Marsh Harvester Spurs Early Reaper Development

The innovative Marsh harvester helped revolutionize grain growing the world over.

Plano light Running Lever Binder

The 1900 Plano Light Running Lever Binder in an artist’s rendering for the Plano catalog. Those two “high stepping strutters” don’t look much like the average farm team, nor does that look like a heavy enough harness for the job to be done.

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Just a couple of years before Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey began to battle it out on America’s grain fields for bragging rights as to who invented the reaper, the Marsh brothers were born on a farm near Cobourg, Ontario, Canada: Charles W. in 1834 and William W. in 1835. The Marsh family moved 10 years later to a 110-acre tract of unbroken prairie in DeKalb County, Illinois, where a prosperous farm was established.

A reaper invented in 1849 by Jacob and Henry Mann of LaPorte County, Indiana, was the first such machine to use bands moving on rollers to carry the cut grain along the platform and up an inclined plane before depositing it into one of four receptacles. Triangular receptacles were arranged around an axis. When one was full, a hand wheel could be turned by a boy riding on the seat, dumping the gavel of grain on the ground and bringing another receptacle into position to receive the next one. Someone still had to follow along, stoop over and gather up the gavel, and tie it into a sheaf with a wisp of straw.

Improving on an idea

Meanwhile, Augustus Adams and Philo Scyla from Elgin, Illinois, had received a patent in 1853 for a machine that required a man with a hand rake to sweep each gavel from the platform onto one of two platforms where other men (also riding on the machine) tied them into sheaves before placing the sheaves into a bin that could be manually tripped when enough had accumulated for a shock (or stook). This machine was heavy and awkward and didn’t work very well, but it established the idea of the binders riding on the reaper.

The story goes that, in 1857, William Marsh was using a Mann reaper, for which his brother was an agent, when he thought of a way to improve the machine. It’s unknown whether Marsh had heard of the Adams & Scyla machine (it’s likely that he had, since Elgin was maybe just 50 miles away), but that was his idea; remove the revolving gavel receptacle on the Mann machine, add a low platform upon which two binders could stand, and provide a higher platform upon which they could bind the sheaves. The Marshes believed that two men on the machine could tie as many bundles as four following on the ground.

Building harvesters by hand

By 1860, the Marshes had built 12 machines, mortgaging everything they had. These harvesters worked fairly well (although a McCormick salesman sniffed that the Marsh harvester “looked like a cross between a windmill and a threshing machine”) but they were prone to breakdowns. Not far away in Plano, Illinois, farmers Marcus Steward and John Hollister (brothers-in-law and neighbors) had bought a reaper in the 1840s that didn’t work. Hollister, an excellent mechanic, had modified it and made it into a pretty good machine and it gained a reputation in the area. 

In 1860, William Marsh, hearing of the Steward machine, came to Plano and not only convinced John Hollister to help him improve their machine, but got the youngest Steward son, John F., just 19, to help as well. According to John F. Steward’s 1931 book, The Reaper, “There (in Plano), with the aid of Mr. Hollister, (Marsh) made the first fully successful Marsh harvester, which I launched in waving rye.” 

Steward was soon in the Union Army, but the harvester worked well for several years and in the winter of 1863-64 the Marshes began to build their harvesters for sale, an enterprise that Steward joined on his return in 1865. The work was done on a shoestring, as Steward describes in the following paragraph from his book.

“Practically all work was done by hand. Money was scarce; ear corn was at times cheaper than coal. Even as late as the winter of 1865-’66, I shoveled thousands of bushels of the best Yellow Dent corn into the furnace to keep the wheels of the improvised factory turning. Every bolt and nut for the machines, except the most common sizes, was forged and threaded by hand. All holes in wrought metal parts were drilled in a lathe or upon a wooden drill press. We had no punch press of any kind. Two circular saws, a rip and crosscut, roughed out the wooden parts. A single early type planer aided materially, but every part of the machine had to be finished by hand labor at the bench. About half of the (first 50) machines were finished and sold for the 1864 harvest and the remainder for 1865. All worked well, but it was difficult to induce a farmer to give an order, as none believed it possible for two men to bind as much (grain) as a machine cutting a 5-foot swath could cut in a day.” 

William Marsh was especially active in promoting the machine and its fame spread, enough so that McCormick and other conventional reaper makers began to decry the Marsh harvester in their advertising. By the mid-1870s the Marsh was considered a success, with many reaper manufacturers acquiring licenses to build the things, while others, including McCormick, merely built a copy, which, of course, brought on a lawsuit.

Building partnerships 

Meanwhile, Elijah H. Gammon of Chicago, Illinois, somehow acquired an interest in the firm and seems to have bought out the Marsh brothers in 1869. Needing money, Gammon partnered with William Deering, a wealthy eastern businessman who invested $40,000. Deering ended up owning the Plano factory in 1880 when an ill Gammon sold out to Deering, who then moved the business to Chicago, leaving the Plano works empty.

In 1881, an apparently recovered Gammon, along with Lewis Steward and William H. Jones, started Plano Mfg. Co. in the old factory to build harvesters, turning out 250 machines for the 1881 harvest. All were equipped with the new Appleby binding mechanism, and Plano became enough of a player in the “binder wars” that in 1902 they joined mighty Deering Harvester and McCormick Harvester, along with two others, in forming International Harvester Co. 

Meanwhile the Marshes had tried again to build harvesters in Sycamore, Illinois, but were bankrupt by 1884. William continued to live in Sycamore and sold farm machinery, while Charles became the first editor of Farm Implement News, established in Chicago in 1885.

Their Marsh harvester was the basis for the hundreds of thousands of grain binders that helped to revolutionize grain growing all over the world. FC


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 email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.