Osborne's Ties to Emerson-Brantingham, J.I. Case and others

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: The Osborne company made horse-drawn mowers with Emerson-Brantingham, J.I. Case and others

Detail from an IHC brochure after their purchase of Osborne.

Detail from an IHC brochure after their purchase of Osborne. A story is told about a lawsuit brought by Osborne against McCormick Mfg., prior to the purchase, for patent infringement. In 1884, McCormick agreed to pay $250,000 to settle all of Osborne's claims, but refused to write a check for the amount. Osborne was force to go to the McCormick office after they closed for the day, and take the money in small bills, taking until midnight to count. He then had to carry the cash in an old satchel to his hotel through the dark Chicago streets.

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About 10 years ago, I bought an Emerson-Brantingham Osborne horse-drawn mower. I knew the E-B company had been bought out by J.I. Case in the late 1920s and I wanted something different to exhibit during the Case 150th anniversary in 1992. 

While looking for parts, I acquired two International Harvester Osborne mowers in poor condition, and a nice Case Osborne machine. All four of these mowers are virtually identical except for the cast-in logos and names on the various parts. This made me curious, and I began to research the Osborne line of farm equipment.

Born in 1822, David Munson Osborne left his family's New York farm in 1843 and after clerking for five years in a New York City hardware store, ended up in Auburn, N.Y., building straw cutters and corn shellers. Osborne later acquired the Kirby, Forbush and Ketcham mower patents which, by about 1860, left most mower manufacturers no choice but to pay royalties to Osborne, or to Cyrus McCormick, who controlled the remaining patents. Osborne went on to buy the Cayuga Chief line in 1875, thus becoming Auburn's largest industry. He pioneered a lightweight, all-steel grain binder shortly after and in 1890, built the first successful corn binder.

During the last half of the 19th century, both companies grew and prospered, with each earning an excellent reputation for quality, reliability and performance. When D.M. Osborne died in 1886, the company was building more than 30,000 harvesting machines per year, and employed about 1,200 men. Osborne was a major competitor of McCormick, having developed a large following in the eastern United States, as well as a substantial foreign trade. After the International Harvester Company was formed in 1902, the new firm lost little time in quietly buying the D.M. Osborne company in January 1903, although the purchase was not officially announced until late 1904.

The early 1900s were the years of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the federal government's "Trust Busters." They zeroed in on the International Harvester Company which, after years of litigation, finally signed the Consent Decree of 1918. Under the terms of the decree, IHC agreed to divest itself of several machinery lines, including Osborne, Champion and Milwaukee.

The firm that became the Emerson-Brantingham company was founded in Stephenson County, Ill., in 1852 as the J.H. Manney company. That same year, a reaper built by Manney won a contest at Geneva, N.Y., soundly beating a machine entered by none other than Cyrus McCormick. In 1854, Manney took several partners, among whom was Ralph Emerson, cousin to the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and relocated the business to Rockford, Ill. Also in 1854, Cyrus McCormick, possibly still upset over his loss at Geneva, sued Manney for patent infringement. When the suit finally came to trial, Manney's defense attorneys included Edwin M. Stanton and Abraham Lincoln. (Stanton later became Lincoln's Secretary of War.) The soon-to-be-famous lawyers successfully defended Manney against McCormick's allegations, although Manney died of consumption just two weeks later. According to legend, Manney paid Lincoln a fee of $1,000, which he used to finance his participation in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. In contrast, Stanton's fee was the then-enormous sum of $10,000.

Over the next 60 years, the firm underwent several name changes and in 1909 became the Emerson-Brantingham Company with Charles Brantingham as president and Ralph Emerson as chairman of the board. Also during that period, E-B enjoyed great success and growth through acquisitions, along with innovative inventions, such as the Emerson foot-lift riding plow of 1899 that revolutionized the plow industry.

Emerson-Brantingham was in a strong financial position in 1912, when the firm began a strong push for acquisitions that included two steam engine and thresher companies, Geiser and Reeves, as well as the Gas Traction company, makers of the huge Big Four gas tractor. E-B then jumped into the fledgling gas tractor market without much success. The first tractors were too big and heavy, while the later, lighter models were plagued by mechanical problems.

Emerson-Brantingham ended their acquisition fever by buying the Osborne line of harvesting machine from IHC in 1918. Sale of the popular Osborne implements helped E-B's financial situation, but not enough to offset the dwindling steam traction market, or the losses from E-B's gasoline tractors. The 1921 depression hit all farm equipment companies hard, and was a severe blow to E-B. After struggling through the mid-1920s, E-B ceased manufacture of its farm equipment line sometime in 1926 and, in 1938, the business was sold to the J.I. Case Threshing Machine company.

Both IHC and E-B used the well-known Osborne name on their equipment during the entire time each firm owned the line. Case initially put the Osborne name on some of its machines, but dropped it in the mid-1920s.

I still have the restored Case-Osborne mower, although the E-B version was destroyed in a fire. Tractors are the overwhelming choice of rusty iron collectors, but I'd like to see more of the old implements restored. This is a rare part of our agricultural heritage that's been neglected and is fast disappearing. FC 

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.