Baldwins were a trio - led by Curtis - who had impact on ag machinery.

By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News
NICKERSON - Most in this little town have long forgotten Curtis, Ernest and George.

It has been 90 years, at least, since the three Baldwin brothers left Nickerson with big dreams. And 90 years later, there is little evidence of the their auspicious yet somewhat tragic tale, except for a pull-type combine that the Nickerson Chamber of Commerce hauled into town years ago.

Yet the brothers' largest impact is still visible across rolling miles of the nation's farmland, a machine seen in the Kansas wheat fields each June.

It's called the Gleaner.

Now, nine decades later, Nickerson city officials are sprucing up the old Gleaner combine in preparation for the machine's 90th birthday party. It begins today with the unveiling of AGCO's new Gleaner combine. At 7 a.m. Saturday, a plaque will be placed at Nickerson, helping remind new generations of what the brothers accomplished so long ago.

After the plaque dedication, a caravan of old implements will make its way back to Hesston for a day of celebration.

"There isn't anyone left in Nickerson who knew the Baldwins," said area resident and avid old farm machinery collector Gordon Roth. Nevertheless, he added, "this is a big deal for Nickerson."

Some called Curtis Baldwin a relentless inventor.

Born to an immigrant family that moved to a farm near Nickerson in 1902, Curtis, George and Ernest Baldwin spent many hours on the family farm feeding wheat bundles into a threshing machine. High school dropouts, according to an article in The News, the brothers had their own threshing business around the region during their teen years.

"His mind churned with combines and harvesters," wrote author Craig Canine.

Curtis thought there had to be a better way to harvest wheat and began working on his idea, said Ed Larson, a Milan farmer who uses Gleaners and has researched the company's history.

Dates, however, are sketchy. It's known that in 1910, Curtis developed his "standing grain thresher" - a pusher-type machine with four horses hitched to a rear draft pole. It operated much like today's stripper headers, pulling the grain heads from the stalks while leaving the straw in the field, according to an AGCO publication.

And presumably, it was produced in Nickerson. Larson has a picture from the era showing a man standing by the machine on Main Street Nickerson.

Curtis began testing the machine during the annual wheat harvest.

"Mr. Baldwin is already in Oklahoma with it near Mulhall and at the 101 Ranch," according to a Larned newspaper. "He also will follow the harvest across the continent and return to Hutchinson for the state fair."

While the design worked well, it was not an economic success.

In 1923, Curtis designed the industry's first self-propelled combine, which was built in an airplane hangar in Wichita, Larson said. Mounted on a Fordson tractor, it could cut an acre of wheat for every mile of travel.

The new invention also had several "firsts," according to an AGCO publication. That included an auger header.

"The combine does away with the handling and rehandling by pitchfork and wagon," according to an article in The News from the time. "It is unusual in that it is a 1-man 1-motor, self-propelled machine. It is especially adapted to the farm of 200 acres and because of its use of the tractor for a motive force is within the financial scope of the comparatively small farmer."

By the mid-1920s, the company needed something bigger and the Baldwins found an old manufacturing plant with a foundry in Independence, Mo.

"They had orders for 100 machines, and they couldn't produce them in their little spot," Larson said.

In 1926, an article in The News said Curtis was reorganizing the Gleaner Co. A few years later, Curtis, upset that the company didn't want to produce his combine design, left and began manufacturing under the name Baldwin Harvesting Co. at a plant in Ottawa, according to a story in The News.

"Curtis wasn't a businessman," Larson said. "Curtis would think, 'I can make this thing better,' and that's where he didn't get along with George and Ernest. They were thinking more about the money. They could sell (the machine) just the way they are."

Gleaner and his brothers sued Curtis for using the name Baldwin. When the suit was settled around 1929, Curtis had changed the name of his company to Curtis Harvester.

Still, in 1927, Henry Ford announced he was quitting production of the Fordson tractor and the remaining two brothers began manufacturing Curtis' pull-type design. It had a Model T Ford engine and a wooden stick for a tail spreader, Larson said.

Both companies, however, were hit by the Great Depression. Curtis Harvester went out of business around 1931. Gleaner went into receivership soon after.

"In 1931 and 1932, they had all these machines they had built and orders for and no one could pay anything," Larson said. "They couldn't collect the money."

Gleaner didn't build another combine in 1932 or 1933, instead selling the old inventory it had built up. The bankrupt company was eventually sold and Gleaner's next new combine didn't come out until 1934.

By this time, the three brothers were back together again in Nebraska, where they had purchased farmland. Curtis later left for other business ventures, eventually starting a foundry in Wichita, Larson said.

But Curtis' bad luck continued. His foundry burned down in the 1950s. Curtis moved to California, where he died in 1960.

"He flitted from project to project, to company to company, leaving mayhem, stepped on toes and new ideas in his wake," author Canine wrote. "Curtis Baldwin eventually founded seven companies, every one of which failed. He hardly seemed to notice, though, he was too busy inventing."

The Gleaner Co., however, continued making machines. In 1950-51, the company again developed a self-propelled combine, said Bruce Baldwin, no relation to the Baldwins, although he does own a Gleaner dealership in the Finney County town of Kalvesta.

In 1955, Gleaner was sold to Allis-Chalmers Corp., Bruce Baldwin said. Today, Gleaner combines are manufactured by AGCO. AGCO moved the business from the old Independence manufacturing plant to Hesston in 2000.

Today's machines are far different from the simple ones made in 1923, Larson said.

But back in the day, Curtis was developing groundbreaking ideas never heard of in the agriculture industry.

"Curtis Baldwin had revolutionary designs," he said. "They made a tremendous impact on the Wheat Belt."

Curtis, he said, even had a patent for a rotary threshing component in 1936.

"You would swear it was the rotary that John Deere is putting in their combine today."

A few of the Baldwins' old machines still exist, Larson said. He has one of the five self-propelled combines produced in 1923. He also has a pull-type combine launched in 1927, as well a Curtis combine and his 2011 Gleaner he bought new for his farming operation.

Bruce Baldwin said his implement dealership began selling Gleaners in 1926 - making it one of, if not the oldest Gleaner dealership in existence.

"We know my grandfather bought a brand new Gleaner from the previous owners in 1926," he said.

His father, Hayes, bought Kalvesta Implement in August 1950 as a way to stay on the farm yet diversify the operation. In 1955, Hayes sold a 1954 Gleaner that the family eventually purchased back several years ago. It will be part of the Hesston festivities Saturday.

Despite not having a cab, air conditioning or power steering, the combine was considered top of the line in its day and sold for $5,500.

"They were still a very simple combine, and that is how Gleaner always has been - a simple, user-friendly machine - and that has stayed that way from day one until today," Bruce Baldwin said.

But what happened to the Baldwins?

Larson said he has wandered through Nickerson's cemeteries one time but never found relatives. And while he has delved deep into the Gleaner history, he has never turned up the brothers' offspring.

"I don't know of a family who fall off the face of the earth like the Baldwins," he said.

He said Curtis did write a letter to the editor that was published in a farm magazine before he died. Curtis talked about the threshing rig he developed and his current project, a machine to make wafers out of alfalfa.

"His mind was still an inventor when he died," Larson said.