Harvest 1961

It was the last of May in 1961. Twenty of us were following the harvest to make some money for college. In addition there was the supervisor, a mechanic, a gasoline truck driver, and a man and wife team that cooked our meals. The combine outfit was owned by Norman Hamm of Perry, Kansas. His family started the harvest crew in the 1940’s. It was the largest one-man owned outfit going. They called it Hammtown.

 

Johnson City, Kansas

Lined up and ready to move out near Perryton, Texas. We could be loaded and ready to move in one hours time.

 

The harvest equipment consisted of ten new Massey Ferguson 95 self-propelled combines. They were transported on ten shop-made trailers pulled by ten 1959 Chevrolet two-ton trucks. Other support equipment included bunkhouses made out of truck and bus bodies. The diner was a bus body trailer complete with kitchen and a table that would seat fourteen at a time. It was pulled by a truck equipped with a water tank, generator and freezer and other supplies. The diner was supplied with electricity by the generator. All the equipment with the exception of the combines was painted light blue with white tops.

A shower house on wheels with a gas hot water heater and water supplied through a hose connected to the supply truck water tank kept us cleaned up. When we reached our next stop the hoses and drop cords were placed on the ground between trailers. The cooks had their own private trailer. They put in long days cooking for us right there where we camped in the fields. When on the road we ate in restaurants.

 

Hammtown Sleeper

My bunk house, the Hammtown Sleeper. A converted school bus. Yes, that is me.

 

I was already an experienced and licensed truck driver. This put me behind the steering wheel of a truck pulling a combine at the start. Ten of us with combine and farm equipment experience were selected to operate the combines in the field. The combine operators also drove the truck-trailer rig hauling their assigned combines on the road. The other ten guys were assigned the job of driving the trucks hauling grain between the combine and the bins and commercial grain elevators. It was a different time, and I don’t think many of them held a commercial license. Back then it was called a chauffeur’s license.

We left Perry, Kansas early Memorial Day morning and headed south, first on the Kansas turnpike and then on the Oklahoma turnpike, and turned south toward Texas. We made camp somewhere in Oklahoma and arrived at the Waggoner Estates Ranch near Vernon, Texas late the next day. I had read of Dan Waggoner and the ranch’s place in history. At the time it was said to be the second largest ranch in the nation after the King Ranch. I believe it still holds that distinction.

Waggoner Estates Ranch

The main entrance to the 55,000 acre Waggoner Estates Ranch. The Ranch’s famous Quarter Horse Stallion, Poco Bueno (little good one) is buried near the entrance.

 

The first couple days there we were putting the combines in order. Putting the belts on, lubricating and adjusting took up most of our time. We did not get paid for downtime but we got our bunk and meals furnished. The meals were outstanding.

The farmer in me noticed that the wheat was short and thin and certainly looked to me to be low yielding. I asked a ranch employee about it. He agreed, saying that it had been overgrazed during the winter. But, he explained that the management was not concerned, if it yielded enough to pay the combine bill. “After all,” he said, “The ranch makes its money from oil, horses and cattle.” The wheat got better as we got further into the fields.

We cut the wheat in blocks called a land, with five combines to a land. The largest continual field of wheat consisted of 2,200 acres. The Massey Ferguson model 95 combines were considered to be some of the best machines at the time. They were manufactured at Toronto, Canada. On a good day we could cut 750 acres total. We were told the combines cost around $7,500 each. The Chrysler six-cylinder engine was mounted sideways and located under the operator’s platform. Controls were mounted on the platform in front of the operator. The operator was seated on the platform out in the open. There were no air-conditioned cabs. Hats or caps and shirts were advised. Some of us went shirtless as time went on.

We were on the Wagner Ranch about ten days. It rained several times while we were there. Rain, of course, kept us out of the field for a day or two. The supervisors were good to us. They would load us in a truck and take us to town, to a movie, or in one case a county fair. We were warned that if we got into trouble, we were on our own. I drew $20.00 of my pay. That lasted me the entire trip.

 

 

Of the twenty harvesters, most were in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest harvester was a 29-year-old Englishman. The rumor was that he came over on a work or tourist visa. He wanted to see the real United States and somebody in Topeka sent him to Hammtown. Guiles was his first name. I have forgotten his last.

I mean no disrespect, but Guiles was a bit obtuse and most of the time downright obnoxious. He left us about halfway through the trip. He decided he wanted to see Denver, Colorado. They had sent him to the heartland with a bunch of fun-loving youngsters. He left us with a lot of stories to tell. I will share a few of the most humorous ones before I move on. I imagine he has a lot of harvester stories to tell, also.

Guiles was prematurely bald. His head was slick as an onion. The first day we told him he needed to get a straw hat. He had already told us what he thought of cowboys. He let us know in his customary rough language that he was not going to wear a “#@!% bloody cowboy hat.” Even though several of us wore them.

After a couple days of Texas sun, his old bald pate was as red as the combines we operated. We saw him slip a five dollar bill to the cooks and they brought him a straw hat back from their trip to town. He promptly punched the crease out of it, saying he did not want to look like a bloody cowboy.

In that level country, the roads were wide with shallow ditches on each side. Guiles, lacking experience, was assigned to drive a truck to the grain bins at the railroad. Of course, they drive on the left side of the road in England. Guiles just couldn’t bring himself to drive in the right lane. He would drive his truck down the middle of the road. Barreling down the middle, he yielded to no one.

One morning a deputy sheriff car showed up just after breakfast. A tall Texas lawman with his pants legs tucked into his cowboy boots unfolded himself from the car and stated he wanted to talk to us. We gathered around. He reached into the car and got his ten gallon cowboy hat and placed it squarely on his head. He wore a regular western-style gun belt with a holstered sixshooter, ivory grips and all. He put his eyes on every one of us before he spoke.

“Somebody from this outfit has been running people off the road. All your trucks look alike. They can’t tell which one it is, just yet. If he don’t stop it, he is going to get to see what the inside of my jail looks like.” We all knew who it was, and some were watching Guiles. He had an absolute look of horror on his face.

When Guiles pulled out of the field with his first load of wheat that morning, he had mastered the art of driving on the righthand side. I never heard of another complaint about his driving. I think his opinion of cowboys had changed, also.

 

We loaded up and pulled off the Waggoner Estates Ranch on June 10, turning north up the Texas panhandle at Childress. North of Childress we crossed the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, east of the lower end of the Palo Duro Canyon. On we rolled over the Salt or Middle Fork and then across the North Fork of the Red River. At normal intervals the combines and support equipment took up about a mile of highway.

Perryton, Texas

On the Julius Johns farm at Johnson City, Kansas. The wheat is harvested and we are loaded up, ready to travel on.

 

We went through some country that I vowed I would visit again. The Canadian River area is some of the prettiest country I have seen. Yes, I have been back there to visit. Our destination was Perryton, Texas. We cut wheat southeast of there for several days. We broke camp and crossed into the Oklahoma panhandle. The caravan went through Liberal, Kansas and then west on to Hougoton. At Hougoton we turned north again and crossed the South Fork of the Cimarron River.

We setup camp near Johnson City and cut wheat around there and Ulysses. One of the wheat farmers we worked for at Johnson City had an airplane. We set up camp near the grass airstrip. One day the farmer’s two teenage daughters came out to the plane. It was obvious that they were dressed to go somewhere. A more adventurous youth struck up a conversation by asking them where they were going. They told him that the family was flying to Denver, Colorado to do some shopping. That was the closest big town. Denver would have been approximately 250 air miles.

The early settlers in that part of the country often referred to it as a sea of land. In 1961 it was mostly dry land farming. Now most of the farms are irrigated by sprinklers and ditch.

Having spent my early childhood on the great plains, the area was not entirely foreign to me. My Grandfather Ryan had owned land over the state line in Bent County, Colorado. In 1915 my maternal grandfather purchased a new steam engine and threshing machine in Amarillo, Texas. He moved north, threshing grain virtually over the same route we took almost 50 years later. Of course he threshed bundled and shocked wheat. He took several years to make the trip north. During the offseason he built houses and worked as a blacksmith around Liberal and several other towns. He finally traded his threshing rig for a blacksmith shop in Cheyenne County, Kansas.

On the move again, we crossed the the Arkansas River near Syracuse and stopped at Tribune. The cool weather and the rain had slowed the ripening process. We laid over a week at Tribune to wait for the wheat to ripen. In that dry expansive country each county seat had a park with a community swimming pool. We were allowed to set up our camp at the back of their park and use the swimming pool. The day we pulled in, there were only a few people at the pool. The next day it was swarming with girls. The word had got out that Hammtown was in town!

Tribune, Kansas

Jerry Parnell poses on the fender of his rig, at Tribune, Kansas.

 

Before I leave the subject of girls. I will tell of another humorous guy. His name was Doug Adams. He attended college in Arkansas and was a basketball referee on the side. He was a cut-up, with a gimmick he used. He would approach girls, on a street corner, in a restaurant or store. He would say in his best syrupy Arkansas drawl, “Excuse me ma’am. Do you know Doug Adams?”

Almost always they answered sincerely, “No, I don’t think I do.”

He would stick out his hand and say, “How would you like to meet him?” He always got a laugh and sometimes they actually shook hands.

I have forgotten most of my harvest friend’s names. I wish I had written all of them down. But, I remember the name Doug Adams.

 

We were of many locations and origins. I remember one youngster hired along the way. He was a replacement for a grain-hauler that had quit. He was probably 17 or 18. The young man was of very small stature. He wore a leather jacket with the picture of a wolf’s head painted on the back. He was asked by one prankster about the picture. He explained proudly that it was the symbol of the gang he belonged to. It was called the Wolf Pack. His tormenter said, “You don’t look like a wolf. You look more like a coyote to me. I am just going to call you Coyote!” The nickname stuck. Each time one of them called him Coyote he would get mad and want to fight. The little guy could not fight his way out of the proverbial wet paper sack.

One day I decided to intervene. I stepped in between and told them that it was time to leave him alone. I explained that he was like the rest of us, there because he wanted or needed a job. The same guy that named him piped up, “Listen to Ryan preaching a sermon. I reckon we should just call him Deacon.” For the rest of the tour, some called me Deacon, but they left the little feller alone.

Number 10 Truck and Combine

A shirtless Walt poses with his rig, the number 10 truck and combine, somewhere in Kansas.

 

Next, we continued north across both branches of the Smokey Hill River and cut wheat east of Mt. Sunflower. It is not a mountain. It is just a rise in the prairie. It is the highest elevation in Kansas. We turned east at Goodland and went near Oberlin. After cutting wheat there, we went north into Nebraska. Chappell on the south side of the Platte River was our next harvest stop. We cut on a farm west of Chappell in the Platte River bottoms.

Again, along the Sundown Trail we touch a bit of history: As our combine caravan crossed the main street of Chappell, Nebraska that July day in 1961, furniture store owner Dick Cabela was starting a fishing lure mail-order business just down the street… It is one of those, wish-I-had-thought-of-that moments.

The Sand Hills rose up on the north side of the Platte. Each morning as we sat on our combines waiting to start, we would watch a herd of antelope go to water. They would walk single file down a path out of the hills and proceed to a windmill supplied stock watering tank. They would mill around the tank until we fired up the combines. When the combines roared into action they would run for the hills.

The river bottom area had an abundance of deer and other wild game. To protect their fawns from the coyotes, the does had hidden them out in the wheat. The older fawns would jump up and run, but the very young ones would lay there and let us run over them. We learned to watch for them and jerk the header bar control up as we passed over, to spare them and leave some cover.

From Chappell we went to Lodgepole. When we finished at Lodgepole we traveled through the Nebraska Sand Hills. At Valentine we crossed over into South Dakota. We finished the season cutting wheat on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Normally the outfit would have went on into North Dakota and Montana, but it had been a poor crop year in those areas. We turned Hammtown south and journeyed home a month early.

 

Hammtown no longer exists. They ceased the harvest operation several years ago. Harvest 1961, remains a cherished memory along the Sundown Trail.

 

Group Picture

We pose for a group picture in South Dakota, before heading home. The man and lady on the left kept us fed. The gentleman in overalls was the mechanic. He could repair or make anything for the machines, right in the field. Doug Adams is showing the camera that he wears socks. I am the one wearing the hat. I wish I had all their names.

 

 

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Categories: farming, times gone by, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 21 Comments

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21 thoughts on “Harvest 1961

  1. To the bloggers that “liked” this blog, thank you for checking in. The area traversed on the harvest trip is a historically important area of the real American West. I plan to do more historically correct blogs on that area in the future.

    • Keith

      I really enjoyed the story. I recently discovered that my father worked the grain fields in the 60s. His name was Keith Poorbaugh, he passed in 1981, let me know if the name rings a bell.

      • Keith
        Thanks for checking in. Sorry, the name does not come to me. Like I noted in the article a lot of the names got away from me. Best wishes from the Sundown Trail.
        Walt Ryan

  2. Another great story Walt. Following the grain harvest was something I always wanted to do, but never got the chance.

  3. Marita Hamm

    My niece ran across this post on Facebook and notified me. What a pleasant surprise! I also traveled part of that route with Hammtown in the early 50’s. I have very vivid memories even though I was just a toddler. My mother cooked and my dad ran the outfit. He was Norman Hamm. I think Mason Brunton was still the supervisor in “61 but he might have retired by then. He was also my grade school principal in Perry, Kansas and later Superintendent of the Perry, Grantville and Williamstown schools. He was a special man. I didn’t see him in the picture, but he might have been the photographer. Early 50’s was pre-converted school bus days. Old travel trailers were pulled behind pick-ups. I called ours “My little green tailly house.” I remember taking baths in the kitchen sink, the trucks and trailers being camped in the fields and Mason Brunton. I’m qutie sure the mechanic in the picture was Carl Figgy (not sure of spelling). He worked for my father until he retired. My dad retired Hammtown sometime in the mid to late 60’s. After Mason retired it was too hard to find anyone who could manage 20 roudy teenagers. The youth started changing about that time too, becoming more rebellious and not having the same work ethic.
    You mentioned having stories. My dad was a great story-teller and my life with him comprised of one story after another, many of Hammtown days. I wish I could remember all of them. One of my favorites was when they sent one of the hands into town to buy groceries. As I’m sure you know, Hammtown operated on a cash basis. The trusted hand was given hundred dollar bills. When he paid for the groceries, the clerk asked, “What? You got a machine out there making these?” The hand answered, “Yeah. Ten of ’em.” Most people wouldn’t get it. But having been there, I know you wiill. Thanks again for the pleasant reminder from my childhood.
    Marita Hamm

    • Thank you so much for the comments and additional information. Hammtown was a fine example of American ingenuity and work ethics. I met your father only once. I drove to Perry, Kansas on a weekend and called his residence from a service station phone. He gave me directions to his home. I found a modest house on a typical small town residential street. He invited me in, and we sat at the kitchen table. He asked the questions that a prospective employer would ask. After a while he asked to see my chauffeurs (now called a commercial drivers) license. He made a call to his bookkeeper, read off my name and told her to add me to the list of harvesters. Yes, Mason Brunton and Carl were on the trip. Mason was a big guy with the patience of Job. As I have noted before, Carl was a masterful mechanic.

      Years later, I obtained a large 1961 calendar and stuck some of the harvest pictures on it. I framed it and hung it on my office wall. It received more comments and attention than all the plaques, citations and wall decorations combined. Just think, there are a lot of other old guys out there with the same treasured memories of their youth and a harvest trip across the bread basket of the nation with Hammtown.

  4. Great story, I assume the Hamm construction company was the result of the combine caravan

    • I just worked the harvest. But I’m pretty sure Hamm had a large construction business at the time I worked for him. Thank you for your compliment.

  5. Judith (Brunton) Hotchkiss

    My father was Mason Brunton, who was the supervisor for Hammtown from 1946 to 1963 or 1964. I think Hammtown went 1 or 2 more years after he retired. He was a school teacher and principal during the winter and as soon as school was out, he would get ready to leave with Hammtown. He would come home the first week of August and we would go on vacation, which was usually a camping trip. Then it was time for him to start back to work at the grade school. My three older brothers went with him as soon as they were old enough, which was in their early teens. My mother, my sister and I would drive to western Kansas, usually Goodland, around the first week in July and visited for about a week. It was fun for my sister and I to get to ride on the combines, eat in the diner and ride around with our Dad. The food was wonderful and now I marvel at how those cooks were able to make those huge meals in the limited space that they had. We usually stayed in the Boyington Motel in Goodland and ate some of our meals in the restaurant there.

    It was a big event when Hammtown got ready to leave Perry. All of the trucks, trailers, etc. lined up at the High School parking lot and then headed west out of town. Many of the people in town came to watch them leave. It was quite a site. it was a self-contained little city on wheels. Of course, a lot of the young men and boys from the area went with them through the years.

    My father became Superintendent of the Unified School District and passed away in 1973 at the age of 65.

  6. My sister Judy is partially correct about when people started on the Harvest trail but for me it started at the age of 10 years old because my very patient Mother couldn’t put up with me anymore in the Summer time while my Father was gone, so off to the Harvest fields I went. At 10 years old I was driving combines and trucks and believe me I was not treated special in any way whether it was driving a truck, scooping the wheat off the truck or driving a combine, I was an employee of Hammtown. In the longrun it was a great experience and taught me a work ethic that I have never forgotten and never will. I was 18 years old the last time I went because I got married in Oct. four days19. I could probably write a book about those years, but I will just relate one. We were cutting wheat in South Dakota and hauling the wheat to Gordon, Nebraska. My Father had asked at a weight station in Nebraska if we needed hauling permits for S.D. and was told we did not. So a few days later I topped a hill and down below at the bottom of the hill there was 9 Hammtown trucks and I was the 10th one. I pulled over behind the other trucks guided by the Highway Patrolman, I remember like it was yesterday that the Patrolman said “well that is the 10th truck so the Boss should be along pretty soon. He then said you fellows line up and I will check all your drivers licenses while we are waiting on the Boss. We all lined up and I was the last one in line, he checked each drivers license and when he got to me { I was all of 14 yrs old } he looked at me and said ” I don’t need to check yours because all of the others are good and then he winked at me ” turned around and said you all might as well sit down till the Boss gets here and not to long after that Pappy showed up and paid for the permits and we all got back on the road. The patrolman told my Dad “that last truck driver sure does look a little younger than the others and my Dad said to him, yes he is but he has been driving a wheat truck since he was 10 yrs old, the patrolman laughed and said he may have to change his jeans when he gets back !!!!!!!

  7. Larry Spreer

    Wow this article brought back lots of memories. I went on the Hamm combining crew the summer of 1959 when I was turning 16 and we followed much the same route described in the article. I grew up on a farm near Grantville and went to Perry High School and Mr. Brunton chose me to run combine 6. This meant I cut out the initial “lands” for combines 6-10-quite an honor since I was the youngest of the crew. I’ll relate one story about cutting wheat on the Wagner Ranch. The wheat was fairly scraggly by Kansas standards and you had to run the combine header close to the ground to get all the wheat. Coming over a small hill I managed to run a cow carcass up into the thrasher chamber. Obviously the poor cow had died sometime that winter and had mostly dried out-thank goodness. We all carried a 3 foot length of steel pipe on the combines to roll back the thrasher bars in case something like a dead cow got caught up by unobservant operators. I was pulling on the pipe to back out the hide and bones when Mr. Brunton drove up in his blue pickup. He looked to see that I was able to clear the machine and then gave a little wave and drove on. Needless to say I was a lot more careful about what I was cutting after that.
    I am retired now and no longer have to be wakened in the morning by the cook’s stentorian yell “Combine Boys To Breakfast”.

    • Larry, I did the same thing. Only I stopped in time to only have to pick up the skull and the horns. Thank you for visiting Sundown Trail. This particular blog entry has gotten a lot of attention and brought back a lot of memories.

  8. Pingback: Historic Gun Display | Sundown Trail

  9. Yes, the good days of Hammtown. I didn’t know this site existed, which I only found out of curosity by looking up “Hammtown of Perry, Kansas” on the web.

    I am a Perry High School graduate of the class of 1954. My summers of 53 (at age 16 years old), 54 and 55 were working for Norman Hamm on the wheat harvest trail. In ’53, I drove a GMC grain truck, which had a bed mounted blower that was used to transfer the grain into a bin,usually located on the farmer’s property. In ’54, I proudly was assigned the number 5 combine, a new Massey Harris 90 Special and the following year ’55, I was assigned the number 1 combine, which I took great pride in cutting out lands, keeping them as even and straight as I could.

    Mason Brunton was the foreman, Gary Hamm drove the repair vehicle (the blimp) and took care of our breakdowns. We had a very large guy from Texas as a cook in ’53. Naturally everyone called him “cookie”. In ’54 and 55′, we had a family of 3 who did the cooking honors. Ernie and his wife were from the Oskaloosa community, with a small daughter “Nancy”. They did a lot of work to feed us all those delicious meals, served with gallons of ice tea’

    I am 77 years old, but the memories of those times so long ago are still very vivid. Norman Hamm was a great guy to work for and Mason Brunton was a very capable foreman who kept the whole operation together. Mason also had his movie camera by his side all the time, and I imagine those hundreds of feet of film he took of harvest crews over the years are still cherished by his family members.

    Needless to say, there is not enough space here to write about all the wonderful summer years I spent with “Hammtown”. It is great to read others here, and to write a few notes.

  10. Neat stories..I remember going with my father when he did this in about that time frame He ran a crew for a guy named O’Neil from Eastern Colorado. We got into a tornado in western Nebraska that rolled the camper trailer that we lived in around like a tumble weed and left the countryside looking like it had been attacked by a porcupine from all the wheat straw.

    • Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed your porcupine analogy. I have only observed two funnel clouds in my life. It was when I was a child, my family lived 3 years in the farming/ranching country of Nebraska. One one of those tornadoes touched down and did damage to the small town of Elm Creek, Nebraska.

  11. Norm West

    Fascinating! I worked the summers of ’64 – ’67 on David Meller’s harvest crew out of Shattuck, OK. Are you sure those Massey combines were model 95? Ours were 1962 Massey-Ferguson Super 92s. I wasn’t aware of a model 95. Ours had the Chrysler Industrial engine like you mentioned. John Deere combines of the era were models 55, 95 & 105.

    We followed a similar route, starting south of Altus, OK. We also worked on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. We finished in North Dakota the first two years, then northwestern Montana the last two. We had only three combines (four new JD 95s my final year) so we weren’t a rolling city like Hammtown. I still keep in touch with some of Dave’s family.

    • Norm, I am always glad to here from a fellow combiner. I remember our combines as being marked MF 95. They were marked on the metal shroud over the straw spreader. I saw the marking every day for two and one-half months. The combines were brand new. They were shipped directly to Hamm from the Toronto, Canada plant. That said, I observed a combine manufactured a few years later that was marked, Super 92. It looked to be identical to the combines we had used. Could be ours were special order. Could be 95 was a transition model. I remember it as Massey/Ferguson 95, and a darn good combine.

  12. I have enjoyed this blog tremendously! I am Leona (Meller/Bush)Blair, daughter of the aforementioned David Meller, and I know Norm West aka “Ab”( short for Abnormal—LOL !!) Just Kidding, Norm !! Spent every summer with Norm on my Dad’s crew all the years he worked for Dad. Just ‘gotta LOVE Whacky Wheat Whackers !! Oh so many memories, & wouldn’t trade all those years & experiences for anything ! I am sure having traveled & harvested the same route we may have spent time as “neighbors” in any one or more of the locales mentioned ! I began going on wheat harvest with my Dad, Mom, & brother, Glenn Meller at the age of 5, and continued until I was 19. Dad finally stopped wheat harvest around 1975-76. He continued though, working in the grass seed cleaning & harvesting for several more years until health issues forced him to retire.

    • Leona: Thanks for your interesting comments. Following the harvest was a unique and rewarding experience. We traveled and worked in our “Nations Breadbasket”. It fed our nation and much of the world in times past. I call it the “Real West”.

      Our harvest route took us up the Texas side of the line, but I have traveled through your area several times. I am working on a Frontier type novel set in the Canadian River, Wolf Creek area. I hope to have it out before long.

      Thanks again for your comments, and best wishes from The Sundown Trail.
      Walt Ryan

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