Circa-1900 World Agriculture: Firsthand Account from a McCormick Harvester Co. Salesman

McCormick Harvester Co. salesman’s letters home paint picture of international agriculture in the early 1900s

Daniel B. Klopfenstein, farm equipment salesman at the turn of the century for McCormick Harvester Co. in international sales

Daniel B. Klopfenstein, farm equipment salesman at the turn of the century for McCormick Harvester Co. in international sales.

Courtesy Richard Stout

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When American and Canadian farm equipment manufacturers began an aggressive export program in the early 1900s, it transformed agriculture around the world.

Farmers who routinely harvested with scythes suddenly had access to mechanized threshers. Set against a backdrop of rapidly evolving social change, the introduction of farm mechanization took the world by storm – and a man from Iowa had a front row seat.

Daniel B. Klopfenstein was born in 1857 in Henry County, Iowa. In the 1890s, he began working as a farm equipment salesman. In the early 1900s, by then an accomplished machinist and proven salesman, he took a new job: representing McCormick Harvester Co. in international sales.

Klopfenstein quickly became a world traveler, spending much of the year in Europe and South America. But he never forgot the home folks. He routinely wrote long and richly detailed letters to newspapers (the Washington Democrat and the Evening Journal) in his hometown of Washington, Iowa. Both newspapers published the letters as a window to the world for the residents of a small Midwestern farm town.

Decades later, Washington resident Richard Stout discovered the letters while working on an unrelated research project. Collaborating with his granddaughter, Ashley Stout, he delved in to Klopfenstein’s travelogues. The resulting 16-page transcription captures a unique glimpse of agriculture, commerce and society around the world more than a century ago (read Richard and Ashley’s full transcription). A few of the letters are excerpted below.

Dec. 25, 1902, Carhue, Argentina, from the Democrat

“Well, today is Christmas, but it does not seem so, as the day is just like a July day, nice and bright. I just came in from the harvest fields. They go right ahead today, the same as any other day. We have been cutting wheat for over a week now, and it will take another week and then they will be through here and we will go further south. I was on one ranch a few days where there was 30 square miles of wheat and oats and they have 250 binders and six steam threshing outfits and 1,400 men working on the ranch. They kill 25,000 sheep every year for food alone.

“This is one of the largest wheat farms in Argentina. I was on a larger ranch for sheep and cattle, where they shear 165,000 head of sheep, all by clippers, the same as clippers used to cut hair, only larger and run by steam. They shear a sheep every two minutes. On the same place were 65,000 black cattle and 15,000 branded mares, mostly Clydes and Normans and English Coach, and they are good ones. It makes one think he is in Iowa when he sees all these good horses. They are as fat as hogs.”

May 1903, Odessa, Russia, from the Evening Journal

“The main McCormick agency in Russia is at Odessa on the Black Sea. The sale in Russia is greater than in all the rest of Europe combined. Thousands of acres of the harvest are still cut by hand here. (In Bulgaria too, thousands of men and women harvest with hand sickles.) Self-binders sell in Romania and Russia at $175 [about $4,100 in today’s terms] and in Germany at $225 [about $5,300] (the result of a heavy duty). This class of goods is held in high repute in these countries. The Rusten thresher, made in London, England, is used to the exclusion of almost all others. This thresher is a slower machine than those made in this country but it is finely built, heavily constructed and more simple than our threshers. It is fed from the top and has no straw stacker. The wheat yield in Romania and western Russia last year was about 35 bushels to the acre.”

May 1903, Romania, from the Evening Journal

“Into this old country with old, old ways and odd people, the American harvester companies have crept with their product to the exclusion of all others. The McCormick people sold 3,500 harvesters there this year. The Deering, Plano, Osborne and a Canadian company are also represented.”

August 1903, Germany, from the Evening Journal

“I got through in Germany Aug. 25, the weather being very bad. It rained nearly every other day while I was there. The grain was very good, but there was too much rain and they could not save it. It was growing while in the shock. It was the same in France and England: well, in fact, in all the British islands. Lots of the wheat was never cut on account of the rain.”

September 1903, Buenos Aires, Argentina, from the Evening Journal

“Here as in Europe, machine harvesting is done with American harvesters. The companies invading these regions are as follows: Massey-Harris, Toronto, Canada; Deering, McCormick, Plano, Walter A. Wood, Johnson, Osborne and Acme Co. of the U.S. They all sold out last year. McCormick sold 3,500 harvesters in Argentina for 1902, 300 of them being 12-foot header binders.

“Leaving Argentina for Europe on the Magdelena of the Royal Mail line. The cargo carried by this vessel on this voyage will give an idea of the exports from South America to Europe. There were 3,500 dressed steers in refrigerators, the vessel carrying two ice-making machines. The meat went to London. There were also 10,000 sacks of wheat (150 pounds to the sack); 5,500 sacks of coffee loaded at Santos, one of the greatest coffee marts in the world; 3,000 sacks of cocoa loaded at Rio de Janeiro; 5,080 bales of tobacco loaded at Bahia and by that time, the vessel was filled to the portholes. There were 352 passengers. It took 21 days to make the trip to Hamburg.”

“Mr. Klopfenstein says the last year’s experiences have shown him the enormity of the world outside of our own country,” added the editor of the Evening Journal. “The world is not yet crowded with people.”

September 1903, 450 miles south of Buenos Aires, from the Evening Journal

“The wheat looks better by half than last year, and if they don’t have anything to come in the way, this will be the largest wheat this country ever had. There won’t be enough machines to supply the demand.”

April 1904, Bucharest, Hungary, from the Democrat

“The last letter I wrote you was from Argentina. I got through all right there and never spent four and a half months in a better climate. I never had a cold and could eat the mutton three times a day. The summer was not warm and the crops were good. The machines were all sold and the field is open for next year. There were 78 Americans down there for the binder companies. Fourteen were there for the Case, Avery and Advance threshers. The Avery company sold the most. These are the only machines represented there, so the people of Washington can see that Argentina is right up there in machines that are good. John Deere plows you find in every country.”

March 22, 1905, from the Evening Journal

“Daniel Klopfenstein talks interestingly of his experiences in South America and Europe,” writes the editor of the Journal. “He says that the American implements are the whole thing now in Argentine Republic, S.A., with the exception of the threshers. The English make of thresher is still more largely used than the American make. The American makes are too complicated for the average man who runs a thresher in Argentina. The English machine is much simpler in construction, not having the various complicated attachments that are common in the American threshers. An American who resides in that country has recently patented a thresher that Mr. Klopfenstein thinks will be a world beater, however. It combines simple features with absolute perfection in work. The wheat of that country is, as a general thing, much harder to thresh than the same product in this country.”

September 1907, Romania, from the Evening Journal

“Well I got through the Romanian harvest. But the harvest was very poor there this season, especially in the southern parts. The wheat was no more than a third of a crop this season, and the corn did not come up at all as there was no rain in that part. The north part will have a good corn crop and had a pretty fair wheat crop. But where the (Peasant) revolution was, the granaries and corncribs were all burned. Millions of bushels of corn and wheat, all the barns and houses and their contents, and a lot of cattle, were burned. A great many of the landowners were murdered. I was all over that part of the country before the burning and then after. It looks bad. Many engines and harvesters were broken and burned. They claim there were more than 5,000 people killed in the revolution and the reason was they wanted the rich landowners to divide their land with them and this was to be the start. But they are worse off now than before. …”

March 1908, Moline, Ill., from the Evening Journal

“I visited the John Deere Plow Co. I met with them to tell them some changes that Ayercross & Co., Buenos Aires, Argentina, wanted on some of their plows, and I had the pleasure of being introduced to the superintendent and Mr. Butterworth, president of the Deere Plow Works since the death of Charles Deere. They took me all through the factory, and I saw the plows go from the raw material to the finished goods. The plows, harrows and sulkies and all the heavy goods are handled by compressed air, and on overhead tracks taken to the paint room, where they are dipped in paint and then taken to the drying room. After they are dried, they are striped and dipped in varnish and then taken to the cars for shipment.”

April 1908, Romania, from the Evening Journal

“Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania all feel our financial trouble and some feel it more than others. But the business people tell me that they felt it much more two months ago and even lots of commodities that they buy for sale they have no buyers for. All the countries of the world are feeling our financial trouble.”

Klopfenstein’s letters to the Iowa newspapers end in 1908. Klopfenstein died 30 years later. “Klopfenstein had an interesting career as a salesman for farm machinery and in the course of his work as one of the ace salesmen in this line,” noted his obituary with understatement. “He made trips to Europe and other parts of the world to sell reapers and threshing machines abroad.” FC