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Second World War-era photos show novel solution to labour shortage

Photos donated to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum show W.G. Dickson’s unique combine setup

Photos recently donated to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum may show one farmer’s novel solution to labour shortages during the Second World War.

The Dickson Henderson family of the Boissevain area donated several digital images to the museum.

One photo shows a pull-type combine set up to allow remote operation of the tractor from the combine operator’s platform. In the photo the combine, owned by W.G. Dickson, shows two of Dickson’s sons on the combine. The museum committee wondered — why set up the tractor to be remotely operated?

The combine is thought to be a Nicholas and Shepherd Red River Special pull-type combine with its own engine to power the threshing mechanism, a cylindrical grain cleaner mounted above the grain hopper, a straw spreader and what appears to be a canvas enclosure around the straw walkers.

The tractor is a McCormick Deering 15-30, introduced by IHC in 1921. For some reason the tractor’s hood has been removed, perhaps to keep chaff from being trapped against the hot exhaust manifold.

While remote operation was some- what common with grain binders, it is unusual to see this setup for a combine.

In the photo, a long shaft with universal joints runs between the tractor steering wheel to a steering wheel on the combine platform. A rope appears to work a lever mounted just behind the belt pulley, which probably works the clutch.

There’s another lever to the left, which was the subject of some debate. The lever might have worked the throttle, but as remote operation setup was a matter of the farmer’s preference, there’s no way to know for sure.

Two ropes drop down under the steering shaft. Perhaps one rope could open and close the throttle while the other may have operated a ‘kill’ switch on the engine in case the clutch rope broke.

When the operator wanted to move the outfit to begin threshing, they had to start the two engines, put the threshing body in motion, tie the clutch rope back so the clutch was disengaged, climb to the tractor to put it in the appropriate gear, climb back onto the combine and let the clutch rope out to engage the clutch to start moving forward.

Meanwhile, the operator would also have to advance the throttles of the two engines at the appropriate times to bring them up to power.

So why go to all this trouble?

The photo is dated 1943. With the Second World War ongoing, labour was in short supply on Prairie farms. Two of W.G. Dickson’s four sons, Barry and Archie, had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. His youngest son was still in school and only available to work on the farm outside school hours. While Archie appears in this photo, he was only home on leave at the time. Dickson likely needed a rig that he could operate alone.

But why not have a lone operator on the tractor? The combine’s sieves generally could not be adjusted while the machine was in operation and the concave was usually not adjusted on an ongoing basis.

The committee realized that the combine operator needed to adjust the height of the pickup header as the machine moved around the field to avoid missing portions of the swathed grain. The pickup on this machine was rigidly mounted to the header and there was no guide wheel on the sides of the pickup so the pick-up could not ‘float’ to follow the contours of the field. The operator raised and lowered the header to ensure no swath was missed.

Operating this lever from the tractor would require a complicated mechanism, so Dickson probably thought operating the tractor from the combine was the better approach.

According to the Dickson family, the outfit was set up for remote operation during the Second World War and operated this way throughout the war.

Whatever the reason, the operator would be in for long days in the August heat, with dust coming off the combine and the clamour of two engines running at full r.p.m. The only concession to operator comfort was the homemade canopy over his head. Harvest in 1943, even with this outfit, was a test of endurance.

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