Combines loom large on the museum floor—but they loom even larger on the physical and historical landscape of America’s agricultural heartland. Standing high on the horizon, combines both symbolize and represent the reality of the mechanization of modern agriculture. The 1938 Massey-Harris Model 20 self-propelled combine, a designated landmark of American agricultural engineering, was the first commercially successful, self-propelled combine to make its way through an American harvest.
The harvest was, and still is, the defining event of a farm community. It was the most complicated, time-critical, labor-intensive activity of the farmer’s year, and everyone—men and women, young and old, rich and poor—participated. Through much of history, the success of the harvest could make or break a farming community.
Throughout most of our nation’s history, the amount of acreage that could be successfully harvested before the crop was damaged by weather, insects, or rot determined how much land would be planted. Not surprisingly, over the last several hundred years, tremendous time and effort has been put toward improving the speed and efficiency of the harvest.
The act of farming draws nutrients from the soil. If the nutrients are not returned, the soil will become depleted and lose productivity. One of the best ways to restore the soil is to recycle what was removed from it by spreading manure on it. This International Harvester Manure Spreader made a dirty job not-so-dirty.
Caring for the Land: Forgotten – Then Re-discovered
To the Europeans who settled colonial America, the availability of land seemed limitless. Farmers paid little attention to caring for the soil, quickly abandoning the fertilizing activities they had practiced in Europe. These farmers felt it more cost effective to simply move on to new land when the soil lost productivity, rather than put in the effort to restore its fertility.