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The Grain Binder
The Grain Binder

The Grain Binder

by Larry Scheckel of Tomah, WI

No sooner was first crop hay “put up” and it was time to “shock grain”. We could see it coming, a sea of green oats slowly turning to a duller, lighter green, then toward a yellow hue. The oats were ripening. It was a beautiful sight to witness the undulating fields turning golden yellow.

Dad would walk out into the oat fields of the 238 acre farm out on Oak Grove Ridge in the heart of Crawford County, near Seneca in southwestern Wisconsin. He would reach down and pull a few grains from the stalks. Then he would shuck the grains in his hand and open up the husks, inspect the fullness of the pods, and shake a handful of oats for heft. Dad would announce at the supper table, “Tomorrow, we get the grain binder out.”

The McCormick-Deering 8 ft grain binder was stored in the east wing of the granary. The east wing held the tractor, grain binder, oats fanning machine and assorted junk. The west wing stored the corn binder, drags, disk, and assorted junk.

The next morning, Dad and his three sons, Phillip, Bob, and I would slowly pull the grain binder out of the shed and start getting it ready.

We could tell that Dad was excited about getting started. Most of the neighbors were combining oats by the time I was about 10 years old. The Scheckels did not have a combine. We had a grain binder and threshing machine. That meant “greasing her up”, unwrapping the canvas that moved the grain through the machine, and sharpening the sickle bar.

The 8 ft sickle bar was pulled out of the cutter bar and clamped in a vise. The triangular knife sections were sharpened with a file. Loose blades were repaired by shearing off the two soft rivets holding it to the bar. New rivets were installed. New blades replaced old and worn blades.

There were zerts to be greased, oil cups filled, and oil squirted in holes made for that purpose. Dad had a manual for the McC-D grain binder, but I suspect he did not pay much attention to it.

When we were little boys, Phillip, Bob, and I were “gophers”. We would get things for Dad.

Dad: “Go to the garage, and get the sledge hammer and wrench set”.

Phillip: “Lawrence, you go”.

Lawrence: “Bob, you heard Dad, go get the sledge hammer and wrench set”.

This might go around a second time, before Dad in a much louder and sterner voice sent us off to do the task.

The next step needed to get the binder field-ready was to install the three canvases. Each canvas was stretched over two wooden rollers. Narrow hardwood strips were riveted about every ten inches on one side of the canvas. The canvas was hemmed on all four sides to keep it from tearing or ripping. The strong canvas was three feet wide, but varied from 10 feet to 20 feet in length. Each canvas had three or four canvas straps on one end and metal buckles on the other end.

The reel canvas was the long one and conveyed the cut grain stalks sideways to the end of the platform. The two elevated canvases moved in opposite directions. They were at a slant and raised above the big bull wheel. The grain stalks from the horizontal reel platform were grappled by the two slanted elevator canvases and carried up to the tying deck. The grain sheaves dropped off the canvas and were collected into a bundle for tying.

Those canvases were a pain to install and they had to be put on correctly. The metal strap buckles must lead in the direction the canvas turned. Then the thick straps were threaded through the metal buckles and pulled tight. Not too tight and not too loose.

It was important that the buckles have the same tightness, so that the canvas would run straight. Dad taught us all that. Sometimes he was impatient and simply said “I’ll do that”. It was another way of saying that his three sons were too slow.

I learned to look at the gap between the two ends of the canvas. It the gap was the same along all three feet of width, then I suspected the tightness of each buckle was about right.

That canvas was heavy material and expensive. Farmers took good care of their grain binder canvas. At the end of the day, the canvas was taken off, especially if there was a threat of rain. Which meant, of course, that the canvas had to be restrung and tightened the next morning before cutting grain.

Mice and rats liked to chew on that canvas. Most farmers would roll up the canvas, bundle the canvas up with binder twine, and store them in gunny sacks. The gunny sacks were suspended from the rafters in mid air with baling wire or binder twine. Mice could not get at the canvas.

One year my Dad did not get that done or done very well. Grain cutting time came around and down came the canvas bundles. The canvas was rolled out and inspected. Then came the swearing. The mice had a very good winter, gnawing away at the canvas and straps. We boys heard every ‘Gol’ Darn”, and “Son-Of- A-#*X^#!”. Dad would swear, but his boys were not allowed to. Dad was not a happy farmer for a few hours. Canvas was expensive to buy and time consuming to repair.

The thin hardware laths would wear and break. Canvas was attached to the wood slats by copper rivets. Under the stress and strain, the rivets would pop. Old rivets had to be removed and replaced by new ones.

The last step to getting the grain ready for action was to install bales of binder twine. Dad bought rolls of binder twine from Johnson’s in Seneca or in Prairie du Chien or Viroqua. The round bin on the grain binder held two spools. Each spool of twine came in a black paper wrapper.

The end of one spool was knotted to the beginning of another spool so that the farmer would never run out of binder twine when cutting grain. There was always a spare spool sitting in the spool bin. The twine from a single spool would stretch several thousand feet. But, we never tried it. We boys did a lot of foolish and stupid stuff when we were kids, but unwinding a roll of binder twine was not one of them!

I loved the smell of binder twine. Binder twine came from Sisal, a plant from Mexico. We’ve seen those big round rolls of used binder twine, some standing taller than a man. Somebody is always trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records with the “World’s Largest Roll of Binder Twine”.

I was particularly intrigued to learn of an annual Binder Twine Festival held in Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada, a bit north of Toronto. The Festival started when farmers in the late 1800’s would come to town to buy binder twine for binding sheaves of wheat. One enterprising merchant offered food and drink on Binder Twine Night and the Festival was born.

Kleinburg, population 5000, has a Binder Twine parade, Binder Twine Queen contest, and a quilt raffle. The Queen contest requires contestants to demonstrate their abilities in cow milking, hog calling, and log sawing. Right off, I know this is the kind of festival I could support! An additional event is kept secret so the ladies cannot practice ahead of time. Held right after Labor Day, the Binder Twine Festival draws in about 25,000 people a year.

It is truly amazing how one man can revolutionize an entire industry, indeed a whole way of life. Cyrus McCormick has been dubbed “the father of modern agriculture”. The Virginia inventor patented a reaper in 1834. The first units cut the standing grain, with the help of a revolving reel. The cut grain was swept onto a platform where it was raked off into piles by a man walking alongside.

Some inventions involve gigantic and contentious patent struggles or discoveries. Famous and infamous cases involve who invented calculus, the movie camera, radio, the North Pole, airplane, light bulb, telephone, and the Internet.

The decision as to whether our country was going to go with an Alternating Current (AC) system favored by George Westinghouse or a Direct Current (DC) system, favored by Thomas Edison, was one such battle. Westinghouse won.

And so it was with the grain combine, at the time called a reaper. Obed Hussey, a Quaker from Baltimore, Maryland, was revered for his hard work, honesty, and integrity. A humble man, Hussey had a strong sense of righteousness and justice. He patented a reaper on the last day of the year 1833. The patent contained the essence of all grain reapers that followed; a cutter blade run by a pitman arm that was driven by the main axle of the machine. A pitman is a metal arm that converts rotary motion to back and forth motion. The pitman arm moves the cutter blade to and fro, shearing off the grain, and the grain fell on a platform.

Six months after Hussey filed his patent, Cyrus McCormick, hailing from Walnut Grove, Virginia, received a patent for essentially the same kind of machine. Years of litigation followed. McCormick spent ten years improving his machines.

Finally, in 1861, the U.S. Patent office issued a ruling on the reaper. It ruled that Obed Hussey should be given monies for his hard work and innovation by those who made money off the reaper. It also renewed the McCormick patent for another 7 years.

And it was only after Cyrus McCormick bought rights to Hussey’s cutter-bar mechanism in 1850, did his reaper experience mainstream success. Hussey’s grain reaper used a saw-like cutter bar that cut oats and wheat far more effectively than McCormick’s.

Just at the time when his patent fight was before Congress, and almost certain victory, Obed Hussey met an untimely end.

Hussey was en route from Boston to Portland, Maine. Train cars carried no water in those days. A child aboard the train became very thirsty. When the train stopped at a station, Hussey debarked from the steam train and fetched the kid some water. As he attempted to get back aboard the train, it had already started moving. He slipped, fell, and got ran over by the train, killed instantly.

Farmers were reluctant at first to purchase “a contraption seemingly a cross between a wheelbarrow, a chariot, and a flying machine”. However, by 1841 the machine caught on. McCormick moved his factory to Chicago in 1847. By 1851, his reaper was an international sensation. McCormick’s won the Gold medal at the London Crystal Palace Exposition. He stunned audiences in Hamburg, Vienna, and Paris. McCormick was elected to the French Academy of Science “as having done more for agriculture than any other living man”. By 1858, a selfraking reaper had an endless canvas belt that moved the grain to 2 men riding at the end of the platform who bundled the grain stalks. By 1872 McCormick had moved to Chicago, built a factory, and devised a means of automatically binding the bundles with wire. The fact that a bundle could be tied mechanically, not by hand, is what made the difference between a grain reaper and a grain binder.

By the late 1850’s several grain harvesting machines were coming out, including the McCormick factory in Chicago, that uses a piece of wire to bind grain. It was a simple mechanism, as a simple twist of the wire would fasten the two ends together.

Ah, but wire had a problem, actually two problems. Bits of wire were ingested by cattle and killed. Today we would call it “hardware disease” and a simple magnet placed in the cow’s stomach can take care of the problem. No such cure back in the 1860’s and 1870’s.

The second big problem was the milling of the grain. Bits of wire were causing problems for millers, businesses that crushed the grain into flour. Wire was damaging mill stones and cloth used to hold the flour. Sparks caused by stone striking metal set fires and burned down several mills. Farmers and millers both ended up with lacerated fingers.

Luckily, a Wisconsin pastor, John F. Appleby, invented a knotting device using twine instead of wire. There is a Wisconsin Historical Marker in Mazomanie, which is on Highway 14 about 20 miles west of Madison. At one time, it was located along Highway 14. It got moved to 118 Brodhead Street north of West Exchange St. It is located next to the Mazomanie Historical Society Museum.

The inscription reads “It was here at Mazomanie in the late 1870’s that John F. Appleby perfected the knotter. Still used on binders and balers, the knotter is a mechanical device which binds grain into compact bundles with twine”.

Appleby was born in New York State but spent his boyhood in Walworth County. In his youth he was intrigued by his mother’s nimble fingers tying knots as she worked at a spinning wheel. Thus inspired, Appleby carved his first “birdbill” knotting device from wood.

Following service in the Civil War, Appleby moved to Mazomanie where he perfected the knotter in his brother-in-law’s machine shop. He tested and proved his invention in a grain field adjacent to the village. At the time Mazomanie was a prosperous farm trade center, boasting a knitting mill, brewery, foundry, machine shop and flour mill.

Appleby’s knotter was a major landmark in the mechanization of agriculture. It sped development of America’s western wheat empire and of the farm implement dynasties which have made American agriculture the world’s most productive.”

By 1880, William Deering reached an agreement with Appleby to use Appleby knotters on all his binders. The Deering grain binder went into full production in 1879.

Soon the McCormick Company was installing Appleby knotters. Finally, all the farmer needed was one driver and a good team of horses. By early 1900’s, the McCormick company, Deering, and several small firms combined to form the famed International Harvester Company.

The Scheckel’s McCormick-Deering 8 ft grain binder, as it was used in the field, was too wide to pass through farm gates and narrow lanes. The field-ready machine was about 15 feet wide. That was certainly too wide to travel on the gravel road running through the Scheckel farm.

The binder was mounted on two removable transport wheels permitting it to be pulled lengthwise out to the field. The two steel trolley wheels were used only to get the binder to the field.

Out to the field we would go, Dad driving the horses hitched to the tongue that extended out from under the outer edge of the cutting platform. The three Scheckel boys tagged along begging to drive the horses. Our sisters Catherine, Rita, and later Diane, would bring a quart canning jar filled with cold water and ice cubes.

Dolly, Prince, and Sam, our three faithful work horses, were unhitched from the tongue. The platform had to be raised up so that the tongue could be unlatched.

The big bull wheel, about 4 feet in diameter and one foot wide, was cranked down. The large bull wheel supported the main part of the binder, the heavy metal working parts. It was the bull wheel that powered the entire machine, the cutting bar, the big reel in front, the rollers that moved the canvas, the knotter, and the mechanism that kicked out the bundles. All moving parts got their marching orders from the bull wheel.

The bull wheel was cranked down sufficiently to raise the two smaller transport wheels off the ground so that they could be disconnected. The two wheels were rolled off to the side and parked along the fence row or under a shade tree. The next time they would be used was to transport the grain binder to another field. The front transport wheel is positioned up and off the ground.

What a grand majestic sight it was! The big reel rotating and wind milling, tipping the oats stems slightly just as the grain hits the cutting bar, insuring the grain will fall back on the canvas moving the grain stalks to the binder machinery. The two counter-rotating slanting elevator canvases carried the grain up and over the apex, then down the other side, gathering and building a bundle, Ah, the knotter, it moves so fast, I could never figure out how it actually worked. Then, just when enough oat stalks were gathered to make a bundle, a cutter sliced the twine, and two curved foot-long prongs rotated around and kicked out the bundle.

The bundles fell on a side carrier that was made of five or six tines. Dad would let three or four bundles gather on the carrier, then with a foot pedal, release the bundles onto the ground. This way he could keep the shocks in fairly straight rows. The grain binder was not only a pretty sight for a farmer’s eye, but the sound from a grain binder was unique.

Sounds from the sickle bar, slicing back and forth, reel hitting grain, rollers, gears turned by the big bull wheel. A cacophony of pleasant sounds that could and should be set to music!

The binder was a complex machine for its time. There were a myriad of things to go wrong. Blades came loose from the sickle bar. Heavy grass in the ravines could clog the machine. Two spools of twine were stored in a cylinder on the back, right below the seat. The end of the twine from top bundle was knotted to the beginning of the lower second bundle. That knot had to feed smoothly through the machine. If it did not, more delays. A long chain, driven by the bull wheel, ran over 4 driven pulleys and a couple of idler gears. That chain could break. The knotter could cause problems. The canvas could tear.

It seems a whole afternoon of cutting grain did not go by without one breakdown or another. And always, the machine needed “greasing up”. So by every entrance to the field, there was a rest spot, a place to park the two transport wheels, the grease gun, the jars of water, a place to sit in the shade of a tree if possible.

The McCormick Deering 8 ft binder had the platform off to the left. That meant the first pass around a new field was made clockwise. The grain all around the edge of the field was cut first. Some grain got knocked over by the horses or tractor and the big bull wheel. After that first clockwise swath, the binder was turned around and the remainder of the field was cut going counter-clockwise.

We three Scheckel boys helped get the binder ready to make that first pass.

Then we sat in the shade of the big oak tree, or on the knoll rock trees, or the huge willow tree. Every field seemed to have a “rest tree”. The binder, horses, and Dad had to make 3 or 4 passes around the field before there was sufficient bundles to start shocks. Then it became a race just to keep up.

I was a typical kid on the farm, always wanting to do more grownup things. During oats harvesting time, carrying water to the workers in the field was the first assigned tasks. When we were a little older, about 12 years old, we learned to shock grain.

Learning to make a good shock that would stand up to the wind was not easy. Dad or Mom showed us how. We wore a straw hat with string beneath the chin. That straw hat was the only protection against the scorching summer sun. We donned long sleeve shirts so the grain bristles did not cut into the arms. Levis or blue jeans, whitish canvas gloves from Johnson’s One-Stop Shopping Center, and farmer shoes completed our grain shocking outfit.

The Scheckels made a nine bundle shock. A bundle was grabbed under each arm. One knee was thrust forward a tad, and a bundle placed on each side of the knee with the tops of each bundle touching. Usually the two bundles, with bristle ends on the ground about 18 inches apart, could support themselves free-standing. If not, you picked the bundles up and tried again.

This technique was repeated two more times, two bundles on each side of the original two and slightly turned in on the ends. Now, a competent “shocker” had a good start. Six bundles free standing, three on one side, three on the other.

Two more bundles were added, one on each side, and placed at the center of the three on each side. Finally a cap, to shed the rain, was made. The last, and ninth bundle, was held with the stalk ends against the tummy, and the tops bent and fanned out. Same with the bristle end, fanned out. Then this cap was placed on top of the eight bundles, with further bending of the stalks fanned out and down.

Around the field we would go. Because Dad dumped the bundles every 30 or 40 feet, rows of shocks perpendicular to the direction of the binder path, started to develop. It seemed we could never keep up, shocking as fast as the grain was cut. The areas of unshocked grain got bigger and areas of shock didn’t seem to grow.

At the end of the day, sometimes after chores were done, we would all go out in the field and catch up on the shocking-Dad, Mom, Phillip, Lawrence, and Bob. The sun was lower, the air cooler, and dew might start to develop.

There were those brief moments, at the end of the day, slight breeze blowing, sun low on the horizon, cumulus clouds above, crows cawing, moon somewhere in the sky, you could look around and see those stocks standing tall against a clear blue sky, and you knew you had accomplished something. A real thing of beauty!

That sense of looking at your handiwork never left me. Later in my teaching career, I would have many wonderful experiences. Teaching is working with people, young people in particular. There is certainly a sense of accomplishment. But they are always “works in progress”, because people are never finished.

The oat field was finished. You can stand back and look at your handiwork and say “I did this, I made this”. A grain field has a smell to it, and it’s a smell you never forget. That smell can change, and is largely dependent on the weather. Hot dry days yield one kind of smell, and with a little rain or humidity, the smell is a tad different.

There were a few times when we got sloppy and careless. This would bring on a “shock making” lesson from Dad or Mom. They didn’t want to see, or worse yet, have the neighbors observe, shocks that were not standing “straight and tall” after a few days.

Oats in the early years were prone to high winds. The Scheckels “shocked and threshed” oats and wheat, and those crops could be cut a week or so before the oats that were combined.

We had our share of grain bent over, sometimes nearly flattened, by summer storms, but not to the extent of our neighbors who combined grain and perhaps had to wait out one extra storm.

Dad controlled a lever on the binder that could lower and raise the cutting bar. The cutting bar could be maneuvered to the point of digging into the ground to pick up storm blown-down oats stalks. If the binder was lucky enough to be going the opposite direction the stalks were laying, virtually no grain would be lost. The bundles might come out a little ragged, but that was a small price to pay for not losing grain.

I always felt sorry for our neighbors who bought and used a grain combine. The combine cut and threshed the grain in one pass or operation. They were not able to cut grain that was completely flattened. They seemed to lose as much as half their crop. As I lived on the farm during the late 1940’s and all through the 1950’s, I believe crop specialists developed varieties that were stronger and better resisted the wind.

Those were long hot summer days. The sun beat down relentlessly, sometimes it was a bit humid, close to the summer solstice, so daylight was close to 15 hours. And believe you me, we seemed not to waste a single daylight hour!!

The sun came up about 5:00 AM, move the cows into the barn, get the milking done, four cows by hand, no milking machine. Carry feed and water to the chicken coop. Hogs had to be fed. Small calves that were not out in the pasture needed feeding. After 45 minutes or an hour of chores, we were in the house for breakfast.

We all ate at the same time, usually a big pot of oatmeal, plenty of milk, homemade bread, butter, jam. Dad lead grace, and we dug in. If you were a little kid, you helped with the dishes. Older kids had assigned jobs.

We were done with breakfast by 7:30 AM. Then fixing machinery, fences, pull weeds from the garden, or fields, mow lawn, gather eggs, odd chores until the sun burned off the dew. Get the horses in, harnessed, out to the field for grain cutting and shocking. The binder was ready to go around 10 o’clock. Then shocking grain all day until perhaps 4 PM. Chores again, chickens, hogs, calves. Eat supper at 5 PM, say rosary at 5:30 PM, go out and milk cows at 6 PM. Put the cows out to pasture, done at about 7 PM. Maybe 2 hours till bedtime, and the whole process starting again the next morning. These were long hot summer days in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin on the Scheckel farm out on Oak Grove Ridge during my boyhood years in the 1940s and 1950s. It seemed that we were following the Biblical admonition from Genesis 3:19, “Ye shall earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow”. And threshing was coming up.

The Grain Binder