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Lund brothers combined their way home in 1944


Editor’s note: This is the second and final installment of the series on the Massey-Harris Harvest Brigade.

In 1944, Orie, Tim and Andrew Lund went to their Massey-Harris dealer at Danube, Minn., to pursue purchasing two Massey-Harris 21 self-propelled combines. 

Buying these combines came with two strings attached; after picking up their combines in Altis, Oklahoma, they were expected to harvest 2,000 acres with each machine as they harvested their way home to Minnesota.

Custom harvesting wasn’t new to the Lund brothers as their dad began custom threshing in 1889. After discussing this harvesting arrangement with their families they decided to purchase two combines.

This meant they would be away from home from the middle of May until they finished the wheat harvest somewhere in North Dakota.

They attended the mandatory day of schooling to learn what was expected of them as “Harvest Brigadiers.” They were given the serial numbers of their machines along with directions to Altis, Okla. (Altis is 143 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, and 56 miles west of Lawton, Okla.)

They left their families the middle of May. When they arrived at the depot where the combines were they were overwhelmed at the site of 300 combines and 300 grain platforms with 12 or 14 foot draper headers. When they found their combines and matched them with the proper headers, the task of setting up their combine and getting it running began.

They were expected to be ready to start harvesting ripened wheat about May 26, 1944. The county agent was the contact person between the farmers needing custom harvesting and the brigadiers. This information was at the local elevator where brigadiers checked to see which farmers needed their services as well as directions to their farm.

One of their first assignments was harvesting grain at Altis Air Force Base, which served as a training site for pilots. Orie remembers hearing and seeing the bomber planes coming across at grain level while he was combining as the pilots were training for duty overseas.

It wasn’t long before the adventure of custom combining with new Massey-Harris combines turned into reality. The days were long, hot, dirty, and boring. There was no protection from the elements as temperatures soared to 100 degrees Fahrenheit along with windy and dusty conditions.

When rains came it was time to fix and maintain machines. Sometimes they had to make themselves take time to sleep. When harvesting conditions were right the machines had to be running.

As the harvest brigade moved north the local Massey-Harris dealers were given the first opportunity to provide parts and service to the brigadiers. Massey-Harris used a fleet of service vehicles with parts that followed the harvest. Each morning a radio station would announce where these service vehicles were. They continued this method of supplying parts to the brigadiers into the 1970s.

When weather conditions were unfit for harvesting it was time for maintenance and repair of combines and trucks. A draper canvas on a grain platform was worn out after 450 acres of use. Guards and sickle sections would need to be replaced. When down time occurred it was important to use it wisely so break downs would be avoided.

Wheat was cut by going around the field. Some wheat was left standing in the corners. This was cut when the field was finished. By going around a field the combine was always operating at full capacity. When the field was finished the corners were cut.

Radio and newspapers carried reports about the harvest as this enormous number of self-propelled combines harvested their way through the wheat belt of the Great Plains. There is power in numbers, and when one would see pictures and hear news reports from the field it did much to heighten patriotism and lift morale that was so vital while the war was going on.

A good crop during the World War II era was 25 bushel of wheat per acre. (An acre is about the size of a football field, a bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds, which yields 42 pounds of flour.) Brigadiers were paid $6 an acre to harvest wheat and 5 cents a bushel for each bushel over 20 bushel per acre. Wheat was dumped into trucks and taken directly to the local elevator.

The Lund brothers used two combines and two trucks. While one man was driving a loaded truck to the elevator another truck was being filled in the field.

Gas rationing was in place during the war. However, gas used for harvesting wasn’t rationed. Gas was brought to the field in 55 gallon barrels and hand pumped into the gas tank of the combine. Massey-Harris combines had 6-cylinder Chrysler Industrial engines.

Depending on weather conditions a day could be anywhere from a few hours, or from 6 a.m. until midnight, when conditions were favorable. Wheat ripened rapidly in the 100 degree heat and dry conditions which caused over ripe wheat kernels to fall to the ground. Combine operators were exposed to everything the weather offered along with the chaff and dust stirred up by the combine.

When a combine was moved a great distance the grain box was taken off a truck. The truck was backed into a road ditch or a field approach. With the header raised as high as it would go the combine was driven onto the truck and chained down.

The engine on a Massey-Harris 21 combine was under the combine with the operators platform off-set to the left side of the cylinder (the cylinder is where the grain is separated from the husk of the wheat).

This made the combine easy for the custom harvesters to haul on a truck. When the Lund brothers went south in May of 1945 they hauled their combines on their trucks.\

The fourth generation of Lunds carry on the tradition their grandparents started seventy years ago. Ron Lund, of Franklin, Minnesota, joined his uncles in 1964 with a Massey-Ferguson 510 diesel combine with a cab. When Ron was reminiscing about his memories of the hard times, the ups and downs of harvesting, the long days and short nights, and months of being away from family, he summed it all up by saying, “There’s still nothing quite like the feeling I get when I see a field of ripened wheat waving in the breeze.”

Joe Tucker, the “Brigadier General”

An article in the 2013 Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion yearbook, written by Sam Moore for the September 2012 issue of “Farm Collector,” tells about Joe Tucker who was the creator of the plan for Massey-Harris to build 500 more combines than their war time quota allowed.

Keeping with a military theme, Joe planned the harvest like a military operation. The May 1944 issue of Farm Journal said, “Organized like an army, these men will slash their way from southern Oklahoma to Canada.”

“Scouts will precede them and line up the work. Technical and supply sergeants will be along to help keep machines in repair. Combine operators will be lieutenants, and there will be a full complement of captains, majors, colonels and a general. When the campaign is over there will be decorations in the form of War Bonds for those who cut the most grain.”

Joe Tucker, creator of the plan, styled himself the “Brigadier General.” He took advantage of the harvest campaign’s public relations potential with large white signs painted with blue letters, which were fastened on the grain tank of these combines that said “Massey-Harris self-propelled harvest brigade.”

This sign would show when a picture of a combine harvesting wheat appeared in a newspaper or magazine. A slogan under the picture read, “The 1944 battle for bread is on.” The harvest campaign was so successful and well promoted it spawned a 1947 movie called “Wild Harvest.”

In September the harvest brigade finished its work in the Canadian wheat fields, 1,500 miles from where it started in late May in northern Texas and Oklahoma.

A Massey-Harris report on the harvest brigade claimed nine combines exceeded 4,000 acres of grain harvested and two had up to 5,000 acres. The 500 combines that Massey-Harris built over their quota cut 1,019,500 acres with a total yield of over 25 million bushels of grain.

Massey-Harris began building self-propelled combines in the late 1930s. Just before World War II started they rushed the Massey-Harris 21 into production. This combine was way ahead of its time.

With the publicity the Massey-Harris Company received during the harvest brigade it put them in a good position to capture a large share of the self-propelled combine market. Their low-profile combine was easy to haul on a truck.

Through the 1960s and into the mid-70s, 61 percent of the combines coming through on the road at the Port of Entry at Nebraska were Massey-Fergusons.

Information for this article came from several issues of “Memories of Bygone Years” which is published by the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion as well as visits with Ron Lund and Dorothea Paul.