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Contributed Article

Transfer of Power: Hoof to Tractor
Interview with Arlie B. Curtis

Part I - Horse Power

Arlie was born in rural Minnesota in 1910. The family did not have a farm of their own - his father worked for big farmers in the area as did many of the men in those days. Arlie's earliest recollection of helping with the farm work was at about the age of 12. All of the work, from plowing to threshing, was done with horses. Moving to Montana, and later to Eastern Washington, Arlie stuck to those areas as a young man which were rich in soil and farm hands were sure to be hired. Eastern Washington had by far the richest soil he had ever seen and thousands of acres were sown in wheat. It was here that Arlie worked with huge teams of horses being used to pull an early ground-powered combine.

The works of the combine were powered with a large wheel that was in contact with the ground. Huge draft horses were used to pull the machine - typically 28 were used. At one time Arlie worked on one of the few crews utilizing 32 head of horses. Eastern Washington is very hilly country and it took a large team such as this to maneuver the combine up and down the rolling Washington wheat fields. The horses were typically hitched up 5-wide, 6-deep, with 2 horses in the lead. Only the lead horses were hooked up to the reins - they were used to direct the rest of the team which in turn pulled against their collars to pull the combine. The combine driver, sometimes known as the "mule skinner" sat on a seat high above the horses backs. He needed to be able to look well ahead of the horses in order to drive as straight as possible and in line with the wheat being harvested.

It took a crew of 5 men to run the machine including the driver. Arlie Curtis was the "shake man" - he held the burlap bag while the threshed grain poured into it and continuously shook the grain down into the bag. When filled with grain the bag was handed over to the "sack sewer" who hand-sewed the bags shut with 9 to 12 stitches and two tight knots. A firm sack is much easier to handle than a floppy sack - so Arlie paid attention to shaking that grain down well. The freshly sewn sacks were shoved down a small slide where they laid on the ground to be picked up by another crew with a team of horses pulling a wagon. The hills in that area were much too steep to allow for a truck to pick up the bags.

The changeover to tractor power in Arlie's life came around 1930. In about two years time everything would change.

Part II - Tractor Power

For awhile both horses and tractors were used - horses were used in the areas where the tractors could not be driven safely. The tractor that stands out most in Arlie's memories was the OilPull Rumley which he used in Montana.

Production of the OilPull Rumley actually began in 1910 - coincidentally the year that Arlie was born. By the time he started driving the Rumley in 1930 they were using the Type E OilPull which was one of the earlier models and was produced from 1911 up to 1923. Its reputation for pulling power was unquestioned. The two-cylinder engine was very efficient while utilizing a low-grade fuel mixture of kerosene and water. Arlie says he had to tinker with it a lot - they were very touchy. You had to mix the fuel, water & kerosene, which took quite a bit of time. This involved adjusting the carburetor until the smoke was "just the right color", then away you went. A flywheel with hand holds was used to start the engine. An interesting part of the OilPull was the "plow guide" which was offered on many tractors in those days as an accessory. The plow guide was an arm with a guide wheel on it that mounted onto the right front axle. The tractor operator would drop the guide into the previous furrow and the tractor would neatly follow the furrow thus relieving the operator of constantly steering.

Early-on the original horse-pulled implements were used to perform the work. They were simply modified with a tongue to hook up to the tractor.

Once the changeover to tractors had started, Arlie drove many different makes and models during his years of farm work. Mostly International Harvester/Farmall tractors utilizing steel wheels with lugs. He doesn't recall all of the specific models - but those steel wheels made much of the work an uncomfortable, bumpy affair.

On the rolling hills in Eastern Washington only crawlers could be used, again International Harvester primarily but throughout the years many other makes were used. Because Arlie worked on so many different farms he ended up driving many of the popular models used in that era. Arlie remembers plowing day after day with them, pulling combines with them. Every task that needed to be done on those hills was performed with a crawler tractor. Nearly every manufacturer at that time was making a version of the crawler, except for Ford.

Arlie didn't drive many Ford Tractors. At that time the Fords were too small for big farm work although they were utilized around the farm buildings for chores such as manure handling and pulling a utility wagon.

Part III - About Arlie

Arlie worked on farms for most of his life. It was hard work he says, "The money wasn't good, you never had any money. But you sure ate good." Although Arlie eventually began a career in the Puget Sound Shipyard in Western Washington (from which he has long since retired) he continued to travel to Eastern Washington to help with the wheat at harvest time. Looking back, Arlie wishes now that he had stayed in school. He quit going to school after the 3rd grade, choosing instead to work with the horses he loved so much and to start earning his keep working on big farms like his father.

One side note - this interview was conducted in an attempt to get a first person account of the transfer of power from horses to tractors and a first hand glimpse into the life of someone who actually used these vintage tractors in their hey-dey. To Arlie these tractors aren't the fascinating items of interest we flock to the tractor shows to see - they aren't the prized machines we purchase from auctions to add to our collections - they were simply machines utilized to perform the work that needed to be done. But Arlie, my Grandfather, was more than happy to have a visitor to sit and talk with for a few hours about the way things use to be. I'm grateful to him for sharing his experiences with all of us.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Florence Curtis, Arlie's wife of more than 50 years and my grandmother, who passed away in early 1998.

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