LANGENBURG, Sask. — Ken Mack calls his restored grain thresher the Johnny Cash Special.
Like the famous song says, he got the parts for his vintage thresher one piece at a time and it didn’t cost him a dime.
“One Piece at a Time is where I got the inspiration from. I’ve listened to that song many times and thought, why not do something like that,” said the country music fan and handyman from Langenburg, Sask.
Cash’s 1976 hit song refers to accumulating a Cadillac car piece by piece off an assembly line over 25 years. But, once the worker has all the parts to complete the car, he tries to assemble the pieces and it results is a hodgepodge of parts from different years and models that don’t fit together well.
“Johnny Cash got his new, out of a factory, but I just took mine off other machines,” said Mack.
Since about 2000 Mack has rebuilt 16 old threshers to working condition, many of which have been sold to Amish farmers in the United States.
But years of restoring the harvesters had left him with a collection of odds and ends, bits and pieces from other machines.
He decided in 2012 to restore one such derelict: a 1944-45 Case 2848 thresher.
“Actually I wasn’t going to fix it, but something was telling me there’s something exiting about this old machine,” he said.
However, years of sitting and slowly being stripped of originals had left it a hollow shell of former glory.
“When I took it all apart the only thing I had in it was the frame, the wheels and the cylinder. Everything else was taken off. It was all rusted out. The straw deck was all rotten inside, the grain pan and sieves were no good, and the grain leg and return were all rusted out,” he said.
“So I’m sitting here and thinking. I had all these other parts and I started putting them on like a jigsaw puzzle.”
And that, said Mack was when he realized he would create the Johnny Cash Special.
“I never went to no factory. I’ll tell you that much,” he said.
The grain leg came off a 1950s era Massey Harris and the return was from two McCormick-Deering threshers. The head was off a John Deere and the feeder came from a Red River Special.
There’s also parts from a Dion and the grain pan is from two Massey combines and sieves from a Claas combine.
The straw deck came from another Case but it still had holes in it, so Mack had to install new wooden slats in it.
The shoe on the bottom, where the sieve fits in also came from a newer Case, but to make it all fit Mack had to cut four inches out of it and weld back together.
All the hangers on wood had to be taken off another machine to get them bolted on at the right angle to make them work.
Mack’s Johnny Cash Special was completed in 2013 with parts from eight different manufacturers spanning three decades.
However, this kind of workflow required a special touch, whether it’s a one piece at a time Cadillac or a one-off grain thresher.
“You have to make it fit. You just have to line things up. Sometimes you have to drill holes, put bolts in and weld things together,” he said.
“But it all fits, sort of, and finally it gets put together and away it goes.”
As he added different parts to the original Case frame, Mack painted each to tell which ones were not original.
The resulting machine is an eclectic rainbow of slightly different parts, which highlight Mack’s ingenuity, resourcefulness and imagination.
“Of all the ones I’ve worked on this one is my keepsake. The others ran good but this one runs real smooth. It’s one of the quietest,.”
Since a boy, watching his father and grandfather thresh, Mack said he’s been interested and had the knack for keeping old things functioning – an historian of sorts with run-down tools.
“You get this old machine that’s ready for the junk pile and there’s something about it that you can put it back together and it starts working again. And then, here come the people to watch it.”
“The only thing that’s sad with me is that a lot of these people are no longer with me anymore. The younger generation don’t really want to get involved too much. That’s why I turned this into a colourful object. It’s different and it might make people really look, instead of seeing some old rusty machine running.”
The Johnny Cash Special made its debut last year during the Harvesting Hope event at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum in Austin. The gathering set a new Guinness World Record of 139 working threshers operating at once for a required 15 minutes.
“I had five that I still owned and I had eight that I restored that were there,” he said.
Funds raised from the event were spilt between the Manitoba Agricultural Museum and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
The old record was 118 threshers at St. Albert, Ontario in 2015, which also used several of Mack’s restored threshers. It raised money for breast cancer research.
And in 2013, the Old Tyme Harvest in Langenburg, Sask., had earned the world title with 41 continuously operating threshers, with Mack as one of the main organizers and participants with more than 10 of his machines.
“Part of my reason for rebuilding these is to preserve the past and I enjoy doing it and the people I meet. I’m not only restoring the past but helping the future with the money raised to feed the hungry and for cancer research,” he said.
“It started out so innocently as a hobby and what it grew into. The accomplishment of what took place here is what really satisfies me.”
“I say (The Johnny Cash Special) is my last one, but I’ve said that so many times that people don’t believe me anymore.”