Custom Combining on the Great Plains: A History


248 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88833-084-7




Reviewed by W.J.C. Cherwinski

Joe Cherwinski is a history professor at the Memorial University of


Between 1890 and 1930 tens of thousands of men migrated annually across the continent from east to west and from south to north to meet the massive manpower requirements of the North American harvest. Despite the numbers involved, the supply of farm labour was a continual problem for farmers, and in response considerable technological changes were made, the most notable being the combined reaper-thresher, or combine, which achieved wide acceptance after World War II. This machine in turn created a more limited annual migration of small entrepreneurs who, with their machines, followed the grain harvest northward with the ripening of the grain, beginning in the south in the spring and in some cases terminating in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba in the late fall. It is to these custom combiners that Dr. Isern’s book is directed.

The first three chapters of Custom Combining on the Great Plains trace the historical development of this small industry from the first halting efforts between the two world wars by equipment dealers and enterprising individuals who owned the new machines to capitalize on an obvious demand for their services, through the rapid growth in custom combining caused by increased demand for cereal grains together with machinery and labour shortages during World War II, on through the post-war slump and the cycles of expansion and contraction caused by supply and demand, to the rationalization and development of a professional group of custom harvesters who make the trek an important part of each year’s activities.

The next three chapters are the most interesting, since they provide a socio-economic history of custom combining. Described here is the mundane side of this yearly operation through the eyes of an experienced and critical observer, as Isern explores the relationship between the custom operator and his family, the place of wives and children on the crew, the problems associated with recruiting, managing, housing, feeding, and tending to the social needs of a small, skilled migrant group whose principal object is to defeat time. In addition, this section contains a detailed description of the daily routine of custom combine harvesting, including the servicing and maintenance of expensive machinery, the organization of harvesting practices for maximum efficiency, and the logistics of transporting crews and equipment to the next farm on schedule. Finally, there is a brief section on the image of these gypsies (“wheaties,” as they were called) held by those through whose territory they passed.

Less interesting is the chapter on the development of state and federal government regulation of custom combining to ensure maximum production in wartime through government assistance in recruitment and placement of skilled workers on the one hand, and to protect workers from exploitive operators on the other. The emphasis here, as in most of the book, is American. Therefore, the token chapter on Canadian custom operators working in the United States must have been injected to gain access to a Canadian publishing house. As Isern rightly indicates, however, the use of custom combine crews in the southern American Great Plains region was far more common due to a number of social and climatic factors, and it is to this particular region that this Kansas historian concludes that custom combining has become an ideal environmental adaptation.


Isern, Thomas D., “Custom Combining on the Great Plains: A History,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 7, 2023,