Custom Threshing on a Large Scale: The Pauley-Seppmann 40-inch by 64-inch Minneapolis Thresher

Custom Threshing on a Large Scale: The Pauley-Seppmann 40-inch by 64-inch Minneapolis Thresher


Brian Wayne Wells

As published in the July/August 1997 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

            The 1920s heralded the beginning of the small tractor era.  The production and sale of smaller tractors during that time was accompanied by a downward trend in the size of threshers.  By the late 1920s, large threshers had become dinosaurs of a bygone era–huge behemoths which reminded one of threshing days prior to World War I.  However, there remained one small niche in the farm market for the large thresher/separator–the custom thresher operator.

Generally, threshing on North American farms in the past was done by a threshing/separator jointly owned by a “ring” of neighborhood farmers.  During harvesting season, a thresher would make the rounds of each of the farms in the neighborhood ring, threshing all the small grains on each farm before moving on to the next farm.  Occasionally, one farmer would own the thresher outright and would circulate the neighborhood with the thresher and thresh his neighbors grain for a fee.  This was called “neighborhood custom threshing.”

Custom farming (i.e., custom threshing, custom baling, etc.) in the immediate neighborhood was a common way in which farmers supplemented their own farm income.  As the regular Belt Pulley reader will remember, the Hanks family of LeRoy, Minnesota, found that the extra income provided by custom combining and baling in their neighborhood provided just enough income to make it through 1947.  (See “The Case NCM and a Family’s Crucial Year” in the January/February 1995 Belt Pulley.)

To make an income at custom threshing, the operator had to get outside of his neighborhood and follow the ripening crop from south to north across the Midwest.  This style of custom threshing is mentioned in the book Threshers, by Robert Pripps & Andrew Morland (Motorbooks International: Oseola, Wis. 1992), pp. 57-59.  Such custom threshing would require full-time operation and would generally not be done by a farmer who had to operate his own farm.  These custom threshing operators were required to thresh a great deal of grain in a very short time.  They had to cover a lot of ground quickly.  They were, after all, fighting a rear guard action against the trend toward smaller threshing rings and downsized threshers which predominated throughout the 1920s.  Nonetheless, the threshing separator market was still significant enough in the late 1920s that some threshing machine manufacturers were trying to court this market by updating their largest threshers.

One of the biggest threshing separators ever built was the 40″ x 64″ separator (a 40″ cylinder and concave with 64″ wide separating tables and screens) manufactured by the  Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company (MTM) of Hopkins, Minnesota.  MTM seems to have begun manufacturing the 40″ x 64″ separator as a wooden thresher as early as 1899.  However, whereas Case had begun offering all-steel threshers as early as 1904, information obtained by researcher and writer C.H. Wendel seems to indicate that MTM was one of the last threshing companies to offer an all-steel version of its thresher/separator.  MTM began offering the all-steel design as an option in the late 1920s.

One particular all-steel 40″x 64″ separator, among the first ever manufactured by MTM, rolled out of the company’s Hopkins factory in early 1926.  It was loaded onto a waiting Chicago Northwestern railroad car and then connected to a  Chicago Northwestern train headed south to the town of Madelia, Minnesota (1920 pop. 1,447).  The steam engine powering the train pulled slowly out of Hopkins and picked up speed.  In the early spring, teams of horses and farmers could be seen just starting their field work for the season.  It was still very much the time of the horse.  As the train carrying the MTM thresher passed through the Minnesota Valley and through the small towns of Shakopee, Jordan, Belle Plaine, St. Peter and Mankato, it rolled on past fields full of farmers and horses in harness working up the soil for the start of a new year of crops.  At Mankato (1920 pop. 12,469), where the Minnesota River arches around a bend to head off to the northwestern part of the state, the train began to climb up out of the valley.  The tracks then settled out onto the flat plains southwest of Mankato.  At the small town of Lake Crystal, Minnesota (1920 pop. 1,204), the original tracks built by Chicago Northwestern turned south toward Iowa.  However, the train with the large MTM thresher headed off onto the tracks which headed west-southwest out of Lake Crystal.  This line had originally been built by the Chicago-St. Paul-Minneapolis and Omaha RailRoad and was commonly known as the Omaha Road.  Many years prior to 1926, this railroad had merged with the Chicago Northwestern Railroad; however, the railroad employees still affectionately referred to the section of the line between Lake Crystal and Omaha as the “Omaha Road.”  This particular train followed the Omaha Road for only 17 miles before arriving at the small town of Madelia, Minnesota, located in Watonwan County.  Here, the railroad car was disconnected from the train and put off onto a siding for unloading of the thresher.

A few of weeks earlier, the local hardware store in Madelia–James Brothers Hardware and Farm Equipment–had placed an order with the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company for the large separator.  Bezaleel “Bez” James and his brother J.C. James had opened the hardware business in 1910.  They sold Massey-Harris tractors and equipment and Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company threshers and equipment.  Carrying these two lines of farm equipment meant that James Bothers had the entire cross-section of farm equipment needed by any farming operation.

            James Brothers had placed the order for the large MTM thresher pursuant to a purchase contract signed by brothers Cyril and Zeno Pauley of Lewisville, Minnesota (1920 pop. 229) located in Watonwan County, 10 miles south of Madelia.  Cyril Pauley was a mechanic and lived with his wife Laura (Mosel) Pauley and their two children, Eugene and Joyce, in the town of Lewisville.  Zeno and his wife Ann (Fafzden) Pauley owned and operated a 160-acre farm in the rural Lewisville area where they lived with their two children, James and Lorraine.  The Pauley brothers were both tall and big men.  Obviously, they both had the strength and endurance to take on two full-time jobs each–their own respective occupations and also custom threshing.  They began custom threshing in 1917 using a wooden 32″x 52″ Red River Special fitted with double-wing feeder extensions made by the Carpenter Company of Peroia, Illinois.  However, by 1926, the Red River Special had become worn and was too small for the growing number of farmers who were employing the Pauley Brothers to do their threshing each year.  Consequently, they had purchased the large MTM from James Bros. Hardware and Farm Equipment.  The Pauleys had both grown up in the Madelia area; therefore, it was perhaps natural that they would turn to James Brothers to purchase a new thresher for their business.  To power the smaller Red River Special, the Pauley brothers had used a 25 hp. Port Huron steam engine.  For their new thresher, the Pauley brothers obtained a larger steam engine with the increased horsepower necessary to power the larger MTM thresher.

The type of threshing that was generally conducted in the Lewisville area at that time was predominately “stack threshing.”   The individual farmer would bind all of his wheat and oats, and rather than putting the bundles of grain into small “shocks” in the field to “sweat” or dry, he would begin carefully constructing large stacks of bundled grain that would rise to a point at the top.  If the top of a stack were correctly made, it would repel rain and keep all the bundles in the stack dry for a long time.  Many times the stacks would have to sit out in the elements a long time before threshing.  The threshing season would begin in August, but could extend to as late as November before a threshing crew could get around to threshing the last customer on their list.  Although farmers would try to position the stacks close together (usually with just enough room between the stacks to insert the self-feeder of the threshing separator), the fact that the stacks were large and immobile meant that some bundles would have to be carried from one side of the stack to the other.  Furthermore, near the bottom of the stack the crew members (bundle tossers) throwing the bundles onto the self-feeder would not have the advantage of standing on a wagon to feed the thresher.  Consequently, the bundle tossers would have to lift the bundles up above head level to feed the thresher.  As a result, stack threshing created a real need for feeder extensions which would swing out to any angle from both sides of the self-feeder to ease the task of the bundle tossers when working on the stacks.  Additionally, the feeder extensions could be lowered as the bundle tossers worked down the stack.  The “double-wing” feeder extensions jutting out at angles from the self-feeder were a great improvement and became a very popular option for most threshers headed to “stack threshing country.”  Anticipating that their 40″ MTM thresher would be used primarily for stack threshing, the Pauley Brothers ordered the optional Garden City double-wing feeder extensions on their new MTM thresher.  Although manufactured by the Garden City Company of Pella, Iowa, the double-wing feeder extensions were added to the Pauley thresher by MTM at their Hopkins facility as a factory installed option. 

Once the large thresher was de-trained at the depot in Madelia, it was parked nearby until the Pauley brothers could arrive to take possession of it.  To transport the 9,900-pound thresher from Madelia to Lewisville, the Pauleys would no doubt have had to have used their large steam engine.  Madelia is located in the valley of the Watonwan River, and the road leading south out of town toward Lewisville involved a long steady climb before emerging onto the flat, table-top land which covers most of Watonwan County.  One can surely picture the steam engine chugging along under full load in the particularly steep portions of this climb out of the valley.  Arriving in Lewisville, the thresher was ready to conquer the threshing jobs that the Pauley brothers had already scheduled for the 1926 season.

Among the crew the Pauley Brothers hired in 1926 was young Carl Tetzloff.  Carl would work with the Pauley Brothers for the first two seasons they had the Minneapolis thresher (1926 and 1927).  He was sometimes charged with the duty of driving the steam engine and transporting the thresher from farm to farm.  Carl, in later years, would relate some of his experiences to his son, Willard, now a member of the Watonwan County Historical Society in Madelia.  Carl told how the steering on the steamer was loose and required a considerable amount of over-steer to keep it headed down the road.  Young Carl was also very much aware of the mishaps that could occur with a heavy steamer and thresher, and he was not reckless.  Once he refused to cross a small wooden bridge for fear the bridge would break under the weight of the steamer and threshing machine.  Cyril, himself, had to arrive on the scene and take the risk of crossing the bridge.  In 1928, Carl would marry Verona Wiederhoeft and eventually he would own and operate the Allis Chalmers and Chevrolet dealership in Lewisville.

Other members of the 1926 crew and later Pauley crews have left us their names.  Visible to this day on the underside of the feeder and other protected areas of the Pauley/Seppmann thresher are the names of some members of the crew that was hired by the Pauley Brothers in different years.  A date–September 7, 1926–and the names Gerhard Brummund and Herbert Ritz (with “Truman” written behind this name, probably indicating that Herbert Ritz was from the little town of Truman, Minnesota [1920 pop. 752] located 6 miles south of Lewisville in Martin County) are found under the feeder.  Also, appearing at various locations on the thresher is the date September 14, 1926, with the names Herbert Wegner (Truman is likewise written after this name), Robert Meyer and Lille, Hugo Nessler, Edward Meyer, Pat Hiller (with “Good Thunder Route 2” following his name, indicating perhaps that he came from the small town of Good Thunder, Minnesota in Blue Earth County [1920 pop. 464]), Art Meyer, Ted Clow and Helen Clow (with “Truman” following their names); and the date September 20, 1930, with the names Walter Ritz and Clarence Ritz.  John Hiniker, who later restored the thresher and found many of the names, believes that during lulls in the threshing operation some of the crew took the time to put their names in pencil on the thresher in places where the writing would most likely last.  They probably did not suspect that 70 years later people would view their hasty actions of one insignificant day during a threshing season with a great deal of interest to attempt to deduce the meaning of the dates and names.

Sometime after the 1927 season, the Pauley brothers decided to modernize their threshing operation by obtaining a gas-powered tractor to replace their steam engine.  The Pauley brothers’ MTM 40″ thresher required 65 horsepower to run efficiently.  (Pripps and Moreland, Threshers, p. 121.)  Because most farmers were buying smaller tractors during the 1920s and most tractor manufacturers were downsizing their tractors, only the MTM 35-70 (with 35 hp. delivered to the wheels and 70 hp. delivered to the belt) and the four-cylinder Avery Model 45-65 (produced only until 1924) had the required amount of horsepower for the large thresher.  The Pauley’s did not have a lot of choices when looking for a large gas-powered tractor.  Thus the Pauley brothers bought a 1921 MTM 35-70, and thereafter used it exclusively to power their large thresher.

In purchasing the MTM 35-70, the Pauley’s had obtained the tractor that was the most common power source for the all-steel 40″ x 64″ thresher.  Indeed, the matching of a 40″ MTM all-steel thresher with a 35-70 MTM tractor was so common at that time that it almost seems that the history of any 35-70 tractor involves also at some point a 40″ thresher.  The cover story of the January/February 1997 Antique Power dealt with the 1913 35-70 which was restored by Frank and Betty Sticha of New Prague, Minnesota.  This 35-70 is now located on the grounds of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association in LeSueur, Minnesota.  Frank Sticha obtained his current 35-70 because it reminded him of a 35-70 which had been owned by his parents, Frank and Rose (Havlicek) Sticha, who had used it in their farming operation to power a 40″ MTM all-steel thresher.  Regular readers of the Belt Pulley will remember that the September/October 1995 issue carried the story of the Volkart threshing ring of LeRoy, Minnesota.  The Volkarts also used a 35-70 tractor to power their MTM 40″ threshing machine.  (Although the article mistakenly identified the thresher as a Case separator and contained a picture of the Scottie Jamieson Case thresher which was from Winnebago, Minnesota, the Volkart threshing ring was another example of a MTM 40″ thresher teamed with a MTM 35-70 tractor.)

So common was the linking of the 40″ MTM thresher with the 35-70 MTM tractor that C.H. Wendel, author and researcher of many tractor companies, believes that the thresher and tractor were offered as a package.  Although there is no proof that this was the case, the frequency with which the histories of the 35-70 tractor and the 40″ thresher merge would support the contention that MTM did consciously market these machines together by discounting the price when they were purchased as a unit.  Indeed, the whole reason for Hopkins, Minnesota-based MTM to begin manufacture of the large gas-powered tractor must have been as the intended power source for the 40″ thresher.  The Company began production of the 35-70 tractor in late 1912 and continued manufacture of the 35-70 tractor up to its merger with the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company (MSM) of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Moline Plow Company of Moline, Illinois, in 1929.  (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, Crestline Publishing: Sarasota, Fla. [1979] p. 199).  With the cessation of production of a tractor large enough to power the 40″ thresher, it can be assumed that the new Minneapolis-Moline Company also ceased production of the large 40″ thresher in favor of smaller designs.  The Pauley brothers continued to use their 35-70 and all-steel 40″ MTM thresher until 1934, when they would sell their tractor and thresher.

Alfred B. (Al) Seppmann, another farmer living 40 miles to the north and east of Lewisville, west of the city of Mankato near Minneopa State Park, was, during the 1920s, also involved in custom threshing.  Al Seppmann was one of eight children born to Louis B. and Augusta (Miller) Seppmann.  Louis B. Seppmann was born in Westphalia, Germany, but immigrated to the United States in 1852.  In 1864, Louis built a wind-powered grist mill from the native limestone of the Mankato area.  The tall, large tower supported an axle with long wooden arms equipped with canvas sails which would catch the wind and power the mill.  The Seppmann mill served as a center of activity for farmers in Blue Earth and Nicollet Counties during the mid-to-late 19th Century.  Farmers from miles around brought their grain to the Seppmann mill to have it ground into flour.  The revolving arms of the windmill, as they appeared on the horizon to a farmer driving a team of horses and a wagon loaded with sacks of grain, must have presented a very European look to the southern Minnesota landscape.

The Seppmann windmill was gradually surpassed in technology by water-powered and steam-powered grist mills, and finally by the roller process of making flour.  When mother nature damaged the Seppmann windmill in 1890 for the third time, Louis Seppmann discontinued its use altogether.  Nonetheless, when Al Seppmann took over the 160-acre farming operation on the Seppmann farm upon the death of his father in 1914, he become heavily involved in the processing of small grains, just like his father, albeit with a difference–by engaging in the business of custom threshing.  Just like Al Seppmann himself, the custom threshing business grew up in the shadow of the windmill.  It was natural that the same farmers that used to bring wheat to the Seppman windmill would now turn to the Seppmanns to thresh their small grains.

In 1920, Al Seppmann began custom threshing in a big way.  Each summer, just as the small grains around Blue Earth and Nicollet counties were beginning to turn golden amber, three threshing crews would leave the Seppmann farm:  one crew with an International Harvester 10-20 and a Case 22″ x 36″ threshing separator; a second crew with an International Harvester 15-30  and another 22″ x 36″ Case thresher; and the third crew with a 1930 6-cylinder Rumley Model 6A tractor with a Case 36″ x 58 thresher.

In 1934, Al Seppmann heard about the Pauley brothers’ thresher and tractor for sale in Lewisville, Minnesota, so he went to Lewisville and purchased them.  He then delegated the task of towing the thresher with the large 35-70 tractor home to his hired hand and his son, Alfred W. Seppmann.  At the top speed of 2.1 mph., driving the 35-70 on the 40-mile journey back to the Seppmann farm must have been a long, tedious trip.

In the summer of 1934, the 40″ MTM separator joined the three other threshers leaving the Seppmann farm to make the rounds of the neighborhood.  In the tow of the large 35-70 Minneapolis tractor, the Minneapolis 40″ separator would have a slow trip traveling down the country roads west of Mankato, Minnesota, moving from one threshing job to the next.  The massive 22,500-pound tractor would cause the ground to shake as it passed.  Once at the threshing site, however, the 35-70 was able to perform the task for which it was built–to deliver a great deal of stationary power to the belt.   However, one of the more daunting tasks facing the threshing crews using the 35-70 MTM tractor during the threshing season was starting the tractor.  Hand starting the large Minneapolis tractor required the use of a 4-foot lever attached to the flywheel.  This lever would be pulled by the operator, thereby revolving the large engine until the engine fired and started running on its own.  Al Seppmann, being very mechanically inclined, recognized that a “pony engine” mounted on the 35-70 to revolve the engine during starting would greatly reduce the hard labor involved in the onerous task of starting the 35-70.   Accordingly, sometime after he obtained the large Minneapolis, Al Seppmann set to work installing a 1928 four-cylinder Chevrolet car engine on the large tractor to act as a starting engine, or “pony engine,” to turn the tractor’s own large engine until it fired and began to run.  This greatly facilitated the initial starting of the tractor each day during the threshing season and also facilitated the restarting of the large tractor when it stalled in the middle of the day.  With all of these improvements, the tractor and 40″ thresher operated well for many years.  (John Hiniker of North Mankato, Minnesota, remembers another time that Al Seppmann showed his mechanical ability.  Al was the inventor of a hydraulic parking brake which could be retrofitted on most vehicles with hydraulic brakes.  Operated by a small switch on the dashboard, the Seppmann hydraulic parking brake operated much more efficiently than the typical mechanical parking brake operated by a lever on the floor of most heavy trucks.)

Over the years since 1890, when the Seppmanns had ceased using the windmill, the windmill itself had fallen into disrepair.  The canvas sails and the wooden arms that supported them deteriorated and fell away until all that was left was the distinguishing limestone tower and its roof.  Still, this presented enough of a European landscape that it served as a backdrop for some scenes in a small, independent, community-made movie called Man with a Mission which was filmed in 1965.  This movie involved a story about the underground resistance during World War II.  It was less than memorable to the author who first saw it when it came out on initial release in 1965 and was shown at the State Theater in Mankato.  Later, in 1972, the Seppmann Mill again received some local notoriety by being pictured on the front cover of the Mankato Citizens Telephone Company telephone book.  The windmill was eventually donated by the Seppmann family to the State of Minnesota, who declared the mill to be a historic site and incorporated the mill and the land around the mill into the Minneopa State Park.

As the years passed by, the list of farmers employing the Seppmann custom threshing business shrunk in size, as more and more area farmers obtained threshers of their own or purchased combines.  Finally, in 1946, Al Seppmann retired the four threshers, including the large Pauley/Seppmann MTM 40″ thresher, and the MTM 35-70 tractor.  The tractor and thresher would remain unused on the Seppmann farm for 20 years until purchased by John Hiniker in 1966.  (John Hininker would also eventually buy the 6-cylinder Rumley Model 6A tractor which were part of the custom threshing business and some other machinery from Al Seppmann.)

John Hiniker was one of a very few individuals who, in the 1960s, saw the need to save some of the farm machinery that was rapidly fading from the scene of North American agriculture.  Having been involved in his own construction business, John Hiniker had a natural understanding of how machines worked and he put this ability to good use in restoring the 40″ Minneapolis to operating condition.  Additionally, he removed the 4-cylinder Chevrolet engine used as a pony on the 35-70 Minneapolis tractor and returned the tractor to its original hand-start operation.

In 1968, John Hiniker put on a small threshing show for the public on some land located in Nicollet County just north of the suburban community of North Mankato, Minnesota.  At this show, after 20 years of inactivity and two years of restoration work, the Pauley/Seppmann 40″ MTM separator, powered by the restored Pauley/Seppmann 35-70 tractor, was again put to work threshing grain.  The thresher and tractor would again be demonstrated at the same location in North Mankato in the summers of 1969 and 1970.

In 1972, the widely advertised Farmfest came to Vernon Center, Minnesota.  Farmfest, in 1972, was held on the Burt Hansen farm on U.S. 169 between Garden City and Vernon Center, Minnesota.  The Pauley/Seppmann thresher and 35-70 tractor were demonstrated at this Farmfest.

Four years later, another larger Farmfest was held at a site in rural Lake Crystal, Minnesota.  This time the public was treated to a demonstration of the Pauley/Seppmann threshing separator through some stack threshing which offered an opportunity to show off the functionality of the Garden City double-wing feeders.

Following the 1976 Farmfest, the large thresher was stored away until 1980 when it was taken to the Blue Earth County Fair at Garden City, Minnesota, to be a stationary exhibit.  In preparation for the fair, John Hiniker, his good friend John Klasseus, and John’s son Nick Klasseus mounted a large, electric motor on the top of the thresher.  The electric motor was connected with a belt to the thresher and the thresher was operated in slow motion all during the fair.  The Pauley/Seppmann 40″ MTM thresher remained as an exhibit at the Blue Earth County Fair until 1990.

John and Nick Klasseus as well as John Hiniker were early members of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association located in LeSueur County northeast of Blue Earth County.  At the June 27, 1991, membership meeting of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association, John Hiniker requested that the 40″ thresher and some 15 antique tractors which he had restored (which were at that time located at the Blue Earth County Showgrounds) be brought to the LeSueur Pioneer Power Showgrounds as part of a permanent exhibit.  The membership agreed to this request, and in 1991, the Pauley/Seppmann 40″x 64″ MTM thresher was brought to its current place of residence in LeSueur County.

At the July 26, 1990, Pioneer Power Association meeting, the membership voted to construct a new exhibit hall for its 1991 Show in anticipation of the J.I. Case Collectors summer convention to be held at the Pioneer Power Showgrounds concurrent with the August 1991 threshing show.  The new building was to serve as the headquarters for the J.I. Case Collectors Association and their vendors.  (The exhibit hall has served as headquarters for similar groups when they came to the Show in succeeding years–the Central Minnesota Two-Cylinder John Deere Collectors Club in 1993, Allis Chalmers in 1994, the Hand Made Scale Model Collectors in 1995, and the Minnesota State International Harvester Collectors in 1996.)

From the very beginning, the new exhibit hall was immediately electrified.  At the 1992 Show, the Pauley/Seppmann thresher with its electric motor was set up in the exhibit hall as a stationary exhibit.  The electric motor was once again connected to the thresher by a belt and the thresher operated in slow motion for the viewing public, just as it had at the Blue Earth County Fair.  (During the Second Hour portion of Tape #1 of the International Harvester Promotional Movies, the 40″ thresher can be seen operating via electric motor inside the new exhibit hall.)

In the years since 1992, the Pauley/Seppmann 40″ x 64″ MTM thresher has remained as a stationary exhibit in the exhibit hall.  At the upcoming 1997 Pioneer Power Show, the MTM 40″ thresher will be one of the highlights, as the show will be held concurrently with the national convention of the Minneapolis-Moline Collectors Association.  Once again, the exhibit hall will be the headquarters of the featured guest association, and in the center of the exhibit hall will be the Pauley/Seppmann thresher–an example of the largest all-steel thresher ever built by Minneapolis-Moline or any of the companies that merged to form that company.

In addition to being the center of interest for all Minneapolis-Moline enthusiasts at the 1997 show, the large restored thresher will serve as a recognition to threshing as it was performed in the days prior to World War I.  It will also serve as a salute to all the people who built and operated the machine and finally as a salute to all those that were responsible for the preservation and restoration of this grand old machine.

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