Plains Folk

The Swather

It’s always a pleasure to chat with my old friend George Amann, a country historian from North Dakota’s Sheyenne River valley who knows his own locality better than his own face and thinks about his place in it. I overheard him talking, too, with one of my students who had remarked how amazing and swift were the progressions in agricultural technology in our times.

Not so, said George, and he wasn’t just being a contrarian. Consider the big round bale. Consider how much sweat and how many aching backs we wasted handling those square bales—especially those alfalfa bales put up just a little wet. How could it have taken so long to come up with a simple thing like the big round bale?

You have to be at least as old as I am, too, to remember the haymaking era B.S., that is, before swathers. Recalling the time spent sickle-mowing and rotary-raking hay on the family farm, I am moved to pose the same question as George: What took so long? Because I know the technology of the swather was around a long time before it was applied to haymaking.

Many of the important technologies of farming on the plains came from folk inventors—what an old agricultural engineer I knew in Saskatchewan always called “these fellows with ideas.” And welders, too, and down time in the winter they spent cooking up inventions. The swather, or windrower, was a product of such folk inventors.

What brought it about was the need of wheat farmers on the northern plains in the 1920s to adapt the combine to harvesting spring wheat. Facing autumn frost, they fretted about delaying harvest until wheat was ripe enough to combine. Spring wheat ripened unevenly, causing intolerable delays in combine harvesting. They had problems, too, with green weeds, which clogged cylinders in the field and downgraded grain at the elevator.

Already in 1910, though, two Norwegian brothers in Grant County, South Dakota, August and Ole Hovland, had built themselves a thirty-foot windrower they used to harvest short crops. They even devised what they called a “traveling thresher,” a homemade combine, to pick up the windrows.

Most everyone forgot about the Hovland brothers’ invention except a fellow named Helmer Hanson, who knew the Hovlands in South Dakota when he was a boy and then moved to Lajord, Saskatchewan. When the combine, or combined harvester as it was called, came along, Hanson remembered that old windrower the Hovlands had made. So in 1926 he and his brother Ellert built themselves two 20-foot swathers from scratch. Then they devised a pickup header for a combine, and they were in business.

They were in business more than they knew. Engineers from International Harvester Corporation observed their machines at work. In 1927 IH offered the first manufactured windrowers for sale. These and other early swathers were powered from a ground wheel, but after a few years, they were hooked up to the tractor power takeoff. Thus the combine was made useful for spring wheat farmers.

The odd thing, as I was saying, is that it took so long for the technology of windrowing to move over into haymaking. Northern grain farmers had been “swatting” their grain, as they said it, for four decades before swathers came into any common use for haymaking. I don’t have an explanation for this, I’m just agreeing with George, which is usually a good idea.


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