From Horse To Tractor On The Hansen Farm



This story will be a short version of my recollections of growing up on an Iowa farm, where mechanization was in the final phases of replacing the horse.  This was an interesting time, when farmers had differing ideas about any number of subjects relating to their particular operation.  The first part will include stories from my dad, Dewey Hansen, as he experienced farming with horses, as well as tractors.  Two major issues that affected the changeover of Dad’s operation were the beginning of WWII and the untimely death of his father.  My dad was only 23 years old when his father passed away in 1942.

From my earliest recollections, Dad told stories about his youth on the family farm and about his fond memories of their horses.  He always enjoyed working with the animals that also became more that just pets; they became friends.  I think this personal relationship was a very large hurdle to get over as the tractor replaced the friend.  As a matter of fact, I remember peering through the large, heavy, rough-hewn, unpainted wooden gates where two giant horses lived.  They appeared as gentle giants who loved my dad as much as he loved them.  They were the last two horses to serve on that farm.                      

A gentle being himself, Dad could not bear the thought of selling the animals for slaughter.  He fed, cared for, and provided for them as he had done when they were providing for him.  The animals never did seem to age in the eyes of this little boy, but one day one of them was lying very still in the yard.  It was my dad’s practice to allow the fat-hogs to eat a deceased cow, but not so with his horses.  I can’t remember how long the second horse lived without its partner.  Dad taught me about his caring for the horses, mules and the blind pony he rode to country school. 

My dad spoke of a small shelter in the timber where his father, brother and he would warm themselves by a wood-fired stove. The Hansen men would spend winter days cutting logs to be towed home by a team of horses. Once the logs were on the home place, they were reduced to a manageable size and readied for the kitchen range and wash house.   As the stories went on and on, I always imagined myself living up to my dad’s experiences with threshing grain, making hay, picking corn by hand and so many more tasks that ran through my head.  I did assist with wood splitting for the cook stove.

A short time after the war, my dad bought his first tractor, a Farmall H.  The tractor pulled horse implements, tractor implements and a few implements that were manufactured to be interchangeable.  I remember the John Deere Model K manure spreader that had interchangeable tongues and a fold down seat for when horses pulled it.  This piece of equipment delivered almost all of the fertilizer produced by Dad’s livestock.  The stock cows delivered quite a few pounds of the material naturally as they roamed the fields, searching for ears of corn during the winter months.  Snow cover did have an effect on the amount of feed those cows could find, which in turn affected the amount of fertilizer they could deliver. 

As warm spring temperatures replaced the winter cold, the spreader was busy hauling the winter’s buildup from the feed yards.  My dad knew where the loads were most needed, and taught me, as I began taking my turn loading and unloading.  Artificial fertilizer was bad for the soil and groundwater, according to Dad, and he, at first, refused to use it.  I think he finally gave in to science when his crop yield did not equal that of his neighbors.

I also remember our harness/blacksmith shop, harness hanging in the barn and the old steel wheeled and wooden wheeled wagons.  Oats continued to be sown from one old, 50-bushel, high-wheeled wagon and ground-driven McCormick End Gate Seeder until the middle 1950’s.  Dad would drive the tractor while my grandma and I scooped oats into the large hopper.  My dad would stop the tractor and add grass seed to the small hopper when needed.  The grass seed, alfalfa and red clover, was expensive and he trusted no one but himself to handle it.  He even stored it in an upstairs bedroom of our house. 

I remember the year a new McCormick HM-220 Checkrow 2-row corn planter replaced the old horse-drawn one.  The new planter was mounted just behind the front wheels on the Farmall H.  It looked so modern, but Dad continued to “check” the corn as his dad had taught him.  I also remember moving the stake and check-wire.  That task made an eight-year-old boy feel mighty important.  I believe that “checking corn” was replaced with “drilling corn” when I was very young, although I do remember cultivating those “checked” rows.  I began operating tractors before my eighth birthday.

The haymaking operation changed very little until 1955.  Dad changed out the tongue on the horse-drawn hay rack to accommodate a tractor, but a hay loader continued to be pulled behind the rack to load the loose hay for a farmer to handle with a pitchfork.  The loose hay was then hauled into the barnyard where a hay fork attached to a large rope, pulled by horses, was hoisted into the barn.                      

One day, as my brothers and I played farmer in the dirt with our toys, my dad came to me and said it was time for me to help with the haying operation.  I was 7 at the time and remember thinking that this was the end of my childhood fun.  It wasn’t of course, but it was a big change.  My dad had replaced the horses on the hay rope with a tractor and I was to be the operator.  My legs were not long enough to reach the clutch or brake pedals from the seat, but that didn’t make any difference. I must admit that I was more than a little scared of the roaring horsepower under that hood.  I also remember the throttle would not slow the tractor as much as I wished. That was my first experience of driving anything, but it was far from the last.  Dad showed me the switch that would kill the tractor if I got into trouble.  I guess all went okay.  From there I graduated to driving the tractor for other jobs, which included pulling the hay rack and hay loader while dad was pitching the hay on the rack.  One day in the summer of 1955, that green, John Deere hay loader broke loose from the hay rack and rolled backwards down the hill, without upsetting.  I thought it was my fault, but Dad assured me it wasn’t.                                                            

A couple of weeks later, when another field of hay was drying, a tornado came along and destroyed the large barn where the hay was to be stored.  My dad went to town and bought a New Holland 66 square baler so he could do most of the hay harvest himself.  Dad built a large haystack of bales that year.  That little baler was one of the first in the neighborhood and the neighbors hired Dad to bale their hay and straw.

A grain binder was retired to the far corner of the machine shed as dad had upgraded from threshing to combining with an Allis Chalmers Model 60 combine.  He had also purchased an International Harvester McCormick No. 24 corn picker for his Farmall H tractor.  Picking corn by hand had been ceased sometime before my memory when Dad’s brother Walt bought a pull-type corn picker.  Again, I do not remember threshing or picking corn by hand.  The husking pegs continued to hang on nails driven into the wall of our back porch. My Grandpa Hamdorf continued to pick by hand through the year of 1951.  1947 was Grandpa’s last year of threshing oats. I also remember the gloves with two thumbs that the pickers used.  They were available in stores for a number of years and I remember wearing them as I did the livestock chores.  The gloves disappeared, as did the other reminders that horses were once kings of a working farm.  My dad is gone also, but he lives on in my memory and in those stories that he told.