Saturday, September 5, 2020

Remembering the Farm: Harvesting with Clipper Combines

 My first memory of harvest on our farm was possibly 1950 when I was coming 4 years old. Dad had the crop custom combined by a neighbour who had a self-propelled combine. Dad was not happy with him because he went too fast and threw too much grain out the back.

The next year Dad bought a new Massey Harris Clipper combine, with a 6 foot cutter bar, a canvas table to feed the crop to the cylinder, and a five foot cylinder. (For non-farm people – the cylinder turns at high speed and rub bars on the cylinder beat the grain out of the heads by running very close to the concave. Grain, chaff and straw exit the cylinder/concave to the straw walkers, and sieves, where a fan and sieves separate the grain, weed seeds and chaff, sending the grain to the hopper, and the chaff, weed seeds and straw out the back).

The Clipper pull-type combine was manufactured from 1938 to 1958 and was one of the most popular pull-type combines that Massey-Harris produced.

The Massey Clipper had one major fault in that it could thresh a heavy stand but there was no way to adjust the fan speed and sieves to prevent grain loss out the back unless you went slow. Dad pulled it with an Oliver 77 which had a live PTO to drive the combine but had no inboard hydraulics, so adjustments were by lever, manually. It had one other major fault which I will get to later in the post.

Dad made a simple straw buncher which was pulled behind the combine to catch the straw, chaff, and any grain for winter feed for the cows. When the buncher would get full, Dad would manually lift it to clear the contents.

I do not remember how long we used the Massy (it sat in the yard for years as Dad was always “going to do something with it”. But sometime before 1960, I think, he bought a John Deere 12A Clipper. Much the same rig as the Massey but did a much better job of separating the grain from the chaff and putting it in the hopper, instead of the straw buncher (which carried on with the new machine). By this time, we had an Oliver 88 tractor with in-board hydraulic so no more manual levers, except for the straw buncher.

By selling over 116,000 units between 1939 and 1952, the John Deere 12A became the company’s most popular PTO-driven model ever.

However, the John Deere Clipper came with its own headaches. The canvass on the Massey could be tightened by straps and buckles. That wasn’t fancy enough for John Deere. The canvass bolted together and was tightened or loosened by adjusting the rollers on the combine. Except in hot weather the canvass got slightly more slack than the adjustment could tighten. A slightly slack canvass tends to stall and plug. A crowbar carried on the tractor was useful in prying the canvass to get it moving again. There were many times when both Dad and I (I was running the combine myself by then) were sorely tempted to throw the crowbar into the machine and as Hamlet put it “and by opposing end them”.

The pictures and videos show the combines straight cutting, i.e. cutting standing crop straight into the combine. In Saskatchewan at the time, swathing was the norm. Standing grain would be cut into a swath which lay on top of the stubble to dry and to let the green spots mature. A pickup would be mounted on the cutter bar and would pick up the swath and the canvas would feed it into the cylinder.

The pickup on the Massey consisted of spring loaded teeth that went round and round under the swath, feeding it onto the table. It also picked up rocks, flipping them up onto the swath. The distance between the rub bars and the concave was very small and needless to say, rocks were deleterious to its health. Little rocks were sometimes caught in a tray in front of the cylinder but something half the size of your fist would bring everything to a grinding halt. Rub bars would be removed and straightened, sometimes the concave needed to be removed and beaten back into shape.  Any combine that used that type of pickup had the same problem. There were several custom pickup builders in those days and the one on the John Deere Clipper was vastly superior. I cannot recall the name of it to save my life.

We were still using the John Deere Clipper when I left home in 1965 to go to University. Dad eventually traded it to a First Nations farmer from North Battleford area for a red and while cow with a heifer calf at foot. Best deal he ever made. She was an awesome cow and by the time Dad sold the cattle, she had several daughters and granddaughters in the herd.

If you are a JD history fan, this link will give you all the diagrams, and instructions for the 12A:



  1. Lovely old farm equipment photos! I love looking at that machinery.
    My husband had an orange Allis Chalmers row crop tractor dating from the 1950s I think.
    The local Markham fall fair (sadly cancelled this year due to covid) always has a working display of old tractors and associated equipment, attended by ancient farmers who are very happy to chat and tell you about how it all works!

  2. there are a couple of farms here that have fully restored farm equipment and use it all the time..probably from the 30's 40's...very cool. I'll try and remember to take pictures and send them to you.

  3. Debra, we were younger then but I would not go back.
    Jackiesue, PLEASE do that. I would be so happy to get them.

  4. This from a long time friend and colleague, now retired to the Island.

    Enjoyed your post on the two clipper units. Never had the pleasure of ever being near one used but the interesting point about the Massey and the JD is that they went around the field in opposite directions-the John Deere the odd man out.

    Coffee shop explanation is that binders were made to run in that direction and many farmers were using them as swathers-JD recognized that they had to run their combine in same direction to effectively pick up the swath.

    Interestingly, the other JD combines wound the clock in the right direction-but then they were inherited from Holt!

    Back in the early 60's we bought a massey 90 and coming from dad's Case model P that he had ran since '25, we were astonished by the lack of adjustment allowed.But then dad had got his start running threshing machines and they had a million and one settings that could be adjusted.

    About this time I had read an article in "Family Herald-Prairie Farmer that had been written by a Massey engineer who's philosophy was that a farmer could not be trusted-and anyway, Massey had made their machinery perfect so why were adjustments needed!

    The pickup on the JD looks like standard Deere belt pickup-melroe made one with metal belts to carry the pick up teeth and in our area with gravelly soils they(belts) picked gravel enough to make the grain problematic to run through a small roller mill.

    Dad had got a pickup nearly identical to the Massey with his Case he bought in '25 and this style was the standard on non JD equipment until the 70-'s. They didn't pick the gravel as bad but as you noticed they had an affinity for larger rocks which did a lot more damage to the spike tooth cylinder than it would to a rub bar.

    One other idiosyncrasy of the clippers was that they were the first to have an auger unloader-necessary because the grain tank was mounted low and they could not be unloaded by gravity like the high mounted tanks on earlier model combines.

    And grain tanks were not universal on early combines. In the Dakotas wheat was bagged as it came off the combine and was transported to bins where the bags were emptied and returned to the field to be refilled. Lots of Canadian"stubble jumpers" made for easily available cheap labor.

    Dad's model P had a wagon hitch and the grain was deposited in a 60 bushel grain wagon which was unhooked when full and replaced by an empty wagon. The next year a grain tank was retrofitted because the tractors of the time did not have the power or traction to haul a heavy combine plus a heavy grain wagon up the slopes of the Cypress Hills.

    Sorry for the ramble but I have that old fart habit of injecting any knowledge I have into any conversation where it might (or might not) be relevant!

    Take care,
    Blair Backman

  5. Your recall of machinery and actions from those years ago is remarkable, Al. We were a farm of mostly red and orange machinery. International Harvester etc. You know why John Deere machinery is green don't you? So they can hide in the grass while the red ones work.

  6. We had an elderly John Deere combine, and I remember hearing many of the same stories when the men came in from the field. The female contingent had a different perspective, though: When those canvases got damaged, Mom was the one who sewed them back together. That was a dirty and difficult job, too. I still have the old direct-drive Singer sewing machine that sewed so many canvases 'way back when, and it's still my workhorse - a couple of years ago it sewed together yards and yards of filter cloth to go under the liner for our 50' x 100' pond. That sewing machine is both dependable tool and keepsake!

    1. Diane, my mother too. That Singer machine of hers sewed so many canvasses over the years. Binder, swather and combine. I swear it could run a stitch down a wooden ruler.


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