HURON — When the Big Red Power Round Up takes place Aug. 8-10 on the S.D. State Fairgrounds, you can expect to see rows of farm machinery and tractors of all sizes, acres of trucks and other vehicles, and, in the Beef Complex, something that is not immediately associated with the International Harvester Company.
Firearms. No, that’s right.
Military-grade weapons that have the International Harvester name stamped on the barrel.
Leo Semmler is a 62-year-old Air Force veteran who grew up near Tripp. Several years ago, he decided to acquire a couple of M1 rifles. Semmler lives near Watertown.
“I have always liked firearms,” Semmler said via telephone, “but I never really collected them. But some friends of mine were going to purchase some rifles, so I decided to join in.” He noticed that the rifles were very similar, but that there some differences too. “I did a little reading and some research and then I caught the fever.”
More research brought him to the doorstep of the International Harvester company’s involvement in the firearms industry.
“The IHC is the rarest of all the M1 Garand (GAR-und) rifles,” Semmler said. “John Garand designed the M1 many years earlier and the easy to use firearm was used extensively during World War 2.”
When the war ended, large numbers were put into storage, with the idea that the numbers would be enough to see the country through the foreseeable future. But shortly after, hostilities began in Korea and the Department of Defense opted to put the M1 back into production.
But why would International Harvester, one of the leading manufacturers of farm implements and machinery be the chosen contractor for 100,000 rifles in June of 1951?
“Oh,” Semmler said, “that’s easy. It was because of the atomic bomb.”
“Sure,” he said. “When the United States ended World War 2 with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we were the only country that had the bomb. But by 1949, through spying or whatever means, the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb as well.”
Semmler noted that up to that time, all of the small arms manufacturing had taken place on the east coast, in New England. “So, since Russia had the bomb, it would have taken only one bomb to basically wipe out the entire arms manufacturing capability of the U.S.”
But International Harvester was located in Evansville, Ind., a far reach from the east coast.
“It was pretty rough for them at the start,” Semmler said. “I get the idea that the management got the contract and never really talked to the workers. They realized that they had a great deal to figure out to make rifles for the Korean War.”
Semmler said that IHC got help from Springfield Manufacturing, as well as Harrington/Richardson, who built receivers for them. Some of the rifles were converted for other uses, for snipers and later, for target shooting.
“I really started collecting Korean War items,” Semmler said. “It was only later that I made the choice to start focusing on IHC firearms. I believe now that I have one of the most complete collections in the state. I am no expert by any means, but I can safely say that most of the time I know more about the firearm than anyone else in the building.”
He said that the IHC M1 is unique and, due to it being among the last of the line that was built, in the early 1950s, are newer and in better condition. “Many of the 300,000 IHC M1s were sent overseas to our allies,” Semmler said. “They are coming back more and more and are getting easier to find. I grew up on a farm. I learned to drive on an old H Farmall tractor. Also have about a dozen red tractors here.”
He will be bringing a nine-rifle collection to the Big Red Power Round Up, along with a large collection of Korean War memorabilia.
“One model I will have will be a cutout, which has part of the forestock removed so that the inner workings can be seen. I will have several bayonets and many photos, including two albums that were the personal property of General Matthew Ridgeway, who replaced MacArthur when Truman fired him.”
Semmler said that he has amassed his collection and is at a point where he is asking himself how much further he wants to go. “I mean it gets to be how far do you want to go; which is really, how much more money do you want to invest in things?”
He will have his extensive display set up for the Round Up, and encourages anyone with an interest or questions to stop by and see the unique collection. “Or just swing past and visit for a bit. I really enjoy that too.”