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by Pat Browning
The summer of 1950 was the start of a new era in farming for our family. I was thirteen, and Kathy (my oldest sister) was seven. At this age, I believed tractor farming was the only way, hot stuff -- and given a chance I probably would have used the tractor, Dad's first, a 1936 Model "A" John Deere, to go bring in the cows! And I think Dad was ready for some automation too. And so it was that we acquired a good, used J. I. Case, wire tie hay baler. In addition to a person to drive the tractor, two persons were required to ride on the baler to perform the needle-block & wire tie operations. The baler was powered by a four-cylinder air-cooled Wisconsin engine that was started by hand. While this was a good step forward in technology, it was by no means the Ritz! What made this system work was a person for each of three jobs, a tractor driver and the two on the baler. That was Dad, Kathy, and me; and each of us could do at least two of them! Dad and I were the only ones who could operate on the "block" side of the baler -- the side where you inserted the wire guides into the hay chamber at the right bale length, and at the right time with respect to where the hay compression piston was. The wires were then inserted through slots on either side of the wire guides. Kathy usually had the job of the wire tying -- oftentimes the dustiest side of the baler. She now lives in Arkansas with husband Billy.
Dad was always more of a business man than a farmer, and so before long we were off to other farms doing custom baling of hay & straw. There was one job he contracted for, however, that we all would have wished away if we could. This was a large field of Black Clover hay we were to bale for the Katzmans. The very day after Mr. Katzman's hay was dried and raked, the rains began, and it rained for days. Finally as the weather broke, and Mr. Katzman rolled the windrows over a time or two to get the hay dry. As many of you remember, the days after such extensive rainfall are so muggy, you just smother! And sweat just piles up on your body because there is no evaporation, thus no cooling effect. Baling that old Black Clover was a nightmare. With each plunge of the baler's compressing piston against the hay, a blast of dry, broken leaf fragments came out into the face of those of us riding the baler. We tried goggles with, and without ventilation. With ventilation, you could see but the dust still came into your eyes. With the ventilation holes taped over, the lens clouded up so that you couldn't see! Nothing worked well. The answer was constant washing of the eyes, and rotation of personnel between sitting on the baler and driving the tractor. I doubt I will ever forget those days.
We took one, and sometimes two wagons with us when we went to do custom baling. The baler had a chute attached to the end of the baling chamber which guided the bales up into position where a man, on the trailing wagon, could grab the bale with hay hooks as we traveled along and stack them for transport to the barn. I recall a time when we were lined up for custom baling job only to have trouble with the John Deere. Dad borrowed an Allis Chalmers tractor from a neighbor while the Johnny Popper was in for repairs. I was short, sixty-four inches tall, and that tractor being a foot-clutch job was hard for me to operate. It did have a road gear in it though, and so when it come time for the baler, both wagons and the tractor to depart from the field of hire and head for home, I was quite happy to be the driver. Our farm was on a hillside, the building complex being situated between two major hills in Hodunk Road, the road we lived on. On that road, you came down a short, steep hill, then had a short run of level road with a bank along the right side, and then down a much longer but less steep hill, followed by a long and gentle flat run. Our driveway was at the foot of the short, steep hill. Whenever you have a load behind you like a baler with two wagons, one proceeds down such a hill in a low gear. Not being comfortable with the brakes on the Allis, I put the tractor into second gear -- way down there! On the way down the steep hill, the rig began to pick up speed; braking didn't help; and those wagons were whipping back and forth behind the baler! There was no way I could steer into the driveway -- would have tipped the tractor over. Dad was out in the yard, saw me whiz by, and wasn't a bit happy with what he saw. While I was down into the short level run of the road, I noticed the left axle turning backwards in the wheel hub -- The key had dropped out!! And to make matters worse, the wheel was about to work its way off the end of the axle. So I swerved to the right making the wheel come back in. As I did this, the feeder of the baler run up against the bank along the right side of the road. As I managed to get the wheel back in along the axle, I took the tractor out of gear. The problem, however, was the next hill. Here I was, coming down that long hill, attaining well up toward twenty miles an hour with the baler and two wagons whipping back and forth and me wondering if I was going to tip the tractor over and end up under the train! I finally managed to halt the rig in the long flat stretch that follows. As I dismounted from the tractor, my knees almost wouldn't hold me. Fear does strange things to you. That day, I had fear. I located a bolt, aligned the two keyways, and drove the bolt in for a temporary key and then set out to get the slightly-damaged baler, and the wagons turned around and head for home. Before I was able to get headed for home, however, Dad was down the road in his old 1944 F-5 Ford flatbed truck, and he had "both guns blazing" before he finally learned what happened. But, that was Dad!
Watermelons Along the Road
There were a few farmers who raised melons to sale to the public. As is almost universal, it seems kids always were inclined to raid a man's melon patch -- more for the thrill of it than for the taste of the melons. I recall one such gentleman who would place some of his really best melons along the road, outside the melon patch, for would-be snitchers to take. The idea was that this practice kept poachers from wrecking a dozen melons while in the act of getting one! To this day, I recall stopping the baler & wagons along the road, to fetch up a couple small melons (I actually preferred muskmelons). I would throw them up into the feed chute of the baler, and take off in a puff of smoke -- the old '36 John Deere "A" with its governor wired to bring engine speed up to around 1200 RPM for road travel.
As luck would have it, one day right after picking up some melons and pulling back onto the highway (State Route 15/now Walworth County ES), I was driving our other John Deere, a '37 "A" when the flywheel came off the crankshaft; bounded down to the pavement, and then up in the air just in time to go over an oncoming automobile! That never happened before! I was shocked, and also relieved that the flywheel went off into a field without injury to someone. The old tractor ran terrible without the flywheel, but I was able to get everything off the highway before shutting down.
A New Baler
I think it was 1952 when Dad bought a brand new hay baler from the Ford Dealer. It was a Long 60, automatic twine tie, powered by an electric start Wisconsin V-4 Engine that was just the finest! We were really rocking now! More custom baling was on the horizon, and it was fun. But there was also stress to make the most of time given to you, and the long, long days of work. When the day was over, there wasn't much to do but clean up, have supper, and go to bed. But that baler engine would just "snort" each time the piston was driven into the baling chamber -- its governor was super responsive! Somehow that power was energizing for me. Testosterone and the combustion engine -- what a combination!
The Baler Fire
We were baling hay on the Schmidt Farm just north of Elkhorn. The weather was hot, and we were pushing as usual so wrap up and move on the next job. One lesson to be learned was that you should keep the air channels open on an air-cooled engine. Unbeknownst to me, those air passages on the baler's Wisconsin engine were filled with hay leaves. That engine was indeed super-hot. Dad brought out some fuel for the baler engine as it was running low. I shut the engine down, poured the gasoline into its tank, and reinstalled the tank cover. But before I ever restarted the baler's engine, the fuel tank stem with cap gently lifted up off the tank (Heat melted the solder), and fire raged out of the hole. That gasoline was on fire as I filled the tank and reinstalled the cap; and I didn't know it! God saved me that day from terrible burns. Before long the entire engine was in flames. The tractor was still running so I headed for a pile of dirt nearby and Dad fetched a shovel -- we got the fire under control by smothering it with dirt. The engine was lost. That afternoon, once the mess was cooled, a new engine was installed and we were back in business the next morning. But I have to say, the replacement engine just didn't seem as snappy as the original one.
I handled lots of baled hay in my youth in addition to experiences in baling for others. Lots of city kids would take jobs on farms in the summer to "build up" for sports programs in school. Baling made harvesting hay quicker which, in turn, reduced the risk of having hay down when the rains came -- unless you were just plain unlucky. And you had to remain ready to "make hay when the sun shines." This meant doing repairs and preventive maintenance on equipment when the weather kept you out of the fields.
A local blacksmith was a farmer's "partner" in many ways. Ed Engle in Spring Prairie did all of Dad's iron and steel work. He was so very good -- and I loved going there with Dad even as a really little critter. Ed had some neat machines in his shop -- it was a classic. He had a continuous-running shaft that run the length of the shop which was driven by a "hit-and-miss" engine. From the shaft, belts run to a number of special tools Ed used to do his work -- but those tools were "connected" to the shaft only when they were being used. I recall going to Ed's shop with Dad in the early 40's, and that engine then looked as if it had been there for a long time! He is the one who cut the steel wheels off and welded rims (cut-offs for rubber tires) onto the '36 John Deere for Dad. They were straight and true, and didn't crack out -- a great job. It isn't easy to weld 3/8" thick steel spokes to a 14 gauge rim and make it a good bond, but Ed had that skill. I continue to have the utmost respect for men like Ed Engle who were artisans indeed! He had a skill range from harness repair and nailing shoes on a horse to advanced mechanical design and fabrication with steel. I often wondered how he learned as much as he knew about the fabrication world, but I truly believe he learned from performance under a master blacksmith before him -- maybe even his Dad.
With my enlistment into the US Air Force in January 1955, insufficient financial resources to keep up with technologies, and near wipe out of our dairy herd due to Bangs Disease, Dad pretty much stopped farming for a living about this time. He opted instead for life in factories which dotted the map in those days, becoming a casting grinder in the foundry at Whitewater, Wisconsin. Mom would write to me that he came home looking like he had been in a coal mine, and that he was always coughing up 'junk' from his respiratory system. I am sure this life style shortened his years considerably. Dad and I never experienced the more modern methods of harvesting, and so I invite others to write of their farming experiences in harvesting and life on the family farm using those super machines! Those were the days!