The Esterly Reaper
(Page 4 of 5)
"The Johnson choked down and had to pull out; the Deering Jr. would not bind, and ran so hard it nearly ruined the team, and all the others were in a greater or less trouble. The McCormick had on three large mules and it fagged them out to pull it. The Champion had three large and powerful horses, and their work was so heavy that they were badly blowed long before the end of the contest." –The Whitewater Register, June 26, 1884.
Esterly's son, G.W. Esterly had joined his father in business in 1872, and the company operated as Esterly & Son. In 1884, though, in an apparent expansion effort, the Esterlys reorganized as The Esterly Harvester Machine Company with a third partner, George C. Swallow. George Esterly continued as president; his son as secretary/treasurer, and Swallow as vice president.
Transportation was an ever-present challenge for the company. Located away from main railway lines, Esterly was forced to pay high freight costs. After the 1867 fire that destroyed a large part of his plant, Esterly threatened to rebuild elsewhere. But his loyalty to Whitewater caused him to take a different tack: Lobbying for a second railroad to serve the community. He was a tireless promoter of rail expansion, and was active in three separate campaigns. In 1871, the formation of the new Northern Wisconsin Railroad seemed a sure thing, winning a charter from the state legislature. But local support was less forthcoming, and the proposal failed in almost every county where it was put on the ballot. None of the three campaigns he worked on was successful.
The need to expand, frustration over transportation issues, and an attractive bid from a group of Minneapolis boosters in 1892 proved to be a siren song the company could not resist. Lead by George Esterly Jr., now president of the company, the company made the move to the city. Reorganized as the Minneapolis Esterly Harvester Company, the company had capital stock reserves of $1 million, what must have seemed a safe buffer against any threat.
But the timing of the move proved disastrous: The combination of the Minnesota Farmers Panic of 1893, two years of drought, and a $2 million lawsuit brought by competitor W.A. Wood (over patent rights to the Appleby knotter) forced closure of the plant just a year later, in August 1893.
The company founder, however, was spared one last battle: George Esterly, 84, died at Hot Springs, S.D. in June of that year. The holder of more than 30 patents, Esterly was nothing if not resourceful, and one suspects that, had he lived, he might have pulled yet one more rabbit out of the hat, again saving his company.
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