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Custom combining-part of Montana’s historical tapestry

When you go down a rabbit hole, sometimes you get stuck and have trouble getting out. But occasionally, you find gems of history. That’s what happened to me this month when I started researching a slice of Montana agricultural history that has long fascinated me, a onetime Eastern Montana farm boy.

The topic I started investigating may show up here later, but for now, the subject is something that I first heard about as a kid growing up in Prairie and Dawson counties: custom combining, or custom harvesting of grain by operators who made (and still make) the big capital investment in machinery that farmers can’t or don’t want to make.

These operators begin work in late spring each year in Texas and Oklahoma, harvesting grain for a fee. Then, they head north through the Great Plains. Using early combines, some pulled by tractors and later self-propelled units, beginning in the 1930s, they reached Montana in August. They still reach the Treasure State nowadays when wheat hangs heavy and golden on the stalks, and almost a century ago, they continued and still continue north into Canadian provinces, especially Saskatchewan and Alberta, to complete the seasonal cycle in early fall. The events repeat each year.

If you drive anywhere in Montana east of the Continental Divide in late summer, you’ve probably seen caravans of semis hauling gigantic combines on the highways or parked at rest stops and elsewhere along the roads or in towns and cities.

Thanks to an article I found in the Billings Gazette written by its former editor and later opinion editor, the late “Doc” Bowler (who I worked with as a young journalist, and a fellow Eastern Montanan), I learned of an interesting book on custom combining. Custom Combining on the Great Plains, by Thomas Isern, published in 1981, provides a comprehensive overview of how grain harvesting, especially of wheat, evolved from horse-drawn binders in the 1870s to headers, with separate threshing machines used to separate grain from stalks.

Finally, the first combines, or combined harvesting machines, emerged in the 1880s. They showed up initially in California and later rolled into eastern Washington’s Palouse Valley after 1900. According to Isern, “early isolated introductions of the combine also took place in Saskatchewan and Montana.” He says several combines from California were used in Montana in 1910 and shortly thereafter, but with little publicity.

World War II, when my dad was growing up on a dry land farm in Prairie County that included wheat among its cash crops, allows Isern a setting to tell a fascinating story.

By the fall of 1943, the governments of the United States and Canada were calling on farmers for perhaps the greatest increase in wheat production in history. Farmers, however, wondered how to square their patriotism with reality: steel was going to defense industries for the production of airplanes, tanks and other armaments, leaving far less to manufacture farm machinery. Moreover, farmers had a diminished pool of labor to help during harvest because workers had either been drafted or drawn into better-paying defense industry jobs.

Massey-Harris Corporation to the rescue. Based in Toronto, with a subsidiary in Racine, Wisconsin, the company was the world’s leading manufacturer of harvesting implements. In 1939, Massey-Harris had released “the first practical self-propelled combine,” its model No. 20. A few Canadian farmers used the machine in the 1940 harvest. Then came an improved model, the No. 21, unveiled just before the Canadian government banned the introduction of new models for the duration of the war.

Enter Joseph Tucker, Massey-Harris’ vice-president of sales for the Racine subsidiary. He had served on the U.S. War Production Board and had been its liaison with Canada’s War Production Board.

Tucker proposed using the No. 21 combine to save the wheat harvest of 1944, a plan that required the approval of both governments. He and other company lobbyists went to work in Washington and Ottawa.

They pressed officials to grant the company plant in Toronto an extra allocation of steel and other materials, above its quota, to make 500 No. 21 combines. Massey-Harris would then make these combines available to custom combining outfits in places where they were needed in 1944.

The result was the formation of the Massey-Harris Self-Propelled Harvest Brigade. Combines were sent to four general areas: California, the Pacific Northwest, a Southern Brigade in Texas, and a Central Plains Brigade in Kansas and Oklahoma. That brigade got the highest number of combines that worked their way north through the winter wheat and spring wheat regions.

The brigade received extensive publicity in Montana newspapers—more than a dozen articles and photos in 1944. However, my research of digital newspaper archives found just one specific reference to a Montana man who took part in the brigade and who was on a crew that reached the Treasure State.

That was a Great Falls man, Fred Lehn, who traveled as head mechanic with an outfit managed by Rudy Burney of Hemingford, Nebraska, according to an August 20, 1944, article in the Great Falls Tribune.

Lehn told the Tribune he was part of a crew of 12 who operated five No. 21 combines and five trucks. The crew began work on June 5 at Chillicothe, Texas, where they harvested about 2,000 acres of wheat. They moved to the northern part of Texas and then to Plains, Kansas, and Nebraska.

When the Tribune caught up with Lehn, the crew was harvesting wheat in Montana’s so-called Golden Triangle, in Geraldine, a town near Great Falls. After Montana, the group moved across the border to work Canadian fields.

Lehn praised the self-propelled combines his crew used. The Model 21 had a road speed of 10 mph and could cut grain at a speed of 4-1/2 mph, faster than older, tractor-pulled combines. One man could operate the combine, which with one motor saved fuel. Also, it didn’t tramp down grain because the header was the front of the combine.

The Montana man said the crew used three combines in Texas to thrash 8,200 bushels of wheat in a day. They were able to cut 30 acres of grain per hour and thrash 160 acres in an afternoon.

Crops in northern Texas were excellent; the harvest yielded 70 bushels per acre. Crops elsewhere, however, yielded mixed harvests, some good, and others poor, some of those damaged by wind and hailstorms.

While harvest crews such as his were familiar sights in Texas and Kansas, custom combining outfits were less common sights in Montana, Lehn said. “Crews were engaged readily by farmers who do not own combines themselves or whose combines are old or in need of repair,” he said.

A final note: the Harvest Brigade threshed more than 25 million bushels of grain for more than 5,000 farmers. The champion combiner, Wilford Phelps of Chandler, Arizona, cut 3,438 acres and was awarded a $500 war bond.

Massey-Harvest repeated good publicity for its contribution to the war effort. A color movie, Wonder Harvest, released after the war, praised the Harvest Brigade and the No. 21 combine. A 27-minute version of the movie can be seen on YouTube.

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Jamie Larson