Among the lesser-known farm machinery manufacturers that thrived during the first half of the 20th century, the Ohio Cultivator Co., located in Bellevue, Ohio, stands as an interesting – if not forgotten – story in farm equipment history.
Harlow Case Stahl, the firm's founder, was born in 1849 in a log cabin on a farm near Fremont, Ohio. As a very young man, Stahl raised hops, which require extensive cultivation. Stahl grew weary of plodding along behind the one- and two-shovel cultivators of the day that worked only one side of a single row in each pass. Putting his mind to the problem, the young man devised a wheeled machine that straddled the row and cultivated both sides. Best of all, a hammock-like seat at the rear end allowed the operator to ride while he worked.
Stahl is credited with not only designing the first successful riding cultivator, but also manufacturing and selling it as well. Starting about 1878, Stahl – with the help of a local blacksmith – built a "Fremont Cultivator," hitched it behind his buggy and towed the machine through the surrounding countryside to show it to farmers. At first, the farmers thought Stahl's riding cultivator was a lot of foolishness, but eventually a few saw the advantages of riding while they plowed corn. During the first year, Stahl built 85 machines and sold 81.
In 1882, Stahl sold 1,000 Fremont cultivators, and production quickly exceeded his small factory's capabilities. In Bellevue, Ohio, about 15 miles east of Fremont, the McKim Bros, barrel plant had been empty since 1880 due to bankruptcy, and city officials offered the vacant plant to Harlow Stahl for $2,000, an offer he accepted. The old McKim works was remodeled, and the Fremont operation moved to Bellevue, where the Fremont cultivator began production on Dec. 21, 1885. The Lear Manufacturing Co. assumed the old Fremont plant and began building a cultivator also named the Fremont. Rather than fight the situation in court, as so many farm equipment manufacturers did in those days, Stahl changed the name of his machine to the "Famous Ohio Cultivator."
In those early years, the plant operated seasonally since cultivator demand lasted only a few months each year. During the national panic of 1892-1893, money was very tight, and the banks wouldn't loan operating capital to manufacturers, causing most to lay off workers or halt operations. Mr. Stahl's reputation for dependability among his suppliers gave him advanced credit that supplied him with the materials needed to keep building cultivators. This credit exception was not only a boon to the Ohio Cultivator Co. workers and the town of Bellevue, but it allowed Stahl the opportunity to have a backlog of implements to sell when the economy picked up again, positioning him ahead of his competitors.
Stahl was also a shrewd marketer. In the late 1890s, he sent a salesman with a boxcar full of implements to Kansas, where they all were sold. In 1901, a 40-car train loaded with Famous Ohio machinery was again sent to Kansas. This time the boxcars were draped with large banners advertising Ohio Cultivator Co., while American flags flew from each car. Stahl, company officials and the Bellevue city band accompanied the train as far as Toledo. At each town the train stopped, the band played and crowds of spectators gathered to watch the spectacle. The Bellevue Gazette wrote:
One couldn't imagine the cost of sending this train to Kansas, the freight bill alone amounted to $4,000. As this monster train moves through the country, villages and populous cities, it will be a big advertisement not only for Ohio Cultivator but Bellevue.
Determined to make his operation a year-round manufacturing facility, Stahl began a long-term program to broaden his manufacturing line. In 1896, he bought a Dayton, Ohio, disk harrow plant, and the struggling Bellevue Plow Co. in 1899. The Ohio Haypress Co. was added in 1900, and the Bissell Plow Co. of South Bend, Ind., in 1905. By this time, 300 men worked for Ohio Cultivator Co., a figure that remained surprisingly constant through the agricultural recession of 1907-1908.
In 1923, Stahl acquired the D.M. Sechler Implement & Carriage Co. of Moline, Ill., along with its Blackhawk line of planters and grain drills. By 1927, Stahl was virtually retired, and the general manager, Daniel Seltzer, ran the day-to-day business. That year, Seltzer negotiated the purchase of the Non-Pariel Manufacturing Co. of Cochranton, Pa., builders of lime-and-fertilizer spreaders; the Angell Plow Co., Plains, Kan., builders of disc plows; and the Thomas Manufacturing Co. of Springfield, Ohio, makers of grain drills and a full line of haymaking tools, including the Thomas two-speed mower.
In early 1929, wanting to get into the burgeoning tractor business, Ohio Cultivator dealers began selling the General tractor, an all-purpose machine designed and built by the General Tractor Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. A 1929 General Tractor sales brochure shows a variety of Famous Ohio implements hitched to General tractors with "A tractor hitch (that) has been designed by the Ohio Cultivator Co. of Bellevue, Ohio, for each horse-drawn implement in its Famous Ohio line."
Apparently, the tractor was ultimately unsuccessful, as very few seem to have sold. Ohio Cultivator quietly dropped the General from its equipment line.
Moving into Canada
In 1931, probably to survive the Great Depression, the Ohio Cultivator Co. began distributing a small Australian-designed stripper combine built by the Sunshine-Waterloo Co., Ltd., of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Many Australians favored stripper combines, which used a comb-like header that caught and pulled off the grain heads instead of a cutter bar to cut off the straw stalks.
Ohio Cultivator firm continued to operate through the Great Depression, although there were some layoffs. Stahl, then 91 years old, died on Nov. 4, 1941. The firm continued under Seltzer, who then owned a controlling interest. The National Farm Machine Cooperative then bought Ohio Cultivator at the end of 1943 for $950,000. After WW II, the demand for new farm machinery was huge, and NFMC spent millions expanding the Bellevue plant, along with NFMC's other plant in Shelbyville, Ind. When the machinery market began to cool about 1950, NFMC became financially overextended, and the firm went into voluntary receivership in 1952.
NFMC's relationship with the Canadian Cockshutt Co. lasted for several years, selling Cockshutt tractors under the CO-OP name. Cockshutt wanted to build a marketing network in the United States so, in 1952, Cockshutt Farm Equipment bought the Bellevue and Shelbyville plants. Cockshutt continued to build the Blackhawk planter line, along with Famous Ohio manure spreaders and discs. However, by 1955, the Bellevue plant was closed, with all manufacturing moved to Canadian facilities.
The Famous Ohio farm machinery line is largely forgotten today, although occasionally an example, painted in Ohio's trademark pumpkin-orange color with yellow wheels and black lettering, will emerge at a farm show. 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 e-mail at email@example.com.
Editor's note: Thanks to Bob Seltzer, who pointed out that it was his grandfather, Daniel Seltzer, who succeeded Harlow Stahl as general manager of Ohio Cultivator Co. in 1927. The article originally listed the name as David. Daniel Seltzer was married to Harlow's daughter, Alice.