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The era of pull-type combines: Part 1

Grainews looks back at the evolution of today's combine, from 1886 to 1991

In the beginning the harvester thresher or combine as it came to be known was strictly “pull type” — and pulling was hard. It’s generally believed the Holt Company of Stockton, California, sold the first commercial combine in North America in 1886. It was a 14-foot cut, ground drive machine pulled by up to 14 horses. The market was the wheat growing area of northern California and Washington State. Holt made several machines including at least one with a 50-foot table pulled by 40 horses. He also pioneered the “hillside combine,” which although made of wood had main wheels that could be raised or lowered while moving to keep the threshing body level.

The Holt combine continued to evolve until sold to John Deere in 1936. (The brilliant inventor Benjamin Holt also pioneered early crawler tractors, and is the person behind today’s Caterpillar brand crawlers.) There was a Canadian Holt Company but there is no public record of their sales in Canada.

The harvester evolution began in earnest with the manpower shortage created by the First World War and got the attention of harvesting leaders like International Harvester. The experimental development of an IHC Harvester Thresher began with a horse drawn, ground drive, straight cut machine in 1913.

photo: Courtesy Caterpillar Inc.

By 1915 the Deering Number 1 had taken shape and was available for sale. In the 1916 crop year, the McCormick Number 2, which featured the newly invented straw walkers, joined it. Both were nine-foot machines but could be extended to 12 feet if enough horses were available to power the “bull wheel” ground drive.

By 1925 tractor-drawn combines with engine drives were available, though horse hitches were still common. In the early 1930s power take off drives were featured and rubber tires were starting to appear, but due to the severe drought and depression of the “Dirty Thirties” there was limited demand in Western Canada. In 1935 a modern, new IHC Number 22 was introduced. There is a well-preserved example with PTO drive and rubber tires in the Country Heritage Park near Milton, Ontario.

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The first on-farm

For many Canadian farms the first combine was a small, tractor-drawn, engine-powered four- to eight-foot machine, and the 1930s and early 1940s saw a proliferation of these. The most common were IH models 42- 52- 62-64, JD 12A-25-30, MH Clipper, Case A6, or AC Allcrop, but smaller companies like MM, Oliver, Cockshutt and Ford (Dearborn) also had entries as farmers decided to take full control of their grain harvesting and not rely on their turn in the threshing ring. The tractor driver could operate all of these small combines, and the limited capacity meant that small trucks and/or grain wagons could keep up.

Some western farms had bigger pull-type combines, which involved a second person to operate the combine from a raised platform overlooking the feeder house. This was often the “senior” person who carried over from being the stationary “thresher man.”

In Western Canada swathers and windrow pick up attachments were common to allow dry down of weed growth. Prairie farmers were also leaders in creating demand for larger combines such as the IH 31T or 31RD (spike tooth or rasp bar cylinder) or the JD-Holt-inspired 17 or 36B (gravity dump and front operator platform or auger and over the feeder house operator position).

photo: Courtesy Caterpillar Inc.

In the case of our family farm in southern Manitoba, the first combine was a 1940 JD number 17 on steel wheels. It had a 16-foot header cut down to 12 feet and a drum pick up. A six-cylinder Hercules engine located over the single front wheel powered it. The exhaust pipe and clean air intake extended up past the front of the operator’s deck. The engine ran a bit better in the cool of evening, so the tractor driver could step up a half mile an hour, the grain rattled down from the clean grain elevator, the exhaust pipe glowed red and life was good. Getting ready in the morning was less fun with over 100 grease fittings plus chains to tighten and sometimes cylinder teeth to straighten. A 1948 model with rubber tires and a few sealed bearings replaced the old model 17.

The transition from threshing to combining was hard for many mixed farmers, who had beef cattle and were embracing the new “loose housing” concept. The idea of no straw stack to provide shelter in winter and no straw for the cows to munch on during long winter nights was cause for concern. This was the case on our farm, so my dad and the local blacksmith designed and built a conveyor system to replace the combine straw spreader. The straw was delivered to a trailer-mounted forage box, which took it to the cattle yard where it was blown into a pile with a portable blower made from that part of a salvage threshing machine. It was a lot of work but still far less than the threshing gang.

The 1940s and the Second World War saw the beginning of major changes to crop harvesting in Western Canada. I hope to share some of that story with you in a future issue of Grainews.

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