Saturday, December 6, 2008

Sutton - Home of the Round Baler

Sutton enjoys a number of distinctions or “Claims to Fame” among of which is the invention of the round baler.  The Clay County Historical Society included that story in their Summer 1984 newsletter so the tale may be ripe for repeating.  The story also appears on a couple of internet sites, including that of the Patent Office.

The invention of the round baler is credited to Hugh Luebben and his sons Melchior and Ummo of Sutton.  Work on the invention may have started as early as 1892 with the patent being issued in 1903 or 1905.

The origin of the idea for the baler was described by a William Watts who arrived in Nuckolls County in 1874 and reported that fuel was often in short supply during the harsh winters.  He said, “The buffalo chips were gone, coal was not to be had, and our prairie was devoid of wood.  We began using straw as a source of fuel, twisting it roughly into the shape of a rope which could then be rolled into a ball and burned in a stove.”  The Luebben’s adopted and mechanized this process to build a device that attached to the back of a threshing machine and shaped the straw into round bales.

The Machine - Sutton's own contribution to agricultural mechanization.
This first device was not successful as it had, in today’s engineering terms, a low MTBF – Mean Time between Failures – it kept breaking down.  A later, improved model was a standalone machine with its own engine and worked for hay and alfalfa and a capacity of four to seven tons per hour.

The Luebben’s arrived in Sutton around 1890 where Melchoir was as a banker with the First National Bank of Sutton.  By 1900 he was bank president and among the town’s elite drawing mention in the local newspapers for social activities as well as his business endeavors.  Ummo Luebben appears to have provided much of the inventive genius for the baler while Melchoir handled the financial arm of the enterprise.

A side story of the baler’s invention involves the Melchoir’s financial dealings in support of the baler and a $79,000 question that led to the closure of the bank in 1910 and ten year sentence for elder Mr. Luebben.  The scandal also involved a Mr. Masters of a Harvard bank who was still fighting his conviction in 1921.  After Melchoir Luebben was released from prison he moved to St. Louis and then to California.

Ummo was not impacted by the scandal and continued working on the baler.  He moved the business to Lincoln in 1910 and to Omaha in 1920.  The company produced from two to sixteen machines a year from 1920 to 1940 when Ummo sold his company to Allis-Chalmers.  He continued to work on the baler until his death in 1953.  As of 2000, Allis had sold over 77,000 round balers.

Sutton’s round baler invention is identified by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers as one of their 50 Historic Engineering Landmarks.  That list is at: along with a video describing the invention.

Sutton enjoys a lesser connection to another of those 50 landmarks, the UC-Blackwelder Tomato Harvester.  The item only briefly describes this dual-pronged invention.

Early attempts to automate tomato harvesting resulted in smashed tomatoes and lots of red juice on the ground.  A three-way partnership between the University of California at Davis, Blackwelder Implement and the H. J. Heinz Company tackled the problem.  While the Blackwelder engineers worked on the machinery, UC-Davis developed a thick-skinned tomato that would withstand the mechanical picker.  Heinz ketchup processors had a major financial stake in the project and the Heinz representative to the project was Homer Anderson of the Tracy, California Heinz plant.  Homer was born in Saronville, Nebraska in 1910.

The Anderson family was among the first from our area to migrate to California in 1919.  As farms became larger and farmers became fewer, Sutton Germans migrated to Lodi, California and Saronville’s Swedes chose Turlock as their new home.

My source for the tomato harvester story?  Several delightful conversations with my father’s first cousin, Homer Anderson during the 21 years we lived in Tracy, California.