(March 18, 1920- September 13, 2017)
An ISU professor emeritus in Agricultural Engineering, Dr. Wesley F. Buchele’s farming-related inventions, including the round hay-baler, changed the landscape of America and perhaps the world.
Wes was born in a Cedar Vale, Kansas farmhouse on March 18, 1920, the youngest of seven Buchele brothers. Wes's dad died when he was 11 years old, leaving the Buchele boys to run their family's farm while they were still in school. At age 15, Wes was running a four-man threshing crew when "it was 105°F in the shade - and there was no shade!" The experience of the sweaty, dirty, grueling work of threshing grain and baling hay led to his lifelong interest in making the lives of farmers easier and safer.
At Kansas State University in 1943, Wes earned a BS in Agricultural Engineering. As a 2nd lieutenant in the US Army from 1943-46, he was part of the demilitarizing force on the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, Japan. After WWII, Wes served in the Army Reserve for 20 years.
From 1946-1948, he worked as an engineer at the John Deere & Company Waterloo (IA) Works. He moved to Fayetteville, AR to earn his Master’s degree in 1951 in Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Arkansas where he was also an Assistant Professor. He then came to Ames and earned a PhD in 1954 in Agricultural Engineering and Soil Physics from Iowa State. At ISU, he was an Agricultural Engineering Department Graduate Assistant (1951-1954) and an Assistant Professor (1954-1956). His next career move in 1956 was to East Lansing, MI where he taught at Michigan State University as an Associate Professor.
In 1963, Wes and his wife, Mary, and four children returned to Ames, where Wes became a Professor of Agricultural Engineering at Iowa State, staying until his retirement on June 30, 1989.
At ISU, Wes's creativity blossomed. While working with students and faculty, he published hundreds of technical articles. Agricultural safety was one of Buchele’s research interests. In addition to designing many safety devices, he originated several agricultural engineering safety courses at Iowa State, the first courses of this kind taught in the United States. Buchele was an expert in agricultural machinery safety and consulted in numerous cases regarding farm equipment accidents through his consulting firm, Buchele and Associates, Ltd. He also served on the board of directors for Farm Safety 4 Just Kids.
Buchele was awarded 23 patents from the U.S. Government. His most well-known is a device that would form and handle large round bales of a fibrous material and the axial-flow or helical-flow threshing cylinder for combines. The round baler was developed with graduate student Virgil Haverdink, and mechanized the process for collecting and transporting hay bales. The round baler made 1,500 pound round bales with a thatched pattern on the outside to carry water away from the hay. Today, almost all of the world's hay is collected using the large round baler. Prior to this baler, hay could only be collected in small bales that were light enough for an individual to carry.
Buchele also designed blade guards for rotary lawn mowers, a tandem tractor, and devices for harvesting crops such as strawberries and alfalfa. Another of his noteworthy accomplishments was the development of ridge-till farming that saved farmers time and fuel expenses and helped the environment by conserving topsoil and soil moisture, reducing soil erosion and decreasing the need for herbicides.
Buchele was described as a "very inquisitive person" and "a problem solver who was always thinking ahead." Others praised his emphasis on creativity and off-the-wall thinking. A “mantra” heard from Wes was, "Can you think of a better way to do that?" This led him to serve as an expert witness in product liability trials and farm safety associations around the nation. Wes was “infamous” for his safety research that involved mowing grocery store chickens to demonstrate how easily the exposed rotary lawn mower blade could slice through flesh. His work contributed to the operator-presence control, a.k.a. “dead man switch", being a part of every lawn mower sold in America since 1982.
Buchele stated that creativity was one of the things he valued most as an engineer, both for himself and his students, "I made a decision that I wouldn't be the smartest guy, but I could be the most creative because there aren't a lot of creative people around. The competition for being smart is very great, but the competition for being creative is almost none. [My students] went out and some became teachers, some researchers, some went into industry and in all three places they're doing their best to help. I think that's my greatest accomplishment: training students to be creative, to be educated, and to make progress in this world."
Another of Buchele’s interests was the agricultural development of African and South American countries. He taught in the capacity of Visiting Professor at the University of Ghana (1968 - 1969). Leading up to and after retirement in 1989, Wes and his wife traveled the world, teaching in China, Australia, Tanzania, Nigeria and the Philippines before settling in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and driving their RV around the country to stay with their children's families.
Buchele was an active member of many prominent international, national, and state organizations. These organizations include the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE), International Association on Mechanization Field Experiments (IAMFE), Society of Automotive Engineers, the International Society on Terrain-Vehicle Systems, and the National Institute of Agricultural Engineers in England. In 1988, he received the Cyrus Hall McCormick Jerome Case Gold Medal Award from ASAE. In 2010, he was inducted into Product Design & Development’s Design Engineer Hall of Fame.
Wes also authored a memoir, Just Call Us Lucky: A Kansas Farm Family During the Great Depression (2008), a collection of stories co-written with his twin brother Luther, Who Really Invented the Cotton Gin? (2016) and The Grain Harvesters (1978).
While at Kansas State, Buchele met Mary Jagger and in 1945, they were married. Mary was born September 3, 1923, in Minneapolis, Kansas. After marrying Buchele, she became a homemaker and raised their four children: Rodney, Marybeth, Sheron and Steven. Mary received a BS (1964) in Home Economics Journalism and a MS (1972) in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State University. In addition to her duties as a homemaker, she held a variety of positions outside the home, including teaching English and news writing, editing the Iowa Home Economics Association News and being the editor and communications assistant for the Iowa State University International Family Planning Project. Mary and Wes were organizers of the 1976 World Food Conference held in Ames. She was an active member of organizations including American Home Economics Association, Agricultural Engineering Women’s Club, Iowa Press Women, and Iowa State University Faculty Women’s Club. Mary also assisted Buchele with his research and writing. She died in April 2000.
Buchele passed away in in Ames in 2017 and is interred alongside Mary in the Iowa State University Cemetery.
Obituary, Des Moines Register, Sept. 17, 2017
Wesley Buchele Papers, RS 9/7/52, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.
10/05/2010, PD&D (Product Design & Development) - https://www.pddnet.com/article/2010/10/2010-design-engineer-hall-fame-dr-wesley-buchele-professor
Wes Buchele, Oral History, Audio Recording: https://digital.lib.iastate.edu/online-exhibits/iowa-state-sesquicentennial/oral-histories