By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD—One Halstead man’s innovation played an important role in the evolution of threshing equipment more than a hundred years ago.
The Ruth Self-Feeder, invented and patented by Halstead resident D.C. Ruth to regulate the speed at which wheat bundles were carried into a thresher, was manufactured in Halstead from 1900-1905. At that time, Ruth Self-Feeder Manufacturing Company was the biggest business in Halstead, according to Carolyn Williams, who’s done extensive research on the company for the Halstead Historical Society.
“It grew and grew and really became big,” Williams said.
She added that Ruth’s invention came at just the right time and she didn’t think he would have been as successful a few years later.
News of the new manufacturing plant was first reported in The Halstead Independent on Nov. 23, 1899. It describes the product as an unqualified success, having been tested thoroughly with all kinds of grains.
A new, two-story manufacturing plant was built east of Ruth’s feed mill at the corner of First and Spruce streets where Sooter’s Car Wash now stands.
“Halstead is to be congratulated upon the locating of the factory here, as attractive propositions had been made for its location at a number of the larger towns in the state,” The Independent reported.
D.C. Ruth, originally from Illinois, had been living in Halstead since the 1870s. He had a background in the lumber business and had served a term as mayor in 1884, as well as on the city council.
By Jan. 4, 1900, The Independent reported that most of the machinery for the new factory was in place and it wouldn’t be long before full operations began. The factory used at least a dozen machines for working iron and wood, including a 22 horsepower gasoline engine.
A month later, the Feb. 1 Independent reported that operations were underway and that material was on hand to build 60 machines, which would sell at $200 and upwards. The factory was employing about a dozen men at the time, with G.A. Hege as plant manager.
“Mr. Hege, the manager, is a shrewd businessman and if a close application to the details, which enter into the successful operation of this establishment is any criterion by which to judge, the success of the new factory is an assured fact,” The Independent predicted.
That article also described D.C. Ruth as having many years’ experience as a practical thresher man and who had perfected his machine after six years of study and practical application of the invention.
Within just a few weeks, the new company was starting to spread its reputation. The Feb. 22 newspaper stated that a prominent threshing machine man from the northern Kansas had visited and was so pleased with the product that he planned to act as a salesman for it in his part of the state.
The March 15 edition reported that the factory’s workforce was being constantly increased.
An advertisement for the Ruth Self-Feeder Manufacturing Company in the 1902 Old Settlers program touted its benefits. It claimed the Ruth was the best because it was all rotary motion and could govern the feed and speed. It could be regulated while in motion and would purportedly outlast any two of other makes. The Ruth was billed as not only being the best, but also the cheapest. No price was given.
The Jan. 22, 1903, Independent reported that the company was doubling its output each year. It 1902, it shipped machines to 18 states and Canada.
By 1905, the company had become so successful that it sold out to Parsons Self-Feeder & Band Cutter Co., of Newton, Iowa. The Jan. 26, 1905, Independent wrote that the company’s sale price was kept a secret, but was believed to be in the neighborhood of $100,000, which according to a CPI inflation calculator, would be about $3.2 million in today’s dollars.
The Halstead factory remained in operation until all the materials on hand were used up, which was enough for an additional 600 feeders.
“The sale of this business is a severe blow to Halstead, as the success the Ruth Company has experienced during the past five years demonstrated that the industry was but in its infancy and the possibilities of the future were that it would be developed into one of the biggest manufacturing plants in the state,” The Independent wrote.
The newspaper went on to add that the Ruth Company stockholders received such a flattering offer for their business that they could not withstand the temptation to earn a handsome return for their investment, even though they’d had no desire to sell.
The Evening Kansan-Republican—Newton’s newspaper—from Jan. 30, 1905, added that frequent attempts had been made by other towns to get the company to move, yet it had remained loyal to Halstead up to that point. It described the company’s growth over the past five years as phenomenal.
“The county has watched it with pride, as it is and has been from the start strictly a home institution,” The Kansan-Republican wrote.
The company Ruth sold out to, Parsons, later became Maytag Company, a big name in the farm implement business.
A Maytag-Ruth advertisement from 1919 explains this was the greatest self-feeder in the world because it ensured a large, even flow of grain into the separator cylinder.
“Every practical thresher-man knows that a self-feeder to be successful must feed the top part of the bundle first, holding back and retarding the under part,” it stated. “That’s just what the Maytag-Ruth does.”
The ad claimed the machine could feed any make or size of separator to its full capacity with any kind of grain in any condition, and it would do a faster, cleaner, better job than any other feeder in the world.
D.C. Ruth continued to live in Halstead after selling his company. A 1917 Independent article said he had lost his hearing nine years previously and withdrawn from active life in his declining years. He spent his time watching the progress of the world war with the “deepest and most profound interest.” He also kept a record of rainfall in Halstead for 34 years, measuring a total of 940 inches.
As for G.A. Hege, who had served as plant manager, he moved to Emporia a couple years after the feeder factory sold and later moved to California. During his years in Halstead, he, too, served as mayor and was a charter member of the Presbyterian Church, serving as an elder and superintendent of Sabbath School. He was also instrumental in the organization of Halstead’s first fire department, serving as its first chief. Another hat he wore for a time was as clerk of the Halstead School Board.
“Probably no other man ever lived here who has left a more favorable impression in the minds of well-meaning people,” The Independent wrote Feb. 14, 1929, after Hege’s death.” “He was a doer of things and everything which he undertook was of a substantial value.”
Other stockholders of the Ruth Self-Feeder Manufacturing company included J.B. Lehmann, J.S. Eyman, M.S. Hege (brother to G.A. Hege) and Sam Dunkleberger.
Today, the legacy of the Ruth self-feeder is remembered with an exhibit at the Halstead Historical Museum and Depot. This includes a wooden equipment chest with the Ruth logo on it, which was donated by the descendants of M.S. Hege. The museum also has one of the self-feeders on display.