Robert W. Kohler was born in Arizona Township some time before the turn of the 20th Century. He was initially a farmer, but a creative focus saw him become the town blacksmith.
He built and ran his own blacksmith shop in Arizona Township for many years. He continued some farming and merchant work on the side, but his mind was as fertile as the rich soil he farmed. From it sprouted many metallic originations, some of which he patented.
According to Burt County historian Lloyd Olson (an honorific title), Kohler designed a desktop paper holder that was ubiquitous in the area. But his most widespread and noteworthy invention was his corn roller.
The basic design of the corn planter goes back to the 1880s. The planter would plant two rows at a time. A plow blade opened a furrow, a plate mechanism dropped down a specific number of seeds and a following wheel covered the seeds back up with dirt. Most farmers planted three to four seeds in each hill.
In the semi-arid plains, farmers adapted the planter to plant the corn in deeper furrows. This planter was known as a “lister.” As Olson remembers, the lister would plant the seeds in a deeper furrow, leaving a four- or five-inch mound of dirt on either side of the furrow.
“After the ground dried, you would use the roller to pack the ground you had plowed,” Olson said. “You couldn’t do that in gumbo soil when it was wet.”
Kolher designed a three-row roller that could be drawn by horse, and a four-row roller for use with a tractor. A rower consisted of two half-spheres separated by an adjustable gap. They functioned by rolling along the mounds, covering the seeds and compacting the soil next to the furrows. When the rain fell on the field, it gathered in the areas next to the furrows.
During the winter, Kohler, his son Clyde and his son-in-law John Kelly worked in the foundry to cast the rollers. Because his family lived in a cabin just a half-mile north of the foundry, a young and inquisitive Olson got to watch the process.
“As a boy, I would spend a lot of time at the foundry during the winter,” the 90-year-old Olson said. “It was always amazingly hot. Even on the coldest days.”
Olson described the procedure: Kohler would have a scorching fire in the foundry furnace. He made his own coke for the furnace, too. To make the large metal objects, he used the lost-wax method of casting. He would use sand as his disposable molds. Kohler would pour the liquid metal into the molds. Due to the heat, he primarily worked shirtless — as a result, he would often get spattered by the metal. Iron melts at 2,750 degrees F that is hotter than a flamethrower. But, Kohler worked on undeterred. He would pour 30 molds in a day. Each section of the roller weighed about 200 pounds.
They would deliver them the following spring, Olson said. Kohler rollers were sold all across eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.
Robert Kohler died in 1949. The site where his blacksmith shop and foundry stood is now a residential area. The structure has been replaced with a family’s garage and large out-building. Still, there are a couple of examples of his work still in the area. A four-row Kohler roller was located along Highway 75 in Washington County.
Also, the memory of one of Burt County’s most famous residents survives along with many other esoteric bits of local history. Olson is a veritable encyclopedia of such knowledge.
He shared an anecdote about a family that used to be in the Tekamah-Decatur area. The Banburys were a farming family back in the day. They had a steam tractor that they used to plow their fields. The tractor served a secondary function, as well, since the Banbury clan liked to supplement their farm income by using the boiler to make whiskey. As the story goes: If they were doing a little grain-squeezing and a revenuer happened by, they would simply drop the plow and begin working the field.
“I guess they were kind of a bunch of outlaws,” Olson said. “I guess everybody was back then, though.”
His tale of his early farming days and how he found out that large sections of Burt County used to be in another state are a story for another issue.
“I’m glad I grew up in a time where I got to know the people involved,” Olson said.
Jon Burleson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.