Navy Bean Farming in Michigan (Part I)

                      Navy Bean Farming in Huron County, Michigan (Part I)


Brian Wayne Wells

    As published in the January/February 2005 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine


Freshly harvested navy beans.


As mentioned in past articles, agriculture in the United States has long served as a beacon of hope for many immigrant groups which came to the United States in search of a new future.  This was especially true for the earlier waves of immigration from North Europe and Scandinavia.  It is generally assumed that for the later waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe were limited in their opportunities to only industrial and mining occupations.  However, even for these later waves of immigration, agriculture in the United States still offered some opportunities.  One such immigrant group who recognized these opportunities in agriculture were the Poles.

The third partition of Poland of 1795 eliminated entirely the Polish State. Here the Austrian Empire’s part of Poland is seen here in yellow.


The struggles of the Polish population for a nation of their own had long been an important feature of European history.  From 1773 until 1795 the Polish nation underwent three different land grabs (politely called “partitions”) by its more powerful neighbors—Prussia, Russia and Austria.  (Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland Volume I :The Origins to 1795 [Columbia University Press: New York, 1982) p. 512.)  By the time of the third partition in the 1795 there was no independent Polish nation left, all the territory had been swallowed up.  However, the spirit of Polish nationalism never ceased to exert itself.  The Poles of Cracow (or Krakow) was located right on the border of the Russian occupied part of the old Polish State where that border met the Austrian occupied zone.

However, during the dislocations caused by Napoleon’s Wars in eastern Europe, which included the temporary establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw from 1807 until 1815.  Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Cracow became an independent “free city state.”  In February of 1846, the rising tide of revolutionary patriotism among the Polish people exploded into the “Krakow Uprising” against the occupying forces.  This uprising was suppressed by the Austrian armed forces crossing their border with the Free City State of Cracow.  In the end, the Austrian Empire annexed Cracow into the Austrian part of the Polish partition.

Austrian and Russian forces combine to put down the revolts in Poland in 1846


Two years later, in 1848, there was a rash of revolts which broke out all across German speaking lands.  (This period of time saw the emigration of William Frederich Oltrogge from Germany to the United States.  See the article called “Massey-Harris Farming: The Oltrogge Family of Waverly, Iowa” in the March/April 2004 issue of Belt Pulley.  This article is also published on this website.)  This series of revolts spilled over into the parts of Poland controlled by the German speaking kingdom of Prussia, as the Poles in the city of Posnan rose in revolt.  (H.W. Koch, A History of Prussia [Dorset Press: New York, 1978] p. 236.)  In both 1830 and in 1863, the Polish population of the part of Poland controlled by Russia revolted against the Russian Government.  (Edward Crankshaw,The Shadow of the Winter Palace [Viking Press: New York, 1976] pp. 105-109 and 203-206.)  All of these revolts were unsuccessful and were put down by the authorities.  The suppression of each of these each of these revolts had the effect of spurring emigration from the various parts of occupied Poland.  These Poles sought to build a new future for themselves in the United States.  One of the major destinations for the immigrating Poles was the State of Michigan.  Michigan had entered the union of the United States only in 1837.  In 1848, the first Poles settled in Michigan.  Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Poles were arriving in large numbers in Detroit, Michigan, which was rapidly becoming Michigan’s premier town.

A painting of the assassination of Czar Alexander II of the Russian Empire.


Then in 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  Despite the fact that Czar Alexander II had been assassinated by Russian radicals and not-Poles, the Russian Government began another round of persecutions of the Poles in retaliation for the assassination  As a consequence of this Russian repression of the Poles, a second and much greater wave of Polish emigration to the United States was begun in the 1880s.  (Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration [University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1960] p. 198.)  Russian immigration (of which Polish immigration was considered a part) grew from only 5,000 in 1880, to 81,000 in 1892 and rose to a peak of 258,000 by 1907.  (Ibid., p. 202.)  Of this total “Russian” immigration approximately 25% was actually Polish immigration.  (Ibid.)

Map showing the location of Detroit in the State of Michigan as an inland port for the Midwestern United States on Lake St. Clair which connects Lake Huron with Lake Erie.


Once again Detroit, Michigan, became a destination for many Poles in this second wave of immigration.  (See the article on the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company in the September/October 2004 isue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  However, not all of the Polish immigrants of the second wave chose to remain in the urban areas.  Across the nation some of the Polish immigrants migrated out of urban areas to seek their fortune in the rural areas of the nations.  “After 1900, there was a small, but significant movement of Poles from American cities, factories and steel mills to the semi-abandoned farms of the the East.  In western Massachusetts and Connecticut, Polish farmers began to cultivated onions and tobacco, crops requiring special soils, intensive hand-labor and not a little technical skill and business ability.”  (Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration, p. 215.)  Thus, some of the Poles that came to Detroit, chose to pass through the town and settle in a rural area of Michigan known as “the Thumb.”

A map of Michigan showing the location of the “thumb” in Michigan with Huron County at the tip of the thumb. .


Michigan is divided into two land masses—the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Penninsula.  The geographical shape of the Lower Penninsula on a map appears to be in the shape of a hand or a winter mitten.  North of the city of Detroit lies a protrusion out into the Lake Huron which appears to be the “thumb” of the mitton-shaped  Lower Penninsula.

Located on the very tip of the Thumb is Huron County, Michigan.  The townships along the shoreline of Huron County, Siebewaing, Fairhaven, McKinley, Seville, Lake, Hume, Port Austin, Huron, Gore, Rubicon, Sand Beach and Sherman Townships were predominately involved with fishing and later became the tourist and vacation destinations for the population of the Detroit metropolitan area.  Thus, after the fading of the fishing industry, the economy of these shoreline townships came to revolve around the summertime tourist trade coming largely from Detroit.  However, in the middle of Huron County are fourteen townships, Chandler, Meade, Lincoln, Bloomfeld, Windsor, Oliver, Colfax, Verona, Siegel, Brookfield, Grant, Sheridan, Bingham and Paris, which are primarily agricultural in economy.  The level ground of these townships with their covering of the clay/loam soil is conducive to agriculture.  Furthermore, the mild summer weather moderated by the close proximity of Lake Huron adds to the natural plant growing capability of Huron County, Michigan.

A township map of Huron County, Michigan showing the location of Bingham Township as the third orange-colored township from the left on the bottom row of townships.


Huron County was organized as a political sub-division of the State of Michigan in 1859.  However settlement of the area had begun much earlier.  Polish settlement of Huron County began in the late 1840s and early 1850s, by immigrants coming directly from Poland but arriving in the Michigan from Canada.  The early settlers gathered around the small town of Parisville., Michigan.  In 1852, the first Roman Catholic mission was opened in Parisville.  By 1858 the foundation of St. Mary’s Church in Paris Township was laid by Reverend Peter Kluck, himself an immigrant from Poland.

The town of Bad Axe was located in the middle of Huron County and became the county seat of newly organized Huron County.  Poles arriving in Huron County from Detroit as a result of the massive second wave of Polish immigration and worked on farms owned by others.  However, they soon became farm owners themselves.  Polish Settlement of the Huron County tended to be centralized in the townships east of Bad Axe.  Immigrants of German heritage tended to settle the townships west of Bad Axe.

The grain elevator in the city of Bad Axe, the county seat of Huron County, Michigan. This elevator buys a great deal of the navy beans grown in Huron County.


Like most frontier areas, the early settlers on the Thumb raised a great deal of alfalfa hay and small grains—largely for their own use.  However, with the coming of the market economy and modern transportation, farmers on the Thumb began to find a specialized niche in United States agriculture.  The flat land and silt loam, clay, well drained soil of the Thumb was found to be extremely accommodating to the raising of dry edible (field) beans—specifically navy beans.

The navy bean is a very high source of protein and obtained its name because of the fact that once dried, the beans could be stored for a very long time.  Thus, the navy bean was perfectly suited for storage aboard ships.  The first navy beans were introduced to Huron County in 1892 as six (6) acres were planted to navy beans that year.  In 1895, still only eight acres of navy beans were grown in Huron County.  However, an explosion in the growth of navy bean production occurred in 1900.  By 1909, Huron County, alone, was raising 10% of all edible beans raised in the whole United States.  In 1910, 20,015 acres within Huron County were devoted to navy beans.  Following 1909, the navy bean market stablized for a number of years until 1914, when the outbreak of war in Europe created an increased demand and another spurt in production of edible beans occurred.

Navy beans growing in the field.


In 1915, one particular farmer in Bingham Township in Huron County became interested in raising navy beans on his own 160 acre farm.  Just like his neighbors our Bingham Township farmer raised oats, hay and winter wheat.  Just like his neighbors, our Bingham township farmer used nearly all of the hay and oats that he raised on his farm as animal feed.  Only winter wheat served as a “cash crop” which was sold each year.

The shocked corn in the background of this advertisement picture of the Hoosier Drill Company reveals shows that the farmer is planting winter wheat in September after he has already harvested bundled and shocked his corn.


Winter wheat was planted each year in mid September.  It grew some in the fall and then went dormant in the frozen ground under a blanket of snow during the winter.  Upon the first thaw of the ground in the spring, the winter wheat began growing again.  Having already established a root system the winter wheat always matured well ahead of other crops that had been planted in the spring.  Consequently, winter wheat usually ripened and was ready to harvest each year in July.

An aerial view of a farm that looks very much like the farm of our Bingham Township farmer.


Each year, our Bingham Township farmer would carefully watch the price of wheat.  Sometimes he would sell his wheat immediately after threshing in July if he thought the price was right.  He did this in 1910 and in 1912 and had been able to get $1.00 per bushel and $1.01 per bushel, respectively.  (From the Macro-history Prices page of the National Bureau of Economic Research web page on the Internet.)  However, in most years the price fell in July as a result of the glut in the market, created when everybody attempted to sell wheat at the end of the harvest.  In 1911, he stored his wheat and waited until October and finally sold his wheat at 97¢ per bushel.  This was nearly 10¢ more per bushel that the price had been in July of 1911.  Last year, in 1914, the price of wheat reached $1.09 per bushel.  He really felt that this high price would not persist.  However, the war in Europe had created and was continuing to create some unusual price conditions in the market and the price of wheat had continued to rise in the winter and spring of 1915 until the price reached $1.57 per bushel in March of this year—1915.  He now wished now that he had held on to his wheat through the winter.  However, hind site is always 20/20.

The old abandoned grain elevator in Ubly, Michigan, where our Bingham Township farmer sold his winter wheat.


Our Bingham Township farmer was a member of the grain co-operative that owned the grain elevator in Ubly.  Ubly was a small village located in the central part of Bingham Township.  Every winter the co-operative held its annual meeting to elect new members to the Board of Directors.  Speakers were invited to this meeting to talk about new trends in farming.  For some years now, speakers at this meeting had been urging farmers in the Ubly area to plant navy beans in addition to their other crops.  Pointing out the recent “volatility” of the winter wheat market, they noted that navy beans would provide Huron County farmers with some economic stability by providing at least some diversification of their cash crops.  By not having all their “eggs in one basket” Huron County farmers would have a “hedge” against any dip in the price of winter wheat.  These speakers pointed out that since 1909, the overall price of dry edible beans had increased from $3.30 per hundred weight in 1909 to $4.00 per hundred weight in 1914—a 52% increase in the price.  (A “hundred weight” referred to a 100 pound sack of beans.  One hundred pounds of beans was equivalent to roughly two (2) bushels of beans, since a bushel of beans weighed about 56 pounds.)

This 52% increase in the price of navy beans compared quite favorably with the price of wheat over the same period of time.  Forget all the monthly rises and declines, the average price for the whole year in 1909 had been 98.6 ¢ per bushel.  (From the National Agricultural Statistics Service page of the United States Department of Agriculture website.)  Last year, in 1914 the average yearly price of wheat had been 97.5¢ per bushel—an actual decease in the average yearly price over that same period of time.  (Ibid.)

Now in 1915, after hearing that the price of navy beans would likely go still higher because of the recent war in Europe, our Bingham Township farmer decided to plant a 15-acre field on his farm to navy beans.  Our Bingham Township farmer was not alone in making this decision.  A number of his immediate neighbors were also planting navy beans for the first time or were increasing the number of acres they were devoting to navy beans.  Indeed, many farmers across the nation, joined our Bingham Township farmer in this decision in 1915.  For the first time more than a million acres of farmland (1,156,000 acres) were planted to edible beans—up from 986,000 acres in 1914.  (Ibid.)  Nationwide, this represented a 17% increase in the number of acres planted to edible beans in the spring of 1915.

An old horse-drawn bean puller. Long knives on the puller would slip under the ground and cut he beans off at the roots and then lift the bean plants out of the ground and lay them on top of the ground in a windrow.


Planting navy beans was not a simple decision of merely adding another row crop to the farm.  Navy beans would have to be harvested, or “pulled” by obtaining a beans puller or by attaching knives to his horse drawn cultivator.  The process of pulling the beans meant cutting the bean plants off beneath the ground.  Because the navy beans were relatively short plants (only about 18’ to 24” tall), it was necessary to get all the bean pods the plants.  Beans cut off above the ground, such, as by a grain binder, would result in some loss of bean pods which are located within the first 2 to 3 inches of the plant above the ground.  In taller beans, such as soybeans, which could grow to a height of 3 feet tall or more, a loss of these bean pods might be regarded as negligible.  However, a loss of that magnitude was unacceptable when growing the shorter navy beans plants.  Thus, the navy beans had to be cut off below ground level.  This process was called “pulling” beans and specialized equipment was needed just for this task.

As navy beans plants  grow they form pods which are very low on the plant.  These pods actually touch the ground as shown here.  Thus at harvest time the plants must be cut off at the roots underground and the plants raised out of the ground and placed in a windrow on top of the ground. This process is called “pulling” the beans.


Additionally, the navy beans must be allowed to dry.  If allowed to grow unattended the vines would continue to sprout more bean pods until frost killed the plants in the late fall.  Meanwhile the mature beans would never dry properly.  In order to promote drying of the navy beans, the vines needed to be pulled well before the first frost.  Harvesting of the navy beans generally took place in September.  Once dry, the navy beans were then threshed.  Until 1900, most threshing of navy beans in Huron County was done by hand.  After 1900, the stationary thresher took over nearly all the threshing of navy beans.  Generally, a farmer growing navy beans served as part of the threshing crew which traveled around the neighborhood with a thresher owned by a single custom farmer or the thresher could be owned by all the farmers in the particular neighborhood “threshing ring.”

Since winter wheat was harvested in July, oats were harvested in August and navy beans were harvested in September, a farmer could expect to be gone from his own farm for a great portion of those three months.  Thus, on top of working with the harvesting crew throughout most of July and August, navy beans would add the month of September that the farmer would have to be away from his own farm.  These were unexpected costs of raising navy beans.  Nonetheless, our Bingham Township farmer decided that planting navy beans would be profitable and would diversify the sources of his farm income by adding a second “cash crop” to his farming operation.  Thus, if there was a dip in the price of winter wheat in any particular year, he could look to the navy beans to possibly offset any loss of income.

Spring arrived early in 1915.  April was very warm.  Furthermore, only about half the amount of rain fell that month as compared with a normal April.  Accordingly, there was plenty of time to complete the seed bed preparation and plant the crops.  Despite the early spring, our Bingham Township farmer knew that he should wait until June 1st to plant his navy beans.  Only by that time would the soil be sufficiently warm for the navy beans to germinate properly.  Additionally, with the 85 to 90 day growing life of navy beans, he did not want to have his navy beans ripening at the same time that his oats ripened in August.  The threshing season was crowded enough without having the navy bean harvest coincide with the oat harvest.  Accordingly following the sowing of his oats with his six-foot Hoosier Company grain drill, our Bingham Township farmer modified the grain drill to plant the new crop of navy beans.

Newly sprouted navy beans in the field. Navy beans are planted as a row crop to allow cultivation of the beans.


Navy beans needed to be planted as a row crop to allow cultivation of the navy bean field for weed control.  Thus, he needed to adjust the Hoosier grain drill to plant in rows approximately 30 inches apart.  The Hoosier grain drill had 16 planting units, each with a disc-type furrow opener.  The planting units on the grain drill planted wheat and oats in rows 4½ inches apart.  Looking at the grain drill from the rear, our Bingham Township farmer numbered the planting units on the grain drill from the left to the right.  By closing all the holes in the bottom of seed box leading to the individual planter units of the grain drill, except for numbers 1, 9 and 16, the old Hoosier grain drill was converted into a three-row planter, planting beans in 31½ inch (or roughly 30 inch) rows.  When operating the modified grain drill in the field, the marker located on either side of the grain drill that would leave a mark in the fresh dirt of the seed bed each time he crossed the field with the grain drill.  This long scratch in the fresh seed bed extending the full length of the field and guided him and the horses on his return trip back across the field.  Following this mark would assure that the three new rows he was planting would remain about 30 inches from the previous rows just planted.

An advertisement of the Hoosier Drill Company showing a horse-drawn Hoosier grain drill at work in the field.


By planting the navy beans in 30-inch rows, our Bingham Township farmer was assured that there would be sufficient space between the rows for a horse to walk down in the pathway without stepping on the rows of growing beans.  This would allow the navy beans to be cultivated with his one-row horse-drawn cultivator.  Besides disrupting the weeds in the pathway, cultivation of the navy beans had the effect of “hilling up” dirt around the navy bean plants.  This would allow excess water to drain off into the lower pathway between the rows rather than gather around the plants and stunt the growth of the navy beans by inundating the roots of the beans with too much water.

Having made the decision to invest in navy bean production, our Bingham Township farmer started seriously thinking about a plan that had been on his mind for some years.  If he had to spend so much time away from the farm in July, August and September anyway, he felt that he should try to get paid for the time.  He reasoned that if he could get a thresher and do custom threshing in the neighborhood, he would earn extra income to supplement his farm income.  He would be making money all during the long threshing season.  Many of the threshing machines already operating in the neighborhood were old and their operators were approaching retirement age.  Thus, there was a need for someone new in the business—especially now when many more farmers in the neighborhood were starting to raise navy beans.

For a while he had toyed with the ideal of purchasing one of these old threshers from one the current operators.  However, the old threshers were becoming worn out from years of use.  Furthermore, unlike the older style threshers now operating in the neighborhood, the new threshers now on the market were fitted with modern labor saving devise like self-feeders, grain weighers and blower-style straw stackers.  These three innovations had drastically improved the performance of threshers.

The self-feeder had been invented in 1891 by Franz Wood, one of the founders of the Wood Brothers Threshing Company.  (For  history of the Wood Brothers Threshing Company, see the article called “Wood Bros. Company” [Part I] on page 16 of the January/February 2001 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  However, the Wood Bros. Company manufactured its self-feeder for installation, exclusively, on its own threshers.  Other companies, like Garden City Feeder Company of Pella, Iowa, soon sprang up to make similar self-feeders.  The Garden City Company did not manufacture a threshers.  They merely contracted with other thresher manufacturing companies to supply those companies with self-feeders.  The self-feeder was a major step forward in the technology of thresher production and design.

A 1913 advertisement of a Garden City  self feeders manufactured by the Garden City Feeder Company, of Pella, Iowa, including a double wing self feeder on the bottom of the advertisement.


The older threshing machines already operating in Bingham Township were the older “hand-fed” style of thresher that pre-dated the self feeder.  Hand-fed threshers had a platform and a “feeding table” at the front of the thresher.  A member of the threshing crew would stand on top of the loaded bundle wagon next to the thresher with a pitch fork and toss bundles, one at a time, over onto the feeding table of the thresher.  Another member of the threshing crew would stand on the platform of the thresher and manually cut the twine on each bundle of grain and feed the bundle into the thresher by hand.  Self-feeders would automatically cut the twine on each bundle of grain entering the thresher and then “feed” the loosen bundle of grain to the cylinder of the thresher.

Our Bingham Township farmer could see that a new thresher with a self-feeder would save a great deal of threshing time by eliminating the dangerous and time consuming task of hand feeding.  All the threshing crew workers needed to do was pitch the bundles onto the self feeder and let the self feeder do the rest.  Indeed, operation was speeded up to the point where bundles could be pitched onto the self feeder from bundle wagons located on both sides of the thresher.

A drawn diagram taken from the U. S. Patent application for the the Hart automatic grain weigher filed by the inventor James R. Harrison. This diagram shows the Hart weigher mounted on the grain elevator of a J. I. Case Company thresher.


In addition to the self-feeder, most modern threshers were also fitted with a grain weighing bagging attachment.  Almost universally, grain weighers on all the modern threshers were manufactured by the Hart Grain Weigher Company of Peoria, Illinois.  The Hart grain weigher was a sheet metal basket device located at the top of the vertical grain elevator.  The basket of the grain weigher collected the grain pouring out of the grain elevator.  When the amount of grain in the clamshell basket reached the proper weight (approximately 26-30 lbs. for wheat) the bottom of the clamshell basket would quickly open and close again.  However, the weight of the crop in the clamshell could be adjusted  depending on the moisture content of the particular crop of wheat being harvested.  With every opening and closing of the bottom of the basket on the weigher the grain in the basket to fall into a funnel located under the basket.  The grain would then slide down the funnel and into a long sheet metal tube to the bagging attachment located near the ground.  Every time the basket of the grain weigher emptied itself, the grain weigher measured out two (2) pecks of grain.  When the basket emptied twice, four (4) pecks of grain or one whole bushel had been threshed.  A numeric counter located on the Hart grain weigher kept track of the number of bushels that were weighed out by the grain weigher.

James R. Harrison, inventor of the Hart automatic grain weigher.


The bagging attachment of the thresher was nothing more than a “Y” in the sheet metal tube at the bottom end of the tube.  A control valve at the crotch of the Y would allow grain to flow out one leg of the Y or the other leg.  Burlap sacks were attached to the end of each leg of the Y.  By turning the control valve one way or the other, the bagging worker of the threshing crew could fill one burlap sack, then switch the control valve to fill the other sack while he detached the filled bag, tied or sewed the filled sack closed securely and loaded the filled sack onto a nearby wagon.  None of the older threshers operating in Bingham Township neighborhood were fitted with grain weighers.  Thus, the grain was collected in large two peck containers which were then awkwardly poured into sacks.  Our Bingham Township farmer knew from experience that this method chronically resulted in spillage and waste.  Even though this type of thresher used the volume measuring method rather than the weigh measuring method used by the Hart grain weigher, our Bingham Township farmer knew that getting the two containers full without over filling or under filling was not an easy task.  Thus, in actual practice, the automated grain weighing system was a much more accurate measure of the number of bushels.



The blower-style straw stacker (called the “Farmers Friend windstacker”) had also become universal on all modern threshers.  The Farmers Friend windstacker had been marketed almost exclusively by Indiana Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, Indiana since 1891.  The Indiana Manufacturing Company had purchased all the patents to the various blower-style straw stackers.  (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements [Krause Publishers: Iola, Wisc., 1997] p. 345.)  Indiana Manufacturing then sold their Farmer’s Friend windstacker to nearly all the threshing manufacturers.  Thus, the Farmer’s Friend insignia

A sign from the Indiana Manufacturing Company, advertising the Farmer’s Friend Windstacker.

appears on a great number of threshers.

None of the threshers currently operating in Bingham Township had any of these improvements.  The hand-fed thresher with the volumetric grain measuring system and the elevator style straw stacker still predominated among the local threshers.  For these reasons, our Bingham Township farmer concluded that a niche in the local economy existed that would allow him to make money with a modern custom threshing operation.

Of course, threshing navy beans was not the same as threshing small grains.  Our Bingham Township farmer knew that in order to use the same thresher for navy beans certain modifications would have to be made to the thresher.  Whereas, the cylinder speed of a thresher working with small grains (oats and wheat) was usually set at approximately 1100-1150 r.p.m. (revolutions per minute), the cylinder speed was slowed down to around 400 r.p.m. for beans.  However, although a slower cylinder speed was needed for beans the rest of the thresher needed to operate at normal speed.  Thus, merely slowing the speed of the steam engine or merely changing the main drive pulley on the cylinder shaft of the thresher from a 9” pulley used for threshing wheat, to a 14” main drive pulley for threshing navy beans would not solve the problem.  Since all the other pulleys on the cylinder shaft were used to power the rest of the thresher.  Consequently, these other pulleys on the cylinder shaft of the thresher had to be replaced by larger pulleys to allow the rest of the thresher to operate at normal speed.


A thresher at work embodying all three improvements–the self feeder, the Hart automatic grain weigher and the Farmer’s Friend Windstacker.


Some of these changes in pulley size were pretty significant.  Most important was the fan at the rear of the thresher, which was part of the Farmer’s Friend wind stacker.  This fan blew the straw and chaff through a large tube at the rear of the thresher and onto the straw stack behind the thresher.  This fan had to operate at full speed in order to prevent the tube from becoming clogged with straw.  Ordinarily, this fan was powered by a 9” pulley on the cylinder shaft.  For harvesting navy beans this pulley was replaced with a 24” pulley to allow the fan to operate at its optimum speed.

In all, four different pulleys and three different belts were needed to convert the thresher from small grain threshing to navy bean threshing.  Nonetheless, our Bingham township farmer knew that this additional expense plus the initial costs of obtaining a thresher and a steam engine would be returned in a relatively short amount of time in the form of additional income to his farming operation if he could use the threshing outfit for a major portion of the year, threshing navy beans as well as small grains.

A small all-steel Keck-Gonnerman thresher with a self feeder, a Hart automatic grain weigher on top of the vertical elevator on the upper right and a Farmers Friend windstacker in the background partially obscured by the vertical elevator.


Keck & Gonnerman (Kay-Gee) threshers were popular in Huron County.  Our Bingham Township farmer could see that Kay-Gee threshers were designed to be more suited to bean threshing.  For example, the largest thresher made by Keck & Gonnerman had a 36” cylinder.  However, this 36” thresher was available in two different models—one with a 54” separator and a second model with a 62” separator.  Our Bingham Township farmer knew that the second model with the wider separating tables and sieves was particularly fitted to navy beans.  There was always a great deal of straw and chaff when harvesting navy beans.  As one of the new style threshers, the Kay-Gee thresher was fitted with a Garden City self-feeder and a Hart Company grain weigher.  Naturally, the Kay-Gee thresher had a Farmer’s Friend windstacker to pile the straw in a stack behind the thresher.

A large (possibly a 36″ by 62″) K. & G. thresher like the one purchased by our Bingham Township farmer.


Consequently, in the fall of 1914, our Bingham Township farmer took delivery on a Keck- Gonnerman 36 x 62 thresher and a 20 hp. steam engine to power the thresher.  The steam engine was the largest model made by Kay-Gee and was advertised as the perfect mate to the large Kay-Gee thresher.  Although delivering 20 hp. to the rear wheels, the thresher produced 70 hp. at the belt which was sufficient for the large thresher.  The engineer that came along with the steam engine stayed with our Bingham Township farmer and his wife for about a week and taught our Bingham Township farmer how to operate the large steam engine in a safe manner.

A newly restored 20 horsepower (hp.) Keck-Gonnerman steam engine, like the one purchased by our Bingham Township farmer.


Our Bingham Township farmer became aware of the dangers of steam engine operation and learned that the single most important secret to safe operation of the engine was to keep a close eye on the water level.  However, there were so many other things that needed to be watched about the steam engine, that our Bingham township farmer felt that from the time that he started the fire in the boiler early in the morning until, he closed the flue to “bank” the fire (reduce the fire to coals) at sundown, he was “married” to the steam engine.  Properly banked coals in the firebox of the steam engine would produce only a small amount of heat all night.  However, come morning, when fed more wood and/or coal, the fire would come roaring back to life and the steam pressure would quickly return to operating temperature.

As he made the rounds of his neighborhood that first summer in 1915 for harvesting the winter wheat and the oats, our Bingham Township farmer preferred to get the thresher away from one completed job and onto the next farm before he banked the fire and shut down for the night.  In this way, the next morning he was able to ride Mac and Polly, his team of Percheron horses, over to the farm where the thresher was located and get an early start on threshing just as soon as the dew lifted.

Dappled gray is a common color for horses of the Percheron breed. This gray Percheron is all harnessed up for work as a draft horse.


Our Bingham Township farmer preferred Percheron horses to Belgian or Clydesdale draft horses.  Although Percherons were slightly smaller, standing on average only 16 “hands” tall at the shoulder as opposed to 16½ hands for the average Clydesdale and 17 hands for the average Belgian, and although the Percheron was sometimes lighter in weight than the average horse of the other two main breeds of draft horses, the Percheron had a “quicker step” than the horses of the other two breeds.  The Percheron was the least “lumbering” and slow of the three main breeds of draft horses.  That meant that on a morning like this Mac and Polly would walk down the road to the neighbors at a quicker pace than the average team of Belgian or Clydesdale horses.

The Percheron’s characteristic “quick step” made the Percheron a good riding horse and even a jumping horse.


Upon arriving at the farm where his thresher sat, and even before hitching Mac and Polly to the water wagon, he opened the door of the firebox on his steam engine and peered inside.  He moved the lever connected to the rockers that formed the bottom of the firebox.  As the rockers twisted from side to side, the ashes in the firebox fell down between the rockers to the ash pan located under the firebox.  Emerging from the ashes were a few cherry-red coals.  Good!  He would not have to start a fire from scratch.  Just throw on some wood and the boiler would be up to 155 pounds of steam pressure in no time at all.

Next he filled the water reserve tank on the steam engine from the water that remained in the water wagon.  While the thresher heated up, he picked up the bucket of grease and made his way around the thresher checking all the grease cups.  He liked to screw them down until he saw a little bulge of grease emerging from the crack between the bearing housing and the particular shaft on which the bearing was located.  Then he knew the grease had thoroughly covered the bearing.  Then he would unscrew the lid to the grease cup and fill the lid entirely full of grease from the grease bucket.  He would then screw the lid to the grease cup back in place only until the first threads of the lid “caught.”  Periodically, through out the day, the crew could tighten down the lids of those grease cups one turn at a time to provide additional grease to the bearings again as was needed throughout the day.

A brass gease cup lubricator.


By the time, he completed greasing the entire thresher, the steam engine had a “full head of steam.”  He put the steam engine in gear and moved the thresher to its location near the straw piles that had which had been created on this farm earlier that year during the wheat and oat harvests.  He pulled the thresher around so that the feeder of the thresher pointed west.  Nobody could ever be sure which way the breezes would blow during the day.  However, given the generally eastward direction of the weather patterns of mid-western North America and the resultant “prevailing westerly” winds, the best guess was always that the breezes during the day would be coming from the west.  By parking the thresher with the feeder facing west, most of the dust of the threshing operation would be carried away to the east toward the straw pile.

Next he took the carpenter’s level out of the tool box on the thresher.  He laid the level on a large wooden beam on the back of the thresher.  He found the right side to be a little too high.  Consequently, he got the shovel from its location on top of the thresher and dug a slight hole in the ground behind the right rear wheel and backed the thresher until the right wheel rolled into the hole.  That did it.  The thresher was level from side to side.  The thresher was also level from front to rear with just a slight raise in the front.  This slight raise in the front was beneficial as it would help the flow of straw from the cylinder at the front of the thresher to blower of the “Farmer’s Friend” straw stacker located at the rear of the thresher.

A counter like that attached to the Hart automatic grain weigher. Every time the automatic grain weigher tripped itself, two “pecks” or 1/2 a bushel of grain was released to down the bagging attachment. The lever on the right side of this counter would register the exact number of 1/2 bushel trips every day. Accordingly, dividing the figure on the counter in half at the end of the day recorded the number of bushels that were threshed that day by the K. & G. thresher owned by our Bingham Township farmer. The knob on the left side of the counter would reset the counter back to four zeros i.e. “0000.” The number on the counter is how our Bingham Township farmer got paid by his customers for threshing the grain of his neighbor/customers– five (5) cents per bushel or every 2 clicks of the counter.


Next he crawled to the top of the thresher and reset the counter on the grain weigher to zero.  He would be paid according to the number of bushels of grain recorded on this automatic counter.  Then he belted all the pulleys on the thresher, unhooked the steam engine and turned the steam engine around to face the front of the thresher.  He then belted the steam engine to the thresher with the long drive belt.  The owner of the farm where they were this day, had gotten one wagon loaded full of bundles of wheat the previous evening.  This wagon was now pulled out of the barn where it had been stored, shielded against any potential overnight rain.  The horses pulled the wagon load of wheat up to the Garden City self-feeder of the thresher.  Meanwhile, the rest of the threshing crew made their way to the wheat field with wagons and teams to start the day’s work in the field loading bundles.

Teams of horses pull bundle wagons up to the thresher for unloading the bundles of winter wheat on the wagon into the self-feeder of the thresher.


July of 1915 was only slightly drier than normal and provided good harvesting weather for the winter wheat harvest.  (A comparison of the actual monthly precipitation chart for 1915 on the Saginaw Michigan page of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) website with the average monthly rainfall chart for Bad Axe, Michigan on the Bad Axe/Huron County page of the World Climate website.)  The dry weather helped get the wheat well under 13%-15% moisture in order for good threshing of the crop.  Our Bingham Township farmer was able to work nearly the entire month threshing winter wheat on the farms of his neighbors without interruption from the rain.

Starting September of 1914, the price of wheat had risen out of its normal range of 85¢ to 93¢ per bushel to $1.12 per bushel.  This spike in prices was in reaction to the war in Europe.  Most newspapers expected the war to be a short war which would be over by Christmas of 1914. However, the war stretched on into 1915 on and the price of wheat continued to rise to extraordinary record levels.  In February 1915, the price was an astounding $1.59 per bushel.

Prices for all farm commodities tended to rise all year until the harvest time for that particular crop.  Then the price usually dropped at harvest time due to the large volume of crop that came into the market with the harvest.  However, high prices in 1915 held as the war in Europe dragged on.  In April, 1915, the price of wheat was still at $1.57.  In July as the winter wheat was being harvested prices still averaged $1.19 per bushel for the entire month.  The customers of our Bingham Township farmer were loading the bagged wheat onto wagons and taking the crop to the elevator in Ubly or the one in Ruth, just as fast as the crop was threshed.  These customers were able to take advantage of the high prices provided they could get their grain to market in a hurry.  This desire to harvest wheat early this year made it a perfect time for a custom thresher to begin operations.  Farmers in older more established and larger “threshing rings” were induced to sign up as the first customers of his new custom threshing operation in hopes of getting their wheat threshed early before the price dropped.

However, in order to keep these customers satisfied, our Bingham Township farmer had placed his own name at the bottom of the list of customers.  His wheat would be threshed last.  He felt certain that the price would go through a dramatic correction before he could get his wheat harvested.  For a while during the winter wheat harvest, our Bingham Township farmer thought that he would have to depend on his navy bean crop to cover his farming expenses.  Because he was last on the list of farms to be threshed, he was sure that he would be unable to sell his winter wheat in time before the current high prices fell.

during this
As the navy beans mature, they close over the pathways between the rows. Accordingly, no further cultivation of the navy beans with a tractor is possible. Flowering of the navy beans occurs at this stage. Consequently, even walking in the bean field at this stage will knock off a great deal of flowers. Every and, therefore, cost the grower a loss of yield at harvest time. Every flower lost meant a loss of bean pods and a loss of bean yield at harvest time.


Meanwhile, all during mid-July, he observed the white flowers that were blossoming on the growing navy beans in the fields of the neighborhood.  This signaled the end of any further cultivation of the navy beans.  Any work in the bean field at this time threatened to knock off the delicate white flowers of the bean plants.  Every flower represented another pod of navy beans.  He feared that this second cash crop may have to save him financially, if he was unable to sell his wheat at a decent price.

Although the price of wheat did decline some, the average price for the month of August remained at the relatively high level of $1.09 per bushel.  Thus, our Bingham Township farmer was able to sell his entire 1915 winter wheat crop at a price just 3¢ less per bushel than he had sold his 1914 crop the previous September.  This price was still well above the “normal” range of wheat prices.

Almost immediately, upon the completion of the winter wheat harvest, it was time to start making the rounds again with the steam engine and thresher to thresh the oat crop.  Oats were not a cash crop.  Nearly all oats were used on the farm for feeding the horses and other livestock.  Thus, although, oats returned money to the farm only in an indirect way, they were a vital crop on farms all across North America.  Everybody had to raise and harvest oats but the market price of the oats was not followed as closely as wheat prices.

Oats in “shocks” in the field, awaiting threshing day.


Our Bingham Township farmer was gratified to discover that most of the customers for whom he had threshed winter wheat in July returned to be customers again during the oat harvest in August.  However, the weather in August 1915 did not co-operate.  Almost twice the usual amount of rain (5.28 inches) fell during August of 1915 than was normal for August (2.90 inches).  Nearly all his customers had their oats shocked in the field.  Shocking the grain involved a great amount of hand work in the fields.  Four (4) to six (6) bundles were placed upright propped up by each other.  Then two (2) bundles were placed on top of the upright bundles.  This was the “cap” of the shock.  When properly made the shock of bundle would allow the oats to dry down to the 10% or less moisture content that would permit good threshing.  Properly shocked grain would also repel rain.  Thus, even during this wet harvest season, once the oats were shocked, the farmers of the neighborhood no longer needed to spend time in the oat field.  September remained a wet month as 4.54 inches of rain fell during September 1915.  Usual rainfall for September was only 3.30 inches for the entire month.

The delay in the oat harvest also delayed the navy bean harvest.  Farmers usually wished to start harvesting their navy beans by about September 15 each year.  However, the delays imposed by the late oat harvest and working up the ground for planting of next years winter wheat, the navy bean harvest was delayed well beyond September 15.  Many days were wasted as the thresher sat idle in some neighbor’s yard covered with canvas tarpolines while the rains drizzled down.

Oats are grown on diversified farms, predominately,  in order to feed the animals on the farm, including chickens.  This picture shows an elevator positioned up against the granary. Clearly oats are being harvested and stored in the granary. The chickens are cleaning up any oats that have been spilt by the wagons coming up to the elevators.


By the time that our Bingham Township farmer had finished the oat harvest, he hardly had time to change the pulleys on the thresher at the conclusion before it was time to start out on the road again.  He had only very limited amount of time to work up the soil on his own farm to plant next year’s winter wheat.  Our Bingham Township farmer was again gratified to find that all his customers were remaining loyal for the navy bean harvest in September (or at least those who were raising navy beans).  With all the rains of August and September, this year was certainly the year that proved the efficiency of his modern large thresher by threshing a great amount of crop in the few dry days that remained in those months.

On harvest day the “cocked” piles of navy beans were loaded up on a wagon and hauled to the thresher.


The farmers of the neighborhood were all approaching the navy beans harvest with a great deal of concern.  At harvest, the navy beans were “pulled” (cut off at the root below the ground) and “cocked” (hand forked by the farmer into convenient piles in the field) to be allowed to dry down to 18% or less moisture content.  However, unlike shocks of wheat or oats, these piles of navy bean vines did not protect the beans from rain.  Indeed, the farmers knew that they would have to return to the bean field after each rain to turn the piles of navy beans to prevent the pearly white navy beans from mildewing and discoloring.  Any discolored beans would be regarded as “cull” beans and would reduce the yield of beans the farmer could sell.  Sometimes discolorization could reduce the crop by as much as 50%.  Furthermore, in addition to being time consuming, this additional hand work in the fields turning the bean piles was wasteful.  With each additional “handling” of the bean vines, more pods would be lost off the vine or the pods would split open and allow the beans inside to fall out onto the ground.  Consequently, the farmers foresaw a great deal of the profits from the navy beans going down the drain if these rains continued.

However, late in September the rains suddenly quit.  Just as the navy bean harvest was starting the weather turned and started cooperating for the harvest of navy beans.  Only ¾ of an inch of rain fell during the whole month of October.  As our Bingham Township farmer made his way around the neighborhood with his steam engine and thresher, he found that his customers were pleased with the yield from their bean fields.  The beans pouring out of the grain weigher each time it dumped, looked uniformly white with very little discolorization.

The price of navy beans was down from the record highs of the past year.  However, everybody believed this to be just a natural low point of the annual cycle of prices.  Nearly all of the customers on our Bingham Township farmer’s list were confident that navy beans would continue to increase in price as they had since the war in Europe had begun.  The war had dragged on for an entire year now with no end in sight.  Accordingly, nearly all of his customers intended to store their navy beans on the farm in order to take advantage of the higher price they expected in the coming winter.  Consequently, they did not feel the same need to rush to the market with their navy beans as they had done with the winter wheat.



They wished only to schedule the “pulling” and “cocking” so that the beans would spend as little time on the ground as possible to be exposed to the possibility of rain.  Still, our Bingham Township farmer placed his name at the bottom of his list of customers.  He wanted to keep his customers for the next year.  As with the wheat and oat harvests, he was collecting 5¢ on every bushel of threshed crop that poured out the big Kay-Gee thresher.  Every two times that the grain weigher dumped its contents into the bagging attachment, he earned another nickel.  He would surely need all the money that he could earn this threshing season, just to meet the coming payment he would have to make on the steam engine and thresher.  Additionally, he wished to keep his customers loyal to him for next year.

It was simply another morning in October, our Bingham Township farmer, was yearing the end of the threshing season.  Last evening, he had pulled the thresher up into yard of another neighbor.  This farm was located in the southwest corner of Siegel Township to the northeast of Bingham Township.  Other than himself, this was the last customer on his list.  Just one more day, or perhaps a little more, and the threshing crew would finally be moving back to his own farm in Bingham Township to complete the navy bean harvest.  It could not come any too soon.  There had been no rains for days.  Thus, chances were strong that a rain would soon arrive.  With his navy beans piled up, or cocked, in the field to dry, he felt as though he was tempting fate with each passing day.

Over the course of the three harvesting seasons that summer, our Bingham Township farmer had learned that the dangers inherent in the steam engine and thresher, the rig offered an attractive nuisance to the children on the farms of his neighbors.  He hated to appear gruff to the children of his neighbors, but he had a dread of what might happen not only around the steam engine itself, but also what might happen around all the moving belts and chains of the thresher.  The kids constantly wanted to climb up on the thresher and the steam engine, the way that they saw the adults do.  He and his wife had never had children.  Thus, he was unsure how to react to children in the first place, but he knew how bad he would feel if a child were injured around the equipment and always feared that if something happened it would be his fault in the eyes of his neighbors.  In most eyes, he realized, he appeared as a person that did not like children.  However, he knew that this was not true.  He merely wished that the children were not around when he was operating the thresher.  However, on this farm in Siegel Township, one boy, about eleven (11) years of age, captured his attention.  Unlike the other children, this boy appeared to be thinking about serious subjects all the time.  Rather than wanting to climb up on the thresher, he would watch the grain pouring out of the chute of the bagging attachment of the Kay-Gee thresher.  If he noticed a small spill of navy beans on the ground he would attempt scoop up the beans with a shovel, open a door at the rear of thresher and throw the beans onto the cleaning sieves.  The beans would be cleaned again and any dirt picked up with the beans would be removed.  The beans would then emerge for the thresher as clean beans ready for the sack.  Sometimes, when the other children were gone, our Bingham Township farmer would see the boy standing quietly watching the steam engine.  During times like that our Bingham Township farmer would explain to the boy what to watch on the steam engine, e.g. the steam pressure gauge and most importantly the water level indicator.  It was the seriousness of the boy that appealed to our Bingham Township farmer.  He noticed this characteristic in the boy whenever he saw the family at church.  The boy’s family attended St. Mary’s Church just north of Parisville in neighboring Paris Township, just as our Bingham Township farmer and his wife did.  Indeed, he had purchased Mac and Polly, his team of Percheron horses from the boy’s father.

Our Bingham Township farmer, standing under the canopy of his Kay-Gee steam engine, kept looking over his shoulder to the west.  He was scanning the skies for any sign of approaching rain clouds.  However, he need not have worried.  The threshing crew was allowed to finish all the navy beans on this farm in Siegel Township as well as all the beans on his own farm without any interference from the rain.  Just like his neighbors, our Bingham Township stored the navy beans in hopes of selling at a better price in the coming winter.  Nationwide, as noted above, a record 1,156,000 acres of edible beans were planted in the United States.  Now in the fall, 93.9% of that total acreage was harvested (1,085,000 acres across the nation—also a new record.)  Despite this record level of beans flowing into the market, the ongoing war in Europe kept pushing the price per hundred weight up to new record levels.  The price increased sufficiently to allow the average price for the whole year of 1915 to be $4.88 per hundred weight and the average price for the following year—1916 proved to be a phenomenal $9.31 per hundred weight.  Our Bingham Township farmer obtained a very good price for his navy bean crop—as did his neighbors.  This “other” cash crop was certainly living up to predictions.  Indeed the future looked bright to our Bingham Township farmer as he spent time that winter inspecting the inside of his steam engine.  Sitting right next to the steam engine in the shed was his new thresher.  He now looked forward to the next summers harvest with anticipation and with the satisfied feeling that he had made the proper decision to purchase this new equipment when he did.

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