Acme Hay Harvester Company: Giant Among Farm Equipment Manufacturers Nearly Lost to Farm History

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An 1889 ad for the Acme Hay Harvester Co., showing hay harvesting machinery.

An 1889 ad for the Acme Hay Harvester Co., showing hay harvesting machinery.

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Recently I corresponded with someone who has an Acme horse-drawn mowing machine.

Acme isn’t exactly a household name among old iron enthusiasts, but during the late 1800s and the first decade of the 1900s, the Acme Hay Harvester Co., Peoria, Ill., was a significant player in the Midwest grain belt.

Starting with a sleigh

The origins of the Acme Harvester Co. lie with an Ohio native named Jonathan Haines who settled in Tazewell County, Ill., in 1826. Although I can find no patent, Haines apparently invented a steam-powered sleigh. During the winter of 1835, he took the sleigh to Galena, Ill., a Mississippi River town, where he hoped to get a contract to carry mail and other cargo up the frozen river to St. Paul and the U.S. Army forts beyond.

The Galena Gazette reported that Haines’ machine was enclosed, with seats and windows, and was “as comfortable as the saloon of a steamboat.” Haines apparently won the right to a trial and made a trip or two between Galena and Dubuque, a distance of about 15 miles. However, as an article in the Gazette observed, “Unfortunately, its engine was too small and there was not sufficient power to make it go.”

While traveling from his home to Galena with the sleigh, Haines had passed through and admired Whiteside County. Thus, when the ice sleigh project failed, he moved to Rock Creek near present-day Morrison in Whiteside County. Haines built a cabin and then a sawmill, which was soon washed away by a spring flood. However, by 1837, Haines erected a second sawmill and built a burr mill to grind flour.

The Illinois Harvester

Later, Haines moved to nearby Union Grove where, during the 1840s, he experimented with a header-type grain-harvesting machine. He invented “a new and useful machine for harvesting grain and grass by horse-power,” which he called the “Illinois Harvester.” The drawing accompanying the patent, which was issued in 1849, shows a 3-wheel affair with a reel and cutter bar at the front ( view the Illinois Harvester in the Image Gallery ).

Behind the cutter bar is a horizontal canvas conveyor that continues up an angled platform to one side. A long strut runs to the rear of the center and terminates in a single wheel steered by a tiller. A horse is hitched on each side of the strut. As the horses push the machine, the operator stands on a platform behind, steering with the tiller and manipulating a long lever that raises and lowers the cutter bar so all the grain heads are harvested, but not too much straw is taken. A wagon is pulled alongside to catch the grain heads that come up the conveyor.

Haines built a shop in Union Grove and manufactured the Illinois harvester there for a short time before moving back to Tazewell County in about 1849. There he apparently set up a factory in Pekin, south of Peoria, to build the machines.

Others of like mind

During the 1860s and ’70s, two other men were busy in the harvester field, although information about them is scarce. Charles Francis Craver was born in New Jersey in 1842, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and lived in Harvey, Ill., in 1868. Although I can find no patent, Craver is claimed to have invented “the first successful 12-foot binder for cutting and binding small grain,” a claim that I find questionable.

In any case, Craver ended up as a partner in Craver & Steele, a manufacturer of the Craver-Steele header as well as wagons and buggies. One account says that Craver & Steele bought “the patented Randolph header,” which must have worked pretty well because Craver & Steele sent 1,424 machines to Argentina in 1892 and 1,600 the next year. Even less is known about Andrew J. Hodges, who also invented a header harvester during the early 1870s, and started the Hodges Header Co. in Pekin to build the thing. At that point, events are murky, but based on one account it appears that the Haines and the Hodges firms were combined, retaining the Hodges Header Co. name.

Infusion of capital

Now, we get back to the Acme Hay Harvester Co., which was established in Peoria in 1881 to build hay rakes and stackers. John E. Kirk, born in 1850 in Virginia, moved to Salisbury, Mo., where he became interested in hay machinery and began building rakes in a small way. About 1881, Kirk moved to Peoria where he made hay rakes and stackers. In 1884, banker William E. Stone and businessman Henry Binnian invested in the company. Joined by Kirk, they incorporated the renamed Acme Harvester Co. for $75,000 in 1885.

In 1890, Acme bought the Hodges Header Co. at nearby Pekin and moved to that city, where the company manufactured Acme rakes and headers as well as Hodges grain headers, mowers and reapers. Kirk sold out to his partners during that time and the others took over management. By 1901, business had grown to the point that the decision was made to move back to Peoria, where Acme bought 50 acres near the Illinois River with access to two railroads. The company built “a large and commodious factory including lumber yards, sheds and other structures.” At about that time, the Craver & Steele firm was acquired as well.

Acme built headers, binders, mowers, stackers, sulky and sweep rakes, and advertised that its machines were “Not Made by the Trust,” referring to the harvester trust that most major manufacturers were trying to establish.

Shifting fortunes

A 1902 history claimed that Acme was “one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world devoted to the production of grain harvesting machinery.” The same source notes that Acme employed 1,000 men and used 1,000 carloads of raw materials to produce some 20,000 harvesting machines each year. $2 million worth of equipment a year was sold worldwide, with about one-third going to Europe, Australia, Russia and South America.

Acme was prosperous until about 1917. From an employee’s memoirs: “I was working for Acme Harvester Co. when the company began to show signs of slowing business and nearing bankruptcy. The manufacturing of machines was almost at a stand-still, only the foundry was producing and selling castings to outside companies.” This gentleman applied for work at Holt Mfg. Co. in 1917 and was hired. The owners of Acme abruptly liquidated the firm’s assets with no provision to take care of repair parts or service for Acme implements already in the field.

So, 1917 was the end of the Acme Hay Harvester Co., although patterns and spare parts were later sold to Herschel Mfg., a Peoria firm that specialized in replacement implement parts and supplied spares for Acme, Hodges, Craver and Randolph machines for a number of years. FC