Tales of the Good Old Days with Robinson & Company
by Sam Moore
Years ago, I bought a big stack of American Thresherman magazines from 1924 through 1932. The paper was started by Bascom B. Clarke in 1898, to cater to the many professional thresherman in the country. Clarke had been a threshing machine and grain binder salesman for several farm equipment manufacturers during the last half of the 19th century and wrote a column for the paper each month that he titled “Fifty Years a Machine Man.”
In his column, Clarke liked to recount stories of his experiences “in the good old days,” some of which you may find interesting. For a number of years, Clarke was an agent for Robinson & Company, who built the “New Bonanza” and “Money Maker” threshers at Richmond, Indiana.
In the American Thresherman for June of 1927, Clarke writes of the death of an old friend named Cy Armentrout and tells of some of their experiences together. In 1883, Armentrout helped him set up and run a Robinson separator for a field trial at the LaPorte, Indiana, fairgrounds. The Robinson won the contest “... with a loss of grain of two drams and thirty-seven grains (Author’s Note: It takes sixteen drams to equal one ounce) weighed on an apothecary’s scale...” while the next two contenders lost fourteen and twenty one ounces respectively.
At another field trial at Tipton, Indiana, in 1884, Clarke and Armentrout squared off against a Garr-Scott outfit. According to Clarke, the Garr-Scott agent had packed the judging committee, who duly awarded the Garr-Scott machine first prize, even though (according to Clarke) the Robinson machine was the clear winner. When they tried to give second prize to Clarke, he angrily refused it, causing the elderly chairman of the committee to say that if he “...had twenty years of his life back, he’d slap my (Clarke’s) face.”
Well, the Garr-Scott agent told the old gentleman to go ahead and he’d back him up. Clarke then took a swing at the Garr-Scott man and a general melee broke out. Clarke says it ended “... when big Cy Armentrout, a giant in strength and standing over six feet in height, swore he could whip any six men who claimed that we had not fairly won the trial.”
Apparently there were a number of threshermen in attendance who were friends of Clarke and they wanted to fight it out on the day of the trial, but, as Clarke writes, “... cooler heads prevailed and prevented the usual display of neck-yokes and other materials which were considered available weapons during the field trials of old.” A tough bunch, those old-time machinery salesmen; just imagine getting whacked up side the head with a horse neck yoke.
Another form of skullduggery was pulled on the Robinson folks at the 1868 or ‘69 Indiana State Fair, although this was before Clarke began working there. While the Robinson machine was in action during a field trial, several spectators wandered to the rear of the machine and seemingly looked through the straw and chaff for grain that had been blown over the tailboard and wasted. After the trial, a large amount of wasted grain was found in the straw even though the Robinson agent was positive his thresher had not been throwing grain.
Upon closer examination, it was determined that the bulk of the kernels found in the straw were Mediterranean wheat, while white wheat had been the kind being threshed. Everyone realized that you can’t thresh white wheat and have a dozen times more Mediterranean wheat turn up in the straw than there had been white wheat kernels. Although no one at the time knew how it had been accomplished it was obvious that there had been a trick, and the Robinson separator was declared the winner. Years later, it was revealed that the competing agent had hired the two curious young men who had been seen poking through the Robinson’s straw. These worthies had slit their pockets to let the wheat in them pour out in the straw behind the Robinson machine. If they had only had the good sense to fill their pockets with white wheat, the trick would have never been detected.
Speaking of wasting grain, in another column, Clarke tells of an episode in 1882, shortly after he started working for Robinson. He had just sold a Robinson “New Bonanza” machine and the owner called him to the field because he claimed it was wasting too much grain. At the time, Clarke hadn’t yet learned all the ins and outs of threshing machines and couldn’t figure out the problem, so he wired the home office for help.
The owner of the company, an old Quaker named Frank W. Robinson, showed up and had a bed sheet spread under the machine. After threshing a couple of loads, they pulled out the sheet and found a few kernels of grain, which the owner pointed to as being a great waste. Mr. Robinson walked to the edge of the field where the binder had left some stalks of standing grain. Gathering the heads from these stalks, Robinson rubbed out the kernels and showed the owner more grain than had been found on the sheet.
“Thee thinks this waste left by the binder is nothing,” said Mr. Robinson, “when it’s more than a hundred times as much as the machine is losing when threshing at full speed.” The farmer saw the logic in this and apologized for the trouble he had caused.
I get a kick out of reading these stories of the way things were more than a century ago, written by someone who was there.