Family-Made Implements: Cornelius Aultman and Lewis Miller

Lets Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore begins unraveling the history of the Aultman reaper, mower and thresher companies. Part 1 of 3.

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The front cover of the 1893 C. Aultman & Co. catalog

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Editor's note: In his next three 'Let's Talk Rusty Iron' columns, Sam Moore will tell the story of the 19th-century Aultman companies. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

Sorting out the Aultmans

During my years of looking at antique farm machinery and reading about the history of the companies that built the stuff, the name Aultman kept coming up. Sometimes, it was C. Aultman & Co. of Canton, Ohio. Sometimes, it was Aultman, Miller & Co. of Akron, Ohio, and at other times, Aultman & Taylor Machinery Co. of Mansfield, Ohio. Then there's The Aultman Co. and the Aultman Engine and Thresher Co., both of Canton. All of these towns are in north central Ohio; Akron is about 25 miles north of Canton and Mansfield is about 60 miles west of the other two.

The first three firms did have a common denominator: a man named Cornelius Aultman. Along with his step-brother Lewis Miller, Cornelius Aultman contributed many new inventions to the field of farm machinery during the last half of the 19th century. I'll try to tell the story of these two extraordinary men, and in the process clear up the confusion about all the Aultman companies, the last two of which were reincarnations of one of the original three.

On March 10, 1827, Cornelius Aultman was born on a farm two miles east of Canton. His parents, Jacob and Elizabeth, were of German stock and had moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania. Shortly after Cornelius was born, the Aultmans moved to Uniontown, a small village about 9 miles north of Canton. Here, Jacob Aultman died when his son was two years old, leaving Elizabeth with the baby and an older daughter, Lydia.

Meanwhile, John Miller, a cabinet maker and farmer, lived at nearby Greentown with his young wife, also named Elizabeth. The Millers, who were of German parentage as well, had three sons: Abraham, born in 1824; Jacob, born in 1827; and Lewis, born July 24, 1829. Not long after Lewis' birth, 22-year-old Elizabeth Miller died, leaving her 43-year-old husband to care for their three young sons.

In December 1830, Elizabeth Aultman and John Miller combined their young families, and the couple subsequently had six more children of their own. According to all accounts, the family was happy although life wasn't easy. The children all worked hard on the farm and were expected to be pious and to fear the Lord.

During his teenage years, Cornelius learned the wheelwright trade, and how to make spinning wheels and grain cradles. When he was 17 or 18, he went to work in a Greentown machine shop where he learned to be a mechanic and make plows, cultivators and other light farm tools.

The owners of the shop in which Cornelius worked, Ephraim Ball and Michael Wise, became interested in Obed Hussey's reaper, and Ball and Aultman built five of these machines. A progressive Greentown farmer named Michael Dillman bought one of the reapers. The machine worked so well that Dillman decided to manufacture the reapers himself. Believing that Illinois offered a wider market for reapers, Dillman decided to move to that state. He needed a mechanic and invited Aultman to accompany him.

Lewis Miller, who had been teaching school but who saw opportunity in the reaper business, decided to 'Go West, young man,' and accompanied his step-brother and Dillman to Plainfield, in Will County, Ill.

Traveling by covered wagon, the Dillman family, along with Aultman and Miller, arrived in Plainfield during the spring of 1849, opened a small shop and made more than a dozen reapers. Miller helped in the shop and began to learn mechanics. The reapers apparently sold well enough, but Hussey got wind of the enterprise and traveled all the way to Illinois from Baltimore to demand a $15 royalty on each machine. After the 1850 harvest, Aultman sold out to Dillman and, again accompanied by Miller, returned to Greentown.

Back home, Aultman bought out Michael Wise, by then his father-in-law, and the Ball and Wise machine shop became Ball, Aultman & Co. Soon, Miller, George Cook (a wagon maker), and Aultman's brother-in-law, David Fouser, a molder by trade, joined the firm as partners too.

For the 1851 season, the new company built 12 reapers, paying Hussey his royalty on each, and six threshers. Greentown had no good access to either the Ohio Canal at Massillon or the new railroad, which was then being built through Canton, so shipping the Ball & Aultman machines was difficult and costly.

In late 1851, the firm moved to Canton and erected three brick factory buildings along the new railroad. Miller's brother, Jacob, also bought into the firm, the capital of which was then estimated at about $4,500.

Lewis Miller, by this time a first-class mechanic, took over the manufacturing end of the plant while Cornelius did the buying and selling. Cornelius also kept the books until 1852, when an accountant named Thomas Tonner was hired.

To get around the royalty payments to Hussey, Ball developed a machine that could be used for both mowing hay and reaping grain. For the 1852 season, Ball, Aultman & Co. built 25 Hussey machines; for the 1853 season, the firm built 25 of Ball's reaper-mowers and 25 Husseys. But Aultman, Miller and Ball all recognized problems with Ball's combined reaping-mowing machine. The platform that was necessary for reaping grain was in the way when cutting hay, but removing it weakened the cutter bar too much.

The three men tried to design a hay mower along the lines of the then-popular Ketchum mower, which had a single drive wheel and a stiff, unhinged cutter bar. They came up with a light, one-wheeled mower and built a few for the 1853 harvest, but the mowers failed to work properly and all were returned to the factory.

Lewis Miller and Cornelius Aultman were half brothers born and raised in Ohio who ultimately worked together, inventing and manufacturing a number of implements in the mid-to-late 1800s for American farmers.

The team recognized that the single drive wheel created a lot of side draft and the fixed cutter bar resulted in uneven cutting because it couldn't follow the contours of the ground.

That fall, either Aultman or Miller – depending on which man's biography you read – came up with the idea of a two-wheeled mower, and in the summer of 1854 the new Ball's Ohio mower was tested and found to be a big improvement over existing machines.

There was another problem, however. Jonathan Haines of Pekin, Ill., already had patented a two-wheeled mower, and Haines challenged the Canton firm in court. Aultman responded by hurrying to Pekin and securing the rights to build Haines' mower in Ohio.

In May 1855, as happend to so many factories in those days, the main buildings with all the machinery were destroyed by fire, leaving the firm $11,000 in debt and with no way to manufacture goods to sell. In those dark days, Fouser quit and returned to farming, but all the rest stuck it out.

After the fire, Aultman managed to procure wrought iron on credit from a Pittsburgh firm and Canton sources lent money for rebuilding the factory, which began immediately. Meanwhile, five mowers and 12 Hussey reapers were hand-built in a shed that had escaped the fire.

By Aug. 1, the new factory was ready for production to begin, and demand for harvesting machinery was high as a consequence of a very good 1855 harvest. Twenty threshers were built in the new plant, and all were sold, which must have been a big help in paying off the company's debt.

During the winter of '55, the firm built 500 of Ball's Ohio mowers, 50 Hussey reapers and 50 Pitts threshers. Determined to improve Ball's Ohio mower, Miller experimented with several new concepts, ending up with the Aultman-Miller mower, which had two wheels and a cutter bar that projected from the rear of the machine. It was patented in 1856. Most mowers of the time were designed with the cutter bar either beside the driver or behind him. If the driver was thrown from the machine by accident, he often fell on or in front of the bar, with disastrous results.

By the end of 1856, the Aultman-Miller machine had become the Buckeye mower with a host of Miller improvements. The cutter bar was connected to the frame at the front so the driver could easily watch its operation and so he would fall behind the bar if he was thrown. The connection was a double-hinged arrangement so the bar could float, and therefore follow the ground. The double hinge also allowed the cutter bar to be raised over any obstruction encountered in the field, and it could be folded back over the tongue into a safe position for transport. Most of Miller's ideas can still be found on today's sickle bar mowers.

In 1857, the Buckeye mower and Ball's Ohio mowers competed in a field trial at the fair in Syracuse, N.Y. The Buckeye proved superior and received the grand gold medal from the U.S. Agricultural Society. Possibly because of this competition, in early 1858, Bell sold out to his partners and left the firm, which then became C. Aultman & Co.

During its first year, the new firm built 1,500 Buckeye mowers and 150 Sweepstakes threshers. Soon, the Buckeye became the standard of the industry, and Aultman licensed other manufacturers to build the machine. One of the most important of these was Adriance, Platt & Co. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which carried the Buckeye mower in its line long after the Aultman companies had disappeared. FC 

Next: Buckeyes and Grain Seperators: Aultman Miller & Co. and Aultman &Taylor Machinery Co.
Part 3: The Fall of the Aultman Companies   

Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.