From The Stereoscope – April 2015
The Garrabrant Family Business By Barbara Oringderff
Threshing, Road Grading and General Contracting in Phelps County, Nebraska. All Done with Steam Traction EnginesIn the summer of 2014, I received a telephone call from Janis Smith, who lives in Elkhart, Kansas. Janis and I had never met, but she was familiar with the Territorial Magazine and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing a farming and general contracting story about her family, the Garrabrants, who settled in the farming community of Funk, Nebraska in 1892. When Janis told me that she had lots of great old steam engine photographs, I was hooked!I invited Janis and her husband, Howard to come to my office in Garden City for a meeting, which they promptly did, and we began planning this article. For me, this has been an unusual story to work with because there are so many wonderful family photographs, and so much documented information that it was somewhat overwhelming.This family made a huge impact on the Phelps County, Nebraska community from 1892 until the Great Depression, when road grading contracts became scarce and farmers were starting to switch from steam threshing engines to modern combines.In 1925, the Garrabrant’s two steam threshing outfits spent about 100 days threshing. In 1936, they operated only one steam engine, and in 1942 during World War II, Wilbur Garrabrant had their little Russell steam engine cut up and the once proud Russell engine brought $86 as scrap iron.The following story, written by Burnard Garrabrant and Glen Garrabrant (the father of Janis Garrabrant Smith) in 1979, and edited by Janis for this magazine, offers a fascinating look at the evolutionary changes in agriculture and how it affected the life of this unusual Phelps County, Nebraska family.THE GARRABRANT FAMILYWilliam Garrabrant, his wife, Elizabeth and sons: Orin (14), Wilbur (12), Oscar (7), and Roy (3), arrived in Holdrege on March 12, 1892 from Keeny, Illinois. They had an immigrant car on the Burlington Railroad and William brought their horses, cattle, machinery and furniture. The family settled on a farm east of Holdrege in the Funk area. A daughter, Effie was born in 1894.William soon started a business that was to last 50 years: first doing custom work with horse power and a corn sheller. He supplemented the family income working in the engine rooms of the Holdrege Flour Mill and Holdrege Brick Yard.In 1896, William purchased a Northwest Thresher Co. New Giant steam engine and separator for custom shelling and threshing. The Northwest, also known by the Garrabrant family as “The Giant,” was 14 horsepower with a clutch and gears so it was self-propelled, and could be steered without horses on a tongue. The fuel they used in the engine depended on what they were doing. When shelling corn they burned corn cobs, and while threshing they burned straw. Wood was satisfactory when it was available, and coal was ideal, but cost money. One winter The Giant worked shelling corn for 90 days at the elevator in Sacramento, Nebraska.The Giant was used from 1896 until 1905. Sons, Orin and Wilbur were young men helping with the contract business, shelling corn and threshing. Oscar died 1899 at 14 years of age and Elizabeth died in 1903 at 47. Wilbur married Maude in 1903 at age 23. Wilbur and Maude’s first-born, a girl died as an infant. (Burnard was born in 1905.) William had a separator with a self-feeder but it didn’t have a blower or so-called wind stacker. The threshed straw and chaff were removed from the rear of the machine by a straw carrier, which dropped the material on a second carrier or elevator that swung in a 180 degree arc and elevated the straw up on the straw pile. A fire later destroyed the separator.Fred Horn, a neighbor, had a separator but no engine. The Garrabrants teamed up with Mr. Horn, as his separator required more power than The Giant could furnish. The Giant was sold in 1905 to a man north of the Platte River. He tried to ford the Platte River near Brady Island and sank the Giant in quicksand. It was never recovered.In 1905, the Garrabrants ordered a Russell engine and separator from the Russell factory in Massillon, Ohio. Orin (27) and Wilbur (25) were taking over the machine business. Later this engine would be called “Little Engine.” The engine had 25 draw bar horsepower x 75 belt horsepower. The separator was 36 inches x 60 inches. Work was plentiful.The wheat was cut with binders. Some was threshed directly from the shocks, but more than half the farmers stacked it to be threshed any time from August until January.In 1905, Phelps County was young. The farmsteads and towns were being built up, and demand for building material was great. The Garrabrants decided to start a brick yard. The Little Engine furnished the power to pull the plug mill. This decision gave the engine work during cold winter months when it would have been idle from threshing and grading roads.In 1906, William built a two-story frame house in Funk. (Orin, Roy and Effie were children at home.)In 1907, Wilbur hired an expert brick layer to construct a brick home using brick from their brick yard. Wilbur had a son, Burnard and a daughter, Frances. This would become the headquarters for the business: threshing, road grading and selling brick from their yard in Funk. The expert bricklayer didn’t show up, so Wilbur and his father, William built the house and learned to lay brick. The brick yard was a good business during the building boom when homesteaders and small towns were developing. The Garrabrant family started laying bricks themselves so they could sell more bricks, and they added bricklaying, carpentry work and cement work to their business. They constructed several store buildings and many basements and foundations in and around Funk. The demand for bricks later slowed down, and then a fire destroyed the brick yard. A spark from a locomotive set the plant on fire in 1913. It was not insured and was a total loss.In 1913, Orin, William’s eldest son, went to Colorado to homestead. Orin farmed in Colorado until his death in 1937. Roy, the fourth son, went to Colorado to homestead in 1914. They were in Washing County. Effie also moved to Colorado to marry Ray McFarlin. They farmed and ranched at Elba, Colorado and retired in Akron in the 1950s.In 1914, the Little Engine and separator were shipped to Colorado to break sod, thresh and grade roads. They bought a 10-bottom John Deere to break sod. They then found they could run the engine faster with 8 bottoms and work more acres a day.William and his second son, Wilbur, ordered the Big Engine to replace the 23 x 75 Little Russell Engine. The Big Engine was another Russell outfit, 30×90 Russell Compound No. 1314 and another 36×60 inch separator. The compound meant the steam was used twice before it was exhausted, which increased the economy. The 30×90 Russell, new, cost $2,450 plus freight from the factory at Massillon, Ohio and shipped by rail to Funk. It arrived on Decoration Day 1915.The engine overall size was 9’ 6” wide x 19’ long x 10’ high. The drive wheels each weighed 3,000 pounds with a diameter of 66” x 24” face with 2” lugs. Flywheel diameter was 42” x 14” face and weighed 920 pounds. Weight of the engine with coal and water was 32,000 pounds or 16 tons.In about 1915, farmers were beginning to harvest wheat with a header. Transition was quite rapid from the binder to the header. By 1920, 50 percent of the grain was being headed. By 1925, 75 percent of the small grain was headed. The threshing of headed stacks sometimes lasted as late as Christmas.The work day was from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. with one hour out at noon. The work week was Monday until Saturday night. In order to start at 7 a.m., the engineer had to have his fire started by 5 a.m., go to breakfast at 6 a.m. and when he returned to the machine, the steam would be up so he was ready to start. We never fired up on Sunday, but most Sundays there was some repair work to do and the boiler had to be washed out every two weeks.During World War I, it was almost impossible to get men. In fact, one winter, stack threshing was not complete and the machine was running January and February. Wilbur couldn’t get an engineer so he had to take Burnard out of school. Burnard was 11 years old, but he took a man’s place in the crew as the engineer. Wilbur Garrabrant’s two boys had both grown up working with their father. By 1920, Wilbur owned and operated the businesses. In 1923, it was apparent that the Little Engine in Colorado would be more useful back in Nebraska. When it came back, it was used for threshing while the Big Engine was fired up 220 days for the combined road grading and threshing season.In the 1930s, the Depression stopped the road grading contracts for county and state roads. In 1935, the two threshing outfits together added up over 100 days of threshing, but there were so many combines being purchased that just one machine was operated in 1936.The Little Engine did not do as much work as the Big Engine. It was in perfect condition when Wilbur had it cut up in 1942 as part of the war effort. It brought $86 as scrap iron.In 1958, the Holdrege Junior Chamber of Commerce cooperated with Glen and Burnard Garrabrant to exhibit the Big Engine outfit during Holdrege’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration. The engine hadn’t turned a wheel for 22 years, but after the boiler had been tested, it was fired up and ran like a top.The equipment was exhibited for seven days and ran in three parades. Twice they pulled the separator and threshing outfit and once they pulled the grader as a grading outfit. There were 135 floats entered, and the Grand Champion trophy was awarded to Glen Garrabrant.— end
NOTE: Discover even more Garrabrant photos and farming history at their display located in the Nebraska Prairie Museum’s Implement Room.
NOTE: This article was printed in the February/March/April 2015 issue of the Territorial Magazine published in Garden City, Kansas. It has been reprinted here with permission from both the Territorial Magazine and Janis Smith, daughter of Glen Garrabrant. Some of the photos are from the Territorial Magazine, while others are from the photo collection and the Garrabrant General Contracting display at the Nebraska Prairie Museum.