A Miracle In The Wheat Field


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2200 Fairmount Road Hampstead, MD 21074

I am not sure whether it is a stage in life that one gets to reflections on one's younger days or maybe it's just because I started spending so much time at local weekly auctions that some of that old stuff started looking good to me. One way or another, I have accumulated a lot of what some people call junk. Some people call it by other names especially if they have to clean around it occasionally. However, in 'better' circles, it has many other names, such as memorabilia, Americana, or just antiques. Most of what I have is older tools and machinery that I identify with in my line of work or with my childhood. For example, my 1924 Dodge touring car is almost identical to the one my dad had.

These antiques are fascinating to me, not only as interesting objects of my past, but also because they represent an era in this country that changed the course of history and the way people live both here and around the world. Those of us living now or during a large portion of the past one hundred years have witnessed the greatest miracle on earth since the parting of the Red Sea. One antique tool that I have is a flail, used to beat the grains of wheat from the heads. I will use it to illustrate the point I am trying to make because it represents the beginning of that one hundred year era. When my grandfather was a boy, this was the accepted method of threshing. I have seen older men demonstrate the system at some of the shows. The rhythmic motion with which they handled the flail convinced me that they did not learn it just for exhibition, but that at some time it was very much a part of their lives.

Before the grain could be threshed, it had to be cut with a cradle, a tool I can remember my grandfather using to cut the wheat around the edges of a field so that the binder on the first time around did not mash it into the ground. The cradle was only a slightly improved version of the sickle used in Egypt in the days of Joseph. The point I am trying to make here is that you could take the workers from the threshing floor of At ad in the Book of Genesis, Boaz, who owned the threshing floor in the Book of Ruth, or a farmer from the United States during the Revolutionary War and bring them to a wheat field today and place this tool in their hands and they would know exactly how to use it with exactly the same rhythmic motion of the persons that I saw demonstrating at the show. All of them would be equally puzzled, however, by how a modern combine harvests grain.

In the January 1920 issue of the Maryland Farmer magazine, there was an article called 'The Evolution in Farm Equipment', by J. M. Bell. Mr. Bell said:

If a farmer who died fifty years ago came to life in 1920 about the time of year when the wheat crop was being harvested, he would think he had come back to a new planet instead of the good old United States. Picture his surprise as he viewed the binders at work, making their rounds, cutting and binding the heavy golden grain. Each binder would be cutting about fifteen acres per day whereas in the olden days it would have taken six or seven cradlers to do the same work. Let him go to another field and watch the riding cultivator working the corn. Maybe a tractor would be breaking up a surface for some such crop as cowpeas or soybeans.

The farmer would be wanting a drink of cool water from the old well, and a gasoline engine would force up the 'Adam's Ale' from the cool depths of the well. He would miss the 'Old Oaken Bucket' with its long length of rope or chain, but the water would taste just as it was 'in ye olden time' and he, after taking a long, satisfying drink, could turn on the flow into a two hundred gallon concrete trough and soon have a supply for the team and other livestock.

Judge the absolute astonishment of he who had come back when he saw the lactial fluid drawn from the cow by milking machines and then run through a separator.

Bell concluded by saying, 'A new era in farming has arrived.' Mr. Bell, 'You ought a see me now!' Last summer I cut and threshed forty acres of wheat in one day all alone, while sitting in an air conditioned cab with monitors checking each operation of the machine. Last spring I planted sixty acres of corn in one day, again all alone without plowing or other soil preparation, and with only one other trip across the field with a sprayer; that field would not be touched again until harvest. And, Mr. Bell, you just won't believe this one: one man can milk up to one hundred cows per hour in our automated milking parlors.

Why then did the system change? Why did it remain exactly the same for thousands of years and begin its change just about one hundred years ago? Once the change began, why did it not stop at a different level instead of continuing to the present day? And why did it happen right here where we are? Ironically, while this change has been taking place here and we have accepted the different ways of doing things almost without noticing, over one-half of the world's population today still eats food that is grown and harvested by hand by the old methods. Again, why in this place? It is not because the mind or hand had not evolved to the extent to make it possible. Look at the advances in other fields the great thinkers of the ancient times, Aristotle and Plato; the great artists, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and others; great musicians and writers of the classics; famous politicians and brilliant men of war; and also some pretty skilled engineers, such as the Egyptians who without the power sources of our century built the pyramids which are said to be accurate within a fraction of an inch. Yet, the people who grew the food for these great men still threshed their wheat by hand!

If one must pinpoint a starting time or an event when all this got started, he would have to go with when Cyrus H. McCormick tried out a crude machine that he called a reaper on the family farm in Virginia. McCormick had carried forward a project his father had been working on for twenty years and on that July day in 1831, the reaper worked, cutting six acres of oats. He advertised it for sale at fifty dollars, but did not sell one until 1840. Two years later he sold seven for one hundred dollars each. Soon every farmer had to have one because the savings in manpower was tremendous. Next farmers needed a machine to thresh the wheat; someone invented a crude device called the 'Ground Hog Thresher.' One man turned the crank, another fed the stalks into the machine, another raked the straw away, while still another threw the wheat and chaff into the air so the wind could separate it. The next advance was to use a horse to power it by having him walk on a treadmill.

Jerome I. Case, a New York farm boy who disliked cradling and flailing wheat like most other farm boys, talked his dad into buying a ground hog thresher. Several years later, young Case bought six of them on credit and took them first by boat and then by wagon to Wisconsin, where he had read was some of the best wheat land in the country. He sold five of them on the way to pay for the machines and did custom threshing with the sixth while always improving and rebuilding it. He established a factory at Racine and was on his way to becoming the 'Threshing Machine King' of the entire world. He soon needed more power to pull the thresher than a one-horse treadmill, so he used a two-horse treadmill, then a four-horse sweep. Still not satisfied, he began to look for another source of power. Steam was being used in industry and on the railroads, so why not in agriculture? Case's biggest obstacle was the farmers themselves. They had read about the explosions on steamboats and railroads setting fire to the prairies, but soon accepted steam engines. In the half century that followed, Case built 35,737 steam engines.

I mention steam just in passing. While it had a real effect on farming, it never threatened the horse as a source of power on the farm. That was to be a formidable task. The number of horses and mules on U.S. farms continued to grow until they reached a peak at the end of World War I when there were more than 25 million. One-fourth of all crop land was necessary to feed them.

Enter the tractor, the machine that did the horses in. No other farm machine had a more profound effect on farming than the tractor. It not only replaced the horses and steam engines on the farms, but it created entirely new ways to farm. Practically every job we do on the farm today revolves around the tractor with permanently attached harvesting machines the reaper, the thresher, and the tractor all rolled into one.

Apparently the first successful tractor was built by John Charter and patented in 1887. John Froelich built a weird-looking rig in 1892, mounting a large single cylinder gasoline engine on a running gear. The operator stood at the very front of the machine. The Froelich was the fore runner of the John Deere tractor. C. W. Hart and C. H. Parr built their tractor in 1902; their company later became the Oliver Corporation, which is now part of White Company. Hart and Parr are credited with coining the name 'tractor.'

The race was on. Every village blacksmith worth his salt took one of the stationary gas engines just coming on the market, mounted it on a wagon-type affair and a new tractor was born. Because tractors had to overcome formidable odds and be reasonably dependable, working in all kind of conditions and operated by all kinds of people, many did not fill the bill. The shop that built one that worked sold machines to neighboring farms and became a company. In 1908, about two thousand tractors were sold by thirty-six manufacturers. In 1910, they sold four thousand. By the beginning of World War I there were 14,000 tractors on American farms; four years later there were 85,000; one year later, 158,000. In 1925, there were 500,000 and in the next ten years the number doubled.

C. H. Wendel, in his book Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, lists some nine hundred different manufacturers of farm tractors. He showed pictures of and wrote about 435 in his fine book. Tractors came in all configurations. Some had two wheels, some three, and some four wheels. Most were one, two, or four cylinders and used kerosene or gasoline for fuel. The way you had to start some was tantamount to suicide one used a twelve-gauge shotgun shell to start it. Forty-five different companies made tractor attachments for the Model T Ford. One advertised: 'Use your car all week for a tractor and convert it back to a car to take the family to church on Sunday.'

A few other familiar names showed up in the early years. For example, Henry Ford had always liked to farm and wanted to do for the farmers what he did for the general public put them on wheels. He came out with his famous Fordson tractor in 1917. It indeed was the Model T of the farm, selling at one time for $395. In 1918, Ford sold 34,000, 25 percent of all tractors sold in the U.S.; in 1925, he sold 100,000, 75 percent of all. He built 739,977 of the famous Fordsons, compared to 15 million Model T cars. But hard-headed Henry thought he had a good thing going and refused to change his design to keep up with the others who were trying harder and so 1928 was his last year in the tractor business in this country until he came out with his 9N in 1939.

John Deere's first claim to fame came when he made a plow from steel from an old saw blade. The forked stick in use at the time of Cain and Abel had not changed much. The farmers moving westward were trying to plow the sticky black soil of the prairie with wooden plows which sometimes had a metal point attached. The soil would stick to it and they would have to stop every few feet and clean it off. Deere's steel plow did the trick and the company that is the largest in this country today came into being and helped to win the west.

J. I. Case, which goes back further as a company, is now owned by Tenneco which this year also bought the farm machinery business from International Harvester. The equipment is now known as Case-International. International Harvester also goes way back, tracing its roots through many smaller companies to Cyrus McCormick's reaper. Ford still appears to be very much alive, having just this year bought the New Holland Farm Machinery division from Sperry. This seems to have been a year of change in the farm machinery business. Allis Chalmers, which goes back to the 1800s and pioneered the use of rubber tires on tractors in the thirties, was sold to the Deutz company of Germany.

Since the beginning of time, most all of man's time and effort was necessary to provide himself and his family with food. This is the situation in many parts of the world even today. Even with this effort, we know that thousands of people still die every day from starvation and malnutrition. There have been two very important benefits of the farm revolution for the American people. The first is that it has provided us with an abundant supply of high quality and nutritious food at a low cost. We spend less than 13 percent of our take-home pay for food which is much less than anywhere in the world. It takes 27 percent in Italy, 34 percent in Russia, 40 percent in Mexico, and 56 percent in India. The other important benefit has been the release from the manual drudgery of producing food for the large manpower supply that built our roads, autos, trains, and other means of transportation; built and staffed our schools, universities, and hospitals; produced the many necessities and luxuries of the home; and worked in the thousands of other jobs that we take for granted.

In the early days of our country, everyone pitched in and helped produce the food, and with the exception of the first few years at Jamestown, our country has never been hungry. Not many people in the world have been thus blessed. Today the U.S. has 300 million acres of land with only 2.4 percent of its population working it and is able to produce enough to feed this country and many others. One-third of our production must be either stored or exported. The U.S.S.R. has 500 million acres, worked by 40 percent of its population, and its people are hungry.

So now the blacksmith shops have all but disappeared. No longer are they needed to shoe the horses and mend the wagons. No longer do the more innovative smithies make the one of a kind tool needed by a local farmer. Most new technology now comes from the research and development of the few remaining companies in the business. The cost of development and marketing has done away with most of the small companies; however, farm shops still abound, often nothing more than a shade tree with a chain hoist and an adjustable wrench. A few ideas still come from farmers themselves, including the plateless corn planter and free stalls for cows. The first Steiger tractor was built by two farm brothers in their dairy barn during the winter of 1957-58 and is today one of the largest manufacturers of large four-wheel-drive tractors in the world.

So, where do we go from here? I don't know the answer to that one; however, it's fun to speculate. I don't think the changes will stop here. It seems that once the system of development started, it was self-generating.

I thank God that I have been permitted to live in this era and in this place. I think it has been the most fascinating and exciting time in the history of man. It is hard to describe the excitement of experiencing first hand the change from horse to tractor power and the advent of hybrid seeds, milking machines and parlors, free stalls, artificial insemination and embryo transfers, soil fertility as an exact science, no-till crop production, yields of crops and livestock not thought possible several decades ago and sophisticated machinery like the combine. The gains have been just as dramatic in other fields. Sitting in our living rooms, you and I actually saw a man walk on the moon, saw man's life extended by the implantation of a heart from someone who had died, witnessed atomic power and now the age of the computer. How would you explain these things to your grand father today?

I am thankful also that there are people who collect, restore, and demonstrate objects of our past, whether tools, autos, tractors, furniture, clocks, dolls, and even toys, thereby preserving this very precious part of our heritage. I am thankful also for the museums, where everyone can see and appreciate objects from our past, and of course, I am thankful for shows, meets, and flea markets where I can meet others with the same interests and trade for new treasures.