Prison-Made Steam Engines: The Northwest Thresher Company Began with Minnesota Prison Labor

Roots of the Northwest Thresher Co. trace to the mid-1800s and prison labor in Minnesota

| May 2010

  • Northwest threshers, early products of the Northwest Thresher Co., Stillwater, Minn., were produced using prison labor.
    Northwest threshers, early products of the Northwest Thresher Co., Stillwater, Minn., were produced using prison labor.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • A highly unusual photograph showing workers horsing around in front of a Northwest-manufactured steam traction engine. Circumstances of the pose are unknown.
    A highly unusual photograph showing workers horsing around in front of a Northwest-manufactured steam traction engine. Circumstances of the pose are unknown.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler; colorized by Farm Collector
  • A Minnesota Giant steam traction engine displayed at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
    A Minnesota Giant steam traction engine displayed at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
    Bill Vossler
  • New Giant steam traction engine displayed at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Only a few Giants and New Giants are known to exist today.
    New Giant steam traction engine displayed at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Only a few Giants and New Giants are known to exist today. "They are quite rare," says enthusiast Leander Wetter, Buffalo, Minn., "because the early ones especially were prone to explosions."
    Bill Vossler
  • The New Giant steam traction engine in 1903, the follow-up to the Minnesota Giant.
    The New Giant steam traction engine in 1903, the follow-up to the Minnesota Giant.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • Detail of the restored New Giant.
    Detail of the restored New Giant.
    Bill Vossler
  • The 1882-1883 Stillwater City Directory advertised threshers,
    The 1882-1883 Stillwater City Directory advertised threshers, "straw-burning engines" like the Minnesota Giant and Stillwater engines, all from the Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • This circa-1880s ad for the Minnesota Giant and Minnesota Chief urges farmers to send for catalogs from Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.
    This circa-1880s ad for the Minnesota Giant and Minnesota Chief urges farmers to send for catalogs from Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • After Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co. went into receivership in 1884, this letterhead was used by receiver E.S. Brown.
    After Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co. went into receivership in 1884, this letterhead was used by receiver E.S. Brown. Daily shop capacity, as listed, was "25 freight cars, four farm engines, eight threshing machines, 10 horse powers, 25 farm wagons, $4,000 sash, doors and blinds, 19 acres of floor room in shops, $6 millions of dollars capital invested."
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • A Northwest Thresher Co. steam traction engine pulling a building.
    A Northwest Thresher Co. steam traction engine pulling a building.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • A threshing crew with a Northwest-manufactured steam traction engine.
    A threshing crew with a Northwest-manufactured steam traction engine.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • Letterhead from Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co. indicates that it is
    Letterhead from Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co. indicates that it is "successor to Seymour, Sabin & Co." Note the steam traction engine at left.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • A 51 hp double cross-compound Northwest-made steam traction engine pulling a string of 10 steam traction engines near the Northwest Thresher Co. building in Stillwater, Minn.
    A 51 hp double cross-compound Northwest-made steam traction engine pulling a string of 10 steam traction engines near the Northwest Thresher Co. building in Stillwater, Minn.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • An open view of the Minnesota Giant boiler. The Giant would burn straw, coal or wood.
    An open view of the Minnesota Giant boiler. The Giant would burn straw, coal or wood.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • A Minnesota Chief thresher catalog, typical of commercial art of the era.
    A Minnesota Chief thresher catalog, typical of commercial art of the era.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • Catalog cover for the Minnesota Chief, a product of the Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.
    Catalog cover for the Minnesota Chief, a product of the Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler
  • A New Giant and other steam traction engines being unloaded at a depot (location unknown).
    A New Giant and other steam traction engines being unloaded at a depot (location unknown).
    Courtesy of Bill Vossler

  • Northwest threshers, early products of the Northwest Thresher Co., Stillwater, Minn., were produced using prison labor.
  • A highly unusual photograph showing workers horsing around in front of a Northwest-manufactured steam traction engine. Circumstances of the pose are unknown.
  • A Minnesota Giant steam traction engine displayed at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
  • New Giant steam traction engine displayed at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Only a few Giants and New Giants are known to exist today.
  • The New Giant steam traction engine in 1903, the follow-up to the Minnesota Giant.
  • Detail of the restored New Giant.
  • The 1882-1883 Stillwater City Directory advertised threshers,
  • This circa-1880s ad for the Minnesota Giant and Minnesota Chief urges farmers to send for catalogs from Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.
  • After Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co. went into receivership in 1884, this letterhead was used by receiver E.S. Brown.
  • A Northwest Thresher Co. steam traction engine pulling a building.
  • A threshing crew with a Northwest-manufactured steam traction engine.
  • Letterhead from Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co. indicates that it is
  • A 51 hp double cross-compound Northwest-made steam traction engine pulling a string of 10 steam traction engines near the Northwest Thresher Co. building in Stillwater, Minn.
  • An open view of the Minnesota Giant boiler. The Giant would burn straw, coal or wood.
  • A Minnesota Chief thresher catalog, typical of commercial art of the era.
  • Catalog cover for the Minnesota Chief, a product of the Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.
  • A New Giant and other steam traction engines being unloaded at a depot (location unknown).

The Giant and New Giant steam traction engines – among the most noteworthy steam engines built in Minnesota – pack a few surprises.

Early entrants to the industry, the steam engines were built almost as a sideline by an established manufacturer of threshing equipment. And then there’s the way they were built. Visitors to a Stillwater, Minn., “manufactory” where steam engines and threshers were built during the 1880s had to be surprised, if not shocked, by what they saw.

“Here are horse thieves,” reported a writer in the Independent Farmer and Fireside Companion, “petty thieves, forgers, defaulters and murderers, some of whom were once lawyers, doctors, merchants, farmers and mechanics, all filing, fitting, cutting and hammering at the various parts that go to make up the perfect machine. As you go through one room, blue-eyed Bob Younger looks up from his work, and Cole gives you a look like a startled wolf, while Jim hangs his head sullenly. They are busily engaged, doing excellent work,” for what would become Northwest Thresher Co.

Back to the beginning: Seymour, Sabin & Co.

The earliest forerunner of Northwest Thresher Co. was Seymour, Sabin & Co., manufacturer of agricultural implements, which first contracted for prison labor in 1866 through the influence of U.S. Senator Dwight M. Sabin. An 1879 article in the Independent Farmer noted the need for solid technology: Farmers’ profits depended on getting every kernel of grain. “A thresher must be built that would do all this. But it takes capital to build such machines; capital composed of brains and energy as well as money to carry out and manufacture that invention produced; and this is why the Minnesota Chief (thresher) became a success as a specialty of Seymour, Sabin & Co.”

At about the same time, the company’s name was changed to Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co., possibly to launch a fresh start, as in the previous year the company recorded sale of only “one engine, zero separators and one horse power.” A product line expanded to include railroad cars may have been a last-ditch effort to stay afloat.



If so, the gamble worked. In 1884, manufacturing output jumped to 170 machinery items sold, including Minnesota Chief threshers and Minnesota Giant “straw-burning engines.” Things seemed to be looking up.

Still, the company struggled. Later that year, stockholders were informed of reorganization plans. Going forward, Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. would produce steam traction engines, horse powers and separators. Railroad boxcars were omitted from the plan (although two years later, in 1886, the company still advertised passenger, caboose and freight cars for sale). Most early investors reinvested in the new firm.



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