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Potato Farming in No. Dakota with A 1937 F-20 (Part II)
by Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the November/December 2008 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
As noted previously, Walsh County, North Dakota borders the Red River of the North in eastern North Dakota. (See the first article in the series called “Potato Farming in North Dakota [Part I]” contained in the July/August 2008 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) Because of its location and its light rich soils, Walsh County traditionally leads all 53 counties of North Dakota in the production of potatoes. Indeed, some years, Walsh County produces 40% of the North Dakota’s total annual potato crop. Walsh County is divided into 37 townships. The townships on the extreme eastern edge of Walsh County that border the Red River are not the leading townships in the county in potato production. Rather it is the “second range” of townships back from the Red River that are regarded as the best locations for the growing of potatoes. Among this second tier of townships in Walsh County is Martin Township.
As noted previously, Martin Township was, in 1936, the home of a particular farmer and his wife and two children. Together they lived on a diversified 160-acre farm on which they raised potatoes as a primary cash crop. However, they also raised spring wheat, corn, oats and hay. They also milked a small herd of Holstein dairy cattle. They had a chicken house full of laying hens and a few hogs in an attempt to diversify the sources of farm income as much as possible. Consequently, a large portion of the arable land of their farm was taken up by pastureland and crops used as feed for the animals on the farm. Martin Township was located so far north in the Midwest that the typical growing season was only 110 days long, extending only from an average last frost in the spring on about May 11 until the first killing frost in the fall on about September 11. Corn which requires a 120-day season, does not, therefore, have enough time to mature in Martin Township. This far north, corn is not a cash crop and is used as an animal feed on the farm. Consequently, all the corn, raised by our Martin Township farmer was chopped green and put in the silo to be fed to his dairy herd. Only wheat and potatoes were sold as cash crops.
As the growing season approached in the Spring of 1937, our Martin Township farmer was reducing the amount of the acreage to be devoted to oats and hay on his farm for the coming year. The reason for this was that over the winter of 1936-1937 he had purchased a new row crop tractor which would, eventually, replace the horses on his farm. As noted previously, this new tractor was a Farmall F-20 tractor bearing the Serial Number 71355. (Ibid.) He had purchased No. 71355 from the Honsvald Oil Company in Grafton, North Dakota, the county seat of Walsh County. (Ibid.)
No. 71355 was a tricycle-style tractor with a narrow front end, and factory-installed 5.50 x 16 inch rubber tires mounted on French and Hecht (F. & H.) round-spoke wheels in the front and 11.25 x 24 inch tires also mounted on F. & H. round-spoke tires in the rear. Because the tractor had been fitted with rubber tires at the International Harvester Farmall Works factory in Rock Island, Illinois, No. 71355 was also fitted with the optional foot brakes and was fitted with the optional 28-tooth high speed road gear. With the more common 36-inch rubber wheels in the rear, this optional road gear would have delivered a speed of 7.07 miles per hour (m.p.h.) to the tractor.
However, because No. 71355 was fitted with the optional 24-inch wheels in the rear, the speed of the tractor in every gear was reduced by almost 1/3. Accordingly, the speeds available to No. 71355 through its four speed transmission were 1.575 mph in first gear, 1.925 mph in second gear, 2.275 mph in third gear and 4.666 mph in the optional fourth gear.
Because this range of speeds was painfully slow for cultivation and other light duty field work, our Martin Township farmer had agreed to the installation of a supplemental high-speed transmission to No. 71355, as a part of the original purchase contract. The particular high-speed supplemental transmission installed by the Honsvald Oil Company to No. 71355 was the Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission manufactured by the Heisler Company of Hudson, Iowa. (Ibid.) The Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission added some very important working speeds back to the tractor that had been taken away by the 24 inch wheels. These were 3.654 mph in high range of first gear, 4.46 mph in high range of second gear, 5.25 mph in high range of third gear. Additionally, the new Heisler transmission added a road gear of 11.28168 mph to the F-20 for fast transport down the road when needed. To be able to use No. 71355 for the most important of summer field work tasks, i.e. cultivation of the row crops, our Martin Township farmer had included the purchase of a Model 229 two-row mounted cultivator as part of the same sales contract with Honsvald. Additionally, as noted previously, the purchase contract with Honsvald Oil Company also included the purchase of a new Model 12 two-row potato digger.
Throughout most of January and early February, 1937, there had been accumulations of ten to twelve inches of snow on the ground. However, unseasonably warm temperatures in early March melted the snow entirely by the middle of the month. Now our Martin Township farmer had to wait for the soil to dry out and warm up.
Our Martin Township farmer knew of the old “rule” which stated that potatoes should be planted each year on Good Friday of the Easter holidays. However, like most such rules, our Martin Township farmer knew that this rule did not apply to the “far north” of the Midwest where Grafton, North Dakota was located. Most years in Walsh County, the last heavy frost in the spring occurred in early May. Furthermore, he suspected that the old rule referred to potatoes planted in gardens in “sheltered” areas around the homestead. He knew that the soil out in the open fields took a little longer to warm up in the spring than did the soil in the protected areas around the house.
April, 1937 was slightly warmer than normal and so was early May. The last cold night that even approached a killing frost occurred in mid-April. Furthermore, the gentle rains that occurred throughout April and May helped warm the soil. These springtime rains dried quickly in the light soil of his farm and did not unduly delay the field work because of wet conditions. Accordingly, our Martin Township farmer got into the fields in early May of 1937. He put the bright, red No. 71355 to work preparing seed bed. Both the spring wheat and oats could germinate in soil as cool as 37°F while seed potatoes required a temperature of 42°F. Therefore, our Martin Township farmer and his neighbors usually sowed the spring wheat and the oats before planting the potatoes. By contrast, corn required a soil temperature of 50°F for planting. Accordingly, corn was planted only after the potatoes.
Cutting the seed potatoes into pieces ready for the potato planter was a job that employed the whole family and it was an ambitious job to be conducted each spring as planting time arrived. The average potato might weigh 8 to 12 ounces. After cutting the potatoes into pieces ready for planting, each piece would weigh about 2.5 oz to 3.75 oz. In the past, potato growers and their families would cut all the potatoes by hand with a knife. Our Martin Township farmer remembered that even as a small child, he helped his parents with this daunting task of cutting the potatoes for planting. His mother would admonish him to be careful to leave two or three “eyes” on each piece of potato he cut. “Don’t make dummies,” she said, referring to potato pieces which had no eyes. The eyes of the potato were the locations on the potato where the spouts of the new plant would begin to form once the potato was underground. Leaving two or more eyes on a seed potato piece would be extra insurance that the seed potato piece would still sprout and grow even if one eye failed to sprout. Our Martin Township farmer’s mother used to joke with him as a child and say that the potato piece needed two eyes to see which way to grow.
Once cut, the seed potato pieces would be placed in a sack and sacks full of potato segments would be placed in the root cellar where the potato pieces would be kept warm enough to not freeze in the winter weather and would be kept cool enough not start sprouting. Additionally, the cut sides of the potato pieces would “cure” or “heal over” and the potato piece would be protected from rotting.
He remembered that cutting seed potatoes by hand was a long and arduous task in the spring because the family would have to cut enough potatoes to plant 11,600 pieces for every acre of land they intended to plant to potatoes. This meant the family would have to cut enough pieces to fill as many as 14 sacks of potato sections for each acre of potatoes they wished to plant. Currently for the 30 acre field that our Martin Township farmer wished to plant to potatoes, he needed 420 sacks full of seed potato pieces. Cutting this many seed potatoes would have been impossible for the family alone without hiring on extra help. However, a relatively recent and ingenious invention made in the 1920s by a local boy, greatly reduced the hand labor of cutting the potatoes into sections in the spring.
During the 1920s, George W. French, from rural Grafton, North Dakota, invented a mechanical potato cutter which would cut small potatoes into two pieces and large potatoes into six pieces. (Lynda Kenney, The Past is Never Far Away: A History of the Red River Valley Potato Industry [Potato Growers Association Press: East Grand Forks, Minn., 1995] p. 123.) The French potato “sizer and cutter” was a new invention that greatly reduced the amount of time that was taken up cutting potatoes for planting. French’s potato cutter also “sized” the potatoes for planting with a mechanical potato planter. Mechanical potato planters worked much more smoothly when the seed potato pieces were cut into relatively uniform chunks. The French potato sizer and cutter did a good job at creating uniform chunks for planting in the field.
Although the French mechanical potato cutter could not assure that every seed potato piece that was produced by the machine would have an eye, the process of cutting a great number of seed potato pieces for planting was simplified. Thus, some “dummies” or “duds” would escape the careful attention of the potato farmer and his family in the automatic cutting process and make it into the sacks of potato pieces that would be stored in the root cellar and may be planted in the field. other seed potato pieces and would be planted even though they would not grow. When the potatoes would sprout up through the ground there would be a “gap” or a blank in the row where the dummy had been planted. Our Martin Township farmer began to expect and to tolerate these occasional gaps in the rows of growing potatoes. He surely did not want to go back to hand-cutting the potatoes with a knife, just to eliminate all dummies.
The horse-drawn potato planter employed by our Martin Township farmer was a McCormick-Deering two-row Model 4 potato planter that his father had purchased in the spring of 1929. Following the particularly good crop year of 1928, his father had traded in the old one-row Aspinwall potato planter on the purchase of this McCormick-Deering Model 4 two-row planter. That same year his father had purchased a two-row McCormick-Deering Model 1 corn planter and a two-row Model UE horse-drawn cultivator. Thus, except for the potato harvest, his father effectively upgraded to a two-row farming operation in 1929, although he continued to farm with horses. Indeed, our Martin Township farmer’s current purchase of the International Harvester Model 12 two-row potato digger was looked upon as the completion of the two-row system begun by his father in 1929.
In previous years, the person riding on the seat of the potato planter had his hands full, driving the horses, carefully watching the planter mechanism to see that the potato pieces were actually being planted in the ground and making sure that the hoppers remained full of seed potato pieces. This year, however, job of riding the potato planter would become somewhat easier as the potato planting process would become a two-person operation. This year he would employ his new F-20 tractor—No. 71355—to pull the planter. Our Martin Township farmer had already shortened the long hitch on the potato planter to make the planter suitable for use with the new tractor.
On planting day in late May, 1937, our Martin Township farmer started No. 71355 and drove the tractor around to the shed where the old potato planter was stored. He backed up to the planter and hitched it to the drawbar of No. 71355. He pulled the planter out of the shed and greased and oiled the various parts of the planter, before starting for the field. Meanwhile, his wife drove heir 1928 Graham/Dodge truck out to the field where the potatoes were to be planted. The truck was loaded with the first 200 sacks of seed potato pieces. She parked the truck along the fence row just outside the gate leading to the field. She did not want to drive on the freshly prepared seed bed of the field until the potato planter had planted the “end rows” along the near end of the field. Our Martin Township farmer followed the truck to the gate of the field.
Pulling up next to the truck, he and his wife opened a few of the bags seed potato pieces and emptied the pieces into the two hoppers located over each planting unit on the planter. Then our Martin Township farmer’s wife crawled up into the seat of No. 71355, while her husband got into the seat on the planter. Our Martin Township farmer’s wife had already gained experience driving the new tractor over the past couple of weeks while she and her husband were preparing seed bed. Now she pulled the tractor into the field and backed the potato planter up against the fence on the side of the field. Our Martin Township farmer lowered both planting units on the planter by adjusting the levers located on either side of his seat on the planter. He wanted to plant the potatoes about 6-to-8 inches beneath the ground. The units on the potato planter were adjusted to plant the two-rows 36 inches apart. .
Before signaling his wife to move forward across the end of the field, our Martin Township farmer released the row marker located on the left side of the planter. The row- marker fell from its upright, locked, transport position out onto the ground on the left side of the planter. As the planter moved forward, the marker would scrape out a line across the field. Our Martin Township farmer had adjusted the row maker so that it measured out a distance 54 inches from the planting unit on that side of the planter. This would actually be the center point between the next two rows of potatoes to be planted. Thus, his wife would be able to aim the front end of No. 71355 to follow that line in the soil. Following this line on the return trip would assure that the row on the left side of the planter on present trip across the field would be 36 inches from the next row which would be planted on the return trip across the field.
Once everything was set our Martin Township farmer’s wife made sure that the Heisler Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission was shifted into low range and then shifted the standard transmission of No. 71355 into third gear and slowly released the foot clutch. The 2.275 mph speed closely approached the speed of a walking horse which allowed the horse-drawn planter to operate at its accustomed speed. The tractor and potato planter started across width of the field planting the first end rows next to the fence. The V-shaped furrow opener at the front of each planting unit on the planter began opening a small trench about six (6) to eight (8) inches deep in the ground into which the seed potato pieces were planted. Inside each hopper, a picker wheel revolved and the spike located on each arm of the picker wheel would each impale a potato piece from the hopper and carry the piece up to the opening of a planting chute. There a stripper would automatically scrape each piece off the spike and the seed potato piece would fall through the planting chute and into the newly opened trench on the ground. The process was timed so that each piece was placed in the trench about 8 to 12 inches apart in the row. This was regarded as the “optimal” population of planting within the rows. The planting units on the planter were set so the rows would be planted 36 inches apart. Coulters on the rear of the potato planter covered the trench full of seed potato pieces and packed the dirt over the trench.
Reaching the other side of the field, our Martin County farmer disengaged the planter and raised the planting units on the planter as his wife turned the tractor around to line the front wheels up with the line in the soil that had been created by the row marker on the previous trip across the field. Once again, she backed the potato planter up against the fence on the side of the field. Our Martin Township farmer again lowered the planting units and engaged the potato planter. This time he released the row marker on the right side of the potato planter which then fell out into the unplanted seed bed on the right side of the potato planter. Then, his wife shifted No. 71355 again into third gear and released the foot clutch and the tractor and planter moved back across the near end of the field planting the 3rd and 4th end rows on the near side of the field. Once back near the gate, our Martin Township farmer started the Graham/Dodge truck and drove it up into the field and parked the truck on the end rows they had just planted. They took more bags of potatoes pieces from the back of the truck and once again loaded the hoppers on the potato planter and started planting the remainder of the end rows on the near end of the field.
After four such trips across the near end of the field, they had planted eight (8) rows of potatoes across the near end of the field. This allowed them sufficient room at the end of the field to turn the tractor and planter around while planting the lengthwise rows across the field. Once again the potato planter was pulled over along side the truck and the hoppers of the potato planter were “topped off” again with more seed potato pieces. This time, extra sacks full of seed potato pieces were carried on the planter so that the planter could complete an entire “round”—across the field and back again— without running out of seed potatoes. For this first trip across the field, additional extra sacks of seed potato pieces were placed on the drawbar of the tractor. In addition to making a complete round, they also needed enough seed potato pieces to plant the eight (8) end rows on the far end of the field.
Now the tractor and potato planter were pulled around and lined up along the edge of the field prepared to make the first lengthwise crossing of the field planting the first two length-wise rows of potatoes nearest the fence. The tractor and planter were pulled ahead far enough so that the planter was beyond the end rows into the new unplanted seed bed. When the planting units had just cleared rows 7 and 8 of the end rows, our Martin Township farmer lowered the planting units into the ground, engaged the planter and released the right-side row maker. The tractor engine “hunkered down” to the task as the two furrow openers on either side of the planter dug into the seed bed and started to work. Although the task of sitting on the potato planter was somewhat easier now because he did not have to drive the horses, there was still a lot to worry about. This is where the slow speeds of No. 71355 paid off. As the planter moved along at 2.275 mph in low range of third gear, our Martin Township farmer had time to carefully watch the activity occurring under the seat where he was sitting. There was a small space between the end of the planting tube and the covering coulters at the rear of the planter where our Martin Township farmer could see the seed potato pieces in the bottom of the trench just before the trench was covered with soil. So long as he could actually see regularly spaced potato pieces in the trench in both rows as the planter moved along, he knew that the planter was actually doing its job. When he did not see regularly spaced potato pieces in the trench he needed to have his wife stop immediately, so he could see what was wrong. Any long stretches of missed hills within the row would not become visible until after the potato plants had emerged from the ground. Missed hills of potatoes could severely reduce his yield per acre. The speed of 2.275 mph in low range of third gear was a slow walking speed for horses and our Martin Township farmer determined that this was the proper speed to allow him to carefully watch both planting units on the planter to be sure that the seed potatoes were actually being placed in the ground.
Once the tractor and planter reached the far end of the field, our Martin Township farmer and his wife planted eight end rows on the far end of the field before starting back, planting the third and fourth lengthwise rows in the potato field. Part of the way on this return trip across the field, our Martin Township farmer had his wife stop the tractor temporarily to allow him to re-fill the hoppers with seed potato pieces one more time with the extra sacks the were carrying with them.
When they reached the near end of the field again our Martin Township farmer raised the planting units out of the ground, disengaged the planter and raised the row marker again before his wife drove the tractor across the newly planted end rows to where the truck was located. Once again they loaded up the hoppers on the planter and put extra bags on the planter before heading out on another lengthwise round of the field. They continued making the lengthwise rounds of the field, until all the sacks of seed potato pieces on the truck were empty. They had another 200 sacks full of seed potato pieces in the underground storage building which were then loaded up on the truck and hauled to the field.
After the potatoes were planted, it was time to plant corn. The soils had warmed early in 1937 and by the time the potato crop had been planted our Martin Township farmer could move immediately preparing the seedbed in the corn field. For the previous two years, this field had served as the pasture for his dairy herd. Under his crop rotation plan this field would now become his corn field. Next year this field would become his potato field. Our Martin Township farmer knew that, for potato growing, crop rotation was an important technique to disrupt the growing cycle of many fungal diseases. The most well-known of these diseases was the potato blight which had caused the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s. To break the cycle of potato fungi—including blight—it was important that a field be planted to potatoes only once in every four years. In his usual rotation, our Martin Township farmer would follow potatoes with a wheat crop, then an oat crop and then a hay crop and then a year as pastureland, and, finally, a year of corn. By the time that the field was returned to potatoes, more than enough time had passed to break the cycle of nearly all the different fungi that would attack potatoes. Additionally, by that time, the field would be well rid of any “volunteer” potatoes plants. Volunteer potato plants were notorious carriers of fungi.
Now that both potatoes and the corn were in the ground, our Martin Township farmer turned his attention to the cultivation of these crops as a means to prevent weeds from leeching moisture and soil nutrients away from these crops. The sun light and frequent rains of May and June of 1937 had created a thin, hard crust over the ground of the newly planted fields. The row crops were not yet visible above ground. Our Martin Township farmer knew that one of the fastest and easiest forms of cultivation of row crops could take place even before the corn and potatoes had sprouted above ground. He knew that dragging the field with his two section drag would work. However, he felt the old horse-drawn rotary hoe was a better piece of equipment for this chore because it had been specifically designed for this task. The rotary hoe was constructed of a series of spiked wheels fitted on an axle about 4 inches apart. The entire rotary hoe was composed of two such axles of these spiked wheels arranged in tandem. One axle full of spiked wheels was behind the first. The second row of spiked wheels was slightly offset from the first, so that, as the rotary hoe was pulled across the ground, the spikes on the wheels of the rotary hoe would disturb every inch of the ground surface covered by the rotary hoe. Like the potato planter and his other machinery, our Martin Township farmer had modified the old rotary hoe to be hitched behind No. 71355.
Besides killing weeds, our Martin Township farmer believed that part of the benefit of rotary hoeing the row crops was to break up the crust on top of the soil to allow the young spouts to emerge faster from underground. Accordingly, he thought that rotary hoeing was best done before the sprouts emerged from underground. Potatoes sprouts can begin emerging above ground between three (3) and four (4) weeks after planting. Corn sprouts, on the other hand, can be seen emerging above ground in as little as one (1) to three (3) weeks after planting. Consequently, our Martin Township farmer took the rotary hoe to the corn field first. (Although our Martin Township farmer felt rotary hoeing was best done before the plants sprouted above ground, there is a short scene contained in the 1934 movie Farming the Farmall Way which shows rotary hoeing being done on corn that is six (6) inches tall. This movie is available on Disc/Tape #1 of the International Harvester the Movie Collection.) Although the crops were still hidden underground, our Martin Township farmer could tell where the rows were located because the tractor tire marks created in the surface of the seed bed when the crops were planted, were still visible—preserved in the crust on the surface of the soil. He made sure to keep the tractor tires on those same marks, as he pulled the rotary hoe into the field, so at that the weight from the tires did not damage the sprouts that were even now forming underground.
The spikes on the rotary hoe sank into the ground only to a distance of between ¼ an inch and ½ an inch. This shallow disturbance of the soil broke up the crust on the surface of the soil and aerated the soil. However, more importantly, our Martin Township farmer knew that the top ¼ inch of soil currently contained thousands of little hair-like weeds that were also just starting to sprout. Rotary hoeing killed these weeds without disturbing either the corn seed which was planted 2 inches underground or the seed potato pieces which were planted 6 to 8 inches underground. One of the major advantages of rotary hoeing was that it could be accomplished very fast. Our Martin Township farmer shifted the Heisler Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission into high range and then shifted the standard transmission of No. 71355 into second gear. This allowed the new F-20 to pull the rotary hoe along at a speed of 4.46 mph. This speed was one of the “true” tractor speeds that were available on No. 71355, equipped with the Heisler transmission. It was a working speed much faster than the horses ever achieved under a working load. He made quick work of the end rows on the near side of the field and then made his way across the field and did the end rows at the far end of the field. He divided the field up into “lands” which meant that he would move over a few rows into the un-hoed part of the field before making the return trip across the field. This meant that he did not have to turn as sharply at the ends of the rows and risk “bulldozing” the ground with the front wheels of the tractor. As he became comfortable with operating the tractor over the long stretches across the field and making the large “lazy” turns at the ends of the field, our Martin Township farmer found that he could shift the tractor up to third gear in the high range. This bought the speed of the tractor up to 5.25 mph. At this speed, he was able to complete the rotary hoeing of the corn in a few hours and then move over to the potato field which was also completed in a few hours.
Now in mid-June, the potato sprouts were emerging above ground into the warm sunlight. Each sprout opened into leaves and the young plant was formed. Now it was time to get back into the field with the tractor and the mounted cultivator. Our Martin Township farmer took the drawbar off No. 71355 began the process of attaching various parts of the Model 229 cultivator to the tractor—including the cultivator frame guard, referred to earlier. (For an explanation of the purpose and importance of the frame guard, see the first article in this series called “Potato Farming in North Dakota [Part I]” contained in the July/August 2008 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)
After attaching the cultivator frame guard, our Martin Township farmer bolted the main front sections of the Model 229 cultivator to the frame of No. 71355. Then, he attached the rear sections of the Model 229 cultivator to the tractor and he headed for the field. He had also attached the cultivator shields to the front sections of the cultivator. These shields were installed to protect the young plants as they passed between the gangs of shovels on the front sections of the cultivator. The young potato plants were so small that there was a danger that the plants would be covered over by the dirt dug up by the cultivator shovels. As our Martin Township farmer lowered the cultivator into the ground and he shifted the tractor into third gear in low range. Moving along in this gear at the speed of 2.275 mph., he found that the shields on either side of the pathway between the gangs of shovels adequately protected the young plants from being covered over entirely. However, the shields were adjusted high enough to allow the dirt from the shovels to flow in under the shields just enough to let the dirt pile up around the base of the young plant. This was the start of the “hilling” process that would be continued in the subsequent cultivations of the potatoes. The hilling process was intended to prevent root rot and as a further safeguard against potato blight. The hills of dirt around the base of each potato plant would cause the rain water drain from the area immediately around the area of the roots of the potato plants. Any abundance of rain water that built up during the growing season, would tend to gather in the 36” pathway between the rows rather than around the plants themselves. The roots would not be standing constantly in water and there would less chance of the roots rotting. More importantly, the potatoes, themselves, which would soon be forming underground from the “stolons” on the roots of each potato plant, would not be sitting in water and, thus, susceptible to rot or fungi.
Like his neighbors, our Martin Township farmer always hoped to get the potatoes cultivated three times before the potato plants became too big. Usually though, with the need to cultivate, cross cultivate and then re-cultivate the corn and put up his hay, he counted himself fortunate to have gotten over the potato field twice with the cultivator. This was true again 1937 even though this time he had the new tractor to speed the cultivating.
So far the crops looked healthy, but the relatively dry month of July caused our Martin Township farmer to worry that the drought of the 1936 growing season was returning. As noted earlier, the growing season in 1936 had been a disastrously dry (dust bowl) year, that had seen the average corn yield in 1936 in Walsh County fall to less than ⅓ the yield of a normal year and had seen an 11% decrease in the yield for wheat from the yield of a normal year and a 15.2% decrease in the yield for potatoes from a normal year. Our Martin Township farmer breathed a sigh of relief when in the first week of August, 1937, there were two consecutive days of rainfall, which brought a total of 3 inches of rain down on the crops of his farm. However, our Martin Township farmer remained wary that some other untoward event that might yet turn the year into a disaster.
The fight against the weeds was pretty much over. Our Martin Township farmer had already stopped cultivating the potatoes. The plants had gotten too wide and too bushy to fit under the cultivator without doing damage to the plants. Frequent, cultivation had prevented the weeds from getting any real start in the potato field. Now the potato plants were large enough to dominate the ground and prevent any weeds from getting started.
Starting in the last days of July, 1937, the green potato plants had begun to be dotted with little white flowers on their top branches. The abundant rain in the first week of August soon caused the potato fields all across Walsh County to explode with white flowers. Attempting to move among the flowering potatoes with machinery or even on foot, risked knocking flowers off the potato plants. Knocking flowers off the plants would interfere with the formation of the potatoes under ground. Consequently, from now, on the potato plants were on their own and they seemed to be doing fine on their own. Following the recent rains, the potato plants grew spectacularly and totally obscured the 36 inch pathway between the rows. Now our Martin Township farmer began to worry about the low hanging branches of the plants, which were shaded dring much of the day. These low branches might get wet from rain or might retain the early morning dew long into the day and might not dry sufficiently. With the upper leaves of the plant shading these lower leaves and branches, he feared these lower leaves and branches would soon become susceptible to the particular fungal rot or disease of the stem called “black spot” or “black leg.” There was always something to worry about. If it was not one thing is was another.
However, the remainder August, 1937, proved to be relatively dry and warmer than normal. Small periodic ¼ inch rains, throughout the month, kept just enough moisture in the soil to allow the potato plants to finish maturing. During the daylight hours, the warmer than normal dog days of August quickly dried the dew and surface moisture of the soil. Unseen during the flowering stage of the potato plants was the development and growth, underground, of the tubers attached to the “stolons” of the roots of the potato plants. Having reached full maturity, the potato plants were now channeling all their energy into development of the “fruit” underground. The effects of all this energy going to the tubers underground soon became visible on the plant above-ground. Throughout the end of August and into September more and more green leaves on the potato plants turned brownish-yellow in color.
Our Martin Township farmer watched this natural progression of the potato plants beginning to die down for the coming autumn. He was eager with anticipation of what appeared to be a bumper drop of potatoes. This year, all his crops had done well this year. In September, radio reports on KXPO in Grafton indicated that the total 1937 spring wheat production had reached new levels not seen in Walsh County since 1922. The average yield in 1937 for the entire county had reached 16.2 bushels per acre—up 34% over a normal yield. Walsh County was doubly blessed in 1937. While the county enjoyed bumper crops, nationwide production of spring wheat was actually down by 12%. Other wheat producing states of the United States were still caught in the grip of the “dust bowl” drought. Because of the low volume of wheat coming onto the nationwide market, wheat prices remained at a relatively high level. Walsh County farmers were actually in the enviable position of coming to the market with a great deal of crop and finding the price they received was higher than normal. Our Martin Township farmer was able to sell his spring wheat right out of the field at the August, 1937 price of $1.13 per bushel. This really helped him pay off some of the bills he had incurred purchasing the new machinery.
Now in September he wished he could repeat his good luck with the potato crop. He had made it all the way through the growing season without any of his fears being realized. Indeed, 1937 had turned out to be a nearly perfect growing season. It looked like there was a large, bumper crop of potatoes just waiting to be harvested out in his field. However, according to radio reports, there appeared to be bumper crops of potatoes waiting to be harvested in all the potato fields of the leading potato growing states of Maine, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. All these northern tier states had escaped the ravages of the “dust bowl” drought of previous years. Our Martin Township farmer knew that this could only mean that a glut of potatoes coming onto the market in the fall and winter of 1937-1938 and this would reduce the price he would receive for his potatoes. Indeed, the potato commodity market in Chicago had already begun anticipating this glut of potatoes—declining dramatically from a high of $2.85 per hundred weight (cwt.) in February, 1937, to $1.52 per cwt. in July, 1937. A month later in August, the price slipped to $1.16 per cwt. Currently, in September, 1937, the price was $.96 per cwt.
In a normal year, Walsh County would experience the first “killing frost” of the autumn in mid-September. Our Martin Township farmer was anticipating the killing frost which would finish off the potato plants above ground. Once the plant above ground was killed off by the first hard frost of the season, all growth of the tubers would be completed and he could then harvest the potatoes. However, the first killing frost of 1937 was delayed well past the middle of September.
Our Martin Township farmer took advantage of the opportunity offered by the delayed frost to clean out the underground storage building in preparation for the new crop. His father had built this building back in the late 1920s when they had enlarged the potato acreage on their farm. From the outside the underground building appeared to be nothing more than the roof of a building lying directly on the ground. There was a slight berm around three sides of the underground storage that obscured the wooden walls of the structure. The fourth side was the front of the building where the entrance into the building was located. In the past, they stored the potatoes in sacks which were then stacked in the underground building. However, in more recent years, the dirt-floored building had been modified for bulk storage of potatoes. Bulk storage of potatoes meant that the potatoes were stored in a pile inside the under ground building. When the underground building was refitted for bulk storage, three holes had been cut in the roof in the middle and near both ends of the roof. These holes, cut between the rafters were then framed-out and a wooden cap or lid was made to be placed securely over each framed out hole. Sheet metal had folded around on all sides of the lid and had been securely nailed on the under side of the each lid. The holes in the roof would allow the newly harvested potatoes to be elevated up the outside of the underground building and to drop down into a pile on the inside of the building. Bulk storage of the harvested potatoes was preferred over storage in a sack because there was less spoilage of the potatoes.
Stored in the underground building, the insulated roof of the underground building and the warmth from the ground would keep the potatoes consistently within the range of 36°F to 40°F all through the winter months. The lids covering the elevator holes in the roof would keep the rain and snow away from the potatoes all winter. Hopefully, the warmth from the ground within the underground building would keep the potatoes snug and dry all winter. Our Martin Township farmer knew that only the extremely cold temperatures, like those that had occurred in January of 1936, would require him to artificially heat the underground building with a little wood stove.
Another worry during the winter, was condensation which formed on the underside of the roof that might then drip down onto the potatoes and cause spoilage. To help guard against the condensation problem, the underground building was outfitted with “gutters” and “eave spouts” located inside the underground building at strategic points where condensation might drip off the ceiling. This system of gutters and eave spouts was designed to carry the moisture off and harmlessly deposit the water outside the building. Consequently, part of the clean up of the underground storage building, involved the clearing any dust and/or bird’s nests out of the gutters and downspouts in the building. He set up his long step ladder inside the underground building to perform this task.
While he had to long step ladder set up in the underground building to clean the gutters, he moved it down underneath the square hole in the roof near the far end of the building farthest away from the entrance. He attached the first seven-foot section of the canvas potato chute to the hooks around outside perimeter of the framing around this hole. Another seven-foot section was attached to the open end of this first canvas chute section and finally a third canvas section to the bottoms of the second section. This was the chute, down which, the potatoes would slide as they were dropped from the top of the elevator. The chute would cushion the fall of the potatoes and and keep bruising of the potatoes to a minimum. Furthermore, a person at the end of the chute could move the chute around and assure a more even distribution of the potatoes within the underground building.
After sweeping out and cleaning out the entire building and making sure the condensation drainage system was in working order, our Martin Township farmer brought the elevator around and positioned on the outside of the building. The elevator was located so that the “head” or top of the elevator was located over the square hole in the roof nearest the rear of the building. He did not, as yet, remove the lid over the hole. It might rain between now and the time that the first potatoes were brought in from the field.
Finally in late October, 1937, the growing season ended with a killing frost that quickly caused all the above ground plant life to wither and turn brown. Now our Martin Township farmer started up No. 71355 and backed the tractor around to the shed where the new Model 12A potato digger was parked. After lubricating the potato digger, he headed for the field. Making his way through the gate and into the field, he lined the potato digger up with the first two rows of the “end rows” on this near end of the field. Today was Saturday and so his children were home from school. Consequently, his wife drove the Dodge-Graham truck to the field and brought their children along. On the back of the truck was a large pile of empty burlap sacks and a tall column of wooden baskets. These baskets and sacks would be used when picking up the potatoes. Come Monday, they would have need for a great number of baskets and sacks.
Many of the neighbors from adjoining farms co-operated and worked together on the potato harvest every year. The potato harvest was similar to working on the threshing crew during the summer. The potato harvest moved from farm to farm throughout the neighborhood. Our Martin Township farmer was expected to “repay” his neighbors for their help with the potato harvest on his farm by following the potato harvest around the neighborhood and bringing his truck to haul the sacks of potatoes from the field. Just like the threshing season earlier in the summer, the potato harvest demanded a great deal of time. Our Martin Township farmer could expect to be away from his own farm for approximately six weeks as he followed the potato harvest around to the other farms in the neighborhood.
However, picking up potatoes was a bigger job than could be accomplished by our Martin Township farmer and his family even with the help of the neighbors. Consequently, our Martin Township farmer had arranged to hire on a number of workers from Grafton and elsewhere to begin picking up the harvested potatoes. These extra hired workers would be coming to the farm on Monday—just the day after tomorrow. Consequently, our Martin Township farmer and his family spent the whole weekend in potato field preparing for Monday. He used No. 71355 and the new Model 12 potato digger to dig up all the potatoes in the end rows located on the near and far sides of the field. Then he and his family picked up and bagged all the potatoes on the end rows and loaded the sacks of potatoes up on the truck and hauled them back to the building site. Now with the end rows cleared of all potatoes, he could turn around with impunity any where on either end of the field with No. 71355 and the Model 12 potato digger without running over any potatoes. He made lengthwise trips across the field at periodic spaces along the width of the field. This divided the field into “lands.” Come Monday, he would not have to turn sharply around at the completion of a crossing of the field to line up on the next two adjacent rows. Instead he could make a wide lazy turn around on the end rows to take a nonadjacent pair of rows back across the field.
He dug up only the number of rows that would allow the workers to get started working early on Monday morning while he finished the morning milking chores. The majority of the potatoes would remain safely underground protected from any unexpected “hard frost” which might occur between now and Monday and ruin the potatoes lying exposed on top of the ground. Monday morning arrived with the hired potato pickers arriving on the farm before sunrise. The hired potato pickers were to be paid by the by the sack. For every sack of potatoes they filled they would receive 2 cents. Each picker could fill about 120 sacks by working from sunrise to sunset. Consequently, they wanted to start work immediately so as not to waste any time. The pickers generally worked in pairs. Each picker would work a single row of potatoes across the field. Each picker would take a wooden basket and a great number of empty sacks which they would tie to a string around their belts. As the moved down the row they picked up the potatoes and placed them in the wooden baskets. Generally they would take about the same amount of time to fill their baskets with about 35 to 40 pounds (lbs.) of potatoes. Then one worker would remove an empty sack from the bunch they had tied to their waist and hold the sack open and upright while the other worker poured both baskets of potatoes into the sack. With about 70 lbs. of potatoes in the sack, the sack was regarded as full and would stand upright by itself in the space between the two rows. (Every sack full of potatoes standing upright in the field was regarded as a “bushel” of potatoes.) Now the pair of pickers would return to filling there baskets.
While the pickers started out working on the rows of potatoes that he had dug up over the weekend, our Martin Township farmer finished up his milking chores and then started to the field with No. 71355 and the potato digger. He lined the tractor up on a couple of un-dug rows. He depressed the clutch to stop the tractor then he reached down with his left had and pulled back the lever located just behind the clutch. This was the control lever for the belt pulley and the power take-off (p.t.o.) shaft. Then he pulled the trip rope and both scoops on the Model 12 potato digger fell to the ground. As he slowly released the clutch, the tractor started to move forward and the potato digger came alive with activity as the p.t.o. shaft began to turn which powered both ascending and both descending aprons on the Model 12. The tractor engine knuckled down to its work as the two scoops on the front of Model 12 sunk down into the dry soil. He steered the front wheels of the tractor so that they remained in the 36 inch space between the two rows of potatoes to be dug. The rear wheels rolled along in the 36 inch spaces outside the two rows of potatoes he was currently digging. These two rows of potatoes passed safely under the rear axles of the tractor and directly back to the where the two scoops of the Model 12 dug up the hills dirt and all. As the dirt and potatoes of the two rows of potatoes passed up onto the two ascending aprons of the Model 12, most to the dry soil fell away from the potatoes. Any soil that was left on the potatoes was shaken off as the potatoes were conveyed over to the two descending aprons. The soil conditions were dry enough that that our Martin Township farmer determined that there was little need for the potatoes to remain on the descending apron very long. Consequently, he had adjusted the descending aprons of the Model 12 so that the potatoes had a steep descent to the ground.
Only an occasional slippage of the 24-inch wheels on the rear of No. 71355 in the dry soil betrayed the fact that this was 2-plow tractor pulling an implement that was advertised as requiring a 3-plow tractor. Our Martin Township farmer watched, carefully, the vines of the potato plants. He expected that the large bushy plants that had grown up this year might create a problem because the vines were long and “stringly” and might get caught on the machinery of a potato digger. However, despite the fact that the potato vines this year were extra long and luxurious, the vines seemed to be moving through the Model 12 with no problem. (As he worked in his fields in 1937, our Martin Township farmer could not know that by 1940 a new machine would be brought out onto the market which would attempt to answer the problem posed by old potato vines in the field at harvest time. This machine was the “Rotobeater”—which was developed by yet another Grafton, North Dakota inventor—Wilmer Neilson. The Rotobeater would cut and pulverize vines in the potato field with rotary blades or flails just the way a modern rotary lawn mower cuts grass on a modern suburban lawn. Indeed, in the future, potato farmers would begin using the Rotobeater to replace the killing frost that our Martin Township farmer had awaited so patiently in 1937. By cutting the potato vines with the Rotobeater while the vines were still “green,” the potato farmer could stop the growth of the potatoes and harvest the potatoes when they were at their optimum market size—about 2 to 2 ¾ inches in diameter. Use of the Rotobeater about 10 days before they were dug and stopping the growth of the potatoes, allowed the skins on the individual potatoes to thicken and “set” more firmly and, thus, resist bruising by subsequent handling.)
Our Martin Township farmer noted with pleasure that the potatoes were coming out of the ground in plentiful numbers. This was a sure sign of a bumper crop. If he needed any further evidence of the bumper crop, all he needed to do was to note that the distance between the upright sacks in the field. As he glanced over at the workers, it looked as though they were leaving upright sacks every 10 feet as they worked their way across the field. The upright sacks were more closer than normal. It looked like a good, “heavy” crop of potatoes.
As his neighbors finished the morning chores on their own farms, they began arriving at his farm to help with the potato harvest. The neighbors quickly formed themselves into crews. One crew would work in the field lifting the full sacks of potatoes up onto the truck beds and flat rack wagons. The truck crew would drive around the field and pickup the full sacks of potatoes which were standing upright in the field. One crew member drove the truck, two others would lift the full bags of potatoes up onto the wagon or truck bed and another two men would stack the bags of potatoes on the bed of the truck.Others on the flat racks and trucks would stack the full sacks securely. Work on this crew was not easy work. The crew members could get pretty tired after a full day of lifting 70 pound sacks of potatoes from the ground onto the wagon all day long.
The truck or wagon would, then, be driven up into the yard to the underground storage building where another crew waited. This crew had already removed the cap on the hole in the roof of the underground building and lowered the head of the elevator into the hole. As the first truck load of potatoes from the field made its way up to the elevator and stopped, they started the McCormick-Deering “hit and miss” engine which powered the elevator. With the elevator operating, they then began emptying the sacks of potatoes into the elevator which carried them up to the hole in the roof of the underground building. As they finished emptying each sack, the empty burlap sack would be straightened out and laid in pile on the corner of the truck bed. The empty sacks would be returned to the field where they would be filled again by the potato picking crew.
Meanwhile, another worker on the inside of the underground building grabbed the canvas chute hanging down from the hole in the roof. This worker folded the chute and poked it under his arm as he waited for the first potatoes to come sliding down the chute. This would cushion the fall of the potatoes. Once the potatoes had built up slightly in the chute, he released his hold on the canvas chute and the potatoes rolled out of the chute onto the dirt floor of the underground storage building. As the potatoes continued to come down the chute from the elevator, he dragged the chute back and forth from one corner of the building to another across the width of the building with potatoes pouring out the end of the chute the whole time. Soon he was standing on top of a growing pile of potatoes inside the shed. As the pile grew and the chute became too long to handle easily, the person handling the chute would remove the bottom-most section of the chute and, thus, shorten the canvas chute to a manageable length.
When the truck outside was empty of all its bags of potatoes, the truck was started and pulled away from the elevator and headed for the field again. Replacing it at the elevator was another truck fresh from the potato field with another load of potatoes. This continuous stream of the trucks and wagons full of potatoes making their way to the elevator was evidence to our Martin Township farmer that he had hired just the right number of potato pickers for the field. There was no breakdown or bottle neck in the operation. The potatoes kept coming down the canvas chute on continuing basis. It was hard work for the whole crew participating in the potato harvest. However, there were compensations.
Just as in the summer during threshing season, the threshing crew could expect a huge and luxurious meal, so too, now during the potato harvest there was a large meal awaiting the crew at noon. Our Martin Township farmer’s wife had worked since dawn preparing for the meal. Luckily, she had help from the wives of the neighbors. Just like her husband she was making the rounds of the neighborhood with the potato harvest. She made her specialty plates of escalloped potatoes and potato soup many times during the potato harvest season. Casseroles, or “hot dishes” were served during threshing season, but the soups tended to be served only during the cooler fall weather of the potato harvest.
The potato harvest had been spectacular. Our Martin Township farmer had a yield of 16.2 bushels per acre. This was better than the yield of the famous bumper crop year of 1928. However, the harvest had been labor intensive and costly to our Martin Township farmer in terms of hired hand labor, but he was not done with hiring hand labor yet.
The potatoes remained stored away in the underground building all through the winter of 1937-1938. However, during the months of February and March of 1938, agents of the various the potato buyers across the Midwest began showing up in Grafton to sign contracts to buy potatoes. There was C.C. Hollingsworth from the Morse Hubbard Co. in Minneapolis. There was Dwight Haney from the firm of Williams and Haney from Topeka, Kansas and there was Harry Freeman from the Independent Potato Exchange in Chicago, Illinois. After having a few of the agents out to the farm to look at his potatoes in the underground storage building, our Martin Township farmer found that the prices offered by the buyers were not the best because of the glut of potatoes on the market. As anticipated all year there had been bumper crops of potatoes all across the nation. Still prices had risen a little since the bottom of 96¢ per cwt. in September and October 1937. Now in February of 1938, the price was $1.04 per cwt. However, the price was going down again as the days went by. Our Martin Township farmer found that L.S. Letourneau, an agent for the firm of Michael, Swanson, and Brady from Kansas City, Missouri did offer him a better price than the rest of the buyers. So he sold his whole crop of potatoes to Michael, Swanson and Brady.
Now the potatoes had to be prepared for shipping. L. S. Letourneau informed our Martin Township farmer of the particular potato warehouse he had arranged to accept the potatoes and load them onto an appropriate railroad boxcar headed for Kansas City. Our Martin Township farmer hired on a crew to come to his farm and set up their Lockwood Co. elevator and conveyor system in the front part of the underground storage building. Potatoes were scooped up from the pile that filled the entire underground building and shoveled into the elevator hopper. The whole elevator and conveying system was mounted on wheels and the whole mechanism could be rolled back further into the underground storage building as the pile of potatoes in the building grew smaller.
The potatoes were elevated onto a conveyor that took the potatoes into a past the sharp eyes of the inspectors who sorted out by hand any spoiled potatoes and/or the culls—those potatoes that were regarded as unmarketable. The culls made their way into sacks which were headed to the starch plant in Grafton and be processed into starch for a variety of commercial uses including ironing starches for home ironing of collars, dress shirts and bed linens.
Following this inspection, the potatoes rolled down the conveyor to the sizing unit, where they dropped through holes according to their size. Then the potatoes were sacked up in new burlap bags and weighed. It was important that each sack contain 100 lbs. of potatoes, because the potatoes were being sold by the “hundred weight” (cwt.). The sacks were then tagged as to the size of potatoes they contained and loaded up onto trucks ready for the trip to Grafton. These single-axle trucks could hold about 225 sacks of potatoes provided the sacks were properly stacked on the truck. In Grafton, the truck drove up to the particular warehouse which had contracted with Michael, Swanson & Brady for loading the potatoes into a railroad box car that was already waiting on the side track by the warehouse. This boxcar would be joined to a Great Northern Railway train headed south out of Grafton.
Finally, after the potatoes were gone, our Martin County farmer could sit down and take inventory of the past year. The potato crop had been a spectacular crop, but the price was not as good s he had wished. It had been the spring wheat that had really made the difference on his farm in 1937. Diversification of the farming operation had worked the way it was supposed to in 1937. Now he looked forward to next year. He was intending to make only minor changes to his farming operations for the coming year. The new tractor had really proved that he could farm without any horses at all. Consequently, in the coming spring he would sell more his horses. With less horses to feed he intended to allot even less land to the production of oats and hay than he had done in 1937. Thus, he would be slightly increasing his acreage allotted to both cash crops of potatoes and wheat. The tractor and new farm machinery was really making a difference on his farm.
In the years to come, our Martin Township farmer would appreciate just how much more productive his farming operation had become with tractor power. Involvement the United States in the Second World War would double, or even triple, the price that farmers would receive for their potatoes. Prices of potatoes began rising in August of 1941 ($1,59 per cwt.) and never looked back. By May of 1943 the price was $4.56 per cwt. However, the Second World War also created a real shortage of labor for hand picking in the fields. Thus, the price paid for this labor also rose dramatically. During the Second World War the price that our Martin Township farmer paid for hand picking rose from the 2¢ per bushel to 15¢ per bushel.
Additionally, as noted above, the invention of the Rotobeater by Wilmer Neilson in 1940, provided potato farmers with the means by which they could control the harvest in the fall rather than waiting for the first killing frost. Widespread use of the Rotobeater began to have an almost immediate effect on potato harvesting. Farmers began harvesting earlier in the fall and avoided the losses and spoilage associated with late fall harvesting. As a result, yields of potatoes in Walsh County would increase dramatically to 20.8 bushels per acre, 24.8 bushels per acre and 20.2 bushels per acre for the years 1941, 1942 and 1943, respectively. It was during these years that No. 71355 and the Model 12 two-row potato digger really proved itself in productivity.
Because the tractor was already fitted with rubber tires and already had a supplemental transmission installed in the drive train, No. 71355 did not need modification at the end of the war like so many other pre-war tractors. However, as the post war era progressed into the 1950s, time eventually caught up with No. 71355. Although equipped with a wide range of real “tractor speeds,” No. 71355 was still handicapped by the lack of a hydraulic system and, a battery/electrical system with electric start and electric lights. Eventually, No. 71355 was traded into a dealership on a newer more modern post-war tractor. No. 71355 eventually fell into disuse from active farming. The old tractor was sold to one antique tractor collector and then to another. Along the way, the French & Hecht round-spoke 24-inch rear wheels were replaced by the International Harvester Company-made (I.H.C.-made) cast iron drop center rear wheels fitted with 36 inch rubber tires. Additionally, the French & Hecht round-spoke wheels on the front of No. 71355 were replaced with IHC-made cast iron drop center wheels. This was the configuration of No. 71355 when it was sold to Dave Haala of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota in 1985 and it remained the tractor’s configuration when No. 71355 was sold to the late Wayne A. Wells in April of 1992.
As noted earlier the restoration of No. 71355 was begun immediately and the tractor was painted and exhibited at the 1993 LeSueur Pioneer Power Show in rural LeSueur, Minnesota. However, the overhaul was limited to the engine and the paint used on the tractor was an “industrial grade” paint. This paint faded much more rapidly than a comparable “automotive grade” paint. Consequently, by the year 2000 the old Farmall Model F-20 bearing the
Serial No. 71355, was in need of further restoration of the brakes and rear end final drives and was in need of another paint job. This restoration was begun and conducted in by Wayne Schwartz of LeSueur, Minnesota, Randy Guertin of LeSueur and Kyle Lieske of rural Henderson, Minnesota. With this restoration now complete, No. 71355 lacks only a re-painting before it becomes are permanent part of the exhibits at the LeSueur Pioneer Power Show.