The combines are growling nonstop with a farmer’s urgency to get the corn harvested.
Through the stubble, a John Deere tractor pulling a grain cart races to a nearby combine. Using mirrors he has strategically placed inside and outside the tractor’s cab – “Because I’m not as agile as I used to be” – Loyd Ratts perfectly aligns the cart with the combine’s auger while the combine and tractor continue to move in synchronization.
At 98, Ratts is undoubtedly one of the last Dust Bowl-era farmers still actively engaged in farming his land, a living link to the state’s agricultural history.
But he is also one of Kansas’ newest inventors. Last year, he received a patent for a ground-level grain bin lid controller he designed. The pulley-and-cable device allows a farmer to open his grain bins from the ground rather than climbing to the top of the bin to manually open the door.
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“One of the driving forces I had was the safety factor,” Ratts said. “Every year, farmers fall off those bins. Some die; some are permanently injured.”
He looked at the top of the grain bin on his farm.
“I could still go up there,” Ratts said, “but they (his family) frown on me for doing that.”
Growing up a farmer
Ratts’ inspiration as an inventor comes from nine decades of practical know-how.
He was born on Feb. 18, 1915, on the family farm northwest of St. John. His father, Edmund, named him Loyd with one L “because he didn’t see any sense for the extra L,” Ratts said.
At the age of 4, Ratts began his farming career. His father sent him to St. John, five miles from the farm, driving a team of horses with a wagonload of wheat.
“That team of horses he had on there could have taken the load to town themselves,” Ratts said. “But Dad thought he could scoop another load of wheat and put four horses on his wagon to catch up with me. He guessed wrong.
“I got to town before he did, and I still have vivid memories of going down the west side of the square in St. John and all the foot traffic stopping and watching me. I was smart enough to know I didn’t know how to drive onto the scales where they tipped the wagon to unload. So I just pulled off to the side of the street north of the depot and waited for Dad to come.”
At age 6, he was pulling a harrow in the fields with a team of four horses. At 10, he was driving the family’s first tractor, a Fordson.
By age 12, the farm converted completely from horse power to tractor power. That summer, in 1927, he pulled a combine with an Allis Chalmers tractor.
Two years later, the stock market crashed and the country headed into the Great Depression.
The Dust Bowl
When Ratts graduated from St. John High School in 1932, there wasn’t money for college.
“Dad had to buy a bigger tractor and bigger machinery and put a mortgage on the place – that was in 1927 when the prices were high, but in 1929, everything dropped out. By 1932, it was apparent the mortgage was going to take our home.”
Fact is, they had to buy the place in 1927 (thus, the mortgage) because Loyd's aunt owned the family land and was a young mother who was dying and had no way to pay the mortgage. So, for the family to be able to keep the land, Loyd's parents took on the mortgage. They also took in the aunt until her passing and also took in as their own, the young mother's son.
Had they not been successful they would have lost everything - their livelihood, land and equipment.
Ratts started working at the garage in nearby Radium as a mechanic and welder, often working 60 hours a week. His weekly paycheck was $12.50.
He was busy because rubber tires had just been developed for tractors and farm equipment. His job was to cut the steel lugs and wheels off the tractors and weld rims on for rubber tires. He also installed hydraulic pumps on the tractors and converted the machinery for hydraulics.
His dad started farming a quarter-section of land in Kearny County in southwest Kansas, near some of the worst-hit areas of the Dust Bowl years. As the black clouds of dirt blew through, wheat would get covered in dust.
Landowners began contacting the Rattses to farm their land because the pair made farming work. They had to. Paying the mortgage depended on successful crops.
Using early conservation practices, their land was often the only fields of green and gold on the horizon of brown dust.
“We had 2,500 acres in Kearny County we were farming and 400 acres in Stafford County – and the land was 185 miles apart,” Ratts said.
A Model T truck was used to pull the tractor between the two farming operations. Once in the field, there were times the tractor would run 24 hours a day, never getting a chance to cool down for weeks at a time.
“One time, I drove it for 32 hours,” Ratts said. “I brought the lunch out and ate it on the go.”
When there was any spare time, he and his sisters Thelma and Vida performed in a singing group, the Ratts Trio. The siblings sang on radio stations in Dodge City, Great Bend and Salina. After performances, they often had difficulty getting home because of blowing dust.
During the winter of 1939, Ratts temporarily left the farm and worked as a carpenter’s helper on the construction of Camp Funston at Fort Riley, and from 1940 through 1942, he worked at Cessna Aircraft in Wichita.
Earning a living
Beginning in 1942, Ratts returned to Stafford County and began farming by himself. In addition to working at the Radium garage, he milked eight cows a day.
In 1954, he opened Loyd’s Repair Shop on his farm. By then, he was raising a family.
All told, there were eight children and two wives. His first wife, Bonnie, died in 1956 at the age of 31. He remarried in 1961. His second wife, Betty, died in 2005.
He phased out of livestock production in the mid-1960s because, as he put it, “I just didn’t have that many hours in the day.”
He has grown wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers, alfalfa and cane. Currently, his primary crops on 480 acres are corn, soybeans and wheat.
Although he never received any formal education or training, Ratts developed a local reputation for fixing things, sometimes altering or redesigning an old farm implement and giving it new life. The framework of an old cultivator was remade into a fertilizer sprayer. .
In 2004, he was named a Kansas Master Farmer by Kansas State University. He now farms the land along with his son-in-law and grandson, Phillip and Jason Koelsch.
Through the years, Ratts has served on the Kansas Soybean Commission and switched to no-till farming.
“No-till takes less labor and it gets huge benefits,” he said. “You can save moisture that the weeds used to take.
“Part of the Dust Bowl problem was that the only way we had to kill weeds was to work the ground and take the cover and cut it off. That made us more vulnerable to those hard winds.”
His uniform for the recent corn harvest was faded blue jeans, work boots, a denim shirt, an old leather pliers holster hanging from his belt and worn leather gloves that long ago molded to the shape of his hands.
As nine decades of farming have gone by, Ratts has made allowances for growing old.
An International Harvester tractor has a ladder welded to its side to make it easier for him to climb into the seat. He hangs his cane on the top rung as he swings into the seat and starts the tractor, then scampers down to show a visitor its hydraulic scoop.
From inside the bucket of the scoop, he pulls a series of ropes and pulleys he has attached to the hydraulic lift. Those allow the bucket to take him high in the air and lower him gently back down.
“That permits me to do many things that I otherwise wouldn’t do,” he said of the ropes and pulleys. “A ladder would be very dangerous for me. But that’s got a platform, and I’ve got all kinds of things to hang on to. I can go out here in the woods with a chainsaw and cut down limbs.”
His latest invention
He spent hours in his shop – a labyrinth of ordered chaos, parts and tools – designing, welding and testing his idea for a grain bin lid opener. Last year, he submitted and received his first patent.
Since then, some of his kits – which he hopes to sell for around $500 each – already have been installed on bins throughout the nation. He still makes the majority of them.
The grain bin lid opener allows a farmer to be safer, particularly during the winter, when ice can gather on the slippery steps and rungs of the ladder, Ratts said.
To help market the bin door opener, he has his own website, www.rattsmanufacturing.com, an iPhone and Facebook account.
He zips from farm building to farm building, irrigation system to farmhouse in a four-wheeler. It was a 98th birthday present from his youngest daughter, Terri, and her husband, Phillip Koelsch. The four-wheeler is his second; he wore the first one out.
Last April, Ratts joined his son Jim in Oklahoma City for an awards ceremony that honors the history and culture of the American West. Jim Ratts received the “Wrangler” award for producing the best Traditional Western Album in a ceremony at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
But the younger Ratts, who has performed with the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, was not the only Ratts honored that day. Once the celebrity-filled audience discovered there was a real-life Dust Bowl-era farmer in the house, Loyd Ratts became an instant celebrity.
“Dad ... talked about 4 1/2 minutes to the crowd,” Jim Ratts said.
“The thing is, normally the people in that crowd celebrate the works of dead people. But here was a living remnant of the American heritage they celebrate. This was a man who walked in and who could look them in the eye and talk with them.”