Hope brings reaper back to Springfield

Bob Wood, left, and his wife, Sharon, talk with Dan Hearlihy about the antique Champion Reaper they had just delivered to him at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Caption
Bob Wood, left, and his wife, Sharon, talk with Dan Hearlihy about the antique Champion Reaper they had just delivered to him at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

SPRINGFIELD — Two years ago, Dan Hearlihy gave up hope of ever finding what he really wanted and bought an antique McCormick binder from a guy in Gillespie, Iowa.

On Monday, he stood on the straw-covered floor of the former RECO Goods store on East Main Street as Bob and Sharon Wood showed off what Hearlihy had so wanted: The 1880s vintage Champion Reaper that put Springfield on the map.

In one of those happenstances that always seem more than coincidence, the couple that bought the reaper and then gave it to Hearlihy are from a small Wisconsin farm town called Mount Hope.

For Hearlihy, the timing of their visit was as perfect as the gift: A month from now he hopes to open to the public his private Springfield Historical Museum and its modest collection of Springfield-made products and memorabilia.

For the Woods, the whole episode will forever be connected with a truly historic event: the coming of COVID-19.

A quarter to 4

Over the 42 years of mornings the Woods rose at quarter to 4 to milk cows on the dairy farm he grew up on, Mr. Wood steadily grew his first antiques collection into 21 Winchester rifles and about 400 pieces of the company’s hardware.

The hardware was made after what we now call World War I, a time when Winchester and others believed it to have been “the war that ended all wars.”

“Then World War II broke out,” Mr. Wood said, Winchester got back into guns and its discontinued lines of hardware became collectible.

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When the Woods sold their cows in 2007 and some shed space opened up, Mr. Wood gave their son the guns which included 15 with octagonal barrels. He then sold off the hardware and, in a region of the nation that is John Deere country, he and his wife began collecting entire old Series-30 John Deere tractors. The largest is the Series 830 model with a pony start.

In addition to the tractors, the Woods collected pedal tractors and a wall full of toy tractors and implements of various brands, most in unopened packages.

In retirement, Mr. Wood found himself with time to scan the newspapers for sales all over Wisconsin. Once his wife “showed me how to turn it on,” he said, he expanded his search online.

Bob Wood turns the wheel and operates the Champion Reaper he and his wife, Sharon, had just delivered to Dan Hearlihy at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Caption
Bob Wood turns the wheel and operates the Champion Reaper he and his wife, Sharon, had just delivered to Dan Hearlihy at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

He was doing that in March of 2020, looking for something “old and odd or different,” he said, when “I spied this reaper and a hay rake” in small photos advertising an estate sale.

“Then, I had to get her to put a bid in for me.”

Wife and tech support Sharon Wood’s concern didn’t involve the price of the items. Her husband usually resells them for some measure of gain. She was worried about as how far they would have to travel if their bid was successful.

“That was on a Saturday,” Mr. Wood said.

The $1,000 bid for the two items was accepted on a Sunday, and the Woods had to claim it by Tuesday.

“Then I heard more,” Mr. Wood said, because he hadn’t taken note that the items were on the other side of the state.

Bob Wood, left, talks with Dan Hearlihy about the antique Champion Reaper Wood and his wife Sharon had just delivered to Hearlihy at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Caption
Bob Wood, left, talks with Dan Hearlihy about the antique Champion Reaper Wood and his wife Sharon had just delivered to Hearlihy at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Nor did his standing improve that Tuesday when they rose early, stopped at a Milwaukee restaurant for breakfast and were told their party of four (two 50-something friends went along to help with the move) couldn’t be seated.

It was the first day of COVID restrictions in Wisconsin.

Striking out

After managing to get fed, they found the reaper and hay rake in a barn between Milwaukee and Waukesha. Assembled and just about ready to go, all the reaper lacked, Mr. Wood said, was a team of horses to pull it.

Their helpers “just fit it on the trailer,” Mrs. Wood added, “and the seat stuck over the side, so we couldn’t take the interstate home.”

Once they got home, they found, first, that their helpers’ families had worried over their health all day, and, later, that they could find out virtually nothing about the reaper.

So, the Woods placed ads seeking information in “Farm Collector” and “Antique Power” magazines. As it happened, the edition of “Farm Collector” with their ad was delivered the same day in Mt. Hope as in Springfield.

“I called within minutes,” said Hearlihy, who always scours the magazine and had for years scouted in Ohio Mennonite and Amish communities in hopes of finding a Champion.

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The Woods fielded calls from two other Ohioans, who also verified the Champion’s pedigree. Then came a particularly helpful call from Everitt Olson of Viroqua, Wis., which is about an hour north of them.

“He had used (his father’s Champion) as a kid,” Mr. Wood said.

Oil before petroleum

Shortly after arriving at the Wood farm, Olson “had an oil can out” and started turning the bull wheel, which drives the reaper’s gears, Mr. Wood said.

Mr. Wood said that in days before Pennsylvanians discovered and developed petroleum as a lubricant, whale oil was the standard. He added that people extended the oil by adding kerosene often enough that manufacturers’ guarantees said use of kerosene voided their warranty.

The risk, of course, was fire.

The Champion has a cutting bar much like those of today’s combines.

It also has long arms called sweepers, which swept the cut grain toward the side of the reaper’s bed until the operator concluded enough had been collected to make a bundle. A lever then makes it possible to push the bundle off the platform on to the ground.

Mr. Wood said the reaper “made the wheat fields of the West (valuable) because one guy with a reaper could cut more in a day than six could with a scythe.”

And that assumes six scythe swingers were available during a busy harvest season.

The pictures Mr. Wood saw of early reapers show women following behind to pick up the cut grain, tie it into bundles with pieces of straw, then bind the small bundles into larger shocks that stood in the field.

An antique Champion Reaper. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Caption
An antique Champion Reaper. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Next in the harvesting process were “pitchers,” who would pitch the crop on to wagons with pitchforks.

In the Woods’ childhoods, the bundles were pitched from wagons into steam-powered threshers that took the grain off the stem. The grain then would be sacked and taken to market.

Through the harvest season, threshing machines traveled the countryside, and neighbors gathered to help one another in the labor-intensive process that produced a community event.

“Mom had to cook dinner for all these guys, and the neighbor ladies came to help,” Mrs. Wood explained.

In later years, tractors with belt drives powered threshing machines, cutting down the need for mass gatherings.

Sense of community

Just as the reapers brought people together decades ago, a love of reaper history connected Hearlihy to the Woods.

On his first call with Hearlihy, “we must have talked for 45 minutes, and we could have talked all night,” Mr. Wood said.

Hearlihy then sent the Woods a copy of “Heartland,” the book produced for the 2001 opening of the Clark County Heritage Center, to catch the Woods up on William N. Whiteley, designer of the Champion reaper. (The Heritage Center displays a slightly older model.)

Bob Wood, left, his wife, Sharon,  and Dan Hearlihy are seen through metal seat on the antique Champion Reaper they had just delivered to Hearlihy at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Caption
Bob Wood, left, his wife, Sharon, and Dan Hearlihy are seen through metal seat on the antique Champion Reaper they had just delivered to Hearlihy at his museum Tuesday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

But it was copies of Hearlihy’s monthly historical newsletter, “Farm and Fireside,” that “really sold us,” Mr. Wood said.

Hearlihy’s enthusiasm for the area’s past shone through in the historic snippets reprinted in every issue.

Although Mr. Wood usually likes to “make a dollar” on his auction purchases, the fact that the Champion drew few bidders and the strength of their fast friendship led the Woods to give it to him – but for a reason: So he can share it with the people of Springfield.

Which is what Hearlihy not only hopes but plans to do.