Don Chandler & Family on 1948 Case Combine

Don Chandler & Family on 1948 Case Combine

When I bought the baler and tractor, I paid cash.  My dad loaned me the money, and got it back within the month.  I bought both the M&M Baler ($2800.00 in 1949) and the Ferguson Tractor (used) ($1400.00) from the Ferguson implement dealer that used to be just before the curve on south side of Payette, just going into town. That site is long gone — when they changed the highway to go directly thru Payette (present highway) instead of thru downtown.

The baler was first M&M automatic baler in Idaho.  Being the first automatic, it had bugs like most any other engineered mechanical thing.  Being all by oneself (a very long way from factory), with a new-fangled machine, then when it has problems there is no one whose brains you can pick to fix the thing. Dealer had no clue. I was only 16, but the factory was quite delighted with some of my fixes — actually sent out two engineers, to see what and how I did it!  After the fact, of course. That machine taught me to swear!

The customary baling fee at that time was 16 cents per bale — any bale. So a 40-45 lb string tie bale cost 16 cents.  But my baler used wire, and would not make bales under about 100 lbs — the automatic tie didn’t want to work right. However, this meant that the customers got a really good deal — less than half price/bale from me.  I didn’t care because I was really “making hay!” A baler thrusts heavy packing against a spring loaded plate — when the spring hits a certain tension — then it triggers the auto function.  This is also integrated with a “star” wheel that measures the length — all tied in mechanically to the auto knot making function.

By “pushing” the machine and being very efficient I could spit out a bale every 13 seconds for 16-17 hour day non-stop — I ate my lunch on the go. I saved baling time by doing all the maintenance early before the dew was off.  By putting in very long hours, that racked up a lot of bales.  I altered the machine to carry spares/wrenches/tool box/welded on.  So, if stopped a quarter mile from my pickup and gear, I did not have to traipse that quarter mile to get what was needed, and wasting time. Not doing the math now, but my memory says the profit paid off the tractor in just seven days.  To do what I was doing is much more efficient, perhaps “driven” than most folks are willing to do.  It is just my obsessive “better” attitude.  Today many call it “work ethic.”

To me operating machines, or businesses, is much like choreography.  You plan and work out all the moves beforehand. So when the actual operating time comes, it all goes like clockwork!  I loved it!  It was the same in dentistry.  Every procedure is planned out, all instruments and assistants trained exactly. Like playing a musical instrument.  There is a flow, a rhythm.

I also had an innovation that much improved both combines and balers: I welded on a second tire — tandem — on each side — that tire was halfway past the first tire — nullifying the corrugations effect. All Payette Valley was irrigated at that time by furrows about 22” apart, called corrugations. (the spacing is based upon how far water seeps in that soil in a given period, i.e. 24 hours. As a machine moves across these furrows it bumps/bounces into and out of these small ditches.  The tandem tires meant that anytime one tire would coincide with a ditch the following tire would support the machine, so it never dropped into a furrow — never bounced. Corrugations jar the machine (and you) vastly limiting how fast you can proceed.  This jouncing and bouncing is highly destructive, twisting, torqueing, the machine, which seems to loosen every bolt.  By eliminating this effect, then I could go much faster and the machines lasted much longer with lower maintenance.

 Also, most corrugated fields force the harvesting to do work in certain directions — “with” the corrugations not “against” the corrugations.  This limits how you “attack” the field in harvesting.  My tandem tires meant that I did not have that restriction. So I could cut the field in the best and most efficient direction, ignoring the corrugations.  In older, smaller, non-square, non-leveled fields, this could be half the time needed to harvest the field.

The Case combine (next summer after baler, 1950) cost $5,800.00. (Now days they are more complicated and several hundred thousand — a lot of inflation — the hidden, unseen and mostly ignored gov’t tax!)  This one had a 14′ header — up from the usual 6′ of old combine (now they make them with up to 32’ to 40′ headers!). This made it difficult to travel unless on back roads.  (Now days, the wide headers come off and are put lengthwise on a special trailer).  I did take it across the Ontario bridge without a flagman a few times — kind of exciting since it completely filled the bridge wall to wall.  Imagine a huge machine coming at you across a bridge with nowhere to go!?

The going rate was $7/acre or $14/hour.  I could easily do 2.5 acres/hour, however farmers are kind of a suspicious lot, so everyone chose the $7/acre, a known amount, rather than trust my hourly fee!  I bought the Case combine in Ontario at the Case dealer (on south side on way out of town — they had a regional monopoly, probably a franchise).

Every farmer has his own ideas of what size his fields are.  Always wrong — in their favor, of course!  So my dad fixed up this “walking stick,” a triangle with a handle — by walking, holding the handle, and swinging the legs, then each iteration measured a formula length.  By multiplying the lengths on each side of the field it automatically measured the field and gave us the exact acreage — just as a surveyor would.  Simple, just walk the length and breadth and you had perfect measurement.  No one argued — just had a perplexed look on their face!  Of course surveyors used similar devices with their “chains.”

Again, really “pushing” the machine and efficiently planning moves, and better scheduling, I usually cut a lot more acres than my competition.  (A neighbor down the road had two combines — but I cut more acres than he did with both his machines.) So I earned the $5,800 in just 14 days.  That is working the machine at full clip every possible hour — and running out to desert at nights if need be.  No stopping for lunch, just eat on the go.  (But, making such money in a short time does not multiply much when you consider that the baling or combining season is short and sporadic. The bulk of the year the machines sit idle.)

It is also about being efficient at diagnosing problems; preventative maintenance; and anticipating; and efficiently and speedily fixing breakdowns. Always having a spare part on hand, rather than stop everything dash over to Ontario dealer for a new part. I made some parts myself — actually had my blacksmith make them — that had been poorly manufactured.  Some parts were made with cast iron instead of wrought iron or high carbon steel — and could not hold up to the stress.  By identifying and making parts — i.e. replacing bronze bearings with roller ball bearings, and other potential weak spots, and cutting new parts out of plate steel — refabricating the part with much stronger steel I eliminated most breakdowns.

The manufacturer’s engineering left much to be desired.  The pressure on farm implement manufacture after WWII was immense–and forced engineering shortcuts galore!  I went thru the entire machine, strengthening it here and there — anticipating what would/could go wrong or break.  I added welded gussets to strengthen, and otherwise “beefed up” weak areas.  The manufacturer had placed grease zerks (grease fitting) in impossible to reach spots. Some I eliminated with no-grease bearings, others I “piped” the zerk fitting to where I could reach it. And, I made special grease guns with 6′ long tubes to get to hard-to-reach zerks.  Such zerks often get neglected because of difficulty — then no grease equals breakdowns.  Some repairs need specialized wrenches (now common in autos), so I took cheap tools (Sears-Dunlop brand) and cut them up and welded into the needed specialist tool.  You could easily spend hours and bust knuckles without the specialist tool needed — or spend minutes with the right tool!

I could anticipate and prevent loss of downtime with breakdowns — and prevent lots of wear on adjacent parts.  I got the replacement bearings from auto junkyards. The savings paid for themselves in only a week.  Other competitors did not do this.

 Most farm implements have a planned wear-out period or obsolescence. So much of them are made of poorer grade materials to keep the cost down.  For a single implement only used on one farm, that is a norm.  However, when one does custom work, on a long campaign, say like the big combines starting in Texas and working up the great plains to Montana, then one cannot use such poor quality machinery.  Breakdowns eat your lunch and destroy not only your own schedule, but put customers at huge risk.  Farm machinery made an evolutionary journey from the early days to the present just as cars and planes have done.–

Also, I would call my customers — ahead of time — keeping them up to date on when to expect me — re-scheduling if need be — what I call “managing” the schedule and the machinery. It is not rocket science.  None of my competition did that. So I had excellent customer satisfaction and loyalty.  Just common and practical, what we used to call “horse” sense!

No one ever gets rich working machinery.  Instead, the profit really is in management (as it is in farming and most industries). The rule of thumb is that the machine wears out just when it is paid off — a given.  And, that has been exactly my experience in other uses.  In other words, there is a yearly cost of the machine.  I had a big recycling business — another hat.  I had citrus and olive orchards, wine and table grapes, row crops, etc.  All took machinery.  The recycling (Wood Industries (WICO)) company used D-8s, big loaders, and other equipment — all wore out just as paid off.  The better heavy equipment companies actually make more profit by leasing equipment, which costs a tad more, but always provides almost new equipment (read less down time). Older, worn equipment may be cheaper to rent/buy — but more expensive when you figure downtime and repairs. So new leased machinery have very little breakdown — and save.  It is really a numbers game, and one that separates the men from the boys.  If you aren’t willing to watch the pennies and stratagize every nickel than you have no business being around machinery.

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