Let's Talk Rusty Iron

The Story Behind the Letters

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Parlin & Orendorff triumphed over early challenges

Many Rusty Iron enthusiasts probably know why most of the part numbers on International Harvester plows begin with the letters "PO." However, just in case some don't, here's the story of the Parlin & Orendorff Co. of Canton, Ill.

William Parlin was born in 1817, in Acton, Mass., where he apparently learned the blacksmith trade. Typical of many restless young men of the day, Parlin drifted west, ending up in St. Louis. There, he blacksmithed for a year but didn't seem to do very well. Leaving St. Louis, Parlin traveled by boat up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and, in 1840, appeared in Canton after walking the 10 miles from the landing. Legend has it that the young blacksmith had nothing with him but three hammers, a leather apron, and 25 cents in cash. He promptly went to work in Robert Culton's blacksmith shop and soon was made a full partner.

Culton apparently was already making a plow with a wooden moldboard and iron share when Parlin went to work for him. Later plows had wooden moldboards covered with iron plates, although some also had moldboards made of boilerplate. In 1842, Parlin made some with steel shares, mold-boards and landsides that local farmers found very satisfactory.

In 1845, William Parlin married Caroline Orendorff and the happy couple ultimately became the parents of four children: Artemus, William, Clara and Alice.

The demand for Parlin's plows grew and soon extra help was required. In 1846, a small foundry was added. About that time, Parlin, wanting to work on his own, left Culton and built a shop and foundry of his own. During the winter of 1847, Parlin's factory was destroyed by fire and he went back to Culton's shop, now run by Culton's son, John. After a short while, Parlin bought out Culton and may have formed a partnership with Thompson Maple, who, according to one account, ran the firm's office and provided capital. Another account claims Parlin conducted the business alone.

In any event, in 1852, Parlin took on his brother-in-law, William Orendorff, as partner. This combination seemed to work and Orendorff became sales manager, while Parlin concentrated on the manufacturing side of the business. The factory was upgraded by replacing the horsepower that had been used to run the machinery with a steam engine. The Canton Clipper walking plow was introduced and became quite popular. During the years before the Civil War the firm began making other implements as well, such as walking cultivators, shovel plows and stalk cutters.

Years later, William Orendorff described the way farm machinery was sold in those early years. "Selling goods at that time was quite a different process from what it is today. I used to load up a wagon and drive out to the principal towns seeking customers, until my plows were either sold or consigned to country merchants, when I would return to Canton, catch up with my books and office work, and do the same thing over again." He told of one time when he was on the road with three wagon loads of plows and had been " … driving for some days without much success." Stopping at a tavern for the night, Orendorff met another traveler who asked him what he was going to do with those plows. Orendorff confessed that he meant to sell them if he could.

The stranger, a Mr. Cunningham, said, "Better take them over to my place (in Knoxville, Iowa) and I will sell them for you." Orendorff continues: "A few days later it began raining and the roads, never good, were abominable. We drove into Knoxville, found Mr. Cunningham to be all right, left three loads (nearly 100 plows) with him and returned home. The next spring he sold them all and paid the cash." The drive from Canton to Knoxville, over "abominable" roads with a wagon and team, was more than 200 miles. Shipping became easier in 1862, when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad reached Canton. In 1865, P&O built its first riding cultivator and introduced a brand new implement, the lister.

By the early 20th century, Parlin & Orendorff claimed to be "The largest and oldest permanently established plow factory on earth," with a full line of moldboard and disc plows, listers, stalk cutters, disc, spike tooth and spade harrows, corn and beet planters and all kinds of cultivators. A photo in a P&O catalog of the day shows a group of 14 women and girls, all wearing babushkas (head kerchiefs), pulling a P&O plow. The caption identifies the women as members of the Doukhobors, natives of Russia who fled their homeland and settled in Canada. The group believed that it was wrong to make an animal (but apparently not women!) work. As you may have guessed, in the picture, there's a man holding the plow handles.

Also by that time, International Harvester's salesmen and agents were clamoring for plows to sell. IHC and Deere had, up to then, been reluctant to get into each other's business, even though pressure from the field to do so had been intense. Deere made the first move by starting construction of a new harvester plant in East Moline, Ill., in 1912. In about 1909, IH agents in Canada began selling P&O plows, but U.S. dealers were still out of luck. Finally, on May 7, 1919, International Harvester announced that it had bought the entire product line and all the facilities of the Parlin & Orendorff Co.

IH retained the P&O name on its plows for several years, although the McCormick-Deering name was added to it. Most of the old P&O part numbers were retained as well, and the PO prefix for plow part numbers was continued even after the P&O name was dropped.

The next time you see a PO part number on an old IH plow, think back to 1840, and to the young William Parlin trudging into Canton with only two bits and a few tools to his name.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com