A Miracle In The Wheat Field

By Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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