This essay by Christopher Wiley on the development of the combine harvester won the 2010 Washington State History Day award presented by HistoryLink.org for Outstanding Essay on Washington State History in the Junior Division. Christopher, an eighth-grade student of teacher Dean Smith at Housel Middle School in Prosser, Benton County, traces the invention and evolution of this vital piece of farm equipment and its huge contribution to agriculture in general, and to Washington state in particular.
Headers and Threshers
The combine harvester is the most modern harvester of wheat. It’s called a combine because it “combines” the job of the header and thresher which were its predecessors. The combine is tied to the Midwest; it also had a great impact on the Northwest and specifically Washington State. The first combine was made by Hiram Moore in 1836 and was ahead of its time (Keith). Change wasn’t accepted so it would have to wait till the end of the century for its turn. After it did become the dominant harvesting method, it revolutionized the way the world ran. It was successful because it made farming safer, more profitable, and brought food to many. But through the1800s, the header and the thresher were king.
The header was pushed through the field by six horses from the back of the machine (Keith). Pushing from the back reduced crop trampling. On the front edge of the header was a row of sharp teeth called sickles (Brumfield). Sliding back and forth in a blur, they touched the wheat stalk first and sliced it. To keep the wheat from falling on the ground, a reel circled around and paddles knocked the wheat into the header (Doty). The height of the header could be changed to keep it out of the dirt, and to make sure all the wheat was cut. Then a draper in the bottom of the header slid to the side of the header like the belt on the checkout counter of a grocery store. The wheat went up a sort of chute, and fell down into a wagon driving alongside the header. This wagon was pulled by four horses (Doty). When the wagon was full, the header stopped, the wagon pulled out, another came in, and they started over. All moving parts were turned by the “bull wheel” which was like a gear. The header was 12 feet wide and could cut 30 acres a day (Brumfield).
Wagons then traveled to the thresher which was placed at a central harvest site to reduce distance traveled. The thresher was first run by horses walking in circles. Later, steam engines ran the machine (Keith). The wagon was unloaded and wheat was dropped next to the thresher. Here it was pitched inside the thresher (Schillinger). The thresher threshed the wheat until the kernels fell from the head. The kernels, having now been threshed, came back out of the machine in one spot, the straw and chaff came out another (Wiley). The thresher had a crew of six people. The “Separator man” was a talented mechanic who constantly serviced the machine. The “Sack-jig” filled the burlap sacks with grain that came out a spout (Brumfield/Ag Mag.). When the sack was full he passed it to one of two “Sack sewers” who sewed the sacks up lightning fast (Sherman). It is estimated that together, they sewed 1000 sacks a day. While the sacks weighed about 140 pounds, sewers tossed sacks 50 feet into a pile like they were weightless (Schillinger/Brumfield/Sherman). Since the thresher didn’t move, the straw that came out the back would eventually plug the machine. The “Straw-buck” threw the straw into a small wagon and hauled it away with a team of two horses (Ag Mag/Brumfield). Later, a fan blower was added that pushed the straw out and away from the machine. Then the “Straw-buck” didn’t have quite as much work. The “Fireman” burned wood to run the boilers. George Stockton Berry came up with the idea of burning straw to heat the boilers which produced the steam. Fires were occasionally started this way. The total harvest crew was about 30 men and 30 horses.
The Combine Harvester
In the early 1900s it was the combine’s time. The combine used the same number of people; however it did take up to 40 horses. Thirty to 36 pulled the machine; the rest pulled a wagon that gathered the grain sacks the sack sewers would throw off the machine as they rode along. Imagine that the thresher was the wagon that drove along the side of the header. Now attach the header to the side of the thresher and add about 30 horses to the thresher. This was the first horse drawn combine (Keith/Doty/Brumfield/Schillinger). Combines could weigh over fifteen tons and the header could be thirty feet wide. (See appendix 1) The combine could harvest 40 acres a day (Brumfield/Keith). The crew included the separator man, the driver, and the header tender who controlled the header, the sack jig, and two sack sewers. Despite everyone’s hard work, harvest crewmen earned only three dollars a day during the early 1900s (Green).
Now that you can compare the combine and thresher, it is plain to see why the combine is considered an innovation. Total harvest crews were now under 10 instead of over 30. This was huge for farmers since most had a tight budget. Besides a lunch break the combine could go all day without stopping. The thresher had to wait for wagons to come back so they didn’t dump the wheat on the ground. This saved hours of precious time. The combine could travel faster than a header because the horses pulled instead of pushed (Keith). They walked in front of the thresher portion, the wheat was to the side of them (Doty). The combine could harvest 40 acres a day instead of a couple hundred a season that the thresher could produce (Schillinger). Through 1911-1919, steam was slowly replaced with a gasoline engine which meant farmers didn’t need wood or straw to heat the boilers. The combine for some farmers meant bigger crops because they could get all their wheat cut before the rain without going bankrupt hiring men and machinery (Brumfield/Wiley). Like almost everything else, the combine wasn’t perfect. Before, it might have been easy to get a job on a threshing crew. With the numbers reduced from 30 or more to five or six, there were some people who might have been out of a job. It is possible that since the demand for machinery grew and the demand for machine shop workers grew with it, people might have found a job here instead.
The first combines had problems with tipping over on steep hills (Keith/Brumfield). When this happened, it wasn’t just a small setback because fifteen tons just tipped over. The falling over would be very dangerous for two reasons. People could easily be crushed and fires could be started by coals that fell out of the boiler heaters (Wiley). After it fell over, it had to be picked up. This would be difficult and dangerous as well. It would be easier to prevent it from falling in the first place. To solve this, in 1891 a company called Holt from California invented a tilting mechanism. These combines were called hillsides. The upper part of the machine tilted towards the top of the hill giving the vehicle better balance (Combine Harvester/Brumfield). The rest all stayed level with the ground. This was a major break-through that saved the lives of people and animals, reduced the chance of fires, and saved money from being spent on repair bills (Brumfield/Keith). Lastly, in 1919 the first national surplus of wheat was harvested, boosting the economy. This was right when the combine became popular. Low prices did mean bad news for farmers barely getting by.
The combine didn’t stop with horses. Change was once again needed. In 1925, a company called International Harvester from Chicago, Illinois released its first line of tractor pulled combines (Schillinger). Farmers didn’t even have to go buy a new combine. It was possible to take the old combine, replace the horse hitch with a tractor hitch, and buy a tractor. Most farmers had a tractor available anyway. A famous tractor company at the time was Caterpillar from California (Brumfield). Forty horses is a lot to control, feed, and care for. They need complicated hitches to ensure horse safety and comfort, the farmer’s safety, and to maximize production (Keith). A tractor doesn’t need food or water. A tractor doesn’t need 39 companions to work. A tractor doesn’t need complicated hitches. All it needs to run all day is fuel, a quart of oil every once in a while, and a few globs of grease here and there (Wiley). The tractor goes faster than the horses as well. There was no question the tractor was the farmer’s best friend. However, this did mean horses were no longer needed and some were probably nudged off the farm.
Eventually, a company called Massey Harris from Wisconsin wondered why the combine had to be pulled. Why shouldn’t it pull itself? It almost looked like a tractor. Why waste fuel to fill up the tractor’s engine and the combine’s engine. (By now everything was powered by gasoline or diesel engines.) This innovative thinking led to one of the biggest advancements in wheat farming history. In 1939 Massey Harris solved this problem. They created the Massey Harris Model 21. This will forever be recognized as the first self propelled combine (Schillinger). (See Appendix 2) These combines were small compared to the horse pulled variety. The header was directly in front because the crop wasn’t in danger of being trampled. Even though these only harvested around thirty acres a day, farmers could afford three or four combines (Wiley). Despite their lack of size, the self propelled combines were cheaper, more efficient, and a huge improvement in the farming industry. There was only one last problem to solve. Farmers were tired of sacking wheat (Brumfield). The Massey Harris Model 21 was equipped with a grain tank that could bulk hold about 100 bushels of wheat. Then the whole load was dumped at once into the back of a truck bed with the unloading auger. The most skilled drivers didn’t even have to stop the combine to unload. The last thing the combine did between here and there was provide a closable cab so the driver could get out of the heat and horrible dust. For years farmers would come home caked with dirt from head to toe. Now they might only be halfway caked with dirt (Wiley).
The Combine in Washington
Combines are very relevant to Washington State. There have even been some inventions made specifically to impact this area of the country. The Palouse region in southeastern Washington is known for its wheat and the steep hills it grows on. The amount of wheat grown in this area shot off and grew hugely in the late 1800s (Green). This is right at the time of the rise of the horse drawn combine. The Palouse region is notorious for its steep rolling hills that go on for miles (Wiley).
To ensure the horse’s safety and comfort, a special hitch was made precisely for this area. This was obviously not enough so a whole new combine known as the Idaho National Harvester was made for the Palouse. From 1906 to 1918, Idaho National Harvester Co. impacted the Palouse by manufacturing this machine out of Moscow, Idaho (Keith). This was about the size of the Model 21s. It took eight horses and two or three people. It was able to conquer most of the Palouse (Green/Keith/Schillinger). There were still many accidents. Eventually it became obvious that all the combines would have to be hillside in this area. One freak wreck in 1931 in the Walla-Walla area happened to occur on the Ben Cole ranch. The sack sewer said it was the scariest thing he ever went through (Brumfield). This accident scared the farmers into getting a hillside combine. Despite the risks, farmers in the Palouse region produce some of the highest amounts of wheat nationwide.
The Combine Harvester Today
Today’s combines are just as innovative as the Model 21’s; however they are much bigger. They harvest anywhere from 100 to 200 acres a day with 34 foot headers and go six or seven mph if necessary (Wiley). (See Appendix 3) They have air conditioning, heaters, headlights, a radio, and the newest can even have a GPS. They have cushioned seats and adjustable steering wheel heights for leg comfort. What was accomplished by yanking a lever can now be done by flicking a switch (Wiley).
Despite today’s accommodations, you can see the roots from which the modern day combines emerged. It is plainly obvious why it’s considered an innovation. It reduced the crewmen per crew, it traveled faster as it evolved, it doubled and tripled crop production, and it became more efficient countless times. It saved money, became safer, cleaner, and comfortable. It made it much safer for farm animals that ran the machines for many years. It brought food to soldiers overseas in war. It stabilized the grain market and kept the population fed. This is certainly the greatest thing the combine did.
Today, America pays the least amount for food out of all the countries in the world. Yet if you listen, Americans complain the most about prices. There is a surplus of wheat in America right now and that explains a low price. The problem is, the lower the price goes, the less money farmers get. The same prices that America complains about because they are too high are the same prices that are making hundreds of small farms around the country go bankrupt because they have nothing to live off of (Wiley).
The combine is what keeps the price low. There is enough wheat to create a surplus because of the combine. The reason is over the years farming practices have improved. Things like fertilizer made a crop of wheat yield more grain. Farms got thousands of acres bigger. The combine improved over time to keep up with this growth. If stationary threshers were still used, extra wheat that was produced throughout the years would be wasted because the harvest crews would run out of harvest time (Wiley). If America produced the amount of wheat now as it did in the thresher days, there would be a huge shortage. The price for anything with flour in it would now skyrocket. This would be bad for everyone. Poverty rates would be much higher (Wiley). Try to imagine how much worse the depression would have been if the combine hadn’t been invented yet.
In short, the combine is responsible in almost every way for our innovated life being the way it is. Think of all the things you eat every day with flour in it. It is estimated that Americans eat 53 pounds of bread a year. Don’t expect to have all that without the combine. Prices could triple or quadruple for flour related foods. Many of the foods eaten everyday would be considered delicacies and rationed. In some sense, people owe almost all their normal lifestyle to the combine and the innovative companies such as Massey Harris, Holt, and International Harvester.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.