor to pull a three- bottom or four-bottom plow with ease, Mom had some advice.
"For goodness sakes," she kept saying, "don't ever buy another tractor that might rear back and pin you down under it."
"Don't worry, Bonnie," Dad would console her. "My next tractor will be heavy enough to stay on the ground and not flop over."
Dad was right about that. The old Wallace, his next tractor, wouldn't flop back on its back, but there were other dangerous aspects that caused Mom to be in constant fear. I don't remember where Dad got that Wallace. I do know it was a used one. He couldn't afford a new one, but he really needed something heavier to do his field work.
The Wallace had a four cylinder engine, more than enough power to pull his heavy plow. Not only could it easily pull Dad's farm implements, but it also had an external pulley wheel that did well on belt- operated stationary machinery. This time Dad thought he had bought exactly the right tractor to do his work around the farm.
That tractor's engine was set into a piece of steel, shaped somewhat like an elongated washtub. On this washtub affair, put two small wheels on the front for steering and two large lugged ones on the back for traction. Then using lots of bolts, mount a heavy engine with its transmission, and you have a Wallace tractor.
When Dad first used that tractor, it seemed fine, but as time went on, it became obvious that there were drawbacks. Getting into the guts of that engine to tighten a bearing or replace one was a real bug-bear. The holes through which one had to work were barely big enough for a man's hand, let alone a hand and a wrench!
"One of those bearings is knocking. That means trouble," Dad confessed one time after a long day of plowing. "I'd just as well admit that we'll have to bring it from the field and work on it."
After looking the situation over, he decided that the engine had to be pulled from that washtub. What a terrible job it was. He selected a good sturdy tree that had a large branch on which he could fasten his chain hoist. It became the hanging tree on our farm.
I don't know how many times Dad and Junior had to pull that engine out of that pan and replace a bearing or two, but it was too many. It took hours to take all those bolts out and pull the engine up with the hoist. Besides that, it was a very dangerous job.
"Fred, you can't put your hands in there. If that hoist breaks while you are working on the bearings, you'll loose both hands in a wink!" Mom admonished. She was absolutely right, but, fortunately, we had no such accident.
There were other dangerous aspects to that hunk of iron. It didn't have a regular crank. It wasn't cranked from the front, as were the Model T Ford cars. It was cranked from the left side. The "crank" was a three-foot-long flat iron bar which fit into a ratchet arrangement on the shaft of the pulley wheel. That was an afterthought if I ever saw one. In the first place, that crank would come off easily. Moreover, if the engine backfired, it would stay on, becoming a lethal weapon. I remember the time that Junior was hit under his chin in such a situation. It knocked him out momentarily. He was really lucky that he didn't have a broken jaw, or even a broken neck.
"That's the funniest thing I ever saw,"
Uncle Ed chuckled when he first saw Dad's new John Deere tractor. "Don't you know that those pistons won't last? Before you know it they will be dropping off." Uncle Ed was very opinionated about things. Since the tractors he was used to had pistons that operated in a vertical position, he figured that they couldn't operate any other way. Dad knew better because his old Avery had horizontal ones, but he didn't argue with Uncle Ed.
To see a "Farmer's Pocket Ledger" given to farmers in 1935-36, by the John Deere Implement Company, click here to open Section 13. It shows all the farm implements they sold at that time.
Actually, that second-hand John Deere tractor served Dad well. It was an extremely simple machine to care for. It did, however, have a strange starting mechanism. There was a fly-wheel on one side that had to be turned to get the engine started.
Although Dad got some good service with his John Deere "Put-Put" tractor, I never did appreciate the thing. I wasn't old enough to be allowed to drive it until we moved to western Kansas, and I learned to hate it with a passion. I hated the smell of the distillate it ran on. To this day I can smell it. I also had a hard time "twisting its tail" to start it. Sometimes I had to give up and wait until it cooled off. In spite of its bad features, it was an improvement over the other tractors Dad had owned through the years. Even though it was smaller than his other tractors, it could pull everything and also run the belt- operated machines quite well.
All tractors without rubber tires really gave the driver a rough ride. One was required to sit on that steel seat for hours doing the field work, being bounced around from side to side, and up and down with every little bump. Of course, after walking behind a team of horses with no seat at all to be bounced around on, the farmer was thankful for that steel seat.
Going around and around a field on a tractor eight to ten hours a day was one of the most boring jobs I ever had. I'd try to exercise my mind in every possible manner. I'd dream of things I could invent. I would sing songs and write new ones. I would think of my future. I could hardly wait until I got off that tractor. Perhaps one of the reasons I was glad to go off to college was that I didn't have to ride that tractor except during the summer.
I was never paid for running the tractor or doing any of the work on the farm. It was taken for granted that I was supposed to do it, without pay. Incidentally, an allowance was unheard of in those days, at least in our home. I really doubt whether being paid would have helped my dislike of doing the field work, anyway.
One day, while I was attending Bethel College, I went to Wichita to participate in a radio show in which Benny Bargen, Willis Rich and a group of "stars" were involved. On the way I noticed a little rubber- tired tractor in a showroom along the road. It was patterned after the old Fordson, but had a new concept in tractoring added to it. There were special implements especially designed to be used with it. The Ferguson, as it was called, was invented by a guy in Ireland. I suppose the man's name was Ferguson. With hydraulic controls, the plow and other attachments actually added weight to the tractor. Now that was something. Why didn't someone in our country figure that out first?
I got in touch with the salesman and took all kinds of information back home to Dad.
"Look, Dad! Look what this tractor can do to make farming easier and less expensive. The tractor along with plow, lister and planter costs only five hundred dollars," I told him.
Sales Slip for the New Ford Tractor
(Although it says Fordson, the new tractor was called a Ferguson)
About that time Dad was in a financial bind. The John Deere was in the shop for repairs and he was at his wit's end.
"Dad, let's take our government aid check and put it down on this new tractor. Just think of all the things we can do with it and its attachments. It can be driven on the road like a car. We can use it to pull things around the farm, like hauling turkey feed. How about it?"
Dad was ready for about anything I suggested. He was sick of the problems he had been having with the John Deere. He succumbed to my idea. We left the old tractor in the repair shop and used the government check to get that new Ferguson outfit.
In a few days a big semi-truck pulled into our driveway with that little tractor. When I saw how little it really was, a wondered whether I had made a mistake. Maybe I should have kept quiet and let Dad alone? However, it was too late. The deal had been made. As it turned out, the Ferguson proved to be one of Dad's best investments.
Ford's Replacement for the Fordson - the Ferguson
View of Tractor showing the Hitch for Attachments
Generally, the Ferguson tractor caused us little trouble. However, one day while we were plowing, a casting holding the left fender broke and twisted right under the wheel. I was devastated! We were miles away from help.
The Ferguson dealer gave us a pleasant surprise. He sent a truck out and hauled the tractor back for repairs. Although we had to wait a week for them to bring it back, it didn't cost us a cent. Whew! What a break!
Ford manufactured the Ferguson and several later models that followed it. Dad had some type of Ford tractor until the day he died.
Tractor lugs, as they were called, were pointed pieces of iron bolted onto the circumference of the rear wheels to give tractors traction. Without them the rear wheels would slide all over the place, as the saying goes, while trying to pull the farmers' farm implements. All the early tractors had metal wheels fitted with these lugs.
In the thirties, someone, I believe in France, discovered how to add carbon black to rubber and make the rubber much more tough and durable. That discovery made it possible to make successful rubber tires for tractors. They were made with "knobs" which took the place of the iron lugs. Soon barred treads of various types were introduced to successfully solve the slippage problems. As time went on, rubber tires were placed on nearly all the farm implements.
Again my Uncle Ed was as skeptical about rubber tires as he was about horizontal lugs on metal wheels. I can hear him laugh when he first heard about the new tires. "What, rubber tires on tractors! They will never pull anything. Ya gotta have steel lugs to pull any kind of load."
However, it wasn't long before he bought a tractor with those new rubber tires.
After we moved back to Hutchinson, Junior decided he needed a second tractor. About that time, Uncle Ed was retiring from farming and we bought his McCormick Deering tractor. Junior put rubber tires on it and that made it much easier to ride and to steer.
Tractors with a continuous steel track on either side instead of wheels are called caterpillars or crawlers. They have always been used for the heaviest types of work. I well remember one that had been altered to be used to grade the highway in front of our farm. It was a quite a contraption. That "cat" had a dirt blade affixed on its front. There was a large steel framework over the blade and two large wheels out in front of that. It had scads of control levers which were used to move the blade in about every direction imaginable.
The operator made a deal with Dad to park that grader in our yard over night and week-ends. I was fascinated with that machine and spent lots of time looking it over.
At the Kansas State Fair each year, there was a big display of the newer and ever bigger caterpillar tractors. These tractors were always painted a bright yellow with black letters saying "Caterpillar" on both sides. I never missed that part of the fair.
The half-track tractor was another freak of some guy's imagination. Instead of two continuous steel tracks, it had only one set in the middle toward the back. In the front were two heavy wheels to balance and steer it. Our neighbors, the Wainners, had the only one I ever saw. It reminded me of a large crab moving around in the field. They seemed to be satisfied with it, however.
Before I finish my diatribe on tractors, I must mention the story I
heard about one of our neighbors and his first tractor. Apparently he had
lots of trouble with it. I had noticed it sitting in the middle of his
field, but didn't think much about it. Later I learned that he had gotten
so mad because it wouldn't start that he had used his largest sledge hammer
on it. That guy, incidentally, had a temper and could swear like few I
ever heard. I often wondered if he beat his horses when they refused to
Our field corn was usually planted in furrows about twenty-six inches apart. Dad had a two-row corn planter that dropped a measured amount of seed corn into the soft ground at the bottom of the furrow. Since sandy soil dries quickly, the corn must be put in the bottom of the furrow where the soil has held the moisture longer.
Planting on a flat field required a different process. It was called "check rowing." Dad would stretch a wire from one end of the field to the other over the place where he wanted the first row of corn to be planted. There was a hook arrangement on the side of the planter.
At the beginning of each row the wire was placed over this hook. That wire had little "bumps" welded on it about twenty-six inches apart which tripped open the seed box, causing two or three kernels of corn to drop to the ground as the planter was moved ahead. At the beginning of each run, Dad had to move the wire over to where he wanted the next row to be planted. The rows were just as far apart as the bumps on the wire. In this way when the corn came up, Dad could cultivate the field in either direction and even cross-wise. Such cultivation made it easier to control weeds. It was a neat way to do it and the field of corn looked beautiful. Since it was time-consuming and the top soil was more apt to lose its moisture, it wasn't really a very practical way to plant corn, however. I didn't see it done very often.
"Glenn, before that corn gets too high we're going to have to bust down those ridges with the harrow. The weeds are growing all over the ridges and we must get rid of them," Dad said. "This will be your chance to use the team on the spiked harrow and ride on it."
Now Dad didn't mean sit on the harrow, he meant stand on it. I've seen gadgets with wheels that can be attached to a harrow permitting a person to ride while harrowing, but we didn't have such an attachment. We had to stand on a long flat board, and use the horses' lines to balance ourselves.
"Do you think you can do it?" he asked.
"Sure, I can. It'll be fun," I answered confidently.
Yes, riding the harrow was fun at the beginning. It didn't take me long to learn to balance myself on that harrow and smack those ridges down just as easy as Dad did. I did fall several times, but I didn't get hurt. It was a hot and dusty job, believe me. The horses weren't any too anxious to work so when I gave them a "Whoa" command, they seemed glad to stop.
Naturally, I took many rest breaks. I used any reason I could think of to say "Whoa" to that team. I could hardly wait to get to the end of the row to get a drink of water. It's amazing how cool that water kept in our sack-covered jug. Dad taught me how to take care of my jug of water.
"Always take your water jug along with you when you go to the field. Don't forget to wet the burlap thoroughly before you leave. Find a spot of weeds and cover the jug with them. The soaked burlap wrapped around that thick crock jug will keep the water cool."
During a hot day, my best excuse to stop the team was to get some of that cool water. Of course, one drink called for another, then another and another. Then I'd have to stop to get rid of that water. Another good excuse to stop awhile!
It seemed like it took a long time for the corn to sprout and start to grow. Why didn't God arrange for the corn to grow faster? Why not let the stuff grow so fast that it would get ahead of the weeds?
I spent hours and hours cultivating corn. The first cultivator I remember was an unusual gadget. It was horse-drawn, but Dad had to walk behind it and guide it. Actually, it looked more like two walking garden cultivators connected together.
The newer one Dad bought had a seat on it. Instead of guiding it by hand, he could shove the unit from left to right with his feet. He taught me how to run it as soon I could reach the controls.
Dad would work along beside me with his older cultivator. He would skip two rows of corn to keep the two teams of horses apart. I'm afraid I destroyed quite a bit of good corn in learning how to guide that implement. It was a back and forth job, row after row. Dad would check my work, and gently scold me when I got careless.
"Remember, Glenn, those plowed-out plants are goners. No way can we transplant them." I got the point in a hurry.
I finally learned to run the cultivator well enough that Dad could leave me at the job and do some of his other work. I have to admit that I rested lots, especially when the corn got taller and I could hide in it. I reasoned that the horses needed rest, too. It was during those rest periods that I learned how to make whistles with green corn blades. That took a considerable amount of my time, and plenty of green blades.
I don't know exactly how soon Dad got this larger four-horse riding cultivator. Of course, that made the job go faster, and that suited me just fine. Dad evidently took time out to take this picture. I well remember that he always had a bucket hanging behind the seat, but I can't remember why it was there.
It takes weeks for field corn to grow enough to make roasting ears. Even then they are not as good to eat as sweet corn. Field corn produces an abundance of leaves and stocks. Some grows to be six or seven feet tall. It is used for animal food. Sweet corn matures faster and has much shorter stalks. Likewise, as the name indicates, sweet corn is much sweeter and it is the best kind to eat. The folks usually planted sweet corn in their garden patch close to the house. They would also plant a few rows of pop corn. That was a fun crop.
"Glenn," Mom would say, "the pop corn is dry enough to shell."
I'd break out the ears from their husks and rub them together to remove the corn from the cob. Then we'd pop the corn. Add a little butter and salt and we'd have a great treat. We'd also string some popped corn to make Christmas tree decorations.
Harvesting field corn was lots of work. Before the ears of corn were ready to be harvested, Dad would often cut some of the green stalks by hand with a sharp knife and haul them to the barn for the cows to eat. The animals liked the sugar in the stalks. Later, when the ears of corn matured, he'd pull the corn binder from the machine shed. He would check it over carefully, oil it and hook it to the team. The corn binder both cut the stalks and, using twine, bound them into bundles. Then, they were ready to be put in shocks waiting for the silo-filling operation.
A One-Row Corn or Cane Cutter and Binder
Dad's binder cut only one row at a time. Some of the farmers had two-row binders, but I guess Dad couldn't afford one of those.
I was too little to remember when Dad had his silos built. He said he got advice from the County Farm Agent on how to select and construct them. There were several types from which to choose, such as tile, wood or cement stave, trench, cement block, or poured cement. Dad chose to make his of poured cement. They were built just outside the west side of the barn. They were about forty feet high. The one on the south was fourteen feet in diameter and the one on the north was only twelve feet in diameter. I don't know why he didn't make them both the same size.
I asked Dad all about how those silos were built and I still remember how he explained it to me. The first step was the construction of the wood form. An inner and an outer circle were needed to hold the cement. The form was approximately two or three feet high. The inner circle was about six inches smaller in diameter. Cement was poured in between the two circles. Running all around each form near the middle a heavy twisted iron rod was placed to support the free-standing cement. There was an opening in the form some twenty inches wide. This allowed an open space on each band of cement. The exposed rods in that opening served as a ladder up the side of the silo when it was completed. As each section of the silo was filled, the open space was filled with a thick wooden board lined with tarred paper.
When the first section was poured and had set long enough to harden, the forms were moved up and another section was poured. This continued until the silo was the proper height. It was a slow job.
In my mind's eye, I can still see those two silos sticking up over the barn. When I got a chance I'd climb to the top of one of them and look out over the countryside. This is a picture I took of our house from the top of a silo.
Filling the silos was an interesting thing to watch. When geared up, that silo filler sounded like a freight train running through town. Of course, the sound of the freight train soon died away in the distance, but that silo filler noise went on and on. The silo filler was powered by the Avery. Its "put-put" along with the silo filler noise made quite a chorus.
Corn shocks were chopped into small lengths and then blown through a large pipe to the top of the silo. Water was piped to the top and mixed with the chopped corn stalks as they fell to the bottom of the silo. The chopped stuff was called ensilage. After it fermented a few weeks, the animals gulped it down. Ground grain was mixed with it for the milk cows.
Dad also grew some field corn for its grain. Rather than cutting the stalks with the binder, he would remove the ears by hand and toss them into a wagon that was hauled along by a team of horses. When he got a wagon full, he'd unload it in the corn crib. Later, he would remove the kernels from the cobs with the power sheller and store the seeds in the granary. We always had a crib full of dry cobs which we used to start fires in our stoves. Before commercial toilet paper was available, we kept a nice box of dry cobs in the privy. They were better than using the inked pages of a Sears catalog.
After the corn was harvested, the field had to be gone over several times to make it smoothe and keep down weeds. That way it would be ready for the next crop that Dad might plant where the corn field had been. These are two typical disc cultivators that could be used to prepare the ground before new crops were planted.
Dad raised alfalfa for his horses and cows. After turning the sod over with the plow, and breaking all the large clods with the harrow, the soil was ready for planting the alfalfa. Alfalfa seeds are very small. They are like pin heads. I always wondered how they could possibly sprout, but they did.
Dad didn't own an alfalfa drill, but we had a neighbor from whom he could borrow one. He probably loaned that farmer a piece of his equipment in payment. That was the usual custom.
One of the interesting things about alfalfa is that after you once got a good stand, it not only continued to grow cutting after cutting, year after year, but it also built up the soil. If it was plowed up later and another crop planted where it had been, that crop benefited from its soil-building properties. Corn would grow taller and produce more ears. Wheat would be greener and produce more grain. However, after a few years, Dad had to repeat the process. He learned how to rotate his crops from field to field and take advantage of the soil building properties of the alfalfa plant.
Cutting the alfalfa and putting up the hay was a familiar activity on the farm. Even after we got a tractor, we didn't have an attachment for cutting alfalfa so we still used our horse-drawn mower. Our mower had two iron wheels, a sickle bar and sickle, and, of course, a tongue to which we could harness the horses. The gear box connected to the wheels caused the sickle to slide back and forth in the bar, thus cutting the alfalfa as the mower moved down the field. The sickle bar could be raised for moving the mower from one place to another. The longer the sickle bar, the wider swath it could cut. Ours was seven feet long.
Being horse powered, no part of the mechanism turned until the horses started to pull it. Then one must be sure to keep a safe distance from that sickle.
"Glenn," Dad always warned, "keep your mower well oiled. Never stand in front of the sickle bar and be sure that the horses are quiet before you leave your seat."
Since I'd heard of terrible accidents caused by people stepping in front of a sickle bar, I heeded Dad's warning, always!
To me mowing was another boring job of going around and around. We would usually start on the outside of the patch and end in the center.
After giving the hay a day or so to dry, Dad would be eager to get it off the field before a rain came. We had both a buck rake and a side-delivery one. Of course, these were horse drawn. The side-delivery rake would roll the hay and push it out to one side. The hay was left on the field in rows. The buck rake was a simple implement that gathered the hay into piles. Used after the side-delivery rake, it would leave good-sized piles of hay. Used alone, it left smaller piles, making the job of getting the hay out of the field more difficult.
If there wasn't enough room to store all the hay in the barn mow, some might be left in large stacks in the field.
Before using the stacker, we used the go-devil hay mover to bring the hay piles to the stacker. It was drawn by two horses spaced twelve to fourteen feet apart. Between them was a set of wood spikes about twelve feet long spaced some twelve inches apart. As the go-devil moved over the hay, the hay was lifted onto the spikes. When the load was large enough, the driver moved his go-devil to the stacker and unloaded the hay.
A large stack of hay, especially if it is covered with a canvas, can be left in the field for long periods. Our hay stacker was a wooden implement that would raise the loads of hay up to be piled on top of each other. That stacker was a spindly awkward looking outfit. The cradle that lifted the hay was supported by two long beams. As the team of horses moved forward the cradle moved up with the load of hay. When the hay was unloaded onto the stack, the driver backed his team up, allowing the empty cradle to settle to the ground ready for the next load of hay.
As the stack grew, one worker would stay on top to help guide the loads into place. If he didn't keep a careful watch, he might get buried under the hay. I've watched more than once as a careless worker had to claw his way out from under a load that dumped on him.
The guy on top of the stack had to know how to position each load properly. I remember one time when the stack fell over and the whole job had to be done again. Dad was disgusted as he had repeatedly warned, "That stack is getting too heavy on the right side. If you don't fix it, the whole stack will come down."
There were several other problems that caused Dad trouble while using the stacker. If it wasn't properly staked down, it could easily topple over causing all kinds of damage. Then sometimes one of those long beams would break. When possible, Dad would splice it, but more often he would have to go to town to buy a new one. Of course, that would cause the whole operation to shut down.
Another problem that arose while stacking hay was with the teams of horses. Those horses wouldn't always be willing to back up, both those that were pulling the go-devil and those that were operating the stacker. If they weren't calmed down quickly, they would do lots of damage.
Most of the time the stacking operation went fairly smoothly and some of the hay was left in nice stacks in the field.
Dad also liked to keep the hay loft filled with hay for his animals. Since a good stand of alfalfa could be cut three times a year, he usually had plenty. Sometimes if the hay loft was full and he had a good supply of haystacks in the field, he would even have some to sell.
I was always fascinated with the labor-saving devices used to get the hay into the hayloft. Ropes, rails, pulleys, and, of course, a team of horses were needed.
There was a sort of up-side-down railroad track affixed to the top of the barn. I often wondered how it was put there. As curious as I was, I don't remembering asking Dad about it. For certain, someone must have erected a heck of a big scaffolding to stand on while they put that rail up there.
Suspended on that rail was an ingenious catch mechanism and much rope. That long rope was threaded through four pulleys placed strategically throughout the barn.
As I studied the entire system, I learned about mechanical advantage. What was needed was pulleys! By tying onto something solid and threading a rope through enough pulleys, a guy could raise about anything. I'll bet the Egyptians used such tricks to move those big blocks around to build the pyramids.
When the hay sling was loaded with hay and the horses moved forward, the hay was lifted to the door in the hayloft. It was then carried along the rail to where it needed to be placed.
That big barn held lots of hay. There were holes in the loft floor where Dad could pull the hay down and distribute it to the cows and horses. As soon as I was big enough to manipulate a hay fork, that was a job I could do for Dad.
I enjoyed climbing around on that mountain of hay in the loft. My cousin Marion and I liked to dig tunnels and make hiding places in the hay. My Mom wasn't sure it was a safe place to play.
"Glenn, stay out of that hay loft. You might fall into a hole in the hay and smother," she would warn me.
Mom was very protective of me, especially after Helen died. After all
I was her baby and she wasn't taking any chances on my getting hurt. Naturally,
I resented being treated like a baby. After all, I knew I could take care
When we got a hay baler, we had another way to take care of the alfalfa after it was mowed. As usual I was interested in just how the whole machine worked. The guy who invented it must have been as ingenious as the one who made the tying device on the binder.
The best way to explain a baler is to compare it to a very large grasshopper. It eats enormous amounts of hay as it is pulled along the field. Then its legs stomp the hay into a hopper compressing it tightly. After enough hay is compressed to make a proper-sized bale, it is squeezed out onto the ground. It takes a guy on each side as the bale is being squeezed out to tie the wires around the bale. Two wires are used on each bale.
Of course, those bales were left scattered all over the field and had to be loaded onto a wagon and taken to the barn. They had to be removed as soon as possible so they wouldn't damage the new alfalfa that was coming up.
No matter how many labor-saving devices Dad had, putting up hay wasn't
an easy job. It always took place during the hottest time of the year.
When I was old enough to help, I'd strip off my shirt, roll up my pant
legs and shove my pants down as low as possible from my waist to get as
much tan as possible. We didn't worry about future skin problems those
days. Even if I occasionally got sunburned, I didn't let that bother me.
I just considered it a normal part of farm life.
When I was in the eighth grade, we had a course called agriculture. One day I learned a new word: di-ver-si-fi-ca-tion. What a word, I thought! After school I discussed my new word with Dad.
"Sure," Dad said, "I've always practiced diversification, although I didn't know that was what it was called for many years."
Although most of our land was planted to wheat, corn and alfalfa, Dad also raised sudan grass for animal food. In this picture Dad is mowing a small patch that was planted north of our house.
Dad also grew kafir and milo, both small grains. They were easier to produce and, frankly, made better food for the cows. Kafir was tall and had to be topped by special gadgets unless one wanted to do it by hand. That was a tough job. Finally, when milo came along with its very short stocks, it was harvestable by the same thresher or combine used for wheat.
Diversification simply meant that a farmer didn't have to depend entirely upon any one crop for his income.
My agriculture book also told about crop rotation, and I learned that
my Dad also knew about that. As I grew older I realized that, although
my Dad didn't go to high school, he didn't stop learning when he graduated
from Elmer school from the ninth grade. He read farm magazines, listened
to the government farm agents and visited all the Kansas State Fair farm
exhibits every year.
The Apple Orchard
Before I was born, Dad had quite an apple orchard just north of the house. He was proud of his ten acres of apple trees. He told me that one year he had filled a whole railroad car with apples and shipped them into Hutchinson.
Unfortunately, something caused those trees to die out after a few years. I believe it was some kind of insect. Dad kept pulling the dead ones out until finally they were all gone. I was old enough to remember the last few to go down. Dad got a cable stump puller from somewhere that did the job. It was exciting watching the cables tighten until the stump gradually gave up and toppled. It took a long time to get rid of those stumps. Dad would cut them with his axe and saw, pile them up and set them on fire. A pile would burn for days.
Once I found an old apple press in the junk pile. I suppose Dad must
have made apple juice when he had lots of apples. I know he always liked
to buy apple juice at the fair. It was sold in a mug with lots of crushed
ice. I liked it, too, until someone told me that worms and rotten pieces
of apple were ground right along with the good apples. After that, I wasn't
so sure I wanted to drink it.
The Garden Plots
Our small vegetable garden was close to the house. Dad also had a larger one back of the barn. It was the place we planted watermelon, cantaloupes, pumpkins, potatoes, grapes, sweet corn and the like. Most of those things could be cultivated with a horse. The little garden near the house was Mom's "personal" garden.
Mom loved her garden and she knew how to make a garden grow. Dad would help her make little ditches to plant things, but most of the time she did the work.
We always had peas, beans, radishes, beets, asparagus, rhubarb, tomatoes and, sometimes, cabbage. Mom spent much of her time canning things. Her cellar was full of glass jars containing good stuff. She always tried to have enough to last through the winter.
Imagine the money the folks saved on their food bill. Also they saved the time and gas it took to go to town.
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