Rosenthal Cornhusker Company (Part III)

The Rosenthal Corn Husker Company

of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Part III)

by

Brian Wayne Wells

 with the assistance of

Jim McFarlane of Waunakee, Wisconsin

Lyle Sundry of Byron, Minnesota

Gary J. Jones of Owatonna, Minnesota

Jim Esbenshade of Colbert, Oklahoma

and

John McNamara of Eagle Rock, Missouri

 

As published in the September/October issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

 

Even though mechanical picking of corn in the fields had been available to the farming public since well before the Second World War, it was only in the post-war era that sales of corn pickers really took off.  The popularity of corn pickers after the war drastically changed harvesting of ripe corn across the nation.  Farmers flooded to dealerships to buy corn pickers in order to avoid the long hours of hand harvesting of corn in the fields.  Not only was the corn picker an improvement over hand picking of corn, but it was also an improvement over the previous method of husking and shredding corn.  The husker/shredder, as a stationary machine, depended upon the corn being brought to the machine.  Consequently, picking of corn in the field eliminated many steps of labor, including binding the ripe corn and the many hours involved in shocking the bundles of corn.

C. H. Wendel argues that the decline of corn husking/shredding was already occurring in the 1930s.  (C.H.Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques [Krause Publications: Iola Wisconsin, 1997] p. 52.)  However, it wasn’t until the period of time following the Second World War that this trend became pronounced, and it was this trend that presented a real threat to the existence of the Rosenthal Company as a valid profit-making enterprize.  

As noted in Part II of this series of articles, the Rosenthal Corn Husker Company introduced the new all-steel Model Big 4 corn husker/shredder in 1923, which was later renamed the Steel 40.  In the late 1920s, the Big 8 corn husker/shredder was also improved with all-steel construction and introduced as the Steel 80.  The all-steel machines offered to the farming public by the Rosenthal Company at that time were made of galvanized metal.  No matter what the configuration–Special 4, Medium 4, Big 4, Steel 4 or Steel 40–it was the four-roll corn husker/shredder which was the most popular sales item the Rosenthal Company ever produced.  However, the Great Depression which began in 1929 and extended through the early 1930s put a damper on sales of all farm machinery, including sales by the Rosenthal Company.  Only in the late 1930s did the grip of the depression on the United States economy loosen a bit.

Thus, as farmers regained some purchasing power, the owners of shortline dealerships across the nation were again receiving a steady supply of inquiries from farmers about corn husker/shredders.  Many of these farmers, who had been struggling along for a long time with their pre-depression era corn husker/shredders, were now looking toward obtaining a new corn husking and shredding machine to replace their old machines which were rapidly wearing out from long years of use.

One such farmer who expressed an interest in a new Steel 40 corn husker/shredder was from Helena Township in Scott County, Minnesota.  (Regular readers of the Belt Pulley magazine will remember “our Scott County farmer” or “Helena Township farmer” from the article on the “Grams and Krautkremer Hardware: John Deere Dealer of Jordan, Minnesota” located in the July/August 2000 issue of Belt Pulley [Volume 13, No. 4], p. 16.)  As our Helena Township farmer had anticipated, the war in Europe, which began in 1939, had an instantaneous effect on the United States economy.  Suddenly the whole world was looking to the United States farmer to produce much of the agricultural products the world needed.  Thus, there was a large increase in the price of farm products in the marketplace.  Also brightening the picture for farmers was the fact that the prices for farm machinery and the commodities they bought for their farm needs were slow to rise.  (Harold Underwood Faulkner, American Economic History [Harper and Row: New York, 1960] p. 699.)  This differential between the money farmers were receiving and the relatively low amount of money they had to pay out was like rain on a long-parched desert.  It had been a long time since our Helena Township farmer had the luxury of pursuing his dream of upgrading his farming operations.  One such improvement he dreamed of was to get a new corn husker/shredder.  His present corn husker/shredder had been used so long that it was completely worn out.  He had kept it going by means of repairs he himself made.  He now felt as though the old corn husker/shredder was being held together by nothing more than baling wire and chewing gum.  Now when it came time to buy a new corn husker/shredder, our Helena Township farmer, like so many other farmers, was attracted to the Rosenthal name.  He had heard his neighbors talking about how well the Rosenthal machines worked in comparison to other brands, and thus he decided to buy a Rosenthal.

Consequently, in 1941, our Helena Township farmer purchased a new Rosenthal Model Steel 40 corn husker/shredder from a local shortline dealer in Jordan, Minnesota (1940 pop. 1,422).  Although the dealer had to order the Steel 40 from the Rosenthal Company because he lacked the resources to carry the machines in inventory, a Steel 40 bearing Serial No. 14271 arrived in Jordan in a relatively short period of time.     Rolling off the assembly line in the Rosenthal factory at 8229 West Greenfield Avenue, in West Allis, Wisconsin, No. 14271 was placed on board a Chicago Northwestern railroad flat-bed car with a number of other Steel 40s.  No. 14271 then made its way across the dairy state of Wisconsin, where a great number of Steel 40s had already been sold.  This time the train loaded with  Steel 40s was headed for Minnesota–particularly, Scott County, in southern Minnesota.  A shortline dealership in Jordan, handling products of many different farm equipment companies, had ordered a shipment of Rosenthal Model Steel 40 corn husker/shredders which he had sold to farmers in the area around Jordan, Minnesota.

As the threat of involvement in the war in Europe loomed on the horizon, the Roosevelt Administration established the Office of Production Management in January of 1941. (James McGregor Burns, Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom 1940-1945 [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York, 1970] pp. 53-56.)  Over the course of the spring of 1941, as the United States involvement in the war became more likely, the Office of Production Management was given more and more authority over the production of essential materials needed by the United States economy; especially with regard to the production of galanvized metal which was nearly totally restricted.  The agency placed near total restrictions on  As a consequence, the Rosenthal Company, along with many other farm equipment companies, was forced to cease using galvanized sheet metal altogether.  They were forced to turn to a more readily available product–tin–for use in the production of their corn husker/shredders.  Because tin would rust very quickly if left to the weather and the elements, the Rosenthal Company painted their tin machines as they left the plant.  The Rosenthal red with which all corn husker/shredders, and later the Cornbine, were painted is indistinguishable from International Harvester red.  This shade of red became the trademark color for all Rosenthal equipment thereafter.  All lettering for the serial number, the model number and the “Rosenthal” name was done in block-style lettering with yellow paint.  Thus, No. 14271 arrived in Jordan, Minnesota with its tin covering and new coat of red paint.

Our Helena Township farmer put No. 14271 to use on his farm during the war.  However, with the end of the war, he retired and his son took over operations of the farm.  Like so many farmers at the end of the war, the son immediately purchased a corn picker, and No. 14271 fell into disuse.  In 1982, when the son retired from farming and held an auction of his farm machinery, old No. 14271 emerged from the shed on the farm where it had been sitting since the last time it had been used.  One of the attendees at the auction, Gordon Kleher, noticed that the Model 40 showed very little signs of wear and tear.  Thus, he purchased the corn husker/shredder for use on his dairy farm in neighboring Sand Creek Township.  In addition to their dairy operation, Gordon and his wife Lila (Heutmaker) Kleher bred, raised and sold Belgian horses, usually having about 13 Belgians on the farm at any one time.  Their dairy herd consisted of about 50 cows, of which 30 were being milked at any one time.  Gordon used No. 14271 on his farm until his untimely death due to cancer in 1994.  No. 14271 was then purchased at auction by Lonny Boettcher and Francis (Sonny) Smith, both of LeCenter, Minnesota.  Lonny and Sonny are members of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association.  Thus, No. 14271 is part of the permanent displays on the Pioneer Power grounds each year and is often put to use shredding corn during the August show.

While our Helena Township farmer was putting No. 14271 to work on his farm, another farmer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was also trying to upgrade his farming operation.  Elias and Catherine Esbenshade were farming 100 acres near Paradise, Pennsylvania, raising dairy, beef and a few chickens.  About 60 acres of Elias and Catherine’s farm was in corn.  They used a 1936 International Harvester 15-30 for their farming power needs.  This tractor was one of the first models that was painted red and was also mounted on rubber tires.

Like our Helena Township farmer, Elias began to be anxious regarding the condition of his old Appleton Manufacturing Company husker/shredder, and by 1942, he was looking to obtain a new husker/shredder.  He too had been persuaded by the good things he heard about the Rosenthal corn husker/shredders from his neighbors.  Consequently, he drove a short way east on U.S. Highway #30 to the town of Kinser, Pennsylvania.  In Kinser was the Arthur S. Young Implement and Service Company, which was the dealer for a number of different companies selling farm equipment in Lancaster County, including Rosenthal corn husker/shredders; threshers from the Frick Company of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania; and tractors from J.I. Case, Oliver and Minneapolis Moline.

As noted above, when our Helena Township farmer purchased his Steel 40 in 1941, production of farm machinery was already under some restrictions.  However, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was thrust into the Second World War.  As a consequence, the economy became even more restricted.  Thus, following his signing of a purchase agreement, Elias Esbenshade’s name was put on a list of buyers for the Steel 40, like a list of potential diners waiting for a table in a restaurant.  However, unlike our Helena Township farmer, Elias had to wait for a period of weeks, perhaps months, until his name came up to the top of the list and he received his Steel 40.  After the long wait, the Steel 40 (Serial #20054) arrived in Kinser aboard a Pennsylvania Railroad train.  Staff from the Art Young Dealership picked up No 20054 from the freight depot in Kinser and took it back to the dealership.  Because No. 20054 had been “KDed” (knocked down) for shipment, the staff at the Art Young dealership “prepped” No. 20054 for its new owner–Elias Esbenshade.  “Prepping” No. 20054 consisted of putting the steel wheels back on the corn husker/shredder.  Elias, cooperating with his brother, Milt, for certain farming operations such as harvesting ripe corn, put the new Steel 40 to work on their farms, using Elias’ 1936 International Harvester 15-30 to power the corn husker/shredder.  All during the war, No. 20054 functioned well, as Elias husked and shredded his own and his brother’s ripe corn.   Because he also used No. 20054 for custom work in the neighborhood, Elias wished that he could put rubber tires on No. 20054 for easier and faster transport from farm to farm.  During the war, rubber tires for use by civilians was so restricted that rubber tires were virtually unobtainable.  However, as soon as the war ended, Elias had the steel wheels cut down and fitted with rims for 6.00 x 16″ tires.  In 1948, Elias purchased an International Harvester Model PR-1 corn picker, as he switched from husking/shredding to picking all his corn.  He sold No. 20054 to his brother Milt.

Milt and his wife Mary (Harnish) Esbenshade farmed 130 acres in the same neighborhood.  They raised about 60 acres of corn every year, with the balance of the land in hay and tobacco.  Their livestock included dairy cattle, beef cattle and chickens.  Milt farmed with a 1937 Farmall F-20.  In time, Milt and Mary had a family, which included two sons–Jim and John.  Milt continued to use No. 20054 until 1952, powered by his 1937 F-20 to power the machine.

In 1952, Milt Esbenshade, like many other farmers across the nation, was looking for a way to save time and labor in ripe corn harvesting.  However, Milt did not want to follow the overwhelming trend toward picking corn in the field; rather, he liked the idea of being able to use the shreddings–a by-product of ripe corn harvesting he would not have if he went to picking of corn.  Consequently, he was very much attracted to a new product the Rosenthal Company had introduced–the Cornbine.  The Cornbine took the process of husking and shredding to the field and made it a one-step harvesting process.  (Introduction of the Cornbine by the Rosenthal Company and the particular Cornbine purchased by Milt Esbenshade [Serial No. 22855] will be the subject of the fourth article in this four-part series on the Rowenthal Company.)

With the purchase of the new Cornbine by Milt Esbenshade, old Steel 40 No. 20054 was retired to the shed.  Meanwhile, Milt’s son, Jim Esbenshade, grew up and married Barbara Ewart.  In 1973, the young couple moved off to Colbert, Oklahoma, where they purchased 1,200 acres of land on the north bank of the Red River–the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas.  There, they continue to raise cattle, corn, peanuts, cotton and winter wheat.  Although farming with much newer machinery, Jim never lost interest in the equipment that his father and uncle had used in the past.  Consequently, in 1991, he obtained the 1937 F-20 that had been his father’s tractor in Pennsylvania and brought that tractor to his home in Colbert, Oklahoma.  In 1994, Jim obtained No. 20054 which was still on his parents’ farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, now being operated by his youngest brother, John, and brought the old corn husker/shredder to Oklahoma.  Both the 1937 F-20 and the Rosenthal Steel 40 (No. 20054) were lovingly restored by Jim and his good friend and fellow farm machinery restorer, John Cook.

Jim’s interest in old farm machinery led him in 1994 to begin hosting a threshing show on his own farm.  The show became known as “Golden Harvest Day” and is scheduled annually for the fourth Saturday in June.  The newly restored and painted Rosenthal Steel 40 No. 20054 is always included in the field demonstrations.  With the planting of 70-day corn at the customary time, which in Oklahoma is in the month of February, the corn is ready for ripe corn harvesting demonstrations by the month of June.  This year, the eight annual Golden Harvest Day was held on June 23, 2001.  (Binding corn for the Golden Harvest Day show is done by a power-take-off driven two-row McCormick-Deering corn binder with a wagon loader.  One of these corn binders, complete with a wagon loader, can be seen in the 1934 advertising movie Farming the Farmall Way, available on Tape #1 from International Harvester Promotional Movies.)

Besides being a part of the field demonstrations at the Golden Harvest Day on the Esbenshade farm, No. 20054 has regularly been demonstrated at the Cooke County Farm Machinery Show held on Labor Day weekend just across the state line in Cooke County, Texas.  No. 20054 is also regularly demonstrated at the Murray County Antique Implement Association Show in Sulfur, Oklahoma, held during the third weekend in September (September 14-16, 2001).

As noted earlier, the huge trend toward the purchase of corn pickers posed a real threat to the very existence of the Rosenthal Company.  Just as our Helena Township farmer found, so too did the Rosenthal Company find that farmers were buying corn pickers at a furious rate after the Second World War.  Consequently, the company tried to improve its husker/shredder to make it a valid competitor in the modern farm machinery market.  The company tried to introduce a new, smaller four-roll corn husker–the model Steel 4-20 husker/shredder.  Although still a four-roll machine, the Steel 4-20 was mounted on two wheels with rubber tires and was a smaller version of the Model Steel 40.   The Steel 4-20 had only 20″ of snapping capacity on its rolls as opposed to 28″ of snapping capacity on the Steel 40.  The model Steel 4-20 had actually been introduced in 1941, just prior to the war, but the first real chance that farmers had to obtain the Model 4-20 was not until after the war.  In a 1941 piece of literature, Rosenthal advertised its Steel 4-20 as the “low priced” machine with the capacity to “husk 25 to 50 bushels per hour,” made for “farmers with average corn acreage.”  Rosenthal hoped that the low price of the new Steel 4-20 would encourage farmers to purchase the Steel 4-20 in preference to a corn picker.

One particular farmer, from rural London (1950 pop. 5,222) in Madison County, Ohio, found this logic persuasive.  Thus, in the period of time following the Second World War, he purchased a model Steel 4-20 through his local shortline farm equipment dealer.  The Steel 4-20, bearing Serial No. 20799, rolled out of the Rosenthal factory on its two rubber tires and was loaded aboard a Chicago Northwestern train headed south to Chicago.  In Chicago, the flatbed car with Serial No. 20799 aboard was transferred to a New York Central Railroad train headed east.  Along the way, the train stopped at all the towns to deliver freight and to take on any freight that might be headed east.  Once in London, the train unloaded No. 20799, which was then “prepped” and delivered to a local shortline dealer and then to the area farmer that had purchased the Steel 4-20.  This London area farmer used the Steel 4-20 for a few years until he retired.  No. 20799 then sat in a shed until it was purchased by Chip Smalley of rural Jackson, Ohio, in the spring of 1994.  Chip Smalley is also a collector/restorer of old farm equipment.  When he purchased the Steel 4-20, Chip found it inoperable and in need of some restoration.  All that summer, Chip worked on No. 20799.  In the fall of 1994, Chip took No. 20799 to the farm of Carl Sweeney, where the little Steel 4-20 was brought back to life, husking and shreding corn for the first time in years.  (Carl Sweeny hosts an annual event on his farm which is known as “Sweeny Days.”)  On two other occasions, Chip and a group of his friends also used No. 20799 to husk and shred some corn on Chip’s own farm.  Chip powered the belt driven Model 4-20 with his F-20.  Daryl Dempsey, of Oak Hill, Ohio, also had a chance to belt his  John Deere G to No. 20799 during these demonstrations.  (Regular readers of the Belt Pulley will remember Daryl Dempsey as a collector of farm machinery, including the Wood Bros. Model WP-1-P corn picker pictured on the rear cover of the March/April 2001 issue of Belt Pulley.)  No. 20799 was also demonstrated for the public at a local farm threshing show held near Jackson, Ohio.

In June of 2000, Chip Smalley sold No. 20799 to Jeremy Lahrmer of Wellston, Ohio.  Jeremy is also a collector/restorer of old farm equipment.  He intends to include No. 20799 in the field demonstrations at the Jackson County Farm-City Field Day to be held on September 13, 2001.  The Farm-City Field Day is a historic old threshing show which has been held every year since 1961.  The show is held each year on a different farm within Jackson, County.  The first show in 1961 was held on the Daryl Dempsey farm near Oak Hill, as was the 10th annual show in 1971 and the 25th annual show in 1986.  For this the 40th year of its existence, the Farm-City Field Day returns to the Daryl Dempsey farm.  Daryl has said that besides the field demonstrations, the public will also be treated to servings from a whole beef cooked over charcoal in a closed pit in the ground.

The scenes offered to the public during this show, of the old Rosenthal corn husker/shredder at work, will draw people back to a by-gone time when farmers tried to save all the by-products of ripe corn harvesting, including the corn stock in the form of shreddings.

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