"What do you suppose that place used to be?" I asked.
"That's the old R.A. Hanson Company," he said, and launched into a history lesson spiced with his memories of growing up a farm boy.
R. A. Hanson was an inventor from the Palouse, a vast, hilly agricultural region in Southeast Washington, who came up with a self-leveling device for combines. Prior to his 1942 invention, harvesting in hill country was a much more difficult task. R. A.'s invention kept combines from tipping without the need for the farmer to hire an extra man.
Before self-levelers, hillside farming was most safely accomplished with a tractor and a pull-type combine. There was the tractor driver, and the guy who 'punched header.' He sat up on the combine and worked a lever that maintained the machine's center of gravity to compensate for the cant of the hillside. The combine had to be level or it would disrupt the mechanism that separated grain from chaff. The operator also had to adjust the header for the height of the crop, and to keep the combine from tipping over.
By the time harvest rolled around, late summer or early fall, it was plenty hot outside, and the air was thick with dust and bugs. It's wasn't uncommon for crews to put in long, uncomfortable days.
The guy punching header had reason to stay alert because he was busier, and his inattention would have resulted in poor yield or an accident. In contrast, the tractor driver, after days of watching heat waves dance on a crop circle, sometimes had trouble staying awake.
That's when a bucket of dirt clods came into play, at least according to one eye-witness account. The guy who punched header not only had to keep the combine level, he had to make sure the tractor driver had his eyes open. If he caught him nodding off, he'd pelt him with a dirt clod from the bucket he kept at his feet.
Nowadays, combines designed for hill country are all self-leveling. The air conditioned cabs are so full of electronics that the operator can listen to Chopin while he cuts wheat, if he wants to, or rock to Charlie Daniels. If he gets bored, he can text his wife or google the stock market quote for wheat prices.
By the time he finished the story, my husband was waxing eloquent about R.A.'s invention, and I had to agree that the invention made a huge difference in farm safety and efficiency. The part of the story that spoke more to me, though, had to do with the ingenuity of the ordinary man—the guy who'd never be famous, but had enough sense or whimsy to grab a bucket and fill it with dirt clods.
I experienced a pang of nostalgia for days gone by, and visualized the forlorn bones of the old combines as dinosaur-like silhouettes of scrap metal rusting behind leaning barns.
Oh, but the galvanized buckets! More than half a century later, at least some of those have fared better. The Farm Chicks have rooted them out, filled them with daisies, and offered them for sale at their antique shows.
Sue Ellis is a no account writer with rural roots and a bad memory. According to Ellis "It's all true, unless my leg was being pulled, which is well possible. I believe there's a biography in the works about R.A. Hansen. He really was a talented and fascinating man."
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