Relics of what farming was like

The small grain fields had turned, which made it urgent to pull the McCormick-Deering binder from its place behind other machinery in the back of the low-roofed shed.

A McCormick-Deering binder in a grain field. (Bernard Spragg)

August’s arrival pulled me in conflicting directions.

The month brought with it the Le Sueur County Fair, which meant seeing school friends, coins for a can of pop and a corn dog, and a tractor pull or demolition derby.

The small grain fields had turned, which made it urgent to pull the McCormick-Deering binder from its place behind other machinery in the back of the low-roofed shed.

If memory serves correctly, the binder had been manufactured to be pulled by horses and later modified, which meant it was a not-too-distant cousin to Cyrus McCormick’s machines that battled rivals for sales in Midwest fields in the 1800s.

The in-field demonstrations, well-publicized in small-town newspapers, attracted hundreds of farmers and non-farmers. The events often came to be demolition derbies as competing makers bashed their machines against rivals. Fights were frequent and horses were hurt, but crowds loved the action.


Most of the names of reaper manufacturers are long forgotten, as is the fact that the inventor of the reaper was none other than Charles Withington, who was a jeweler from Janesville, Wis. His machine and many others used wire to tie bundles, which was mostly abandoned when William Deering produced a machine that used twine and a knotter.

Much work needed to be completed before the binder took to the field. Chickens had roosted on it, bees constructed homes in the round twine holder and toolbox, lathes needed repair, and mice ate holes in the canvas. Certs were searched for and greased.

When major repairs were needed, canvases were taken to an older man in town who was a master at it. Dad used only Minnesota Twine in the binder. The twine was made by prisoners housed in Stillwater State Prison. Twine making at the prison started in 1891. By 1941, farmers had purchased almost 1 billion pounds of twine bearing the Minnesota name.

The Stillwater facility also manufactured high-quality binders, rakes, manure spreaders, grain wagons, corn binders and more. It was a profitable business and helped inmates learn skills that were useful outside prison. Private manufacturers balked at what they said was unfair competition. Outmoded facilities and equipment, however, ended manufacturing in the prison.

Other state prison systems continue to operate farms where inmates grow crops and work with animals. Statistics indicate that prisoners employed in such enterprises fare better after their release.

Dad needed to “open fields’’ before the full field could be cut. Opening required a team of young boys and girls to throw bundles to the side. It was a dreaded chore, given that field edges tended to be infested with thistles and horseweeds.

The small grain harvest was eagerly awaited, given that we were nearly out of corn. Barley, rich as it is in protein, would help cows through their August swoon and help pigs gain weight. Late July and August had taken its toll on the pasture.

Dad also made plans to collect the butternuts from 10 or more trees in the pasture. He and I had scouted the trees throughout summer to see which ones were loaded with nuts. We collected a dozen or more gunny sacks in anticipation and Dad found the long, hooked pole used to shake nuts loose from limbs.


We needed to harvest quickly, before squirrels had time to store bounty for winter. Dad greeted the nut harvest like an excited teenager. The butternuts were stored on the machine shed’s roof, where they would dry until December.

Dad spent most of winter cracking the nuts in the basement using a block of wood and hammer. Mother used the results of his work to make cookies and Christmas trees and froze the surplus.

The trees that yielded so well eventually were felled by disease. I cannot remember what happened to the grain binder. I sure wish it had been kept as a relic to what farming was once like.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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