The Twine-Tie Challenge

The twine-tie grain binder was not the work of a single inventor, despite popular belief.

Deering-knotter

The Deering knotter as designed by J.F. Appleby.

From a circa-1900 Deering catalog

Content Tools

A few months ago, in one of the hobby magazines, I saw a statement indicating that William Deering had invented the twine-tie grain binder. Well, as Sportin’ Life sings in the opera Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

John Francis Appleby was born in New York in 1840; his family traveled by canal and lake boats to Milwaukee four years later. Reportedly the boy was a tinkerer from an early age, and hung out at the small machine shop of George Esterly, who later built reapers.

There are several variations of this story, but one is that, at age 18, Appleby was helping a farmer bind gavels of grain put on the ground by a self-rake reaper. Proud of his new reaper, the farmer asked the boy what he thought of the machine and young Appleby said, “Oh, it works fine, but I believe I can make a binder,” a statement much ridiculed by the farmer.

After many false starts, Appleby succeeded in whittling a gadget that looked for all the world like a bird’s beak that would open, receive the twine, close to hold it and then turn to form the knot. Of course, many other parts were necessary to make the knotter work: a knife to cut the twine, a way to compress and size the bundle, and a way of getting the grain to the knotter (the band was placed in the middle regardless of the straw length), and the boy had no money to experiment.

During the 1850s and ’60s, a whole host of inventors were at work on the problem of binding grain. Many attempts were made to use the straw itself to bind bundles (that was the method used in hand tying), but all were unsuccessful. A number of semiautomatic binders were invented, but all required a person to pull a lever, turn a crank or finish the knot manually. Not only was a practical knotter not available, but suitable twine was scarce and expensive, making wire the banding material of choice.

The short-lived wire-tie binder

Meanwhile, Appleby enlisted in the Union Army and served throughout the Civil War. In about 1864, he invented a breech-loading, magazine-fed rifle and sold the patent for it for $500, giving him some postwar capital.

By the end of the war, C.W. Marsh and George Steward introduced what became known as the Marsh harvester. It looked a lot like the subsequent grain binders, with a reel to sweep cut grain onto a platform and a moving canvas to move the grain to one end. There, two angled canvases raised the cut grain between them over the large power wheel and deposited it on a platform where two men rode on foot boards. Each had a table in front of him on which to hand-tie bundles before dropping them to the ground. The Marsh harvester, even though a manual-tie unit, soon became hugely popular. More than 20,000 had been sold by 1876, while McCormick, Gammon & Deering (and most other manufacturers) also made Marsh-style machines.

Wire-tie binders that worked well, most of which were based on the Marsh harvester, were made and sold by most manufacturers during the 1870s. During that decade, though, farmers became fed up with the stray bits of wire that fatally ended up in the stomachs of their livestock and damaged their machinery when it became tangled in it. Millers, too, hated the wire bits, as they not only damaged grinding equipment, but also got into the finished flour.

Challenged to innovate

Appleby, along with partners Parker and Stone, started a shop in Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1874, where, in Appleby’s own words, “we put out an excellent type of wire binder, the planning of which had been in my hands. One afternoon we made a successful trial of our wire binder. We were highly pleased, but the farmer said he didn’t want us to continue. He said, ‘Your binder works all right, but this wire will kill my stock and I don’t want it in the straw.’”

Much discouraged, Appleby said he could make a twine binder, but his partners nixed the idea saying, “No! We have spent money enough.” Eventually they gave in and Appleby worked for months on his binder, the knotter of which was based on his boyhood bird bill. That first machine was tried on a field of rye and “worked perfectly and cunningly, not missing a bundle.” He made three more that year and 115 the next.

Gammon & Deering observed the machine at work and was the first major firm to build Appleby binders under license and, as Appleby said, “In four years manufacturers necessarily turned to the little Wisconsin firm for the right to build twine binders.” Deering built 3,000 twine binders in 1880, causing a stir among his competitors. In 1882, the McCormicks paid $35,000 for shop rights to the Appleby binder.

In the early 1880s, Appleby, Parker and Stone sold their plant and all rights to the invention to Warder, Bushnell & Glessner Co., Springfield, Ohio, makers of the popular Champion line of machinery and, in 1902, one of the firms that merged to form the giant International Harvester Co.

The rest of the story

So, although dozens of inventors contributed to the invention of the twine binder, none of them developed a really successful machine – until John Appleby, who therefore gets the credit.

Though not the inventor, William Deering certainly played a major role in development of the twine binder. During the experimentation phase in the 1870s, Deering sold Deering-built Marsh harvesters at cost to aspiring inventors of binding attachments so they could test their ideas. Deering was the first major manufacturer to produce the Appleby machine. He demonstrated his conviction that twine binding was the wave of the future by putting 3,000 of the machines on the market in 1880. Deering was also instrumental in finding the right material from which to make binder twine and helping to lower its cost.

And, with a nod to the late Paul Harvey, that’s the rest of the story. 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.