With harvest sputtering off to a slow start we all have combines in mind. My barley (malt, I hope — perhaps wishful thinking) is safely in the bin and dry. It was my great pleasure to run Curtis Block’s S 680 for a few hours in that crop. For me, that marked 61 continuous years of running combines. I’ve watched the advance of technology from the seat of many of them.
I’ll start with my first experience in 1955 on Brunswick Farm, near Milden, Sask., where I was raised.
My father had poor eyesight and hired operators to run his combine. When I was 15 he decided I was old enough to do the job. Dad hired a local person to spend an afternoon with me to show me how to operate and set the machine. The day was cloudy and damp. All these years later I remember Mick Hurlburt (senior) remarking that it really was not a great day for thrashing so the final sample had some unthreshed heads.
That first combine was an Oliver 30 Grain Master (see photo above). The Milden area was littered with them — local dealer Lew Dugan was a great salesman.
It had a 28-inch cylinder and 12-foot header. It was powered by a six-cylinder flat head Continental magneto ignition engine with a nice “throaty” rumble under load. The Oliver 30 was designed as a straight cut and worked well in that mode. The table canvas delivered the material to a cross conveyor with a raddle that delivered the material to the cylinder with little turning.
By the time I came along in 1955 all crop was swathed (15 feet) and picked up with a crude drum pickup with steel teeth. We had few rocks in our clay soil but one dark night a fist size rock went in, lodged in the cylinder and instantly killed the motor. Sudden silence. It bent three rub bars that had to be removed, taken to town to get straightened, and put back in.
Running lights were those provided by the 55 MH tractor plus a 100 watt six volt bulb hung on the operator’s platform and connected to the tractor battery. Removal of the rub bars waited until morning.
Swaths went in as a narrow ribbon so not all of the 28-inch cylinder was properly utilized. The capacity was small and travel speed was low in a good crop. We often joked that you had to put up a stick to make sure you were moving. Barley and oats thresh much easier than wheat so we could speed up a bit. I remember a long day when Dad and I binned almost 1,000 bushels of barley. That would take an hour or less with modern machines.
There was no unloading auger so all dumps were a stop and snug the truck in close to dump by gravity.
We had “modern” conveniences of hydraulic table lift with the tractor and a remote thresher engaging lever that could be reached from the tractor seat so it was a one man (or in my case boy) job.
The main limitation of that combine was the 90 degree turn in the cross conveyor. If the cylinder plugged, we had to remove the cross conveyor to get at the cylinder. I have not-so-fond memories of Dad holding the flashlight while I dealt with that issue. But, at that age anything is possible.
I ran that combine for three years and was always happy to pick up the last swath. My sister Mona and her husband Roy Gates farmed nearby. Roy would sometimes come along with his “huge” Massey 90 to help. It was a great joy to see him pull in and know the job would be much smaller.
After three years of the Oliver 30 I was finished high school and Dad traded the Oliver for a used Cockshutt 132 self-propelled combine. It had a 15-foot header and pickup attachment. There was only one table and the reels were removed and pickup attached to the same table — a several hour job for me. Today, a change from pickup to straight cut header is a few minutes’ job.
One year Dad was in hospital so a local lad was hired to truck. Many dumps were taken on the fly, with the combine operator (me) using hand signals to guide the truck driver. It was a thrill to be able to do it. I had learned the trick as a 14-year old truck driver taking dumps from a Massey 27.
The 132 had a 32-inch cylinder with separating area of the same width. The 137 was the same combine but with 37-inch straw walkers.
The 132 had hydraulic table lift and a hydraulically driven variable speed mechanism activated by a foot pedal. The operator platform was low down and the operator sat right in the dust kicked up from the pickup, auger and feeder chain. Goggles were a must on a windy day.
At that time we swathed most of the cereal grains but straight cut the flax. Flax was always seeded late and matured late so it was an October job. Cool weather with not much dust and a nice job. Straight cutting flax is a favourite of mine, but I have not had a chance for many years.
Another combine I have operated to straight cut flax was a Case K12. It had the operator’s platform on the right hand side. The elder Mr. MacGregor near Zealandia, Sask., had a field of flax to combine on a Thanskgiving weekend in October 1958 and hired me to run his Case K12 while he trucked.
It was a nice clean crop, the combine worked well and it was a fun job. It had a manual variable speed mechanism with a pull lever with notches but it worked fine. The good part of that job was that I made $100 for a weekend’s work — big money in those days, $850 in today’s dollars.
In 61 years many changes have taken place in combines but one thing has stayed much the same. It takes about half an hour to fill the hopper (grain tank) with an ordinary wheat crop, 20 minutes for barley and less for oats.
And it is still a thrill to see the crop feed in and the grain pour in the hopper and then to the truck or cart.
This is No. 1 in a series; the second part will come later in the winter.