Piasa Bird Plows

Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: Hapgood’s Piasa Bird plows benefitted from early direct sales.

Hapgood Catalog Cover

Drawing from the cover of the 1917 Hapgood Plow Co. catalog, showing company President Harvey L. Black on a Piasa Bird gang plow hitched to a pair of the rather bored looking creatures.

Illustration Courtesy Sam Moore

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We’ve all heard the question: “What’s in a name?” and its counterpart, “a rose by any other name …” and all that.

Many symbols and names have been used for farm implements down through the years, as these 1911 examples for sulky plows attest: Admiral, Ajax, Aunt Rhoda, Uncle Sam, Battle Axe, Best Ever, Best-of-All, Big Injun, Buster Brown, Captain Bill, Daisy, Elk, Express, Gee Whiz, Good Enough, Hummer, Jewel, Iron Negro, Klondike, Koodoo, Little Injun, Little Jap, Lone Star, Ole Olsen, Pilot, Pirate, Queen of the Prairie, Quincy Beauty, Red Bird, Rex, Robin Hood, Rough and Ready, Solid Comfort, Spinner, Stag, Success, Torpedo, Triumph, Twin Brother, Victoria, Western Star and Young American, while David Bradley sulky plows, sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs, were called “X-Ray,” most likely because the X-ray process was considered one of the latest things back in the late 1800s. But for all the fancy names they were still just plows.

Hapgood’s Piasa Bird line

Maybe the most unusual and interesting of names for plows, however, was that used by Hapgood Plow Co., Alton, Ill., which sold Piasa Bird sulky and gang plows during the first decade or so of the 20th century. The cover of a 1917 Hapgood catalog carries a drawing of the prosperous-looking company president sitting on a Piasa Bird gang plow that’s harnessed to two weird looking critters with large wings, a long pointed tail, four bird feet, a small head with antlers and an ugly, bearded, semi-human face.

Charles H. Hapgood, born in 1836 in Petersham, Mass., and a successful Harvard-educated lawyer, is said to have begun building plows in Chicago in 1870, just in time to get burned out during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (which was not caused, as is generally believed, by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern). He then moved the business to St. Louis and was burned out again after just a couple of years.

The town of Alton, a few miles up the Mississippi from St. Louis, offered Hapgood a bonus to move there, so in 1874 an existing factory in that town was bought and remodeled with new and improved machinery for the manufacture of plows. Additional buildings were erected; a June 1874 newspaper account tells us the blacksmith shop was, “a mammoth structure, 118 by 88 feet, and 27 feet high.” Another new 70-by-100-foot, two-story building and the original structure would house the offices, woodworking and paint shops, a foundry and a warehouse, and a new railroad spur would be built to serve the plant. The newspaper reporter burbled: “This is, perhaps, the most important and extensive manufacturing enterprise ever located in this city.”

In December 1874, the Alton Weekly Telegraph reported that Hapgood “has a large force engaged and are shipping plows by the carload almost daily,” while shipments were also made by riverboat on the Mississippi. In 1877, after a visit to the factory, a reporter wrote: “The machine shop glows with the light of a score of forges and furnaces, filled with the anvil chorus and busy whirr of machinery, where the iron and steel are cut, shaped and moulded into shares, which are polished by grind stones and emery wheels until they are smooth as glass and reflect like mirrors.” That year the paper reported that the firm had turned out 20,000 plows worth $250,000 (about $5.3 million today) during the previous year and was employing from 75 to 150 men, depending upon the season.

Hapgood plows apparently were popular with farmers and the company prospered. In 1889 Charles Hapgood sold his controlling interest in the firm to Harvey L. Black, son of the firm’s longtime head salesman, Joseph Penn Black, who had a string of plow, planter and cultivator patents to his name.

Early leader in direct sales

Hapgood sold not through dealers but directly to the farmer and advertised that the company’s only salesman was the U.S. Mail, allowing them to “… do business with (the farmer) direct, eliminating all the unnecessary expense of middle men with their profits and expense (and) traveling men with their salaries and expense.”

The catalog pointed out several comparisons: for example, a 14-inch steel beam walking plow costing $7.50 at the factory was shipped by other manufacturers to a jobber who added $2.50 and shipped it on to the dealer, where it was sold to the farmer for $14. The same plow from Hapgood, which eliminated the middlemen, ended up costing the farmer only $8.40 plus 60 cents freight at the train station, or $9 in all.

The 1917 Hapgood catalog lists a wide array of products, not all of them manufactured directly by the firm. These included the Piasa Bird sulky and gang plows, as well as spring, spike tooth and disc harrows, walking plows, grain drills, Hancock disc plows, Faultless gas engines, a wide array of planters and cultivators, windmills and horse powers, wagons and buggies, harness, all kinds of hay tools, grinders, corn shellers, dirt scrapers, fencing, and even shoe repair kits, sewing machines, kitchen cabinets and stoves.

Out of power

Hapgood implements were made until wartime steel and other material shortages caused a brief shutdown early in 1918. Production soon resumed, but in October the ancient steam engine that powered the machinery suffered a major breakdown. “Something went wrong inside the cylinder, and when an effort was made to start the engine there was a rending and crashing and the old engine was like the one hoss shay,” one reporter wrote.

Parts were unavailable for the 1861 vintage engine and, because of wartime shortages, a new one was obtainable only after a long delay. Eventually, Black made the decision to cease manufacturing and dispose of everything. The factory sat idle, with one building later badly damaged by fire, until 1922 when the machinery was scrapped and at least one of the renovated buildings was used by the Alton Baking & Catering Co.

In early 1917, before seeing the demise of his company, Hapgood died in Washington, D.C., while 56-year old Harvey Black “was stricken with apoplexy” and died in December 1918. Thus came to an end another of the hundreds of small farm implement manufacturers that, during the late 1800s, were located all over the country. FC 

To find out about the origins of the Piasa Bird name, read The Tale of the Piasa Bird.

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.