CUSTOM PLOWING AND THRESHING 1938-1951

McCormick-Deering

Drawing from McCormick-Deering: An Advertising History of the 1920-30 Period by alan C. King.

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R. Rt. 1, Pierson, Iowa 51048

Having read articles about other people's experiences with custom farm work has encouraged me to put down on paper some of the times my father and I spent together working with threshing and plowing. My father was employed by the Bierman brothers Joe, George, Roy, Harry, and Frank to operate their 28' Red River thresher from 1938 through 1951 at Pierson, Iowa.

It was his job to ready the thresher in the summer for the fall threshing jobs and to run the machine during threshing season. Being employed by our small home town as marshal and general maintenance man, it was agreed that he could have time off to do the fall threshing. Of course, the city fathers deducted his days off, even though my mother kept the city water pumps running the necessary time needed to keep our town with water during his absence.

Dad would have to be town marshal nights after a twelve-to-fourteen-hour day of threshing. Those were the good old days when a job was a job and people were glad to have any work. My father had some experience with steam threshing in his early years on the farm. A neighbor, Clarence Blue, had a thresher and steam engine. My father helped him from 1918 through 1929 when my folks were forced to leave the farm due to the depression, and he found work with the town of Pierson.

The Bierman brothers who owned the thresher also hired their machine out to eight or ten other farmers to do their threshing and helped to make up the necessary labor it took to run the machine continuously all day with usually ten to twelve bundle racks. One of the brothers, Harry, was always in charge of the grain hauling, and it was his job to keep track of the bushels threshed in order to charge the right fee at each farm.

The five brothers employed another man by the name of Leo Woods to furnish the power to operate the thresher. He used a 22-36 McCormick Deering on steel and also had a 15-30 McCormick Deering. He also did some custom plowing with a 3-14 John Deere plow. He was paid one and a half to two cents per bushel for oats and had to furnish his own fuel. Flax threshing was around five to six cents per bushel charge for the tractor. Flax was not very popular being so hard to save, but it was a good cash crop. I can still remember all the bundle racks had tarps in the bottoms and up the sides to conserve the seed being hauled in from the fields.

My own personal experience with threshing began in 1938 at the age of eleven when my dad would let me go with him two or three days out of the threshing season. Most of my time was spent playing with the other kids at the farm they were threshing at that day. As I grew older, it was almost every day for me with the threshing crew, helping my dad with the separator and often helping to load bundles out in the field or unload at the machine. Upon my graduation from high school in 1944, I entered the service and missed out on threshing until the summer of 1947. After coming home from the service that spring, I was asked by Leo Woods, the owner of the tractor, if I would like to buy his tractor as due to his failing health he had to quit the threshing run. His price for the 22-36 McCormick Deering and 3-14 John Deere plow was $500, and I could have the threshing jobs that summer and any custom plowing he had booked for that fall and the following spring.

Five hundred dollars seemed an awful price to me as I only had a few $25 savings bonds that Uncle Sam took out of my wages in the service. Mr. Woods told me that I could pay him from my earnings that summer threshing and the next spring plowing. Suddenly I was a twenty year old city kid with a tractor and plow, in debt $500, with no note or contract, just a handshake and a promise to pay Mr. Woods.

My first summer threshing share for the tractor was almost $600, and my gas and oil bill was almost $150 (keep in mind gas was about 16 a gallon for farm use). That fall I plowed around 100 acres and had enough cash to pay Mr. Woods in full.

Mr. Woods had an extra tractor, a 15-30 McCormick also on steel, which I mentioned earlier in my story. He approached me to buy it for an extra engine. In case the 22-36 had a severe breakdown, it would be good to have as each day counted in the short season it was used. His price was $150 to be paid for after threshing in 1948 with the same contract, a handshake. I was able to get more than enough plowing that spring to pay him for the 15-30. Mr. Woods has since passed away, but I will always remember him for his faith in me and his help getting me started threshing and plowing.

After the first fall and spring of plowing with a tractor on steel wheels, I was more than willing to accept putting on rubber all around on the 22-36. Our blacksmith, Lorenz Nissen, quoted me a price of $90 to cut down the wheels and put on some used rims. I bought the tires used for around $100. This gave me the additional power in order to put a fourth bottom on the plow. I had quite an outfit for 1948 even though the plow was on steel. I never did convert it to rubber as long as I owned it through 1951.

An experience I had with a 44 Massey Harris was on a large farm north of Pierson. I had been plowing for this man a few days with quite a bit left to do when he purchased a new Massey 44 and three bottom plow to finish quicker. They unloaded the new tractor at the same field I was plowing in, and the farmer hooked on to the new plow. We were plowing real heavy alfalfa, and it was quite warm. The new tractor started down the furrow, and I pulled in behind him not expecting to be able to keep up. The Massey was unable to pull away from me. After a few hundred feet, he started to slow down quite suddenly. I stopped and walked up to him, and the tractor was not running. When he tried the starter, it would just 'klunk'. I told him the engine smelled awfully hot, and sure enough it had gotten hot and stuck the new motor. We got a chain, and I pulled the Massey ahead to raise his plow. The last I saw of the tractor, it was on a truck on the way back to town. I agreed to put in longer days and got his plowing done alone in time for planting.

After I finished the second year of plowing on this large farm, I was on my way back home and passed by a farm of a Mr. Roscoe Preston. He was an older man farming 320 acres all alone with a 'G' John Deere and a three-bottom plow. He waved at me, and I stopped. Soon I had more work helping him finish up his plowing. This job turned out to be mine every year until I quit in 1951. He was also one of the nicest and most amusing men for which I ever worked. His wife was an excellent cook no more cold lunches on the tractor. Mr. Preston would quit early to do chores, and I would continue plowing until ten or eleven o'clock at night without lights.

One night after dark I was plowing corn stalks for him. I could tell the old 22-36 seemed to be running better than normal. I looked back to see the plow was completely off the ground with stalks plugged in it. It took me some time to clean it out and served as a good lesson for me to look back more often.

It was also on Mr. Preston's farm one spring that I pulled the most dumb trick of all. I could plow along with the old 22-36 without steering it as the front wheel was always tight in the furrow and held it there. On occasion I would jump off to run along side the tractor to get warmed up. On this day I was off the tractor and spotted a small rabbit. I thought I could catch him and didn't pay attention to the tractor. The front wheel had gone through a badger hole and jumped out of the furrow. It went acress the unplowed land to the next furrow before I got it stopped. Each round after that I had to go through that furrow. To make it worse, Mr. Preston had seen it happen and asked me about it at the noon meal. He got a real laugh out of it, and that ended my rabbit chasing.

Mr. preston was also quite a practical joker. He liked nothing better than a joke, like pulling the pin out of my clevis at noon. While I was parked at the gas barrel and eating dinner, he would tell me he had filled my gas tank. After eating dinner, I would go back out to the field and run out of gas about two o'clock. He would laugh at me carrying fuel back out to the field. I soon got wise and checked before going back out, even if he insisted there was no joke this time. He was not beyond an occasional wire switch in the magneto either. A few times when it rained, we would quit working and go into town for a game of euckre and a beer or two as he loved to play cards. He and his wife are two people I will never forget, and I will always be proud to have been a part of their lives.

One of my toughest plowing jobs only amounted to six acres. A farmer west of town stopped late one spring after I had the plow put away. He wanted me to help him out as he had tried to plow the field with his 'H' Farmall and two-bottom plow and couldn't pull it. I agreed to be out the next morning and planned on being home by dark easily. I was soon to get the surprise of my plowing days. The field was crescent wheat grass which looked like blue grass above ground but the roots were almost like steel wool. As I entered the field, I could see where he had attempted to plow. Each attempt was only about three feet long with holes dug where his rear tractor wheels had spun.

I lined up with where he had started and put the 22-36 in third gear. I tripped the plow in and went about five feet when the motor almost killed. I backed up a little and put the tractor in second gearI could just barely pull it. This was the first time I couldn't pull the 4-14 easily in second gear. I shifted to first gear and could pull it with quite a bit of slippage. The plow hitch wouldn't stay hooked even with the spring set clear up. I was going too slow to turn the sod clear over, and each furrow was just like a long rope clear across the field. Soon I saw this wasn't working. I unhooked from my 4-14 plow and hooked up his 2-16 plow. I could handle it well in second gear; third gear was a big load with his two bottom plow. He paid me seven dollars an acre and furnished 35 gallons of gas. It was nearly dark that night when I got home.

My five years pulling the Red River Special for the Bierman brothers are full of great memories of some of the serious situations we had and the practical jokes for which these brothers were noted. One of the Bierman brothers, Harry, who always tended the grain wagon and kept track of the bushels threshed, was the biggest practical joker of the five brothers.

Harry had one brother that always seemed to be in line for one of his jokes. This brother would usually like to sit on my tractor while waiting to have his turn to unload his bundles. The tractor, being on rubber, would rock him to sleep, even with the engine noise. On this particular day Harry got the oil can from the separator and squirted oil on the manifold until the smoke almost completely engulfed the tractor. Then he walked to the rear of the tractor and hollered 'Fire!' I can still see his brother Roy raise his head from a sound sleep and upon seeing the smoke, he did a complete flip backward to the ground. He ran twenty to thirty feet on his hands and knees to escape the smoke.

We only had a couple of serious incidents while threshing that I can recall. One occasion could have been fatal to one of the men or me, but luck was on our side. It was at the end of the day, and the last two loads were at the separator. It was the custom for the two men unloading last to clean up under the feeder. My dad would usually help, too. I was sitting on the tractor, watching the last work of the day wind down when all at once one of the men was almost knocked to the ground. He had stuck his fork into the drive belt that was traveling back towards the tractor. I can still see that pitch fork coming towards the tractor. It was going too fast for me to even move out of the way. As it approached the tractor, the end of the handle stuck right into the radiator. With a shower of wood splinters, the metal part of the fork stayed in the belt. As it hit the pulley on the tractor, it came loose and bounced off the tire onto the ground.

It was really lucky that no one was hurt. My dad came back to the tractor to tell me to shut it down. He stood at the front of the tractor and motioned for me to get down and come to the front of the tractor. My knees were almost too weak to hold me up. The pitch fork handle had left a hole about two inches across and tore out the first two rows of cores in the radiator. Since it was close to dark, we waited until morning to repair the radiator by pinching off the cores above and below the hole and putting in a few tubes of silver seal. The radiator damage caused my tractor to run warm after losing some of the circulation. On some warm days, it would boil all the time, and I would have to add water two or three times a day.

During each threshing season there was at least one customer who would try to take you financially if possible. To measure the oats we threshed and to collect the fee per bushel, we always estimated the bushels per wagon and never used the weigher on the grain elevator. As we always used the same three or four wagons for grain, we just kept track of the wagons and multiplied times the estimated bushels each held. Every year at one certain farm, there was always at least one of this man's small children put in the grain wagon to stomp in more bushels. To this day I'm sure he thought he had pulled a fast one on the Bierman brothers and me. But they always called each wagon five bushels more when we threshed at his farm than at the other farms.

A few nights after our last job for the season when we had everyone's bills figured up, one of the Bierman brothers would invite the husbands and wives from each farm where we threshed and any others that helped to come to their home in the evening for a lunch. There they gave the bills to the farmers for whom we had threshed. My dad and I would always furnish the ice cream. One couple always came every time with their whole family. Could they ever pack the lunch and sandwiches away and eat ice cream like there would never be anymore!

In the last season of 1951, the Bierman brothers decided to quit threshing as combines were taking over and we only had six jobs that summer. In the fall of 1951, I sold the 22-36 and four-bottom plow to a young farmer who did some plowing with it for one year and traded it for a milk cooler. I sold the old 15-30 to a man who used it for a few years on belt work grinding.

My dad has been gone over twelve years, and only one of the Bierman brothers is still alive. I would give a lot to go back to those days and again associate with all those people I have been privileged to know and work with.

My son Joel and I have started a collection of McCormick tractors over the past few years. We have a 1941 John Deere 28' thresher and a 1929 McCormick 22-36 and our own McCormick binder. We try to thresh some oats every year. But I sure would like to have my old 22-36 and plow back and the Red River Special that I played and worked around.